The Abbey at Fore, County Westmeath

by ‘A Geraldine’

[From Duffy’s Fireside Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 27, January 1853]

In contemplating objects of architectural antiquity, ruins, dilapidated castles, abbeys, whose "hosannas have long since been quenched" in the solitude of time, their external desolation always impresses us with feelings of deep awe and religious reverence. There is, perhaps, no country in the world, where those hallowed foot-prints of graceful antiquity meet the eye of the tourist, in such beautiful and varied profusion, as in our own green isle. The early and energetic activity with which the saints of the "olden time" congregated, with simultaneous zeal, to raise altars and temples to the living God, is perceptible to-day, in the many beautiful ruins, "grey and venerable, spread over the green fields of Erin." Having recently visited a locality—Fore—whose very name is associated with the history of ancient Ireland, and all its associations binding still, even in decay, the tottering relics of its former splendour. In company with a friend, I made an autumnal visit to the abbey of that beautifully venerable and interesting spot. Fore, although in ruins, has still many grey and interesting attractions, worthy of the antiquary or tourist’s notice, besides the crowning one, the abbey, that stands in the centre, in gloomy and death-like seclusion.

From Castletowndelvin, a village in Westmeath, beautifully located on a rising and woody eminence, and ornamented with the magnificent ruins of the De Lacy Castle, hanging over all, I started on my pilgrimage to Fore, its churches, and its abbey. It was, as I before observed, on a beautiful autumnal morning (August 7th), that I started, at nine o’clock, after breakfast, from Castletown, on my interesting and romantic mission. The sun shone beautifully, while the yellow harvest laughed in his beams; the blue mountains of Cavan seemed, in the distance, to form a lofty and blue lining to the bluer heavens. Nearer, in towering glory, lifted its head—the shining apex of the Ben of Fore; and then, passing Drumcane, a sweet little snuggery of white-washed cottages seemed peeping from the green recess of bowers, in which they were charmlingly reposing, and which gave an air of comfort and cleanliness to the inmates, on whose civilized and decent appearance those luxuries of nature did not appear to be lavished in vain; while onward, still, at a turn of a beautifully-shaded road, spread out to our enraptured sight, like a sea of silver, the shining and transparent waters of Logh Laune. Keeping our way, in a north-western direction, we had the full enjoyment of the lake before us, and for two miles, on the very beach of that beautiful lake, on whose white and sandy shore our vehicle rolled noiselessly, and amid undulating hills, barren and melancholy, we at length, by a sudden turn in the road, came at once in view of the time-honoured, though dismally-looking village of Fore.

And here, now that we have alighted from our vehicle, let us for a moment conduct our readers through the venerable hamlet, before we extend our researches to the historical remains of its time-honoured adjuncts—the churches. On the right hand, as you proceed, a decent Roman Catholic chapel presents to the tourist’s notice a plain and unpretending temple of the worship of the living God; on the same hand, the right, on which the chapel stands, is a row of dilapidated cabins, some scooped into the very ruins, where the Fore of Flacklin lies dead and buried. A clerk of petty sessions, a national school, and a few of the constabulary force, form, at present, the most respectable occupants of that little place. This little, dark, dismally slumbering row of cabins, (for there is no second row to form a street on the opposite side,) is frowned down upon by rocks heaped over rocks, to an elevation at least of 150 feet; while, on the eminence above, stands the identical abode of St. Feehan, where, more than one thousand years ago—prayed and reposed the sainted spirit of its celebrated anchorite. The traces of a very remote antiquity are stamped still upon its dust, and form, at present, the vault for the ashes of the descendants of the Earls of Westmeath, who have been, since Henry the Second’s conquests, the lords of the soil here.

Near this sepulchral vault is the chapel—said to be built by St. Feehan. The eastern portion is a magnificent specimen of the true Cyclopean style of architecture; and, over the door, is that identical monstrous block of stone, which puzzles the conjectures of the villagers, as to the wonder of its erection, in consideration of its vast weight and magnitude, and on which is still observable that circle, within which a cross is inscribed, and within ten paces of which, we are assured, by unerring historic authority, that St. Fehan cured the man from a leprosy, who knelt eleven hundred years ago, on that identical spot, supplicating the prayers, and soliciting, with fervid faith, the aid of St. Feehan. Casting our eyes to the right, there we behold the beautiful lake of Loghlan, which, enclosed within the ramparts of the rocky steep above, leaves Fore secure from an invasion of waters.

While thus occupied in gazing on the sea of enchantment around me, we were here joined by a few youthful friends, who, from another direction of the lake, came rowing towards us, with that vivacity, energy, and health, the same attendants of that so-called happiness, whose capricious, and evanescent visits to this gloomy world, are caught but by glimpses, and expire in he enjoyment. The young persons, on arriving beneath us on the shore, and having secured to a green bank their little bark, hastened up the eminence, and joined us on the summit. Reserving for our intellectual feast the last and most interesting features of the great abbey, we descended, with cautious tread, the eminence on which, a while ago, we stood, and, regaining the truly deserted and desolate village of Fore, we now made our way to the abbey, the great attraction of our pilgrimage. Returning to the modest and decent Roman Catholic chapel, which we had occasion once to introduce to the reader’s notice, we were struck with the singular and still saving arches, distant from each other about 100 feet, apparently each terminating, in their extent, the early structure of this little town. They stand at the base of the great and elevated rock ramparts, that divide Logh Laune from the village of Fore, and it is remarkable, that no cottage or remnant of ruin whatever intervenes between their grey and tottering structures. And here, we owe it the historic genius of the place, to pause for a moment, in looking back on those days when St. Feehan traversed, in holy contemplation, its streets, now passed away; when the Bruce led his ill-fated troops from Grashill, in the King’s County, probably under those arches; or that the freebooters of Cromwell levelled, with their cannon, those battlement defences, which are now mournfully represented by the two mouldering arches in question. I fear that, in thus attracted by so many historic and hory incidents in the romance of the locality, I have tarried too long from that abbey, of which, after all, my strongest admiration remains to be expressed.

Turning down then, from the little modern chapel, to the left, we decended through a gradually sloping sandy road, in a northerly direction, and continuing our way for about a quarter of a mile, we arrived at once, on the right, in front of this gloomy and darkly-shadowed abbey. The site in which reposes, for centuries, the glory of the past, is beautifully in keeping with a graceful melancholy, which at present throws its sombre mantle over the shrines of the dead. In front you behold one of those time-honoured structures, which, separated from the abbey, was to afford hospitality to the weary pilgrims, and refuge to the domestics whose duties were confined to the regulation of the temporal concerns of the abbey, and the distribution of charity to the neighbouring poor. This massive and gloomy citadel, reflecting its dismal shadow on the abbey, in its front, has been put into a state of modern repair, with a view to a police barrack, which the noble proprietor, Lord Westmeath, has established on the spot, sacred in its aspect, as in its historic recollections.

On entering into the holy precincts of this hallowed spot, you come at once to the abbey, where desolation, in its deepest colouring, seems to repose. The day was clear and sunshiny, the mountain scenery around truly massive and grand, while the Ben of Fore, that lofty giant of the wilderness, sent his broad shadows into the valley beneath, covering, as with a pall, half of the abbey, while the other part seemed lighted up with sunshine, which rather floated, than gilded the sleeping ruins of this desolate place. Churches, reposing in ruins and weeds, and within the valley of the abbey can be traced, in a circuitous train, to the number of seven, and the relics of the piety of the ancient faith are still visible in the great multitude and beauty of the crosses, sculptured within the little cemeteries of those ancient churches. Amongst the wonders which popular tradition attaches to the miraculous powers of St. Feehan, may be reckoned, a mill turned without a stream, a “holy well,” imparting sight to the blind, and a quagmire, on which the massive and extensive ruins of the abbey repose, unsinking and unshaken. The abbey, as to architecture, appears to have been of a mixed gothic; and, from the 7th to the 16th century, must have undergone a variety of changes, even those are perceptible, from the variety of traces that appear on the last tottering tower, and other portions of the building, that plainly intimate a successive range of improvements in sucessive centuries.

Three slender windows, the central, the tallest and most graceful, present themselves to your view when you leave the policeman’s abode of “watch and ward,” on your way to the abbey. Under this central window once stood the altar, where, a thousand years ago, the holy sacrifice of the mass was offered up for the living and the dead;—ere pride and heresy dared to raise sacrilegious hands in profanation of all that was beautiful and reverential in the ancient faith of Ireland. The walls of the chapel nearly remain at the same elevation as when originally constructed; the side window is to be traced only by the outlines, which, the filling up with lime and mortar, in some later centuries, can assist the eye in detecting. The west end of this fine old place is, altogether, a mass of monstrous ruin, which, doubtless, can be readily traced to the levelling and devastating influences of Cromwell’s cannon. The extent of this abbey, (though its present ruins afford sufficient evidence of its early magnitude), is not altogether to be measured by the standing ruins, that meet the eye to-day. Levelled with the earth, yon may still perceive many projecting hillocks, which, here and there, in irregular figures, are strewed all around, as so many landmarks, pointing to the gorgeous magnitude of this once-celebrated and holy abbey. The solitude of the place—sleeping—as it may literally be said to be—“in the valley of death,” is of a nature so awful, and embalmed in historic recollections, at once, so impressive and holy, that now, the sunny light, shining on the tops of the neighbouring hills, or the murmuring rivulet that bubbles by the old walls, will hardly tend to mellow the feeling of melancholy that the Abbey of Fore is capable of communicating to the mind of the contemplative antiquarian.

Slowly, and in silence, myself and youthful companions retired from this beautiful and touching abode of death and desolation, offering up our fervent prayers for the souls of the faithful departed, whose hallowed relics repose around. Having ordered our vehicle to the opposite side of the lake Lochlain, we retraced our steps through the village of Fore, till, regaining the eminence we but a while ago descended, we stood, once again, on the proud hill, at the foot of which the magnificent lake spread out its sunny and sparkling waters to greet our return. The sun, at that moment, was just stooping down over the wooded islands of the lake, and flinging, like a mantle of gold, his last bright blushes over its blue and sparkling waters; the Ben of Fore, to our right, climbing upwards into the clouds, and blushing, on its sun-touched peak, with the farewell ray of evening. The village murmur swelling in the fitful breeze—the lowing of the herds, hollowly and mournfully sounding in the distance; while the laughing voices, in the boats upon the lake, seemed like the Persian worshippers, to glorify their god, in chaunting a glorious anthem to their declining luminary.

Our boat has reached the shore, and we remount our vehicle, which was in waiting, exclaiming, as we drove off—“Farewell, Fore!—thy beauties—thy desolation.” Sic transit gloria mundi! The abbey of Fore is so touchingly sketched in one of the Irish melodies, written by the Rev. Joseph Fitzgerald, that we are tempted to give it here—


Behold those abbey walls so gray,

Oh! where’s yon turretts’ chime?

Songs of the blessed where are they?

That swell’d in olden time.

Where are those hallowed choirs at "even?"

That matin music where?

Those hymns, that once were sung to heaven,

Now angels sing them there.

The sunlight of departing eve,

The moon beam glancing through

The broken arches, teach to grieve,

For hearts long broken too.

As o’er yon mouldering hangs,

That wreathe the ivy makes,

Thus round the heart shall memory’s pangs

Cling dearer while it breaks.

The green tree o’er your altar bends,

The long grass sweeps thy wall,

Deeply her sigh the midnight sends

Along thy chancel hall.

Of sainted memories calm and bright,

No legend needs to tell,

For story’s pen must fail to write

What ruin paints so well.