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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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
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.