Explore The Midlands: Westmeath, Longford, Offaly and Laois
The far north of Westmeath shelters two compelling and whimsical attractions, the gardens of Tullynally Castle and the Seven Wonders of the Fore Valley, near CASTLEPOLLARD, a pretty eighteenth- and nineteenth-century village laid out around a large triangular green.Read More
A little over a kilometre northwest of Castlepollard on the Granard road, Tullynally Castle has been the seat of the Anglo-Irish Pakenhams, later Earls of Longford, since the seventeenth century. Remodelled as a rambling Gothic Revival castle to the designs of Francis Johnston in the early 1800s, it remains the family home, open only to prebooked group visits (minimum 25 people) and for occasional concerts. The extensive gardens, however, and tea rooms are open to casual visitors in the summer. Terraced lawns around the castle overlook parkland, laid out by the first Earl of Longford in 1760. From here winding paths lead through the woodland to lakes, a walled garden with a 200-year-old yew avenue and a limestone grotto, as well as a Chinese garden complete with pagoda and Tibetan garden of waterfalls and streams.
The Fore Valley
The Fore Valley
To the east of Castlepollard off the R195 Oldcastle road, the Fore Valley is a charming, bucolic spot, sheltered between two ranges of low, green hills and dotted with some impressive Christian ruins. Around 630, St Fechin founded a monastery here, which had grown into a community of three hundred monks by the time he died in 665. Over the centuries since, various sites in the valley have become associated with Fechin’s miraculous powers, known as the Seven Wonders of Fore, though in truth they’re far from jaw-dropping – it’s unlikely that you’ll be converted to this brand of folk religion, but the wonders add some fun and interest to an exploration of the locale. The historical and supernatural sites are all within walking distance of the village of FORE at the heart of the valley.
The Seven Wonders
To the west of the village, on the south side of the road, stands St Fechin’s Church, now roofless, the oldest remaining building in the valley, dating probably from the tenth century. Over its main entrance there’s a massive lintel inscribed with a small cross-in-circle: the first wonder, the stone raised by St Fechin’s prayers. Up the slope and across from the church, you’ll find the Anchorite’s Cell, a fifteenth-century tower to which the mausoleum chapel of the Greville-Nugent family was added in the nineteenth century. Practising an extreme form of asceticism that was popular in the early and high Middle Ages, anchorites would stay in the tower, meditating and praying alone, with food brought to them by local people, until they died. Inside the chapel, an inscription commemorates the last hermit of Fore, and probably of all Ireland, Patrick Beglin, whose body is “hidden in this hollow heap of stones” – the second wonder, the anchorite in a stone. Like the other hermits, Beglin had vowed to remain in the cell until he died: in 1616, he fell trying to climb out, and broke his neck – thus enacting his promise.
Back down the slope and across the road you’ll see the water that will not boil, a holy well known to cure headaches and toothaches, where in the nineteenth century rites were performed on St Fechin’s Day (January 20). In the spring stands a dead ash tree, gaily festooned with sweet wrappers, stockings, knickers and coins (which caused the copper poisoning that killed the tree) – the fourth wonder, the wood that will not burn. Nearby, a stream that runs underground from Lough Lene to the south resurfaces at the ruined St Fechin’s Mill – the mill without a race.
A couple of hundred metres across the marshy valley floor rise the substantial but compact remains of Fore Priory – the monastery built on a bog. It was erected in the early thirteenth century, one of very few in Ireland to follow the rule of St Benedict, the fifth-century Italian ascetic. Attached to the central cloister, of which several Gothic arches remain, you’ll find the church to the north, the chapterhouse to the east, with the dormitory above, and the refectory to the south. A little away from the main buildings, up a small slope, there’s a circular, thirteenth-century columbarium, where the monks kept doves, an efficient source of meat in the Middle Ages.
The seventh wonder is a little removed from the others to the south of the village – ask for directions at the coffee shop. A short woodland walk will bring you down to the attractive shore of Lough Lene, which is dotted with small, green islands. A stream flows out of the lake, apparently in the wrong direction, passing under an overgrown arched bridge, before disappearing into a sink hole (to emerge at St Fechin’s Mill) – the water that flows uphill.