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Take on Nature: Gimme some old time religion and a Féchín history lesson

The Benedictine abbey at Fore in Co Westmeath was founded in 1190

WITH rolling countryside, rich woodland, rivers and lakes, Westmeath – or at least the northern part of it – is one of the most unspoiled counties in Ireland.

Even the houses are understated, as if the Celtic Tiger era forgot about this region with hardly a McMansion in sight.

Close to the village of Fore is one the earliest monastic settlements in Ireland, founded by a monk who sounds like he was character in an episode of Father Ted.

St Féchín (who also gave his name to the village of Termonfeckin, close to Drogheda) founded the monastic settlement at Fore in 630 and when he died in 665 – apparently from yellow plague which was ravaging Ireland at the time – there were 300 monks there.

Only a few stones from the original monastery remain, incorporated into a St Féchín’s Church, which was built around 900AD. A more modern abbey, modern in the sense that it is only 800 years old, also stands within view of the one founded by St Féchín.

Although long derelict, the Benedictine Priory, started in 1190, is a much more impressive structure, with the remains of the cloister well preserved. Both the monastic sites are easily accessible on foot and for the more adventurous a short, sharp climb up on to the wooded hill behind the older structure opens up views of the entire valley.

A 20-minute drive from Fore, and across a county border into Meath, is a much more ancient religious site.

With the Wicklow Mountains visible to south and the peak of Slieve Donard to the north, it is not hard to see why the summit of Loughcrew was so symbolically important. The passage tomb, which dates back to around 5,000 years ago, is contemporaneous with the neolithic structures at Newgrange and Knowth.

On the horizon to the east lies the Irish Sea and twice a year on spring and autumn equinoxes (March 21 and September 21) when the sun rise above the horizon a shaft of light pierces into the interior of the cairn.

Being Ireland, of course, cloudy mornings are an issue and sunrises are often a muggy, grey affair rather than a sudden, piercing finger of sunlight. However, when the weather permits during the equinoxes, and for a few days on each side of them, the inside of Loughcrew takes on an otherworldly glow that is a genuinely mind-shifting experience.

It is even more haunting when you remember that this structure was built five millennia ago and that our ancient ancestors were able to engineer it so precisely and envision the effects that the rising sun would have.

Inside the passage tomb are a series of carvings, flower shapes, chevrons and mysterious squiggles whose meaning can only be speculated upon.

Loughcrew can be accessed after a short climb from a small car park, past grazing sheep and the occasional darting hare. It is worth visiting during the summer months when the cairn is open and a couple of informative guides, handing out torches to illuminate the carvings inside the cairn, are on hand.

At other times of the year visitors can collect the key at the nearby Loughcrew Gardens.

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