The Voices from the Forest of Fochluth

Patrick Weston Joyce

Those who have read the Life of St. Patrick will remember that he spent about six years of his youth in slavery, herding sheep and swine on the slopes of Slemish mountain in Antrim, under a hard master.

After he had escaped and returned to his own country, he was ceaselessly haunted with the remembrance of the land of his captivity, and his mind brooded on the dark cloud of paganism and superstition that overshadowed the people; so that their conversion became the absorbing desire of his life.

It was during this time that a circumstance occurred which is related in the ancient Lives of the Saint, as well as in his own “Confession,” and which is numbered among the Wonders of Ireland in the Book of Ballymote.

On a certain night when he was about thirty years of age—living then in the islands of the Tyrrhene Sea off Italy on the west side—he had a vision; and he saw a man from Ireland named Victor coming up to him, having in his hand a great number of letters, one of which he gave to him.

Patrick took it and began to read; and the first words were “The voice of the Irish people.”

Before he had time to read farther, he heard voices crying to him from the forest of Fochluth or Fochloth or Fochlath in Ireland near the western sea.

They spoke on behalf of the children of Ireland; and their words were “Come, O holy youth, and walk among us!”

And hearing this, he was greatly afflicted insomuch that he was not able to read any more; and immediately he awoke.

These were the voices of two unborn babes, who spoke from their mother’s womb; and some of the old narratives say that the words were heard all over Ireland, and even by Pope Celestine in Rome.

The children were the twin daughters of a chief named Glerain, who lived at Fochluth, a woody district in the present county Mayo.

Long years afterwards, when Patrick had returned to Ireland and was in Connaught preaching and converting the people in thousands, he remembered his vision, and turned his steps towards the wood from which he had heard the infant voices in days gone by.

Among other most interesting incidents of this journey, we are told that he met the two children, now young women, who were named Crebrea and Lassera, in their father’s house, baptised them, and consecrated them to a religious life.

They subsequently became saints and were greatly venerated for the holiness of their lives; and after their death their remains were interred in the churchyard of Kill-Forclan, in their native place at the wood of Fochlut.

Dr. John O’Donovan was the first to locate Fochluth (Tribes and Customs of “Hy Fiachrach”: p. 463). It extended along the western bank of the river Moy in the County Mayo, from Ballina to Killala and on north to the seashore at Kilcummin.

It is deeply interesting to find that the very name Fochluth is still extant, as the Most Rev. Dr. Healy, archbishop of Tuam, has pointed out—and pointed out for the first time—in his Life of St. Patrick (p. 258).

He traversed the whole district, and in the course of his reverential and successful search came upon the name “Foghill,” now that of a townland and little hamlet near the seashore—“near the western sea” just as the “Confession” gives it—in the parish of Kilcummin, four miles almost directly north from Killala.

Foghill is a correct anglicised form of Fochluth or Fochlath.

For in the first place Fochlath would be sounded in three syllables, by the insertion of a short vowel between ch and l, according to a well known grammatical law (see my “English as we speak it in Ireland,” p. 96: and Irish Grammar, p. 7, par. 8); and in the second place the final th is aspirated and drops out altogether in pronunciation.

This reduces the old name to “Foghilla” (where gh represents the original ch, both having the same guttural sound): and during lapse of time the final short vowel sound got omitted, as we see in many other names—“Columkill” for Columkilla, “Lough Gill” for Lough Gilla, “Ballinakill” for Ballinakilla, &c, &c.

So at last we arrive at Foghill, as the name stands at the present day, a venerable name, bringing a faint echo of St. Patrick’s preaching, and with an antiquity of fifteen centuries.