The village of Fore lies in County Westmeath, in the centre of Ireland. In this part of the North Midlands, you are heading into Drumlin country. Here, the fairly flat green cloth of the central Plain crumples up into a picturesque maze of hillocks and lakes, fit for a Hobbit. Drumlin is an Irish word meaning small hill. Found all over Ireland, but particularly on the northern end of the midlands, they were carved out of the soft earth of low lying country by the retreating glaciers of the last ice age.
The area is off the beaten track. There is much of interest here, as Meath was once the centre of Ireland (Meath means middle), politically and religiously, pagan and christian. Meath and Westmeath were sundered in 1543. Around Fore there are fine walks and fishing, with a rich store of heritage. It is under fifteen kilometres to Lough Crew in Meath, with ancient hilltop megalithic tombs more than five thousand years old. Nearby, Mullaghmeen Forest walk is ten kilometres north, where Meath and Westmeath meet, overlooking Lough Sheelin along the Cavan border. The walk winds through a wonderful beech forest and climbs to a cairn marking the highest point in the county, which at 258 metres is the lowest county peak in Ireland.
Fore is nestled between the Hills of Ben and Houndslow on rising ground above Lough Lene known as Ankerland. The name Fore denotes water springs in Irish. It is said St Feichin summoned the waters with his staff to power the mill for the Abbey. St Feichin founded his abbey here in 630. Feichin, despite its sound to or ears, is quite an appealing name. It means little raven in Gaelic. He died in 665, but his foundation endured intact until Norman times despite at least a dozen burnings by the Vikings.
Hugh de Lacy, Lord of Meath, established the larger abbey in 1180. Benedictine monks came over from Normandy to run the abbey which remained active for a further four centuries before being disestablished in 1539 when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries.
The ruins have been well preserved, comprising an impressive collection of largely intact Romanesque buildings dating mostly from the fifteenth century. The complex rises like a mirage from the surrounding marsh. It’s such an eerie feeling, like walking on water into ancient times. Over our shoulders we can see St Fechin’s abbey diminish beneath a startling rocky outcrop. Pushing on, there is a boardwalk through the marshland to take us right into the Abbey. The buildings suggest a large fortified castle and settlement of medieval times. In its heyday the complex accommodated three hundred monks and two thousand students. Now all is quiet.
You can continue the walk through to a well maintained path over low hill and woodland which loops back to the village. There a interesting carved artworks dotted along the way, drawing on the rich heritage of ancient Celtic and early Christian, as well as the natural magic of the woodland.
The modern church of St Feichin stands outside the village, the entrance still marked by the remains of medieval village gates. There are two welcoming hostelries, the Abbey House with its attractive stone frontage and the Seven Wonders Bar. This namechecks the Seven Wonders of Fore. And they are, in no particular order: the monastery in a bog, the mill without a race, the water that flows uphill, the water that won’t boil, the tree that won’t burn, the anchorite in stone, and the lintel raised by St Feichin’s prayers. He was a mighty man, to be sure. We raised seven pints in his honour.