John Cunningham, a retired headmaster in Fermanagh, looks at the legends and the deep spiritual traditions in Lough Derg’s lengthy history as a place of pilgrimage.
. . . that dim lake
Where sinful souls their farewell take
Of this vain world and halfway lie
In death’s cold shadow where they died.
– Thomas Moore.
A small island in a lake called Lough Derg is one of the most famous of Ireland’s places of pilgrimage. It is commonly known as Saint Patrick’s Purgatory although there is no historical record of Ireland’s patron saint ever having visited it. About 35,000 pilgrims come to it each year intent on doing penance for their sins or seeking divine intervention in their lives: relief from sickness, passing exams, meeting a life partner or the gratification of participation in an ancient form of worship of the Supreme Being.
Lough Derg is situated in county Donegal in northwest Ireland, in a bleak landscape of coniferous forest and heather covered bogland. Chill winds and seemingly incessant rain make it an unlikely pilgrimage location, but the people still, doggedly, arrive as they have been doing for a thousand years or more. It might be looked upon as a surviving aberration of the old Celtic Christianity of Ireland: strong on physical mortification such as walking barefoot duing the pilgrimage and depriving oneself of sleep and food. It also has a fame and historical importance equal to any of the great pilgrim centres of Europe. Unlikely as it may seem today looking across the rock strewn surface of Lough Derg towards its penitential island, here was a place which gripped the imagination of medieval Christian Europe. On this little island was a purgatorial cave, the entrance to the Underworld.
There were three great medieval Christian legends: the story of the Wandering Jew, forced to roam the earth for eternity because he had mocked Christ at his crucifixion; the legend of the Asiatic kingdom of Prester John, a descendant of Melchizedek and thirdly, the legend of Saint Patrick’s Purgatory in Ireland where the brave and virtuous might descend into a cave and experience the secrets of the region beyond the grave. Purgatory might be visited and the individual’s soul purged of the stains of sin. The pilgrim could return to life again but would not have to revisit Purgatory after death. Many would not survive this terrifying experience. Multos purgatorium ingressos nunquam redivisse. (Many of those who enter purgatory never return).
Gloomy, wet and forested
How did Lough Derg come to acquire this reputation as an entrance to the Underworld? The exact circumstances are unknown but part of the answer lies in the belief, still current among some today that the souls of the dying follow the declining sun towards the west; there they would enter the Underworld and go to heaven or hell directly, according to the lives they had lived. Those who did not qualify for heaven immediately spent a period in purgatory, a hell-like place, where the soul’s only consolation was that after a term of purification through suffering it would be admitted to heaven. The most westerly place known to Europe in those days was Scotia (Ireland), a place so gloomy, wet and forested that even the avaricious Romans hadn’t bothered to conquer it. Where better to have the entrance to the Underworld! (Classical literature had several entrances to the Underworld.)
The man who brought the attention of Christian Europe to this hitherto unknown Irish place of pilgrimage was a Benedictine monk, Henry of Saltry. It was he who added the name of Owen, an Irish knight, to the list of those who had ventured into the Underworld. The entrance was not in Greece or Asia as in the stories of classical literature but in the remote west of Ireland, the land nearest to where the sun dipped into the western ocean – Lough Derg. According to Henry’s story, knight Owen had served King Stephen of England and in time came to regret the numerous crimes he had perpetrated in the name of his master. He confessed his sins to a bishop but was dissatisfied with the light penance. He asked to be allowed to do what he termed the most difficult of all penance – Saint Patrick’s Purgatory. Only great persistence got him past his bishop’s objections to this hazardous undertaking. The prior of the pilgrimage also objected but eventually gave in. For fifteen days Owen fasted and prayed on the purgatory island and on the sixteenth morning, having resisted further attempts to dissuade him, was finally allowed into the cave. He was told that if he was not there the following morning it would be assumed he was dead.
In the following twenty-four hours Owen experienced the worst tortures the medieval mind could possibly conceive: screaming spirits, fiery furnaces, horrible demons, extremes of heat and cold, stinking pits, souls nailed to fiery wheels etc. Provided he kept his presence of mind during these trials and called on God’s name whenever he was in extremis he would be released. Eventually he came to a beautiful land guarded by a glass wall with a gate of gold ornamented with jewels. This was paradise but despite his tears of entreaty, he was not allowed to enter – this could happen only after death. Then he was guided back to the mouth of the cave. Owen had survived and on his death would now go directly to heaven. He had already been through purgatory.
Literary motif of purgatory
Most of the detail in the story is taken directly from classical literature. This purgatorial tale was part of a huge, repetitive contemporary genre of literature of which the most familiar today is Dante’s Inferno. What was different about Henry’s story was the setting of the entrance to the underworld in Ireland, its association with the national saint, Patrick and the existence of a hitherto unremarkable little monastery and its penitential island. The story swept through Europe and pilgrims began to arrive from France, Spain and from as far away as Hungary. We know of penitential journeys because of numerous accounts left behind. Many pilgrims endured great physical hardship and expense. Apart from those coming for prayer and penance many travelled out of curiosity. They wanted to know answers to questions from individuals who had died, seeking to find out whether certain individuals had gone to heaven or hell.
In medieval times, the monastery of Lough Derg was situated on Saint’s Island, about six hectares in extent near the western shore of the lake. The word Derg comes from the Irish dearg meaning red and reflects the staining effect of the surrounding bogland. Legend claims that the colour of the water was the result of Saint Patrick killing a huge dragon which had terrorised the countryside. The purgatorial island with its cave sits in the middle of the lake and originally was only a fraction of its present size. The building of pilgrim accommodation and places of worship has over the centuries greatly enlarged the original site. Today nothing visible remains of the original cave and an all night vigil of prayer in the island basilica is all that remains of the experience of the purgatorial cave/grave.
The ancient founder and protector of Lough Derg was Saint Davog whose feast day is given as the first of January. He is listed in the martyrologies as one of the twelve great saints of Ireland. In the Irish medieval annals, such as The Annals of the Four Masters, anyone who injured the monastery or trespassed on its sanctuary swiftly came to an untimely end, as the annals record, ‘through the vengeance of God and of Saint Davog’ and not, as one might have supposed, God and Saint Patrick.
The pilgrimage today
Today the Pilgrimage has two distinctive forms: the traditional three day pilgrimage which is only for the fit and able-bodied, and a one day much less strenuous exercise which is more suited to the elderly and those who are no longer fit for the three day pilgrimage. The one-day pilgrim is allowed to retain footwear while on the island and has a repast of soup and sandwiches during the day.
This contrasts with the three-day diet of dry bread and sugared tea, coffee or Lough Derg soup (hot water with salt or pepper added to taste). Arriving on the island, the pilgrims remove their shoes and stockings and do not put them on again until the morning of the third day just before leaving. Gravel and sand stick to the pilgrim’s feet and the sharp rocks of the penitential beds can produce agony on the soft, white soles of the modern person’s foot but it is all part of the penance. There is a great levelling of rich and poor, of sophisticate and peasant. Here is a common humanity.
The island’s penitential beds are the circular remains of monks cells about a metre high with an entrance and a cross in the centre. The pilgrim circles the bed praying, then kneels at the entrance, walks around the inside and kneels at the centre repeating the same prayers. There are six of these beds, each of which constitutes a Lough Derg station. To ‘do’ a station, prayers are said at the beds, in and around the basilica, at the lake edge and at two ancient crosses. The pilgrim completes three of these on the first day, four during a night long vigil when it is forbidden to sleep, one on the following day and one more on the morning before leaving. There are no concessions to age, illness or disability as it is a condition of entrance to the pilgrimage that the person is fit to perform it in full.
No gain without pain
In the past, the pilgrimage has been as long as nine or even fifteen, days, as alleged in the story of knight Owen, and it has always had a reputation of stern physical suffering in reparation for sin. After heightened awareness brought on by such an intensity of prayer and fasting, and the expectation of horrors to come, it is little wonder that visions and horrors were experienced. Perhaps Lough Derg answers a need in the Celtic soul which might be summarised as ‘no gain without pain.’ The other ancient Irish pilgrimage which involves climbing Croagh Patrick mountain during the night (preferably in bare feet) echoes Lough Derg in its uncompromising attitude to reparation for sin. The psychological descent into the grave as symbolised by the cave and today by the all-night vigil in the basilica, offers a death and rebirth experience – a spiritual rebirth which makes one ready to face one’s maker without a stain on the soul.
This powerful image influenced Christendom for centuries, as evidenced by those who flocked to it from across Europe. Down the centuries the Irish too came, often in the later centuries in the face of determined opposition by the anti-Catholic administration of the country especially during the period of the Penal Laws.
This article first appeared in Spirituality (July-August 1997), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.