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Lough Derg appeals for greater pilgrim support

By Sarah Mac Donald - 29 August, 2014

Lough DergSupport for the ancient island retreat of  Lough Derg is essential for its continued existence its prior has warned.

In an article for the Irish Times, Fr Owen McEneaney said Lough Derg’s three-day retreat offers ‘counterculture’ experience as he invited past pilgrims to rediscover the experience.

He said this summer’s three-day pilgrimage season, which ended last week, had shown a “slight drop” in the number of pilgrims.

While the number of those participating in the three-day retreat are down, the numbers attending one-day retreats are up 16 percent.

Almost 18,000 people visited Lough Derg last year. The annual cost of running the island is just over €1 million. Retreat numbers last spiked at the height of the recession in 2008 but have since evened out.

Participating pilgrims are required to undertake three days of fasting, a 24-hour vigil and nine ‘stations’ barefoot on the island’s penitential beds.

In his article, Fr McEneaney wrote, “Many elements of modern life lack depth and in many ways are transient and short-lived. There is a rich heritage of faith here at Lough Derg, an opportunity to experience the deeper meaning of God and life.”

The island offers young people in particular a chance to escape the distractions of modern technology, as phone and internet devices are not allowed.

“We are just the guardians. It is pilgrims that keep Lough Derg open. It’s a place that has come down through the generations; we can stand in solidarity to keep it open,” Sharon Hearty said.

The retreat and isolated nature of the island attracts a diverse range of pilgrims from all over the world.

The site of pilgrimage on Station Island in Lough Derg is best known for St Patrick’s Purgatory.

This small lake-island, renowned in Irish Christian tradition since the time of St Patrick, has been receiving pilgrims continuously for well over 1000 years.

It is among the oldest centres of Christian Pilgrimage in Western Europe, reputedly dating back to the sixth century.

Lough Derg lies about four miles north of the village of Pettigo in Co Donegal, in the Diocese of Clogher.

Its importance in medieval times in indicated by the fact that it was among the principal landmarks on maps of Ireland. It was, for example, the only Irish site named on a world map of 1492.

The pilgrimage was very popular among Europeans at that time and there are records of pilgrims having travelled from Hungary (1363 and 1411), France (1325, 1397 and 1516), Italy (1358 and 1411) and Holland (1411 and 1494).

The association of the name of St Patrick with Lough Derg dates back as far as records go and the legends that link him with the place point to a tradition already firmly established by the twelfth century.

While in a cave on the island, Patrick is said to have had a vision of the punishments of Hell. Hence the place came to be known as St Patrick’s Purgatory.

Each year the traditional three-day pilgrimage begins at the end of May and ends mid-August.

Pilgrims must be at least fifteen years of age, in good health and able to walk and kneel unaided.

The pilgrimage is a three-day fast incorporating a 24-hour vigil. Pilgrims arrive on the island between 11.00am and 3.00pm, having fasted from the previous midnight.

They have one simple meal of dry toast, oatcakes and black tea or coffee on each of the three days.

The central prayer of the pilgrimage is called a ‘station’.

Each station involves the repeated praying of the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Apostles’ Creed, as pilgrims walk or kneel or stand, barefooted.

The greater part of a station is made on the Penitential Beds (these are thought to be the remnants of beehive cells used by the early monks).

Three such stations are made on the first day. Four more stations are made in common in the Basilica during the night vigil and one is made on each of the second and third days.

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