Young pilgrims are the ‘lifeblood’ of an ancient Irish site, writes Colm Fitzpatrick
There aren’t many Irish historical events or places that elicit more of a reaction or moment of nostalgia than the Lough Derg pilgrimage; the mere mention of this 5th Century island usually evokes memories of fatigue and hunger, but also respite and thanksgiving.
Over many centuries, pilgrims have ventured from the four corners or Ireland to pray and support one another on this ancient land, seemingly isolated from the rest of the world. Indeed, it’s this remoteness that has allowed the island to garner an aura of mystery – what happens there, why do pilgrims go, and why do they return?
Hoping to offer an insight into this Irish enigma, a new documentary about the pilgrimage is uncovering what motivates people to travel there, and why the legacy of the island remains strong after all these years. Airing earlier this week (March 25) on BBC2 NI, the first episode of a three-part series, Oilithreacht, gives viewers a chance to share in the experiences of pilgrims who descended on the tiny Station island last summer, and listen to why it holds meaning for them today.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic about what motivated the series’ creation, producer Órfhlaith Ní Chearnaigh said that there’s never been a “comprehensive look” at Lough Derg, which covers the history of the island, and why people decide to go.
It was on this basis, that the film crew chose to stay on the island for a week last year to record first-hand why the area resonates with so many people. Pilgrims were informed beforehand of the media’s presence, and the crew focused on remaining discreet and at a distance, so that the experience of the pilgrimage wasn’t compromised.
“I think they realised where we were coming from that we just wanted to portray Lough Derg accurately and in a way that was in keeping with the atmosphere on the island and even our plan for the documentary was that it would be slow paced, and reflective and it would breathe like the island breathed. It’s not going to be jam-packed with people talking. You know, it would have these long periods of just people in pilgrimage, people in prayer, in vigil,” Órfhlaith explains.
The pilgrimage has St Patrick as its patron because of his association with the monastery founded at the lake a few decades after the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, and survives today as a living remnant of the early Irish Church. While today it’s commonly thought that only the older generation frequent the pilgrimage, Órfhlaith says that this outlook couldn’t be further from the truth.
“There were a lot of young people both in attendance as pilgrims, and then also the lifeblood of the island were so many young seasonal workers who are local or who have come from as far away as Kildare, Wexford and Wicklow, who were there to be cantors or to work in the kitchen or do first aid, as well as local people.”
Órfhlaith adds that there’s an assumption in Ireland that religiosity among the youth is dying as the country becomes more secular, but the exuberance of faith she witnessed in Lough Derg suggests otherwise.
“It’s not young people being forced to go either by their mothers or their elders, its young people going on their own or bringing their parents and I found that really refreshing,” she explains, adding that some girls told her that summer wasn’t complete without the pilgrimage.
Whether young or old, there’s no single reason why people choose the pilgrimage. Some come to reflect on life-changing decisions, to come to terms with where they are at, to give thanks to God for joy in their lives, to overcome loss, to pray for themselves or a loved one. In this way, the island isn’t just an historical area, but a living, breathing place, where its contours are shaped by the sounds and stories of the pilgrims who venture there.
“I think its lovely to have that unbroken lineage and it’s undeniable the comfort that so many people get from the pilgrimage. So, while some people think it’s not for me, you cannot deny that the people who do go get so much from it,” Órfhlaith says.
“And people go for so many different reasons as well. People go not just because they’re worried about something, or they’ve got something particular to pray for, a particular intention, but also to give thanks and that would have been the major reasons for people going, for giving thanks for some blessing in their life which again was very uplifting.”
Among the many stories that stood out to Órfhlaith was that of a young girl with her father, who had 18 years previous come to the island when his wife was pregnant with her. He initially came to the island in preparation of being a father for the first time, and returned in thanksgiving for the children God had given him.
“We heard a lot of stories, which we found by the end, had really affected us,” Órfhlaith says, pointing out that on the island, the “full gamut” of people’s worries and gratitude are present.
While the pilgrimage is often associated with suffering and restlessness, the film crew soon realised that “there’s a real convivial atmosphere”, and that beyond the hunger is a camaraderie where pilgrims are always looking out for one another.
It’s these types of striking but true moments that the documentary wishes to portray, where the humanity and rawness of the island is brought to light.
“I would love people who have been to Lough Derg to recognise that we’ve captured the essence of Lough Derg, that it feels true to them, and to their experience, and for people who haven’t been to Lough Derg, that they would maybe have some of their preconceptions challenged about what it is, and what kind of people go there.”
The next episode of Oilithreacht airs on BBC2 NI at 10pm on April 1. It will also air as a two-part documentary on RTÉ on Easter Monday, April 22.