Located in the small village of Fore in rural Westmeath, Fore Abbey is a wonderful example of a medieval monastic complex that spans across centuries. The first foundation is believed to have been established by St. Féichín in around AD 630, and the small monastery quickly grew in size and importance, receiving many mentions in the Annals of Ireland. The main patrons of the early foundation may have been the Caille Follamain, one of the three main branches of the powerful Southern Uí Néill. St. Féichín died in AD 665 at Fore, having caught the dreaded Yellow Plague.
Although there are no visible remains of this initial 7th-century monastery (indeed, the exact location of the earliest foundation has still not been conclusively proven) there is St. Féichin’s Church located on the slopes directly above the main part of Fore Abbey (for more information see below the gallery). The huge lintel above the doorway is said to be one of the Seven Wonders of Fore: “The Monastery Built upon the Bog/ The Mill Without a Race/ The Water that Flows Uphill/ The Tree that Won’t Burn/ The Water that Doesn’t Boil/ The Anchorite in a Stone/ The Lintel Stone Raised by St. Féichin’s Prayers“.
Most of the structures that form the main part of Fore Abbey date to the period following the Norman invasion of Ireland. The de Lacys ruled the Lordship of Meath (which, roughly speaking, incorporated today’s Meath and Westmeath) from their fortress at Trim Castle. De Lacy would have appreciated the value of the monastery and the population growing around it. He had a priory established in around 1180. It was founded as a dependency of the Abbey of St. Taurin at Evreux in Normandy, France, and is one of the only substantial remains of an Anglo-Norman Benedictine House in Ireland. The Benedictine movement was extremely popular across Europe, but the main orders in Ireland tended to be Augustinians, Cistercians and Franciscans.
Fore Abbey was constructed around a central cloister, with a church to the north, the dormitory for the monks to the east, the refectory to the south with its adjacent kitchen to the south-west. Interestingly, archaeological excavations carried out by Georgina Scally in 1992 seem to suggest the truth of another of Fore’s seven wonders – the excavations revealed that the abbey was indeed built on a bog! The foundations of the gatehouse were found to have been constructed upon a half-metre depth of peat. Two parallel lines of a post and wattle fence were exposed built directly upon the bog, and enclosed an area of rough gravel and stones, which was interpreted as a pathway over the obviously difficult terrain.
By the 15th century Fore Abbey had become vulnerable to raids from powerful Irish families like the O’Reillys and the O’Farrells, as it was situated outside of the area known as The Pale. It was attacked in 1423 and 1428, and remained vulnerable enough that gates and walls were built to surround the monastic settlement. Despite these raids Fore Abbey was still a wealthy place and new towers and a revamped cloister area were added in the 15th century.
A number of wayside crosses and penitential stations are located in the landscape around Fore, evidence that the site continued to be an important place of pilgrimage long after its initial foundation. Today, Fore Abbey is steeped in history and its stunning ruins can easily occupy an afternoon’s wandering about.
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