A visit to Dún na Sí Heritage Park, Moate, Co. Westmeath
One in an occasional series of places I visit for the first time, even though they’re no distance from my house.
Dún na Sí Amenity & Heritage Park is situated 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.
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
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.
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.