Impressions of Lough Derg in the 1890s

Impressions of Lough Derg in the 1890s John Lavery, St Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland, NGI.4666.
Summer outings (No.2 in a six-part series)
The Canon Daniel O’Connor (1843-1919) was the parish priest in the 1890s in whose domain Lough Derg and the ancient Shrine of St Patrick’s Purgatory lay. He was one of its first real historians of the place, a writer who devoted many years to collecting and making known the facts, legends and traditions about the shrine, so remotely located in the depths of the Donegal mountains.
His first publication, St Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg came out 1879, with later enlarged editions in 1895 and again in 1903. He ensured that copies of these editions were brought to the attention of the Pope in Rome.
The copy I own of the 1903 edition is a remarkable thing. The text body is the ordinary edition issued in Dublin by that long-lived firm of James Duffy (who would issue later editions in 1910 and 1931). But it is heavily bound in real vellum, stamped in gold with the Papal arms and other decorations.
It too was one of a set clearly intended for presentation in Rome, again to the Pope and other high prelates. It carries no name or inscription.
Given its date the book presents the reader with a very different shrine to the one they know today. These pages present a glimpse of what the place was like in the half century after the Great Famine, in the years of his own lifetime.
To accompany these are two photographs, carried over from the 1898 edition. Taken by Mr French for Lawrence’s of Dublin in the spring of 1886, before the season of the pilgrimage. They must be among the earliest photographs ever taken of the shrine.
Here are some edited extracts from the 1903 edition which will give the flavour of the whole…     
The varied moods of the Red Lake

During settled weather Lough Derg wears an aspect pleasing in the extreme. At times its waters lie hushed as if in sleep, and not a ripple disturbs its placid surface. Under such tranquil repose have I witnessed it at early morning in the beginning of August, 1876.

The morning was exceptionally beautiful, the air fresh and clear, the sun reddening with his rising beams the mountains en-circling the lake. Through the air rustled an indescribable harmony, as if all the fishes in the lake were chanting in chorus their matin melody. The crowing of chanticleer at some distant farmhouse anon broke like bugle-note upon the ear; and the whir of the moor-fowl through the heath also imparted life and variety to a scene unique and charming.

Such solemn and impressive scenes are not of rare incidence at Lough Derg; and they are well calcu-lated to make deep and vivid impressions on the memory.

A sunset on Lough Derg, under favourable circumstances, is, also, a spectacle of extraordinary grandeur. Such a sight have I witnessed from Station Island on July 22, 1878, between 8 and 9 o’clock, as the sun was going down behind Croagh-Breac. Its reflection in the lake looked like a massive pillar of gold, having its apex in Upper Lough Derg, and reaching down through the channel between Saints’ Island and the midland more than midway to station island.

One might well imagine it to be the golden portal to some bright realm. The sight was one my companion had never before witnessed during his 25 years connection with place.

But though Lough Derg not rarely reveals itself in such mild guise, it more frequently betrays a sterner mood, and lashes its well-worn shores in angry fashion. At times, indeed, does the tempest toss its waves in such fury, that we must regard it as due to a merciful Provi-dence that more accidents have not occurred there; and this more particularly when we take into account not only the propinquity of the Atlantic, but eight or ten miles west of it, and the elevated and mountainous situation of the lake itself, but, also, the frail kind of craft which in bygone days used to ply upon its waters.

During the time the religious establishment stood on Saints’ Island no tradition survives of any boat accident having occurred, though the barks then in use were frail canoe-shaped boats, formed out of a hollowed tree, or coracles, covered with hides or canvas, such as are still in use on many of the islands off the coast of Ireland.


It is handed down that many years ago two priests went for a sail in a boat of this sort, and when but a short distance south of Station Island, where there is a round rock hidden under water (since called the ‘Priests’ Rock’), the boat capsized, and its occupants were drowned. This is said to have been the first boat accident on Lough Derg.

As the island has passed through times of persecution, and has seen its great monastic buildings and noble churches demolished in the common ruin”

Over 60 years since a second boat was lost between Saints’ Island and the river Fluchlynn. The boatman, one Doherty from Aughkeen, was returning, in company with two or three others, from Kelly’s Islands, in the month of March, when the boat, which was small and unsafe, capsized some distance from land, and all met with a watery grave, not even Doherty, skilful swimmer though he was, being able to escape.

This sad accident inspired the muse of a local poetaster, who commemorated the event in a mournful lay, still sung in the locality.

But the most lamentable accident of all happened here in 1795, a catastrophe which for many years cast a gloom over the place, and the recital of which to this day fails not to evoke from the pious pilgrims many a tear and prayer for those who met with such an untimely end, Sunday, July 12, 1795, when a large boat containingg 72 pilgrims was upset, only two saved out of all.


As the island has passed through times of persecution, and has seen its great monastic buildings and noble churches demolished in the common ruin, we need not wonder that many of the glories of its worship have passed away, and that its edifices until recent times have been of so unpretentious a character…of late years a decided reaction has set in, buildings more in the dignity of the place have been erected, and the ceremonial of our holy religion is latterly observed with more befitting splendour and solemnity.

The erection of the Hospice has been a distinct advance. But a much greater work remains yet unaccomplished, namely, the erection of a temple worthy of the National Pilgrimage of Ireland.

During the passage, the pilgrims employ their time in singing litanies and hymns, and occasionally the sound of instrumental music may be heard”

Visiting some years ago the gorgeous Basilica crowning the rock of Massabielle at Lourdes, and that stupendous votive church raised by Gallia Poenitens on the summit of Montmartre, we at once bethought us of that humble island chapel, that did duty for Catholic Ireland at its National Pil-grimage, and the comparison saddened us indeed.

The Irish Catholics over the universe will, we doubt not, exclaim: “Let the reproach be no longer endured; let the Irish people raise a votive temple at St Patrick’s Purgatory, worthy of our faith and nation, and where in after times the children of our race may receive grace to emulate the virtues of their ancestors.”

Before nearing the end, I should not forget to mention that at two o’clock each afternoon the pilgrims’ boat leaves for Saints’ Island, about two miles distant from Station Island; and a more delightful trip can hardly be imagined.

During the passage, the pilgrims employ their time in singing litanies and hymns, and occasionally the sound of instrumental music may be heard. Having traversed Saints’ Island, they start on their return voyage, spending usually about an hour in this charming excursion.

Next time: visitors to Clonmacnoise in the 1940s.