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.
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…
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.
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.
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
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
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. 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
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. ”
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
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
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.
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.
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.
As a child, my parents used to occasionally drive through the town of Kilbeggan. It’s a town I got to spend more time in when I became a student and started using a newfangled thing called public transport but I digress. Back in the day I didn’t know or care that the town had a racecourse or the remnants of an old distillery. No, what I used to look out for was a rather odd, corrugated, windowless, black building that stood on the far side of the river beside the old distillery. One that to a young child resembled nothing more than a giant jelly sweet. It was only years later when I bought a copy of the late Mary Mulvihill’s Ingenious Ireland book that I came to learn more about this mysterious building.
It turns out that this type of building was the brainchild of an Irish engineer called James Waller. During World War I, he watched soldiers camouflage their tents by daubing them with concrete. The memory of this stayed with him and when there was a shortage of steel in the 1940s and 1950s, he thought about how this old technique could be adapted to quickly and cheaply help people. He dubbed it the “Ctesiphon technique” (inspired by a 1, 600 year old archway in Iraq) and felt it could be used in developing countries and to help rebuild Europe’s bombed cities.
The way a building was constructed was this.
A skeleton of timber arches was erected
The arches were covered in a sheet of hessian
Two or three layers of mortar were applied to the mortar
The wooden arches were removed, leaving the mortar shell. It also left the “buildings” with an unusual corrugated shape.
The storehouse in Kilbeggan is the only structure in Ireland in good condition. It’s not open to the public but during the winter months, it can be clearly seen from across the river. Once summer comes, the trees in front of it do a good job of hiding it.
The Poolbeg Lighthouse is a familiar site to anyone who has ever come in or out of Dublin on a ferry. Indeed, that’s how I first caught sight of the Poolbeg Lighthouse and the Great South Wall in the early 1990s. By that stage I had been travelling for 7 hours so I was more interested in getting off that boat than paying any particular attention to the long seawall and the dinky little red lighthouse at its end. Which is a pity really.
The wall and lighthouse are located at the mouth of the River Liffey which flows into Dublin Bay. There had always been a problem with the area silting up with sand, causing problems for ships and boats which needed to travel into Dublin. Initially, in 1715-1716, thick wooden piles bound together with wattle were driven into the seabed. These became known as The Piles. Full marks for originality there. The Piles proved to be rather useless at keeping the sand at bay so it was decided that something more substantial would be needed. In the mid-1740s, work began on a sea wall, built parallel to The Piles. The wall was built from granite blocks which were cleverly interlocked, without the need for any bonding material. The wall was finally finished in 1795.
It was hoped that this new, improved wall would both stop the encroachment of the sand into the bay and deepen the river channel. Neither happened so in 1800 a survey of Dublin Bay was carried out by Captain William Bligh of “Mutiny on the Bounty” fame. His recommendations had a better outcome than his misadventures on that fateful trip. On his advice, a second sea wall (now known as the North Bull Wall) was built on the other side of the bay. Its construction led to a naturally occurring scouring action which took away the sand and deepened the river channel.
The Poolbeg Lighthouse itself began life as a lightship, before being replaced by a tower in 1768. At first, its light was candle powered – it’s believed that it was the first lighthouse in the world to do so. It was converted to oil 18 years later. It was reconstructed in the 19th century and that is the tower which remains there to this day. The Ordnance Survey originally used the low water mark on the lighthouse (Springtide of 8th April 1837) as the standard height for its mapping. These days, the Malin Head datum is used.
Depending on the weather, the walk out to the lighthouse makes for a pleasant/bracing/vaguely suicidal trip. The route to the wall takes in views of Dublin’s docklands, the iconic chimneys from the former Poolbeg electricity generating station and the Shellybanks nature reserve. Also, if the wind’s blowing the wrong way, you can enjoy the savoury aroma of the nearby water treatment plant 😀 Also visible on the walk are the two other lighthouses which work in tandem with the Poolbeg Lighthouse. The Poolbeg lighthouse is painted red to indicate to ships that it’s Port side. The North Bull Lighthouse which is on the opposite side is painted Green to indicate Starboard. To the north, Howth peninsula is clearly visible while to the south, Killiney Head and Dun Laoghaire are visible.
Depending on how fast you walk, you can get out to the lighthouse and back in an hour to eighty minutes. It’s not a walk to undertake when it’s getting dark. The wall isn’t lit up and the surrounding area doesn’t look like it’d be the nicest place to be at night. During daylight hours it’s perfectly fine – it’s a popular walk for Dubliners.
The wall has featured in two music videos that I know of. It can be seen at the end of Phil Lynott’s Old Town and features heavily in The Script’s Breakeven. The less said about the latter, the better 😀