Timahoe – the one with the fancy doorway

Timahoe is a village about 12km south of Portlaoise, Co. Laois. It’s a rather pretty place and more importantly, from this blog’s point of view, it has a round tower! A rather fine one at that.

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Timahoe gets its name from a monastery which was founded by St. Mochua in the 7th century (Tígh Mochua = St. Mochua’s Church). Little remains of this monastery now, apart from the tower. The former church which stands alongside the tower was built much later and is now a heritage centre.

St. Mochua founded a monastery here sometime in the 7th century. He is recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters as having died in 637AD and that “His wondrous acts are mainly legendary”. Now that is what you call an obituary 😀

The tower itself is believed to date from the 12th century and is built from sandstone (bottom 3m) and limestone. It is leaning a little but it is fully intact. What’s striking about it, apart from it being in such good condition, is the doorway. It is unique – no other tower has a Romanesque style doorway. It is also quite a wide tower at its base. 5.58m. The tower itself stands 29.26m and the door sill 4.5m from the ground.

Timahoe (4)

There is little else of note to be seen in the churchyard but it is in a rather nice setting. The ruins near the tower probably stand on the spot of where the original church originally stood. Most of what is there now dates from the 17th century, with parts of an older 15th century church included in its wall. timahoe_2

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Getting there

The tower is very easy to find and access. It’s visible from the roads leading into Timahoe and is in a churchyard close to the village green. Simply cross a footbridge and you’re there. There’s plenty of car parking space around too.

Vital Tower Stats

measuring

Height: 29.36m
Diameter at Base:5.58m
Height at Door-Sill: 4.3m
Suggested Date: 12th Century

Stats from The Irish Round Tower: Origins and Architecture Explored by Brian Lalor
Published by Collins Press, Cork (2005)
ISBN 10: 1903464773 ISBN 13: 9781903464779

Round Towers: The Start of an Occasional Series

I’ve been a bit of a tower enthusiast for as long as I can remember. As a small child, no journey in my parents’ car was complete without me spotting water towers and excitedly pointing them out to them. Sigmund Freud would’ve had a field day 😀 Anyway, I came to my senses and decided that water towers were rather underwhelming and really not worth seeking out. Instead, I turned my attention to round towers.

These are somewhat enigmatic, narrow, cylindrical stone towers which were built almost 1,000 years ago mostly in Ireland. Just three of them exist abroad; one in the Isle of Man, two in Scotland.  Even at that, it’s likely there was an Irish hand or two involved it their construction. The first one I ever saw was O’Rourke’s Tower in Clonmacnoise and it made quite an impression (“What happened to the roof? Where’s the door?”). When I moved into my teens, I led my cousin and her friends on an expedition to explore the nearby round tower in Swords. These towers also inspired me to make a collage at primary school but more of that later.

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O’Rourke’s Tower, Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly
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Cloigtheach/Round Tower as depicted on an old Ordnance Survey map

The clue to what an Irish round tower is lies in the Irish name for them. Cloigtheach means “bell house” or belfry. Indeed, some of these towers still stand beside the churches for which they were built.

It is believed that 80(ish) of them were built between the 10th and 13th centuries. There are references to some of them in ancient writings, such as the Irish Annals. The first reference to one dates back to 950AD when the Vikings burned one in Slane, Co. Meath. The latest one was in Annaghdown Co. Galway in 1238. Both these towers have sadly vanished without a trace. As of 2020, there are 74 of them which can be visited. Some are in very good condition and there are still two of them which can be can be climbed (Kilkenny and Kildare). The tower on Devenish Island, Co. Fermanagh has also been climbable but it is unclear whether it is still the case. If anybody knows for sure and lets me know, I will happily amend this post. The others are in various states of repair; going from towers which still have their roofs to those which barely exist at all.

Despite the towers being labelled as Cloigtheachs, my primary school teachers didn’t get the memo. Being told that the towers were used as safe refuges for the monks and their treasures when marauding Vikings came-a-raiding fired my imagination. Aged 10 or 11, I made a collage of a daring monastery raid using felt and some other scraps of cloth which were lying was lying around in the classroom. The collage is long gone of course but you will be delighted to know that I’ve replicated it using modern technology. Sadly, drawing apps don’t give you the same smell of glue as 1980s art classes. What the teachers didn’t tell us was that (a) round towers can’t actually hold many people/things and (b) they’re just about the worst place you could hide out in from raiders. They are eminently burnable. Given the shape of the towers and the wooden floors that were in them, they had the potential to become deadly furnaces if they were set on fire. And it appears that that is what happened sometimes. There are records of towers being set on fire and people dying in them. The King of Fermanagh met his end in the tower on Devenish Island in County Fermanagh. The son of the King of Tara was murdered in Kells. The tower at Dysert O’Dea in County Clare was burned at some point. Nobody knows when or why but there is still a crack in its wall.

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A Viking raid on a fictional monastery. Not based on true events.

No two round towers are alike. There are variations in the building materials used, the style of the doors and windows and in the width and height of them. Still, they all follow a certain formula. They’re slender, stone towers which stand up to 40 metres in height. Their doorways tend to be located 2-3 meters from the ground and can only be accessed by a ladder. The windows are higher up in the tower and are narrow slits. Most of the towers are/were topped with a conical shaped roof. The doors of the towers face the west doorway of the churches they were a bell-tower for. And despite their heights, none of the towers appear to have had particularly deep foundations. Despite this, most of them are still standing

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The image on the left isn’t my handwork (I think you can see who the real artist is here…) but it gives a good idea of what the interior of the towers was like. I found it on Pinterest so if by some chance someone knows who drew it, I will happily give credit for it.

Each tower had a basement and then a series of floors going from the doorway right up to the top of the building. It is thought that the floors were connected by ladders. Having climbed the tower in Kilkenny, I can confirm that this isn’t for the faint-hearted. There wasn’t always much room inside the towers either so it’s debatable how many things were ever stored in there.

In the coming weeks, I shall write a little about the round towers I have visited. Here is a selection of them. Being a biased Offaly woman, I plan to start where the madness all began – Clonmacnoise.

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To the Tower (or how I visited the Tower of London and got to leave again)

tower_of_london_ticketThis month, I finally got around to visiting London again. It being October and heading into the off-season, it was a fine time to visit the Tower of London. A place that I’ve been told is worth a visit but…the crowds.

The Tower of London (a.k.a. Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London) is a somewhat inaccurate description. It isn’t really one tower. In fact, there are 21 of them (some survive only as ruined foundations). Some of them don’t particularly look like towers but that was scant consolation to the poor sods who were imprisoned within their thick walls. It is also a place that has served as a fortress, a prison, a mint, a zoo, home to the crown jewels and the site of quite a few executions. Oh, and the moat where the guided tours start used to be an open sewer. Nice.

Turning up to the Tower early meant that there were no queues or crowds to battle. The first part of the visit was an excellent tour given by a Yeoman Warder (in this case, the wonderful Scott Kelly aka #beefy409). The introduction to the tower and its history was informative, macabre, funny and entertaining all at the same time. Definitely don’t skip this if you visit the Tower.

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The White Tower

After that, you’re free to roam around the grounds and visit quite a few of the buildings. They’re all interesting but my favourite was The White Tower. This is the original tower that gave the entire complex its name. It was was built by William the Conqueror in 1078-79 and is four floors of interestingness. It houses “The Line of Kings” which is a 400 year old tourist attraction. It displays armour belonging to English monarchs, sitting on wooden horses. How genuine some of the armour is is open to question but it’s pretty impressive stuff all the same. As is all the weaponry on display. If all those cannons in the basement were armed and went boom, there’d be no more tower! There’s also room in there for some ye olde toilets (garderobes) and even a working chapel.

Across the yard are the Royal Crown Jewels. Personally, I didn’t find these as interesting but that’s probably more down to my personality than anything else. Save to say, I’ve never seen as much gold in my life! Some other people in the queue loved it though – there were certainly some royal family enthusiasts there. The various exhibitions in the towers were also a reminder that bad and all as things seem to be these days, they were no bed of roses years ago. While it is true that some people lost their heads in the grounds of the Tower, many more met their end on nearby Tower Hill. It tended to be nobility who got the chop in the Tower.

There is so much to read and see about the Tower of London, I’m not going to go into it here. There are lots of websites online where you can find out all you want to know about its history.  It was a very enjoyable few hours and although the entrance fee is pretty steep, it’s worth it if you allow yourself the time to savour it all. Just try to go when there won’t be so many tourists around if you can.

 

 

 

 

Shee Almshouse

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The main entrance into the building – the one for the ladies

The current home for the tourist office in Kilkenny is an old building with an interesting history. It was built in 1581/2 by Sir Richard Shee, a wealthy local man. Depending on what source you read, he either made a profit from speculating on church property during the Reformation or he bought up a lot of it to keep it out of the hands of reformers. Regardless, he seems to have started to worry about burning in hell (as you do) and established this almshouse to help the poor.

It was built to house 12 people. “6 honest, poor, unmarried men” and “6 widows of 50 years of age or more”. Each resident had their own room (which must have been tiny, judging by the size of the building) but there were some strict regulations they had to abide by. For starters, everyone had to attend 2 hours of prayer every day and would face instant eviction if they got drunk, indulged in hanky panky or refused to attend weekly religious services.

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The entrance for the men which leads straight onto the first floor

To ensure the men and women in the almshouse didn’t get up to any funny business, the building had two floors which were not connected internally. The ground floor was for women only – this is the more prominent entrance to the building these days because it faces out onto Rose Inn Street. The men lived on the first floor and the entrance to there is on a laneway to the rear of the building. These days there is a staircase which connects the two floors.

The almshouse continued to house the poor until 1830 or so. By that stage it was no longer in the hands of the Shee family – it had been sold in 1752 by Edmund Shee. It then fell into ruin and was renovated in the 1870s by Sir Nicholas Power O’Shee who was a descendant of Richard Shee. As well as being an almshouse, it was used as a Catholic chapel, a hospital and even a shop. In 1978, it was obtained by Kilkenny Corporation who restored it and opened it as the tourist office.

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Duncannon Fort

I’ve been in or around the seaside town of Duncannon many times but until this year had never got around to visiting its star-shaped fort. I’ve seen it from a distance, I’ve looked up at it from the beach that lies underneath it and I’ve even walked past the entrance gates. The fort, which has long since ceased to be an active facility, is open to the public during the summer months. And as I discovered when I finally did get around to visiting and took the excellent guided tour, it’s a fascinating work in progress.

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The layout of the fort as it is today

A Brief History

The fort is built at the tip of a peninsula, overlooking the entrance into Waterford Harbour. As strategic locations go, it’s one of the better ones.  The width of the bay and the layout/depth of the channel means that one fort is enough for keeping an eye on anything coming and going by sea. More bang for your buck when it comes to forts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fort which stands here now isn’t the first one to have been built on the site. The present fort dates from the 16th century but it was had previously been home to a Norman fort of some sort in the 12th century. There is also evidence that suggests there was a wooden fort here going further back into history. Old maps from the 16th/17th century show a ruined church, a castle and some defensive structures on the site. These are long gone but the stone from them has no doubt been reincorporated into what’s here now.

Some of the rebuilt buildings in the yard

Fearing an invasion by the Spanish Armada, the present fort was built by Queen Elizabeth I in 1587-88. They never arrived but that didn’t mean that it didn’t get to see some action. In 1645 it was captured by  Irish Catholic Confederation forces and remained under their control until 1650. Oliver Cromwell, arguably the least popular Englishman to ever tread on Irish soil, tried but failed to recapture it a year earlier. His son-in-law Henry Ireton got his hands on it a year later. It is believed that both monarchs who fought in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 stayed in Duncannon Fort before leaving the country.  King James II left for France on 3rd July 1690 whilst the victorious William of Orange stayed there in September of the same year.

During the 1798 Rebellion, the fort remained under British control. Indeed, it became a prison for captured Irish rebels and a place where some of them were executed. Depending on which version of the Irish rebel song “The Croppy Boy” you listen to, the title character meets his end in Duncannon. Or Dungannon which is at the other end of the country..

The entrance into the fort, as viewed from the dry moat
The entrance into the fort, as viewed from the dry moat

In Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) the fort is described as “..adapted for mounting 42 pieces of cannon, and, including ” the bombproof” erected in 1815, contains barracks for 10 officers and 160 men, residences for the chaplain, fort-major, storekeeper, and other officers, and a chapel for the garrison; the whole is surrounded by a dry moat crossed by a drawbridge, and the only entrance is defended by a portcullis.” 

The buildings in the fort were built at different times but look more uniform these days because of changes made to the site in the run-up to World War I. They were covered with roughcast and Tarmacadam was poured on the ground. This covered over the cobblestones which had been there. At least one archway was knocked so that tanks could be driven into the fort. Despite the alterations, there are still many older features remaining intact. The dry moat and sloping walls, circular lunette fortifications, tunnels and gun batteries being some of these.

The fort was handed over to the Irish Army in 1922 when British rule ended here. It was largely burnt down during the civil war the following year. With the onset of World War II (a.k.a. “The Emergency” because we didn’t do wars here) the fort was partially rebuilt and a military presence reinstated. The old Governor’s house now has 1943 (the year it was rebuilt) and the logo of the Irish army on the front of it.

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Burke’s House

A caretaker’s house (locally known as Burke’s house, after the family who lived in it) was built in 1939 as part of the refortification. Unlike the other buildings here, its front door isn’t level with the ground but has steps up to its front door. This is because when they began to excavate the foundations, they found some human remains. It’s thought this is where a graveyard had been. It’s known that at one stage there was a church close by.

The fort was used as a camp for the Reserve Defence Forces for many years, before finally being handed over to Wexford County Council in 1993. As of 2018, there are still parts of the fort which are too dangerous for members of the public to access. Happily, there are still many places which are safe and will give the visitor a good overall view of what life was like in a place like this.

The fort is also visible from the beach below. As the tour guide remarked, the window which overlooks the beach now has iron bars on it to ward off a newer type of invader.

fort from the beach

Visitor Information

Duncannon Fort is only open during the summer months. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day. The official website for opening dates/times is https://duncannonfort.ie/ Admission is by guided tour only but it’s well worth it.

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Offaly’s Two Pyramids

Did you know? 100 quirky facts about County Offaly

One of the more intriguing pieces of trivia in the book “Did you know…? 100 quirky facts about County Offaly”  is that there are two pyramids in the county. It’s not a county tourists flock to, so to have something a bit unusual like this piqued my interest. Having visited the Lough Boora Discovery Park many a time, I knew about its pyramid. It’s the one that nobody under the age of 20 can resist trying to climb once they catch sight of it. Anyway, I thought I’d go in search of the second one in the village of Kinnitty. They’re both interesting in their own way, I think.

The Bernard Mausoleum
The Bernard Mausoleum

The Kinnitty Pyramid (also known as the Bernard Mausoleum) is the older of the two. Located in the grounds of St. Finian’s Church of Ireland, it has been here since 1834. It’s hard to miss seeing as it’s 9m tall and sitting on top of a hill. It was commissioned by Lt. Col. Richard Wesley Bernard who lived in the nearby Kinnitty Castle. Not a man short of money, it is known that he did a tour of Egypt in the early 19th century. Whether seeing the great pyramids inspired him to build this mausoleum, nobody can say for sure. It’s described on the website of the Mausolea & Monuments Trust as “Freestanding pyramid standing some 30ft high, built on a square footprint of ashlar limestone construction having skewed coursing.  Pointed-arch opening to entrance front having sheet metal double-leaf doors.”  In total, 6 members of the Bernard family were interred here and the mausoleum was closed up in 1907.

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Boora Pyramid by By Eileen MacDonagh (Ireland) assisted by Marc Wouters (Belgium)

The Lough Boora Pyramid doesn’t contain any dead people to the best of my knowledge. It was designed and built in 2002 by the sculptor Eileen MacDonagh. It’s made from unmortared stone which was unearthed as the surrounding bogland was cut away. At 50ft (15m) it’s taller than the Kinnitty pyramid and is considerably easier to climb…

Smeaton’s Tower

Former offshore lighthouse, now relocated on the mainland

Lighthouses by their very nature can be tricky things to get to. So when one which was originally out at sea – perched on a dangerous windswept reef for good measure – moves to the mainland, why not? The lighthouse in question is called Smeaton’s Tower these days and has been standing in a park in Plymouth for well over a century at this stage. Originally it was known as the (third) Eddystone Lighthouse and was built on rocks which bear the same name. The name Eddystone Rocks is a little misleading because they’re not just a few random rocks 19km off the English coast but a large, dangerous reef. Needless to say, many a seagoing craft met a watery end on the reef and there is still a lighthouse out there. Even though this lighthouse is no longer serving the purpose for which it was built, it is still more than just an oversized garden ornament in a public park.

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The ill-fated first and second Eddystone lighthouses

The first lighthouse to be built on the reef was a tower designed by a man named Henry Winstanley. It was completed in 1698 but lasted just 5 years. It was swept away during the great Storm of 1703, killing 6 people including Winstanley himself who had been making modifications to the tower at the time. The second one designed by John Rudyard was completed in 1709 and remained in situ until 1755 when it was destroyed by fire. Its unfortunate 94 year old lighthouse keeper died several days later after swallowing molten lead which was falling from the burning lantern room at the top of the tower. Somewhat bizarrely, the piece of lead which killed him survives to this day.

When it came to building a third lighthouse, engineer John Smeaton was entrusted with the task.  He based the shape of it on that of an oak tree, a structure from nature which had proved to be rather good at withstanding the elements. He went back to Roman times for the type of mortar he used – hydraulic lime is what was used in the Pantheon in Rome and we know how long that has lasted. Crucially, hydraulic lime sets underwater which made it ideal for the job in hand. The lighthouse itself was built from dovetailed blocks of granite, precision cut and interlocking once they were assembled. The blocks were worked on in Plymouth, not very far from where the tower now stands. They were shipped out to sea and the lighthouse built on the reef. After over 3 years of work, the lighthouse finally came into operation in 1759.

The stump of Smeaton's tower, with its replacement lighthouse in the background
The stump of Smeaton’s Tower at sea, just in front of the lighthouse that was built to replace it

The lighthouse operated successfully out at sea until the rocks on which it was built began to succumb to erosion. It was noted in 1877 that any time large waves hit, the lighthouse would shake. A replacement lighthouse was commissioned and built close by and it survives to this day. When that was completed in 1879, Smeaton’s lighthouse fell into darkness.

Thankfully the original plan to blow up the lighthouse didn’t come to fruition. It was dismantled and brought back to Plymouth, where it was reassembled on Plymouth Hoe. In 1884 the rebuilt tower was renamed as Smeaton’s Tower in honour its creator. It has remained open to the public since then. The remnants of the lighthouse’s foundations can still be seen at sea, close to the tower which replaced it. Interestingly, the design of the replacement lighthouse wasn’t a million miles away from Smeaton’s tower. While it was still in operation, a Scottish engineer called Robert Stevenson visited it. He tweaked Smeaton’s ideas when designing the Bell Rock lighthouse off the Scottish coast. When the time came to build the 4th Eddystone lighthouse, engineer James Douglass used Stevenson’s specifications. If the Stevenson name sounds familiar, it’s probably because his grandson Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island. The Stevensons were something of a lighthouse building dynasty and there have been books and documentaries made about them.

What’s inside?

The bottom part of the tower isn’t original, of course, and has some spiral steps up to the first floor. After that though, it’s all ladders. Unlike the two other lighthouses I’ve been in which had spiral staircases along the walls, this one has floors with the same shape as Polo Mints. The different rooms in the tower are furnished with a mixture of genuine and replica furniture. There is a table which was in the actual lighthouse. Perhaps the most startling piece of furniture in the place was the bed. Living on an off-shore lighthouse was not the job for you if you were a tall person who didn’t like sleeping in cupboards.

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This, believe it or not, is a bed!

One of the notices on the wall reminds visitors that this is an 18th-century building that was designed for 3 people. Looking around the building, it’s hard not to wonder how tough life must have been for the 3 people living and working there at any time. Cramped is one word to describe the conditions. On the other hand, these guys were probably the nimblest ladder climbers around.

Looking downstairs into the bedroom
Looking downstairs into the bedroom

At the top of the lighthouse is the lantern room, complete with a replica of the candle holder which would’ve been there at the start. These days it offers a nice view over Plymouth and out to sea. On a good day it is possible to see out as far as the Eddystone rocks and where the story began. Plymouth itself was bombed extensively during World War II, destroying a lot of the city. It’s a miracle this wonderful building didn’t bite the dust too.

The lantern room at the top of the lighthouse
The lantern room at the top of the lighthouse

Date of visit: 5th October 2013

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The other Kilkenny castle

Kilkenny Castle at night
Kilkenny Castle at night (obviously)

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 (every tourist who has visited Kilkenny has taken a photo like the one above) 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
Maudlin Castle

A 10 minute walk from the famous castle will take you back across 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. Halfway 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 sometime 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.

The old cemetery
The old 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 wildfowl were on the menu.

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

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Take me to church

The former St Mary’s Church of Ireland, reborn as a pub

No, it’s not the song by Hozier but an interesting former church in the centre of Dublin. St. Mary’s Church of Ireland was built in the early 18th century to serve the local Anglican community.  During its lifetime as a working church, it certainly clocked up some history. Arthur Guinness (founder of a certain well-known brewery) married here. Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) 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 in there. 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.

Despite its history and its urban location, the same fate befell St. Mary’s as it that of many rural Anglican churches. Falling attendances at service. The church finally closed in the 1960s and lay derelict for three decades. I think I may have been in it in the early 1990s when it was a shop selling bags. 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! Anyway, while you wait for your food and drink to arrive there’s plenty to look at. It is worth a visit, just to see what a disused old church can be re-purposed as. The 19th century Ordnance Survey 25″ map notes that the graveyard outside is disused. The graveyard has since vanished and the leftover headstones left against a nearby wall.

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.

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7 Wonders of Fore

Fore is a sleepy village in north Co. Westmeath, nestled in the hills near Lough Lene. It’s off the beaten track and not the sort of place you’ll visit by chance. 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…

monk playing golf

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.

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The layout of the Fore Monastic Site

In 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.

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 were 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.

A less obvious feature of the area is what has 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.

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

It may be mostly crumbly old ruins these days but Fore still is known for 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 raised 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
The mill

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

Stream flowing uphill
This is flowing uphill..

Unfortunately, the subtlety of this one passed me by. It seems that 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

Tobernacogany
Tobernacogany

Now 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 the tree will not burn and the water from the well will never boil. The water was taken as a cure for headache and toothache.

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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 Chapel
Anchorite’s Chapel

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 raised by St. Féichin’s prayers

Doorway into St Fechin's Church
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.

St. Feichin's church
St. Feichin’s church

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.

Along 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.

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 Doaghfeighin

The village of Fore developed alongside the monastery. Today it’s a quiet village with a population of fewer 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.