In the second of a two-part feature on St Patrick’s Purgatory, Michael Kelly writes about this compelling place
To Lough Derg pilgrims, Mary McDaid is a familiar face. She has been working on the sacred island in Donegal for almost 30 years. Now, she is heavily involved in coordinating the liturgies and ceremonies that take place in the basilica that have become a hallmark of the pilgrim experience.
As a secondary school teacher, one might imagine that Mary has enough penance in her life, but she admits that she was captivated by Lough Derg at an early age.
She first travelled to the holy place as a anticipative junior certificate student in the 1980s in the hope of exam success. The pilgrimage had a lasting effect on her and she developed what she describes as a “grá for the place” that has not dissipated.
She began working on the island in 1988. She recalls that she was painting her parents’ house while on summer break from University College Galway (UCG) when the telephone rang. It was Msgr Richard Mohan, the then prior of the island. Mary had gotten to know Msgr Mohan over the past few years during her regular pilgrimages.
“What are you at?” Mary recalls he asked. “I told him that I was painting the house. He told me that he was very short-staffed on the island and asked if I would come for a couple of weeks and help out.
“He told me that I could be doing absolutely anything from making beds to cooking toast” for the infamous Lough Derg ‘meal’.
Mary is what one might describe as a pillar of the Lough Derg experience. But she is bashful about her input and commitment. “I get so much out of Lough Derg”. She admits to being moved by the pilgrims she meets.
“The faith of the people that come here has really strengthened my faith. There have been times, like all of us, where my faith has wavered and I’ve questioned, I’ve questioned big time. But when I see the people that come here broken – and I mean some of them would be very broken – and yet, they have faith. It’s very touching,” she says.
People come to Lough Derg for a variety of reasons. For some it is to keep a promise, for others it is for a special intention. One thing that pilgrims are united in is the peace, tranquillity and space that they find on the island.
A common observation from my fellow pilgrims was also the equality of the island.
There are no differently-rated accommodation on Lough Derg, no-one is staying in three-star while someone else is staying in five-star. There’s also no pamper package: all pilgrims are there together united in the vulnerability of their barefoot trekking around the island.
As well as working on the island, Mary McDaid continued to be a regular pilgrim for many years until a knee injury some years ago means she was no longer able for the arduous experience. “It kills me that I’m not able to do it,” she admits.
As we spoke, I had just completed the all-night vigil and knew it would be about 12 hours before I would be able to lie down as there were numerous more spiritual exercises during the day. Mary’s enthusiasm for Lough Derg is infectious – but in my cold, tired and hungry state I made a silent vow to myself that it was a bug I would not catch.
What makes Lough Derg so special that people remain spellbound by the mystical island? “It’s hard to name it,” Mary says. It’s a common theme with pilgrims who struggle to put in to words what the island means to them, but their regular return visits speak volumes.
“You can’t put on a poster what it is you get from Lough Derg,” Mary says. “It doesn’t fit neatly in to a marketing slogan. It’s an experiential thing – you have to be here and feel it.
“You can tell people about Lough Derg, about the authenticity of the place, and getting to the centre of things, but unless you come yourself, you can’t understand it”.
Lough Derg speaks loudly amidst the silence and prayer of the pilgrims.
There’s a sense of healing that many pilgrims speak of, without naming what it is they are being healed from. Perhaps it’s a healing that comes from the simplicity of being stripped of shoes and socks and free of ever-invasive mobile telephones and social media.
Paradoxically, it is some of the most plugged-in generation who long to be free from phones.
“Young people love coming to Lough Derg to get away from technology and mobile phones and social media,” Mary says.
“At the beginning, some of them said they found it very tough, but by the end they were delighted to be free from the technology,” she says.
Every pilgrim I spoke to told me that Lough Derg is a great place to think and get some perspective.
In a sense, the penitential beds, jagged and circular, can mirror life. It’s moving to watch people struggle around the beds: first walking, then on bended knees. A slight stumble is not uncommon, but there’s usually a fellow pilgrim with a few words of encouragement and concern. It’s as if the physical challenge of the penitential beds speak of the challenges and stumbles of everyday life.
At the centre is the cross, and it’s moving to see people kneel before the cross, place their tired arms on it, literally cling to the cross and use it for support to rise up and take on the fresh challenges of the pilgrims and fuel up for the fresh challenges of life.
It you wanted to create a metaphor that would illustrate the importance for religious believers of clinging to the Cross of Christ, it would be hard to find an image more poignant than Lough Derg.
Tired, hungry but strangely satisfied
Penance has never been a part of the spiritual life that I’ve felt particularly drawn to. But in a moment of weakness – at times it even seemed a moment of madness – I agreed to make a pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Purgatory in Co. Donegal.
Better known as Lough Derg, the shrine has been a place of pilgrimage and refuge for centuries. The tradition is that St Patrick spent time there in the year 445.
On some medieval maps of Europe, Lough Derg is the only Irish site identified, a beacon for the holy and the not so holy from all across the known world.
But, as is often the way with religious sites, it wasn’t without controversy. In 1494, a Dutch monk visited and reported to Rome that the whole pilgrimage was a fraud and that at every stage, money had been demanded from him.
The Pope of the day, Alexander VI, – the infamous Borgia Pope – ordered the pilgrimage to cease. But, just six years later, his successor reinstated the tradition.
I’ve worked in journalism covering religion for over 10 years now, but have somehow managed to avoid Lough Derg to this point. I had an idea of what I was in for:
- A three-day fast, except a meal of black tea and oat cakes;
- Barefoot circuits of the island retracing the monks’ steps;
- Oh, and the lack of sleep; you sleep for around six hours over the course of the 72-hour pilgrimage
Where I come from in Co. Tyrone, LoughDerg is only a 30-minute drive away and my parents, grandparents and family circle have been regular visitors over the years. Stories are legion of young couples going there to pray for a happy marriage… or a spinster daughter being sent there by an exacerbated mother to pray for a husband.
Today’s pilgrims are, perhaps, a more willing lot. One of the first things that struck me was the variety in ages from those in their teens to those – I was later to discover – in their late 80s. It’s a curious phenomenon that women go through many decades of being coy about their age, but the moment they hit 80, they shout it from the rooftops and every added year is another badge of honour.
Talking among ourselves, it’s obvious pilgrims come from all religious traditions, and none. One of the beautiful things about the island is that there is no litmus test: no questions about religion or spirituality. One is free to make the journey as they see fit.
The rituals are arduous: walking barefoot around the jagged rocky remnants of monastic cells, kneeling at the lapping waters’ edge braving the cold nights of a typical Irish summer.
“The forecast is not too bad,” one of the priests said, “dry with showers.”
The prayers are traditional: Our Fathers, Hail Marys and Creeds… but in Lough Derg the prayers take on an almost universal rhythm and one can see easily why repetitive mantra prayer is part of every great spiritual tradition.
Pilgrims come for all kinds of reasons: some out of religious devotion, others for a special intention, still others in thanksgiving. There are also those who are searching: some searching for peace, some searching for answers, sometimes even unaware of what they’re searching for, but searching nonetheless.
There’s a paradox in Lough Derg: it’s hardly what you’d describe as a restful place. Yet, it is a place of rest: a place to embrace the freedom from distraction, somewhere to be grateful that there are no mobile phones. Younger pilgrims told me that – after some initial jitters – the freedom from a phone was a liberating experience.
One young woman summed up the mood of many: “To hear the whisper of the Lord, you must turn down the volume of the world. Find time to disconnect from everything around you and be still,” she said.
There’s a great solidarity in Lough Derg: during the long vigil, it’s the gentle smile or the few words of encouragement from a fellow traveller that provides the impulse to carry on.
There’s a radical equality too: everyone is the same on Lough Derg – there are no three-star or five-star pilgrims… just barefoot people on a journey.
I departed the island tired, hungry and sore – but strangely satisfied too, and feeling spiritually connected. As a first time pilgrim I was reminded of the tradition that if you look back from the boat, you’ll return to the island. And just as we approached the shoreline, God help me, I turned my head and gave that enchanting island another glance.
I’ll be back.
Web counts but pilgrims are the best advocates
If the Lough Derg pilgrimage is a challenge, the job of promoting and marketing the three-day encounter is equally challenging.
That challenge falls to Donegal woman Sharon Hearty. “One of the greatest challenges is reaching out to help people be aware that Lough Derg is still here,” she admits.
Social media – including Twitter and Facebook – have been key tools in trying to reach a new generation of pilgrims, but, Sharon sees current pilgrims as “our greatest advocates”.
“We really encourage them to speak about it: there is no greater way to communicate Lough Derg than the experiences of pilgrims. But, we understand that’s not for everyone – it is such a personal experience for people,” Sharon says.
The Lough Derg website (loughderg.org) receives visitors from all over the world. A key feature of the site is the ‘request a prayer’ button where people can ask for prayers. Masses are offered throughout the year for those who request prayers and prior Fr Owen McEneaney admits that some of the requests are “heart-breaking”. He sees it as part of Lough Derg’s ‘reaching out’. Lough Derg is a place apart, but very much in tune with Pope Francis’ call for the Church to step outside of ourselves and reach out to others.
“It is a challenge to express what you get here to people who are not coming to Lough Derg,” Sharon says. “All we can do is begin conversations. We find our Facebook is very powerful for us: our pilgrims call their friends to think about Lough Derg by naming them on comments on Facebook”.
A more recent feature of Lough Derg has been the one-day pilgrimage, primarily aimed at those who cannot participate in the three-day experience. This is also an occasion when people can re-find their faith.
“There are so many people isolated and out on their own, who find it difficult to step back in to parish life. We are a place of welcome for everyone: ‘come as you are, friend or stranger, in sadness or in joy’ is our message”.
Sometimes parents will bring their children in their 20s on the one-day pilgrimage to introduce them to the island: Staff say you’ll often see a mother and daughter or a father and son that take the day to come away and rest awhile. It’s very much a traditional programme of prayer, but there’s a lot of space in the day to get a flavour of the serenity and peacefulness of the island.
“People come to celebrate their own lives and they come to pray for others,” Sharon says. In the pilgrim journey through the three days one symbolically journeys with many of those who suffer around the world: with those who are starving; those who are keeping vigil for loved ones; those who have no choice but to make their journey through life barefoot.
After the summer season ends, the island readies itself for the traditional school and confirmation retreats in the Autumn. Another relatively new feature of life on the island has been the focus put on ecumenism. Ash Wednesday has become an annual ecumenical celebration. While pilgrims from all religious traditions and none are always welcome on the island, on the ecumenical day a special welcome is extended to those of different Christian traditions to visit the island and they respond in their hundreds.
People often speak of Lough Derg as a place of healing and the Sacrament of Penance is a vital part of the experience.
There are big plans afoot for Lough Derg to play a key part in next year’s ‘Year of Mercy’ declared by Pope Francis to help people encounter the forgiveness and peace of Christ.
“We carry so many burdens with us,” Sharon says. “To be able to experience healing here is wonderful. Lough Derg is an endurance test, a real body prayer: a challenge to share with the Lord, and to have a burden lifted? Well, that’s a miracle”.