Rock of Dunamase

The Rock of Dunamase, or what’s left of it, sits on top of a hill 6km from the town of Portlaoise in the Irish midlands. The limestone outcrop on which the fortress is built dominates the surrounding plains of the Great Heath. Standing over 45m high, the Rock of Dunamase has been a site of strategic importance for over 1,000 years. It must have been a very impressive spectacle in its day. Alas, these days it something that has been savaged by a Rottweiler 🙁

Ptolemy’s Hibernia, showing “Dunum” in the midlands

Nobody is quite sure how long the Rock of Dunamase has been used as a fortress. Although the Greek geographer Ptolemy makes reference to a place called “Dunum” on his 2nd century map of Ireland, there is no evidence to suggest this site is what he meant. It’s a nice idea though. Archaeological digs and records from the time suggest that the rock was originally a 9th century fort called Dún Masc. Easy to see how its English name Dunamase came from. In the “Annals of the Four Masters” which chronicle Irish history, it is recorded that Dún Masc was raided by Vikings in 944AD. It would’ve been more unusual if the site hadn’t been raided by the Nordic invaders, such was their fondness for raiding and pillaging. No doubt the hapless abbot of Terryglass agreed – he happened to be here when they came a-knocking and was killed as a result of this raid.

Things get a bit woolly after this. Nobody seems to know or agree on when the site became a fortress it is today. It came into the ownership of the Anglo Normans in the 12th century and was fortified. It appears to have been owned by the wonderfully named Meiler Fitzhenry at one stage and then by William Marshall. The latter is a significant Norman figure in Irish history.  It became an important centre of strategic and military importance in the region. Looking at the Office of Public Works’ recreation of the site, one can get a sense of the layout of the place.

Office of Public Works (OPW) drawing of what the fortress would have originally looked like

In the 14th century, the last Anglo-Norman owner of the castle was executed by King Edward III for treason. It then came into the ownership of the Irish O’More family who didn’t handle it with care. Instead, the site was badly damaged and abandoned. Making doubly sure it wouldn’t be much use for anything, it was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in the mid 17th century. Yet another addition to the long list of reason why he’s one of the most unpopular people in Ireland’s history.

In the late 18th century, an attempt was made to partially restore the fragmented remains. The great-grandfather of the legendary 19th-century politician Charles Stewart Parnell attempted to turn the Great Hall into a banqueting hall. Some doors and windows from other sites were added to the building and they remain to this day. It was a short-lived experiment though. Soon the castle returned to its current ruinous state, overlooking the surrounding countryside.

What’s there now?

The Rock of Dunamase is easily accessed, so no lengthy journeys along winding country boreens are needed here. There’s also plenty of parking along the road that runs past it, more than can be said for some of these places.

The Barbican Gate

The first feature of note on the rock is the Barbican Gate which would have been the entrance to the complex. The murder hole above the entrance can still be seen and still works, should anyone have some boiling oil to hand 😉 Still to be seen along the wall attached to this gate are narrow defensive windows through which arrows could be shot at wannabe attackers.

 

The gatehouse

Beyond the Barbican Gate lie the remnants of the gatehouse, a defensive curtain wall and a deep ditch. Elements of the rock itself were used as a defensive feature. Even in its current ruinous state, it’s easy to get a sense of how tricky it would have been to attack the place. Originally there would have been wooden buildings here too but they have long since vanished.

At the top of the hill are the remains of the 12th-century keep/great hall. Even though it is ruined and is surrounded by large chunks of mangled buildings, one can still get a sense of how impressive a structure it must have been. Thanks to the failed attempt to turn it into a banqueting hall, it has been altered somewhat.

 

The Great Hall

It is a pity that this place was so badly damaged all those years ago. In recent years conservation work was carried out by the Office of Public Works so it’s about as safe as these sorts of places can be. It is still well worth visiting, not just to look at the remains of the fortress itself but to admire the views from the top. The lush greenery of The Heath is very beautiful too and apparently can be seen from outer space!

Click on an image to launch the gallery

Adventures in bad food #1: The Tayto cheese and onion chocolate bar

The somewhat elusive Tayto chocolate bar

In Ireland, Tayto crisps are something of an institution. Indeed, the company which makes Tayto crisps to this day was the first to bring the humble cheese and onion crisp to the market. These days the Tayto empire extends far beyond fancy hipster Crushed Sea Salt & Aged Vinegar crisps. They have a theme park and this is usually the only place to buy the Tayto crisp and chocolate bar. Yep, you read that correctly. A chocolate bar that’s a mixture of cheese and onion potato crisps and chocolate.

Back in 2013 the bar was sold for a while in shops around Ireland and of course they initially sold out because of their rareness. Think of it as a chocolate version of the Nintendo NES Classic. After the initial run sold out, they didn’t appear to sell so well. One theory is that the world wasn’t ready for a crisp and chocolate bar. Another might just be that the chocolate they used in the bar wasn’t up to scratch and let the side down.

Anyway, being the owner of a chocolate silicone mould, I thought I would have a go at recreating this with better chocolate. So here goes…

The ingredients for this couldn’t be simpler. A bag of Tayto crisps and a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate. I didn’t use all of the crisps from the bag for this. Unlike a video on YouTube which I’ve seen, I didn’t use a fire extinguisher to break up the crisps 😀

Broken up Taytos and the melted chocolate
Mixy mixy

I then put the mixture into my silicone mould, stuck it in the fridge and left it there overnight. Here is the end result.

And there you have it… The idea of a chocolate crisp bar continues to horrify and fascinate people in equal measures. I think my bar tastes better with the Cadbury’s chocolate (other brands are available as the BBC likes to point out) but it’s still something I can’t make up my mind about.

 

Loop Head Lighthouse

Loop Head peninsula is situated on Ireland’s south-western coast, on the north side of the Shannon Estuary. The peninsula itself is a beautiful place to visit but as anyone who knows me will confirm, it was the lighthouse that drew me here. In recent years, the Commissioner for Irish lights (the body who run the lighthouses in Ireland) have been marketing a small number of lighthouses around the country as tourist destinations. Some as places for the public to visit, some as self-catering accommodation for tourists. Loop Head lighthouse straddles both camps, though I visited as a mere day-tripper looking for an opportunity to climb a tower 😀 The lighthouse keeper’s house on the site isn’t open to the public but photographs of the interior can be seen here 

Like many lighthouses around Ireland, the building on site now isn’t the only one which has stood there over time. Originally it was a 17th century stone cottage, replaced in 1802 by a regular lighthouse. Because of ongoing problems with the light signals coming from this lighthouse, it was decided to replace it with the present tower. Work began on it in 1844 and finished a decade later. The original lighthouse was eventually dismantled and the stone recycled. Or upcycled as they call it these days.

The view from the top. That’s the river Shannon in the background, believe it or not.

What’s on site?

The lighthouse itself is worth a visit, if only to admire the handiwork of the men who built the tower. The interlocking stairs which run along the walls between the floors are stunning in themselves. It is still a working lighthouse to this day so I got a fleeting glimpse of the lantern in operation as we moved between floors. We were “whooshed” up and down the lighthouse rather quickly so I didn’t have a chance to take many photos. It was a shame it was a dull, overcast day because it reduced visibility a bit. Still, it wasn’t a wasted journey by any means.

The visitor’s centre is basic enough, with the usual multimedia displays, interactive screens, memorabilia etc. I was surprised to see there wasn’t some sort of coffee shop on site. The two vending machines which sell drinks and snacks were broken. Hmm…this is starting to turn into a TripAdvisor review 😀 I hope that over time they will develop the visitor’s centre further and add more facilities. Unlike the similar (better) visitor’s centre at Hook Head, they’re not over-burdened with existing buildings. Indeed, the toilets are in a portacabin outside. Not that I’m going to fault them for that – I’ve been in far far worse water closets 😀

Ruins of World War II lookout station

While we were at the top of the lighthouse, the tour guide pointed out an area a little further down the headland with a connection to World War II. Ireland remained neutral during the war but over 80 navigation signs with the word EIRE were set into the ground along the coast. These were for American pilots to identify where they were flying. There was one of these signs at Loop Head, along with a hut which now lies in ruins. It is a shame that this hut has been left there as a pile of rubble. It is part of our history and would be an interesting addition to the area.

The headland is a lovely place to walk around, even on an overcast day. Someone said to me that they’d spotted dolphins further back up along the headland. By the time I got there though, there wasn’t a flipper to be seen. Oh well….

 

Lough Boora Parklands

The Irish midlands, where I hail from, are well known for their extensive boglands. Indeed, that’s where this site got its name…after a fashion. I may blog about them in the future once I get all the turf mould out of my hair and recover from the insect bites 😀 Anyway, this post is about an interesting use for a bog once it has been stripped of its peat.

Sky Train
One of the original bog trains, now re-purposed as a sculpture

The Background
The original peat bog at Lough Boora was harvested extensively by Bord na Móna, a government agency set up in the 1940s to develop Ireland’s peat bogs. This mostly meant them cutting lots and lots of turf for several decades. At its peak, Boora Bog yielded 100 tonnes of peat per year. This would help explain why there wasn’t a lot left by the end of the 1970s. Cutaway bog by its very nature isn’t land that’s much use for anything. This is what’s nice about this park. The wheels were set in motion back in 1994 when Bord na Móna management and locals decided to turn it into an amenity area.

What’s there

60 degrees by Kevin O’Dwyer

What’s great about the Lough Boora parklands is that visitors can do and see things at their own place. There’s a nice little visitor’s centre where you can get maps, get useful information and grab something to eat and drink. Outside you can hire all sorts of bicycles if you fancy cycling around the park. Tandems, bikes with trailers, mountain bikes etc. There are marked routes around the area, ranging in length from 3km to 22km.

What mostly caught my eye, though, were the sculptures. Some are there since the park’s establishment in 2002 and have lasted well despite the wonderful Irish climate. Being a Pink Floyd nut, my favourite one is probably 60 Degrees (see above) because it reminds me of the cover of Dark Side of the Moon. Also very striking are the original bog trains which are near the visitor’s centre. They’re a reminder of the work that was done on the bog.

Bug Hotel, highly rated on TripAdvisor

As well as the sculptures, all of which are worth having a look at, there is an eco-theme running through the park. Boora Lake itself is within the confines of the park but there are other lakes and wetlands close by. There is even a bird hide just outside the park for those who like to watch 😀 The park was quite busy the day I was there, probably thanks to it being a sunny Saturday. Despite this, I didn’t have to wander far to find peace and solitude. It is the sort of place where there is something for everyone. Families with children of all ages, people who want to walk, people who want to look at wildlife, weirdos with cameras trying to photograph sculptures 😀 … Like James Bond, I shall return.

 

 

 

Dún na Sí

This year I’ve decided to go visit some places of interest that are on my doorstep. The ones I never got around to visiting because they’ve been there forever, like Ken Barlow or The Rolling Stones.

Anyway, first visit of the year was to Dún na Sí Amenity & Heritage Park, just outside Moate, Co. Westmeath. It’s a park of two halves. One part is free for anyone to visit and is chock-full of sculptures, paths and fun things that make small children run around very fast. The other is what could loosely be described as a miniature Bunratty Folk village crossed with a pet farm. The day I visited, the tour guide was off so there was a reduced entry charge into the heritage park. The pleasant lady at the front desk furnished me with a leaflet containing a map so off I went.

Bothán or mud hut

The heritage park has replicas of the sorts of houses our ancestors would have lived in over the centuries. They were modest dwellings but none were as basic as the one-roomed mud hut. It’s sobering to think that entire families lived in such structures once upon a time. Because they were built from mud (as indeed the one here appears to be), very few of them have survived to the present day.

The rural museum has an extensive collection of farm machinery, all brightly painted and in far better condition than anything I’ve ever seen on a farm! Some of the machines don’t look like they’d pass modern day health & safety regulations, what with the many spikes and sharp edges they had.

I was also delighted to see a penny farthing bicycle leaning against a wall. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in real life before. It’s easy to see why this particular style of bike went out of fashion and never came back again.

The main sculpture in the park is Lugh’s Spear. Lugh was an Irish god who seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to Christopher Lambert in Highlander. Set into a hill, it looks like Lugh and his spear are about to emerge at any moment. Unfortunately the sun was in the wrong part of the sky when I was taking photos so they didn’t come out as well as I’d hoped. It’s still pretty cool though.

Some parts of the exhibition weren’t open. Perhaps this was because the tour guide wasn’t there. So I didn’t get to see the Scéal or Science parts

Gráinne Óg . This is a copy of a roadside sculpture which was stolen from a nearby road in 2011

On the other side of the car park was the free section of the park. Unlike the heritage park which was fairly quiet, it was filled with families enjoying the spring sunshine. There are all sorts of interesting sculptures dotted around the place. It’s an ongoing project and the pieces are the brainchildren of secondary school students. On the edge of the park is something all geography students will have learned about – a Turlough. These are a type of lake which fill with water during the winter, then disappear again (sometimes in a matter of hours) when the weather improves. The Turlough was still there but I intend to check up on it over the coming months to see has someone pulled the plug on it yet 😉

All in all, I was very impressed with Dún na Sí and would recommend it to anyone. Having said that, I thought the entry fee into the heritage park was on the steep side and I thought the reduced €5 was enough to be paying for what it was.

The Long Man of Kilfane

Hidden at the end of a peaceful country lane in south Co. Kilkenny is a ruined 14th century church. The church itself is quite interesting in its own right but standing inside its walls is something quite unusual. Carved out of limestone and standing against one of its walls is a 13th century effigy of a Norman knight. The Long Man of Kifane or Long Cantwell. It’s thought that this effigy was once the lid of a sarcophagus but it has been propped against the wall of Kilfane Church for as long as anyone can remember. Just over 2m in height, it’s the tallest effigy of its type in the British isles. What exactly effigy “of its type” means I’m not sure. He cuts a fine dash though.

One look at th knight and you can see he is armed to the teeth and ready for battle. A surprising number of clues can be picked up about him, just by looking at what he’s wearing and carrying. The main one is the coat of arms on his shield. It’s the coat of arms of the Cantwell family who were lords in the area at the time. It is believed this is Thomas de Cantwell who died in 1319, though chances are he was nowhere nearly as tall as his limestone likeness. He’s also wearing combat gear – a skullcap, chainmail and spurs on his feet. The spurs mean he fought on horseback. His legs are crossed in a similar fashion to effigies elsewhere, meaning that he probably fought in The Crusades. Usefully for a knight about to head into battle, he’s also carrying a sword.

As for the church itself, it dates back to the 14th century. It has a priest’s seat which is thought to belong to an older church. According to the internet which is always right, there is medieval paint to be seen. I didn’t notice any but maybe it was just too subtle for my eyes. There is also a tower attached to the church which is where the incumbent priest would’ve lived. Although the church is ruined and in the middle of nowhere, it’s a really lovely site to visit. I visited it one summer’s evening and even though the crows were making a racket overhead, it wasn’t creepy but beautiful and restful. It would appear that the grave yard is still occasionally used, judging by the modern headstones on the site.

 

The other Kilkenny castle

Kilkenny Castle overlooking the River Nore

Kilkenny City’s most famous tourist attraction is Kilkenny Castle. It’s large, it has been lovingly restored both inside and out, it overlooks the River Nore on one side and has a wide open street leading up to it on the other. It has a long and interesting history, some nice grounds and gardens which are can be accessed by anyone for free. In short, it’s worth visiting, even if some people on TripAdvisor have complained that you can’t park right outside the door and walk in. Perhaps at some stage I’ll write something about the castle. For now though, I thought I’d write something about the castle nobody travels to Kilkenny to see 🙂

Maudlin Castle

A 10 minute walk will take you back over the river and on to Maudlin Street. Today it’s a narrow, one-way residential area with houses of all shapes and sizes scattered around the place. Half way up the street, mostly ignored and locked up, stands a 25m tall 15th century tower house. The castle formed part of a medieval hospital in the area and it is believed it stands on the site of an older building. The hospital was originally established some time in the 13th/14th century to treat leprosy. At the time, it was believed that leprosy was connected with sexually transmitted diseases. And so, the hospital was named after Mary Magdalene, a woman whose name has been attached to a lot of undesirable things. Despite the spelling of the modern day street/castle as maudlin, it’s pronounced locally as “Mad-Lin”. Not so different to Magdalene when you say it out loud.

St. John’s Cemetery

The rest of the hospital complex has long since vanished but it’s believed there were gardens and orchards in the area. There are still a few remnants from the hospital on the street. There’s what appears to be a partial tower which might have formed part of the city walls at some stage. Off the street is an old cemetery which surely must have been used to bury the dead when the hospital was still open. There once was a church here too but it’s largely gone. The castle itself became a retirement home of sorts for members of wealthy local families. Archaeological digs carried out in the area suggest that beef, lamb, bacon and wild fowl were on the menu.

The castle still retains its garderobe (a.k.a. the toilet!)

Today the castle is locked up and mostly ignored. As an article in the local newspaper pointed out a few years ago, nobody knows what’s in the castle because it’s always locked up. It may or may not have a roof at this stage. There appear to be stone steps inside but as to how far they go…again it’s a mystery. So it just stands there unheralded at the side of a little street, mostly unnoticed by passing motorists and pedestrians .Perhaps the newly launched Medieval Mile  will give this castle a little more attention than it has had to date.

Gallery

Plaster of Paris – in Dublin

Cross of the Scriptures & the South Cross, Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly

The high cross is an early medieval form of Christian sculpture, unique to the British Isles. From around the 6th century onwards, monastic settlements developed all around Ireland. It is thought that high crosses were a way of marking out the sacred areas in the larger monasteries. The first high crosses are believed to have been made from wood and metal. Of course, none of these have survived to the present day. From around the 9th century onwards, the crosses began to be carved from stone. Interestingly, the earliest crosses appear to be replicas of the original wood and metal crosses, though in time their style evolved. There are almost 300 high crosses in Ireland, in various states of repair.

Let’s get plastered

Two crosses from Monasterboice, Co. Louth – Tall Cross & Muireadach’s Cross. On the right is the high cross from Drumcliffe, Co. Sligo.

In the late 19th century/early 20th century, a greater interest and awareness of national identity and archaeology took hold around Europe. Seeing as trying to transport rather ancient, rather heavy stone crosses around was out of the question, they went for the next best option. Faithful copies. At what turned out to be prohibitively expensive, plaster casts of some of the better known high crosses were painstakingly made. From 1898 to 1910, casts were made of some high crosses and these were shipped abroad to the UK, the USA and Australia. Interestingly, in 2005 the replicas were exhibited in Aichi, Japan where they were seen by over 2 million people.

L-R South Cross, Ahenny, Tall Cross, Monasterboice and Drumcliffe

Completely by accident, in May 2011 I came across an exhibition of these replicas in the Museum of Decorative Arts & History in Dublin. And so, all I have to show for my visit are a couple of pre-smartphone mobile phone snaps and a nice booklet 🙂 It turned out to be a surprisingly compelling exhibition. I’ve seen loads of these high crosses over the years – it’s hard not to – but I had never realised how tall and imposing they were. In their normal setting, they’re out in the open air and somehow seem smaller. There’s nothing like standing in a darkened room with these crosses looming over you to concentrate the mind. It was also a unique opportunity to see how these crosses had evolved over time. The South Cross from Ahenny is a very basic cross which replicates its original wood and metal ancestors, while the later Muireadach’s Cross is awash with scenes from scripture. Interestingly, the Office of Public Works has gradually been making high quality replicas of the better known high crosses around Ireland and moving the originals indoors. Following on, after a fashion, in the footsteps of the original plaster casters.

The crosses exhibited in this exhibition were:

The North & South Crosses, Ahenny, Co. Tipperary

North Cross, Ahenny

These two 9th century crosses I’ve seen “in the wild”. Sorry they look a bit underwhelming but that’s the Irish weather in March for you! These days, Ahenny is off the beaten track and I had to drive along some alarmingly narrow and twisty country roads to get to it. The two crosses are situated in a quiet cemetery that’s situated in a field  close to the village of Ahenny. They’re all that remains of the monastery at Kilclispeen. The interesting thing about these two high crosses is that they appear to replicate the earlier wood/metal crosses and mostly have abstract art on them. There are some figures from scripture on the base of the North cross but they’re not so obvious on my photo. Both crosses are considered to be very fine examples of Hiberno-Saxon art and are just two of a number of high crosses in this style in the area.

Their plaster casts were made in 1906 by an Italian modeller named Sig. Orlandi. According to the booklet I bought when looking at the exhibition, the cost of making the moulds for these two crosses was £151. The two casts were produced  at a cost of £35.

 

 

 

Tall Cross & Muireadach’s Cross, Monasterboice, Co. Louth.

Muireadoch’s Cross & Tall Cross

These two crosses I saw on a geography field trip when I was an undergraduate. So not only do I not have photos of them (I am rather ancient, after all) but I barely remember them. I mostly remember my geography lecturer helpfully pointing out how the ground level in the cemetery was rising because of all the dead people buried there and that even when we died, we’d still have a contribution to make. Anyway, enough of that. What about the crosses?

Muireadach’s Cross is considered to be the finest of the high crosses in Ireland. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that it was the first cross to be moulded, back in 1896. It dates to the 9th century and depicts many scenes from scripture. In recent years, concern has been expressed over the damage the weather is doing to the cross. The Tall Cross lives up to its name, being almost 7 metres in height. The process of making moulds of this cross proved to be tricky because of the condition of the base.

Drumcliffe High Cross, Drumcliffe, Co. Sligo

Drumcliff High Cross.

Now this cross, I have no idea if I’ve ever seen. When I was 14 my family took a holiday in the north-west of Ireland and we visited Drumcliffe. These days it’s mostly known for being the alleged final resting place of W.B. Yeats. In olden times, it was a monastery and there is still a partial round tower remaining. There’s also this cross which I may have seen but not taken any particular notice of. It was cast in 1907 and is from the 11th or 12th century. Along with biblical scenes, it also has animals which is unusual.

St Tola’s Cross, Dysert O’Dea, Co. Clare

This cross is unusual in that it has no ring. It is from the later Romanesque series of crosses and instead of having biblical scenes, has a bishop on the shaft. It was one of the last crosses to be copied, work taking place in 1908. It is thought that this cross may have had wooden additions but of course these did not survive.

 

Take me to church

Don’t think this was here when the church was originally built

No, it’s not the song by Hozier but an interesting ex-church in the centre of Dublin. St. Mary’s Church was built in the early 18th century to serve the local Anglican community.  Arthur Guinness (founder of a certain well known brewery) married here. Jonathan Swift attended services in the church. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church preached in it. In the run-up to the première of The Messiah, Handel practised on the church organ. Other people connected with the church, perhaps less known outside of Ireland were playwright Sean O’Casey, revolutionary Theobald Wolfe Tone and the judge who condemned Robert Emmett to death.

The church finally closed in the 1960s and lay derelict for three decades. Eventually it was renovated, at great expense, and converted into a bar and restaurant. The first time I stood in the building was for a birthday party and I remember there being a small nightclub in the vaults!

Headstones against the wall outside

Anyway, while you wait for your food and drink to arrive there’s plenty to look at. It is worth a wander around, just to see what a disused old church can be re-purposed as. The 19th century Ordnance Survey 25″ map notes that the grave yard outside is disused. The grave yard has since vanished and the leftover headstones left against a nearby wall.

The main bar

The toilets are located in the basement of the building and a trip to them is a convenient way to see a bit more of this interesting place. Hopefully my hastily taken mobile phone snaps will give some idea of what the place is like.

 

 

7 Wonders of Fore

Map of Fore
Map of Fore – Click to Enlarge

Fore is a sleepy village in north Co. Westmeath, nestled in the hills near Lough Lene. At first glance, the monastic ruins beside the village don’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. That is, until you take a closer look…

A brief history of Fore

Fore gets its name from the old Irish word Fobhair which is pronounced in the same way as Fore. It means “water springs” which makes sense because there’s plenty of that around here. The monastic settlement at Fore is actually made up of two separate monasteries, split by a road. The older part of the monastery, on the left hand side of the road, was founded by St. Féchin in the 7th century. Very little remains from that era apart from a little church that’s named after St. Féchin (more on that later). There may have been two more churches on the site but they have vanished without a trace. It is thought that in the heyday of this early monastery, 300 monks and 2,000 students lived here. Where exactly they crammed them all is another question. Further up the hill from the church is a mausoleum which is a relatively modern addition.

monk playing golfIn 665, St. Féchin and some other high ranking clergy were approached by two kings who had an interesting request for them. They asked them to pray to God for a plague to come and wipe out the lower classes of society, reducing their number. God answered their prayers after a fashion – St. Féchin and his comrades died of yellow plague.

Fore Abbey
Fore Abbey

Across the road from are the remnants of a much more substantial monastery. These buildings were built by the Anglo-Normans and it became a Benedictine monastery with strong links to France. Indeed, this monastery is dedicated both to St. Féchin and to the French St. Taurin. The first Benedictine monks in Fore were French – what they thought of rural Westmeath has been lost in the mists of time. Because this was the era when England and France were at war, Fore frequently was seized by the English because of the French connection. It also suffered many attacks during its existence. It’s known that Fore was burned at least 12 times between the 8th and 12th centuries. Often these attacks were led by the Vikings. It’s believed that there was a staggering 3,000 monks housed in and around the abbey in Fore’s heyday. The abbey’s time finally came to an end in 1539 as part of King Henry VIII’s campaign of monastery closures in the  British Isles. Luckily for the abbot in charge of Fore, he walked away with his head still attached to his shoulders and a pension from the king. All he had to do was agree to the closure of the abbey. Once this happened, it was ransacked and anything of value taken away.

The Fore Cross in the middle of the village
The Fore Cross in the middle of the village

A less obvious feature of the area are what have become known as the Fore Crosses. There are 18 of these little crosses, carved hundreds of years ago and placed along the road to Fore and in nearby fields. There is one in the centre of the village and others on the outskirts of the village.

It may be mostly crumbly old ruins these days but Fore still is known for its its mysterious 7 Wonders. These are

  • The Monastery in a bog
  • The Mill without a race
  • The water that flows uphill
  • The tree that has three branches or the tree that won’t burn
  • The water that won’t boil
  • The anchorite (hermit) in a cell
  • The stone rasied by St. Féichin’s prayers

Are these wonders still as wondrous as they were? You decide 🙂

The Monastery in a Bog

The Monastery in the bog
The Monastery in the bog

This 13th century Benedictine Abbey is now in ruins but there’s still lots to see. It was built around a cloister and courtyard. The partial remains of the cloister can still be seen. Two large towers were built in the Abbey, partly as accommodation, partly as defensive structures. Arrow slits can be seen on the towers and the entrance gate has a murder hole incorporated into it. These days, the ground surrounding the abbey is less marshy/boggy than it was. Perhaps a modern day miracle is that despite all the attacks and being open to the elements for centuries, there’s so much remaining.

The Mill Without A Race

The mill without a race
The mill without a race

Legend has it that a mill was built but it had no race. Luckily St. Fechin was on hand with his trusty crozier. He struck the ground with it and water gushed forward. Spectacular but perhaps a slight embellishment of the truth. The mill was supplied by a number of springs which flow underground from nearby Lough Lene. There are still some remnants of the old mill pond, although it’s mostly silted up these days. The existing mill (or what’s left of it) are built on the site of the original mill from St. Féchin’s time. It remained in use until around 1875 and is marked on the original Ordnance Survey 6″ map.

The water that flows uphill

Unfortunately the subtlety of this one passed me by. Apparently if you look carefully, the stream that flows ever so slightly downhill in the field leading to the ruined abbey turns back on itself and flows uphill. Maybe.

The tree that has three branches or the tree that won’t burn/the water that will not boil

fore-6Now this one is even more bewildering than the uphill water. Especially if you’re on the lookout for a tree with three branches. The original unburnable, three-branched tree stood over a holy well known as Tobernacogny. A plaque on the wall behind it explains it all
There was an ash tree with three branches growing over the well and it was – and still is – the custom for visitors to drive a coin edgeways into the bark. This may have been injurious to the tree which is now dead but the single surviving branch still exhibits a good selection of coinage. It is said that the wood from he tree will not burn  and the water from the well will never boil. The water was taken as a cure for headache and toothache.

Coins on the "tree that won't burn"
The tree that won’t burn

The tree that stands today is known as a rag tree or a raggedy bush. As the name might suggest, it is covered in rags and pieces of clothing. There is still a belief amongst certain people that if a piece of clothing belonging to someone who’s ill or has a problem is hung on the tree, that it will disappear as the cloth rots. There was no sign of any water in the well so perhaps it has given up on curing people’s aches and pains.

The Anchorite (or hermit) in a cell

Anchorite's church
Anchorite’s church

There is a hermit’s cell in the tower of this little chapel. When a hermit entered the cell, he vowed never to go outdoors again for the rest of his life. It is believed that the last hermit in Ireland was Patrick Beglan, who was here in 1616. The tower was built in the 15th century and the rest of the chapel added on in the 18th. Unfortunately this church is usually locked up so few people ever get to see the cell looks like.

The stone rasied by St. Féichin’s prayers

Lintel raised by a few prayers
Lintel raised by a few prayers

St. Féichin’s church is the oldest building on the site. It was built in the 7th century as a much smaller church but was extended in the centuries after that. Its most notable feature is the lintel over the doorway. It is very heavy (it’s estimated it weighs at least 2 tons) and not something that could be lifted easily by anyone. The story goes that when the workmen building the church were having their breakfast, St. Féichin said some prayers, then lifted up the stone and put it in position.

Carrick Balor is the hill overlooking Fore
Carrick Balor is the hill overlooking Fore

Overlooking Fore is a hill with a rocky outcrop on top. It’s known as Carrick Balor. For anyone unfamiliar with Irish placenames, Carrick is an Anglicisation of the word carraig which means rock. Balor was an evil-eyed monster or god from Irish mythology.

fore-24Along the gravelled walkway that leads from the car park to the ruins of the Abbey is a second holy wall known as Doaghfeighin, or St. Féichin’s Well. It’s described elsewhere as being a well surrounded by box-like stones. Alas, it’s not possible to take a closer look these days because not only is it mostly hidden by trees but it’s fenced off  with a barrier. It is possible that this may have been an earlier megalithic tomb or cist .

fore-39The village of Fore developed alongside the monastery. Today it’s a quiet village with a population of less than 400 people. A sign of its previous importance are the two medieval town gates on its outskirts and the remnants of a jail in the village itself.

In the 19th century, an ancient bell was found in nearby Lough Lene. This was a popular haunt of Turgesius the Viking, a man who was partial to raiding Fore. The website Voices from the Dawn has put forward the intriguing theory that this bell may once have been St. Féchin’s ceremonial bell. The bell is now in the possession of the National Museum of Ireland. A smaller replica of it is used in the Irish Parliament (The Dáil) by the speaker of the house to try and maintain order.