Medieval pilgrimage in honour of St Féichín and the ‘ Seven Wonders’ of Fore, Co Westmeath

Today is the feast day of  the  7th century St Féichín. What follows is a short account of the saints life and the history  for pilgirmage  to his shrine at Fore, Co Westmeath.

St Féichín was born in Billa in the townland of Collooney in Co Sligo and his cult is represented in the area by a number of places dedicated to him, such as  St Féichín’s well in the townland of Kilnamonagh and St Féichín’s Bed in Collonney .

Féichín  became a  student of St Nathí of Ardconry  and  went on to found  a number of churches   around Ireland such as  Fore Co. Westmeath,  Cong in Mayo, Omey & High Island in  Co Galway  and Termonfeckin Co Louth . His cult  also speard to  Scotland  and a monastery dedicated to him was founded at Arbroath (where he is known as St Vigean).   The annals tell us St Féichín died in AD 665  at Fore, having caught the  Yellow Plague, which was raging through Ireland at the time.  His Life notes that at the time of his death 300o monks resided at Fore.  It is very interesting that tradition held he was buried ar Ciarán’s church or Castlekeeran near Kells Co. Meath instead of Fore.

A Brief  Description of the Ecclesiastical Remains at Fore

This post will focus on the evidence for pilgrimage at Féichín’s  monastic site of Fore.

First edition Ordnance Survey map  of Fore

1st ed. Ordnance Survey map of Fore

Fore is located in a valley,   the archaeological  remains  consist of an early medieval church and cross located on the rocky slopes of the valley. On the valley  floor are the ruinous remains of  a  Benedictine monastery,   a Norman Motte,  fragments of a medieval town wall and  up to 14 wayside or boundary crosses scattered around the valley.

The original  early monastic site  was located  on a north facing terrace on the west side of the village.  Today all that remains are  a 10th century church  known locally as St Féíchin’s church. The church sits within a historic graveyard with a medieval cross.

Medieval cross within the graveyard at St Féichín's church

Medieval cross within the graveyard at St Féichín’s church

Close by are  the remains of  a mill  and  two holy wells  called  Tobernacogany and  Doaghfeighin.

On a terrace above the church  a 15th century tower with an  anchorite cell  that is attached to a 19th mausoleum for the Grenville-Nugent family.

View of the early monastic site at Fore

View of the early medieval  St Féichín’s church. The  19th century mausoleum is located on the terrace above St Féichín’s church.

During the 12th century the area fell into Anglo-Norman control and  a Benedictine abbey was founded on the valley floor by Hugh de Lacy. The abbey was dedicated to St Taurin and St Féichín and was a dependant of  St Taurine’s monastery at Evreux in Normandy.

Benedictine Priory at Fore

Benedictine Priory at Fore

Pilgrimage at Fore

Details of the medieval pilgrimage at Fore are very  sketchy and uncovering the pilgrimage rituals are  difficult. The earliest written evidence of pilgrimage dates to AD 1607 when Fore is listed among the 12 Irish sites  granted a plenary indulgence to the faithful, by Pope Paul V.  The indulgence related to specific days Corpus Christi and the feast of the Annunciation.  Given the popularity of the cult of St Féichín  in early medieval times,  pilgrimage at Fore  is likely to be much much earlier. The Life of St Féichín records many miracles by the saint during his life time and pilgrims likely came here  in the years following the saints death.

There is a tradition associated with the Fore  known as   the  Seven Wonders of Fore;

1. The anchorite in a stone

2. The water that will not boil

3. The monastery built on a bog

4. The mill without a stream

5. The water which flows uphill

6. The tree which will not burn

7. The stone lintel raised by the saint’s prayers.

 ‘Wonder’ number 2 & 6  relate to the holy well called  Tobernacogany . In the 19th century pilgrims performed stations here on the 20th of January the feast of St Féichín, St John’s day, the 24th of June and on St Peter’s day the 29th of June. It was recorded that following devotions the pilgrims would drive a coin edgeways into the ash tree beside the well.

Rag tree at St Féichín's well / Tobernacogany

Rag tree at Tobernacogany

It was said that the wood from this tree wouldn’t burn and the water from the well would not boil. The well itself was known to cure headaches and toothaches.

Another focus of 19th century devotion was Doaghfeighin or St Féichín’s Vat or Keen. This is a spring  which is defined by large stones arranged like a box. When I visited here the well was dry.

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Doaghfeighin (Feichin’s Vat)

Tradition holds that St Féichín would kneel and pray here. In the past  delicate and sick  children were immersed here in the water to obtain a cure through the  invocation of St Féichín.  A similar practice occurred at Glendalough during the 19th century when pilgrims would immerse sick children in a pool called St Kevin’s Keeve. Both wells are likely to have been a focus of   early  and later medieval devotion.

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Rag tree beside Doaghfeighin

The first ‘wonder’  the anchorite in a stone  likely refers to the anchorite cell attached to the 15th century tower. Within the mausoleum is  a stone which records the death of the last anchorite of Fore,  Patrick Beglan who died in 1616. This cell doesn’t appear to have been part of the  medieval or the 19th century pilgrimage stations.

Tower connected to ancohorite cell

Tower, Anchorite cell  &  Mausoleum

The third ‘wonder’ the monastery in a bog  refers not to the early monastic site which is located on the slops of the valley but the later Benedictine foundation location on the valley floor. Monasteries built on within bogs are not unusual in early medieval Ireland and Lemanaghan Co Offaly and Monaincha in North Co Tipperary are just two examples.  During the later medieval period the monastery would have been in possession of any relics associated with St Féichín.

View of benedictine Priory in the valley floor

View of Benedictine Priory in the valley floor

The ‘Wonders’ number 4 and 5,  the mill without a stream and  the water which flows uphill all refer to the   monastic mill, the ruins of which are still visible. This building stands on the original mill built by the saint.  According to local tradition the mill   was in use until 1875 when it was replaced by another mill.

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The mill  was  powered by an underground stream  which flows into a  now silted up triangular-shaped mill-pond.  The name Fore in Irish Fobhar means spring. The origin legend of the mill tells  that the saint decided to build a water-mill,  his carpenter scoffed at the idea of building the mill where there was no water. The saint

resorted to the lake, took his staff, flung it into the lake, which forthwith drove it against the side of the hill, which the staff at once pierced, cutting its way through the stone cliffs, drawing the waters of the lake after it, and coming out a mile distant at the exact point where the mill had been erected. And now came the punishment of the mill wright. He had gone to sleep in the mill when the saint departed to the lake. The wondrous staff, however, brought such a volume of water along with it that the mill was filled, and the sleeping millwright drowned, in punishment of his scoffing incredulity. St Fechin relaxed however, and when he had given him this severe lesson, miraculously restored him to life…

Geraldus  in his history of Ireland   written in the 12th century mentions the mill of St Féichín at Fore  and  notes  the prohibition against women entering either the churches or the mill.

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St Féichín’s church showing the large lintel over the doorway

‘Wonder’ number 7  refers to the enormous lintel over the door of St Féichín’s church .  Tradition records that this lintel was placed in position by the miraculous action of St Féichín himself.

According to legend when the church was being built the workmen had been labouring for hours striving to raise it, but to no avail. St. Féichín told them to go home to breakfast, and then began to  pray.  After some time spent in prayer, the saint took the stone in his arms, and without any difficulty placed it over the doorway.

With regards to  modern pilgrimage here. The rag trees beside the Tobernacogany and Doaghfeighin are covered in rags which suggests there is still a strong   local devotion to both  wells.

In 2010 a large-scale pilgrimage took place here. The Westmeath Examiner  for  2010 recorded  this  pilgrimage was to  commemorate  ‘the Jubilee Pilgrimage, and also to celebrate the year of the priesthood and as a preparation for the Eucharistic Congress in 2012′   Approximately 400 people from 9 parishes came here for this pilgrimage on May 23rd 2010.

The pilgrimage consisted of   the   Blessed Sacrament being brought in procession from Fore Church to the ruins of the Abbey,’ a trip which took over an hour’ . The   Blessed Sacrament was then carried along the walkway to the Abbey and around the Abbey. The nine parishes took turns carrying the Monstrance in procession with prayers read throughout and choirs from the nine parishes lead by Fore Choir.’ The paper also notes Local schools also prepared large banners which the children carried in the procession.

© Louise Nugent 2013

References

Ó Riain, P. 2011. A Dictionary of Irish Saints. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Sharkey, O. 2004. Fore and Its  Ancient Buildings. Mullingar: Magpie Publications

Stokes, G. T.1892. ‘St Feichin of Fore and his monastery. JRSAI 12, 1-12.

http://www.westmeathexaminer.ie/news/roundup/articles/2010/05/27/3997364-big-turnout-for-fore-pilgrimage-of-hope-and-healing Accessed 15/01/2013.

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One comment on “Medieval pilgrimage in honour of St Féichín and the ‘ Seven Wonders’ of Fore, Co Westmeath

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