Fore Abbey Cloisters

Fore Abbey Cloisters

On taking more first steps (backwards) and realising the difference between plan and possibility 

When we began looking at Fore Abbey as a 3D visual image project, we suspected that it would be a tricky task. To master the 3Ds Max interface over the course of a module is in and of itself a challenge but I little suspected how many false steps there would be in the process.

We began our efforts by importing, with great difficulty a plan of the Abbey, from H.G Leask’s visual renderings from the 1930’s. The difficulties came from using a new version of 3Ds Max and running it via Parallels on a Mac. This meant that some of the labelling of Viewports was different to the labelling we had learnt in class and by running it via the Mac there was always a concern that not seeing an object in a scene was a glitch between the OS and the software.

After some frustrations we imported a Plan of the Abbey and sized it to the correct proportions – being now convinced of the veracity of the image, we took it as a good guide to work from.

Our first attempts at drawing a spline led to far too many vertices as we traced each bump in the plan far too closely. When we closed the spline and began to work with it as an editable poly it became clear that too many vertices on top of each other caused confusion to ourselves and the software!

We redrew the spline several times and eventually extruded a wall shape across the plan of the Abbey and considered it a good start. On reflection however we realised that the number of hours it had taken us to achieve this basic image was not a positive indicator. Following in class discussion we agreed that to try and revisualise the cloister area was a far more realistic proposition and with that in mind I headed back to Fore Abbey with a measuring tape, some string and my two daughters in tow.

The promise of crisps in the small pub nearby was the bargain struck to allow me to work and I began measuring arches, angles, extrusions on the pillars and any other parts of the cloister that I thought would allow for a more accurate model.

With the rain falling on Fore, I packed away my measuring tape and slightly soaked copy book, but not before I reflected again on how little I knew about some of the art and science behind accurately recording a physical site.

 I enjoyed scribbling in my notebook but I felt like I was only scraping the surface and needed to be far more meticulous in what I measured and how I recorded it, but for the time being it had to suffice.


The next day in Maynooth we set to again and began to draw another spline, but this time only over the cloister plan. 


We extruded to the height, and width I had measured and then inspected the photos I had taken to see if we could figure a good way to model the stones into the wall. Unfortunately temptation took hold and we started to attempt to create the pillar bases for the cloister, figuring these would look good and represent progress. Several hours and many, many attempts later we parked a model that had thousands of polygons and was in danger of crashing the software. We left the digital humanities lab slightly unsure of our next move, but satisfied that we were making some progress as our basic wall structure – an extruded spline – was still standing!

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First Steps to Fore

Documenting a 3D Interpretation of Fore Abbey

Seamus Callagy and Marianna Sylviri, March 2017

Beginning at the Beginning

In thinking of a suitable project to explore the tools and methodologies of three dimensional visualisations, we both felt that the televisual case history was suited to a site that was not very well known and had less of a visual library associated with it than some of the larger, more well touristed sites.

Fore Abbey, in County Westmeath was chosen due to its relative obscurity in national or international terms and also due to the ongoing efforts of the local community to revitalise the location and increase awareness of its significance.


Changing Directions

The Abbey was once an important seat of learning, prayer and indeed power with well over a thousand inhabitants within its walls at one stage. Even today in its ruined state it is an impressive sight, set into a shelter valley in the Westmeath countryside.

Initially we travelled to Fore with the thoughts of trying to digitally recreate the Mill which stood on the site at the entrance to the Abbey from the main road. We sought information on the mill from local sources and from written material but were unable to find any details on the building and on site the ruin is almost totally overgrown and inaccessible. Having walked the site and spoken to several people from the community we noted that there was a dearth of visual assets for both tourist and pilgrim. There are some artist impressions on signboards within the abbey and there is an old DVD featuring a narrated overview with video footage shot around 20 years ago, but there does not appear to be any modern treatment of the site that makes use of current 3D visualisation software.

From our initial recce, both Marianna and I agreed that Fore was a place to work on, but we were unsure how to create a model that would be of value outside of the college course for which it would be created. When we discussed the issue in class we moved towards creating a model which would not carry a huge amount of detail but would give a visual sense of the scale and import of the abbey as it stood before political concerns about its Benedictine loyalties led to its falling under suspicion and slow decay from about the 1400’s before the dissolution of monasteries under Henry VIII led to its eventual ruin.

With this in mind I returned to the Abbey to walk the newly opened tourist trail which runs through the grounds of the ruin and to talk further with some of the locals about the Abbey. The tour guide on the day, Bartle D’Arcy and his wife Una D’Arcy were very enthusiastic about our attempts to create a visual rendering of the Abbey and offered assistance and pointed me towards several people who had an interest in the Abbey and its stories.

All Roads Lead to Leask

Starting into this project (creating a 3D visual model of a ruin), it almost seemed like a given that an accurate scale drawing and a reference visual guide to the site would be invaluable. Marianna researched the Office of Public Works sources and found a manuscript from the 1930’s with drawings by H.G Leask.

Simultaneously I began to talk with some of the contacts suggested to us and some other names garnered through Failte Ireland. Most if not all of these contacts pointed back to the same drawings by Leask. But at this point, and several times since, I noticed that I had a tendency, in my own 21st century way, to subconsciously dismiss these line drawings from 80 years ago. I knew myself that looking at them reproduced in a 2 dimensional static, simplicity, that I was not giving them the same weight that I would attach to a 3D architectural rendering – in essence I was smiting myself with the double edged sword that Harrison Eiteljorg warned of in his 2002 article.

A quick search revealed Leask as an architect of some standing throughout his career and a man who had worked for the OPW and the government for many years and whose work I would not have doubted at the time. It was a salutary lesson for me in taking these early steps along my own digital humanities journey – the veracity of a source shouldn’t depend on the medium. If it was written words I would not have doubted, but the image holds such sway today, that my subconscious discounted the old drawings – the humanities lost out to the digital.

After more discussions between myself and Marianna, we agreed to take the drawings as a base for measurements and visual guidance and to supplement these with our own onsite photographs and drone footage from various sources. But for now I will take my lead from Leask and his artistic but accurate 2D modelling of the ruins of Fore.