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Fore Abbey is one of the lesser-known monastic ruins in Ireland, which is a shame, as it’s a great place for a family day out, offering places to climb, a stream to play in, a rag tree to decorate, and hills to explore. 

Fore Abbey Rag Tree

The Rag Tree with Fore Abbey in the background.

Founded about 630 by St. Fechin, Fore Abbey lies near Lough Lene in Co. Westmeath. The original monastic community was largely rebuilt by the Benedictines in the 13th and 15th centuries, and these comprise most of the ruins you can visit today.

In its heyday, there were seven “Wonders of Fore,” but not all are verifiable anymore. These were:

  1. The monastery in a bog
  2. The mill without a stream
  3. Water that flows uphill
  4. The tree that won’t burn
  5. Water that won’t boil
  6. The anchorite in a cell
  7. The lintel-stone raised by St. Fechin’s prayers

Read the rest of this entry »

While Ireland has a wealth of round towers surviving in various states of disrepair, only two can be climbed, and Kildare is the best of these. 

Kildare Round Tower

Kildare Round Tower

The second tallest tower in the country (108 feet/33 meters), it is thought that the original round tower was constructed on the site in the 6th century. At some point, the upper two thirds of this tower seems to have collapsed — either as a consequence of assault or the forces of nature. The tower was rebuilt on the original base in the 12th century. You can see where the size and type of stones used changes as you examine the exterior of the tower. The elaborate doorway and windows are all from the 12th century. The doorway is constructed of red sandstone in the romanesque style, and is ornately carved (as always, some of the carvings are a bit weathered after 800 plus years) in four receding “steps.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Just outside Kildare town you’ll find not one but two wells sacred to St. Bridget.

Sr. Bridget's Well

St. Bridget’s Well (modern) Kildare, with clotties on the wishing tree behind. (Photo:

Holy wells were once common throughout Ireland. Before the invention of plumbing, fresh, clean water was of primary importance, so naturally spring-fed wells were valued, even revered. The water was thought to come directly from the underworld, courtesy of a god or, more commonly, a goddess. It’s thought that in pre-Christian times the wells each had their own deity, and over time these were replaced by the Christian saints. The number 3000 is bandied about as representing the historical total of holy wells in Ireland, although many of these are in disrepair or overgrown at this point, and many that are mentioned in ancient texts are now lost.  Read the rest of this entry »

Imbolc (celebrated January 31-February 1) is an important feast day in the Celtic tradition.

Here comes lambing season!  (Photo: Nicola Stathers via cc license on Flickr)

Here comes lambing season!
(Photo: Nicola Stathers via cc license on Flickr)

The mid-point of winter having been passed at the winter solstice (Dec 21), the days are now slowly growing brighter. Imbolc is often called the “rekindling of the solar hearth” and celebrates the returning sun, the promise of spring, and the steadily improving weather. It’s a very important time for farmers, who depend upon the whims of the weather. Tradition holds that the weather on Imbolc is a predictor of the year to come: too cold/wet/stormy and a bad year is predicted (although in typically pessimistic Irish fashion, if the day is too nice that’s thought to presage even worse conditions!). Weather that’s just a little better than expected is thought best, promising a mild conclusion to winter and a fertile year.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Yellow Steeple is all that remains of the Abbey of the Blessed Virgin, which once stood on the bank of the River Boyne opposite Trim Castle. Founded sometime in the 6th century AD, the story of the Abbey serves to illustrate just how crazy violent life in Ireland was in ancient times.

Awesome photo of the Yellow Steeple in the early morning (credit:

Awesome photo of the Yellow Steeple in the early morning.

In times of trouble, churches and abbeys were the refuge of last resort for the ordinary people, someplace where they trusted to the thick walls, stout doors, and the will of God when Vikings or rival tribes appeared on the horizon. However, the concept of sanctuary often didn’t account for much, especially when the barbarians didn’t believe in the same god. Every parish in the country has records of churches being burned with a couple of hundred people inside, and Trim is no different. The Boyne river is navigable from the coast as far inland as Trim, where a ford allowed easy crossings, and around which the town grew up. The Abbey of the Blessed Virgin was burned at least three times (that we know of) between 1108 and 1368, each time full of people. The Yellow Steeple is thought to have been built (along with the rest of the abbey) following the 1368 attack. Read the rest of this entry »

Colm Tóibín’s novel The Testament of Mary has not only been transformed into a Broadway play, but it’s been short-listed for the 2013 Booker Prize as well.

The Testament of Mary promises much, but delivers less than hoped. While this revisionist portrayal of Mary as an angry, grieving mother, full of believable despair and rage at the cruel fate of her son, and anger at the inadequacy of his followers and their craven attempt to recast his life into something it was not through their gospels, is a welcome and overdue antidote to centuries of empty religious iconography, it’s an inconsistent portrait.

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At Duleek, a small village near Drogheda, a large medieval bell tower stands by a ruined church on the outskirts of the town. The first thing you’ll likely notice about this site is there are two church towers side-by-side. The smaller one belongs to “The Spire” restaurant, which is housed in a deconsecrated church building much younger than the tower that looms over it. This tower marks the remains of Duleek Priory, a 12th century monastery built by the Augustinians. However the site itself is reputed to have been the location of the first stone church built in Ireland around about 472; founded by St. Cianan (c. 442-489), who was converted and consecrated a bishop by St. Patrick himself. Consequently, Duleek has in many ways as strong a claim to historical significance as the nearby monastic sites of Monasterboice and Slane.  The main interest of the site today, however, lies in the ghostly afterimages it retains of its own storied past.

The side view showing the ghostly utline of the round tower that once stood on the site. Note the doorway near what would have been the top of the tower, suggesting the round tower may have served as a staircase for a time. (Original photo credit: ShanClarke23 on flickr via creative commons license)

The side view showing the ghostly utline of the round tower that once stood on the site. Note the doorway near what would have been the top of the tower, suggesting the round tower may have served as a staircase for a time.
(Original photo credit: ShanClarke23 on flickr via creative commons license)

While the remains of the original stone church can be seen in very overgrown condition at the edge of the site (so overgrown that it’s really not possible to explore it anymore) the bulk of the ruins belong to the 12th century abbey built by the Augustinians. Most of one long side wall links the mostly-intact tower with the the skeleton of the great central window at the other end of the main building. A large sarcophagus-type tomb stands inside in what would have been the main alter area of the church. Near the top of the tower the original roof line can be seen, demonstrating by its height and the ornamentation of the windows how far the engineering ability of the Irish church had come since the early days of that first stone church. Near the spire restaurant you’ll find the remains of an old high cross, and throughout the church yard there are broken fragments of others; all suggesting the great center of learning and religious art this once was.

Walk around the corner of the bell tower you’ll note part of the wall is very uneven and dilapidated. However, change your perspective by walking over to the graveyard wall and the scar in the side of the tower might make more sense. Gently tapering to a conical point, the north wall of the tower shows the impression of a round tower, a ghostly image of a tower, carved in its side. Studies have suggested this was the original round tower on the site, which may have been the only part of the abbey still relatively intact after centuries of Viking raids had left the monastery without an abbott and possible uninhabited by the time the Augustinians were granted the land by Hugh de Lacy after the Norman conquest.

The churches annals record that the cloictheach (bell tower or round tower) of Duleek was hit by lightening in 1147 and the roof was demolished. Going by the impression left in the side of the 12th century bell tower, the roof may have been replaced sometime before the Abbey was constructed in 1182, and the builders simply incorporated the round tower into the wall of the much larger bell tower. In fairness, that repair could have been made as the new abbey was going up, but it’s hard to see why the builders would have incorporated a damaged and relatively short round tower into the new bell tower. The incorporation of a round tower into later construction of a bigger building is not completely unknown; the tower at Lusk in Co. Dublin was incorporated into the church there, and continues in use as a bell tower, but that building is no bigger than the original tower, so incorporating it would have saved time, expense and materials. Why the tower at Duleek was so adapted is a bit of a head scratcher.

It’s interesting to reflect that the height of the ghostly impression of the Duleek tower would have made this one of the shorter round towers in Ireland. Suggesting that the ground level surrounding the tower may have changed significantly since it was first constructed. Whether this was a change made during the building of the abbey (perhaps to afford direct access to the tower’s door?) or as a result of the cycle of destruction of earlier churches and monastic buildings is unknown, but the riddle of this ghost tower presents some intriguing possibilities.



You may be interested in my earlier post “When is a Round Tower Not a Round Tower?


old graveyards are very helpful in tracing family treesToday is Cemetery Sunday in the parish where I grew up, so it’s a good opportunity to post a short piece about this old Irish tradition. Cemetery Sunday usually consists of a service in a graveyard to remember the dead, and it is one of the shared dates that many communities revolve around. Relatives work to spruce up the cemetery for weeks before, and many graves will be decorated with fresh flowers and wreaths, headstones freshly scrubbed, and plots weeded. Not all graveyards get a service, however — there are so many — but families with relatives in these cemeteries will spruce up the place nonetheless.

In the larger towns, traffic can sometimes be brought to a halt, the streets lined with cars. But, the day is perhaps most important to the communities around many of the deconsecrated churches throughout the country, because although the churches may not be in use, their graveyards will always be — indeed they may still called into service several times a year. For these locations, Cemetery Sunday may be the one religious service of the year, and for the communities around these graveyards it is a significant event, reaffirming bonds of community and kinship through the pervious generations.

Co. Meath, graveyard, Ireland

1702, and not even the oldest gravestone in this cemetery.

It’s possible that the Cemetery Sunday tradition grew out of the medieval “pattern days.” These were days set aside to honor local saints (who often founded the local church) and perform a series of prayers, stations, etc. (patterns) at (or more often around) a churchyard or holy well. Although, in order to increase the likelihood that the weather will be more cooperative, most parishes now hold their cemetery sunday celebrations during the summer months.

It can be odd to find dozens of cars parked along the sides of quiet country roads where the only traffic is normally the slow morning and evening trudge of cows on the way to be milked. Visitors coming upon a remote country churchyard teeming with people and looking well-cared for can be tempted to interpret this as a sign of strong faith and a strong religious community — all the old stereotypes about the land of saints and scholars seem to be at once confirmed. This is not necessarily the case; neighbors may choose to attend services at different local churches, or not at all. Many may only attend on one of the major feasts. But, Cemetery Sunday is about honoring the ancestors, remembering parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and reminding ourselves of the larger connections within the community.

People trying to trace their Irish roots via web forums and late-night emails to parochial offices might do well to attend the Cemetery Sunday service in their original family townland, and strike up some conversations with the other people present. Everyone congregates around their family plots, so it would be easy to find others with the same name, and identify common ancestors — after all, gravestones are essentially a three-dimensional family tree. Before you go, consult the parish bulletin (now often posted online) to discover the dates of Cemetery Sunday for your parish of origin.

Irish history expert


Update: As far as I know, these services are performed by Catholic priests. However, some of the old churchyards are often those of deconsecrated protestant churches. Many of the deceased in these cemeteries will be of both faiths, as families will have inter-married over the years but sought to keep the deceased together in one cemetery.


What are the true Celtic roots of Halloween?

Halloween, or Oíche Samhna in Irish, perplexes me. Read any wikipedia or general-interest article about the holiday and you find tradition heaped on tradition: Christian rite on pagan festival, local Scottish habit projected onto other nations, early-Christian folklore labeled as Druidic belief, and modern-day pagan reinvention regarded as ancient rite. As somebody whose chief interest is in what old Celtic beliefs really were, it’s hard to cut through the layers of tradition that have grown up around Halloween and come to be repeated endlessly as “fact.”

The popular imagination (and those ubiquitous articles) generally assumes Halloween to have ancient roots from pre-Christian times, yet when you poke into the origins of the major features of the festival, they appear to have largely begun during the medieval period.

The site of the Banqueting Hall on the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath — One of the tales in the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology tells how Tara was burned every Samhain by Áillén the Burner, one of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, before he was kiled by Fionn, who then became leader of the Fianna.

Mythological Origins

In ancient Irish mythology, Samhain (pronounced Sow-an) is a feis at the beginning of winter (or, translated literally, at the end of summer — indicating that then, as now, we Irish had a tendency to see the glass as half-full).

There are tales of Irish kings and warriors having grand feasts and (as usually happens when a lot of men get together for a serious drinking session) starting big fights or being goaded into doing stupid things. No jack-o-lanterns, no bonfires* beyond that required to keep warm, and no mention of the dead roaming the land.

However, while Irish society was very tradition-oriented, we should remember that the chiefs and great warriors were a class apart in this society. There’s no reason why they should not have had their own private drinking session distinct from the general Samhain celebrations.

*Although, there is tale in the Fenian cycle which tells how Áillén the Burner, one of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the gods of the Irish Celts (or possibly pre-Celtic Irish, depending on how you interpret origin myths written down by hostile Christian monks) caused havoc by burning down the King’s dwelling on the Hill of Tara every Samhain until Fionn defeated him. Was this an early “trick” or the start of the tradition of supernatural beings running amuck on Samhain?

Odd carving found in the 8th Century Churchyard on Inis Mór, Aran Islands. Is this a trickster figure, a breaded man, or an older motif?

Folkloric Origins

It seems to be accepted that Samhain was at heart an agricultural festival marking the successful harvesting of food, and probably involving or preceding the slaughter of cattle for the winter. Warriors likely didn’t spend much time in agricultural labor, so perhaps for the majority of people Samhain was a ritual celebration of harvest and less a manly drinking session (of this, more in the next post)…

Samhain is definitely a time of change; one has only to look at the trees to see that. Celebrated as the Celtic New Year (at least nowadays by new age pagans), Samhain is indisputably a “liminal” period when one year ends and the next begins, and a time when treachery and the intervention of supernatural forces are to be expected and feared.

Several Celtic warriors and kings seem to have met their downfall on Samhain or had the circumstances leading to that downfall set in motion, so it appears a little ironic that it was viewed as a day of peace in the heroic age. Of course, this does establish the tradition of gods and supernatural beings walking the land on Samhain; but it should be said that supernatural forces were always at work in the prehistoric age (i.e. before history was regularly — if not reliably — recorded) — so, perhaps Samhain wasn’t particularly unique in that regard?

Mouth of a passage grave at Carrowkiel, Co. Sligo. Tradition held that tombs opened on All Hallow’s Eve and the dead might visit the living.

To paraphrase something I read recently, these times of change from one thing to another (old year to new, life to death, singletonhood to married) are times of danger: you’ve opened the door to change and anything might come in. So although there may not be a wealth of canonical legend about the dead walking the land, there is plenty of folk tradition.

The sidhe were said to walk the land and people would leave food and milk for them. Others feared the spirits of the dead would rise up and visit their kin — even going so far as to leave windows open and offerings of food out for them. I’ve always regarded this as symbolic, but the discovery of 8th century zombies in County Roscommon makes me wonder. (Curiously, the 8th century was when the Pope moved to replace Samhain with the churchified feast of All Saints Day (the day after All Hallows Eve), so perhaps there was some genuine fear of the undead among the people and the Church’s action took advantage of this?)

I haven’t drawn any conclusions yet, but for now I’ll have to file it away under “must read more…”



A post about the history of jack-o-lanterns and bonfires…