Saint Patrick’s Purgatory
by Tamara Isabell
It is a pilgrimage renowned for its austerity — fasting, walking barefoot, sleep deprivation, intense self-examination and prayer. Some may wonder what it is that draws pilgrims by the thousands year after year; especially today, when Catholics have little experience of penance.
Since the early Middle Ages, Lough Derg, or “Saint Patrick’s Purgatory” has exerted a mysterious influence on Catholic pilgrims. Legends recount how Saint Patrick himself discovered the cave on the island, said to be the entrance to Hell. We owe the best accounts to Tractatus, a text written by a Cistercian monk in the 12th Century which details Christ’s revelation of the cave to Saint Patrick.
Apparently Saint Patrick was having some trouble converting the stubborn Irish, and so Christ revealed the cave to him as a proof of the torments of Hell and an inducement to be purged of sins. Early pilgrims would enter the cave and remain there overnight, steeped in prayer and self-examination.
Visionary tales emerged over the years, and by far the most popular was that of the Knight Owein as recounted in Tractatus.
Upon entering the cave the knight underwent a series of ten torments at the hands of horrifying demons, eventually crossing a terrifying bridge passing over hell itself, which deposited him into a beautiful paradise. After retracing his steps back to the cave entrance — this time without the demon-torture – Owein learned to his astonishment that only 24 hours had passed in the real world.
Pilgrims today no longer enter the cave itself. The entrance to the cave was closed in 1780 by the Franciscans and was later covered up altogether. Instead, a basilica dedicated to Saint Patrick was built in the 1920’s. Today, Saint Patrick’s Basilica has become as the embodiment of the celebrated cave. It is the place where pilgrims make their vigil, remaining within throughout the night in imitation of the pilgrimage pattern of olden times.
Three-day retreats begin at the end of May and begin with a ferry ride to Station Island. Pilgrims remove their shoes upon arrival and remain barefoot for the entire three days. A 24 hour vigil is kept the first night in the basilica, with pilgrims praying or talking together through the night.
There are nine “Stations” that may be prayed at various sites on the island. One very simple daily meal is offered, consisting of “plain toast, wheaten bread, oatcakes & black tea/coffee.” There is a one day pilgrimage available for those physically unable to endure the rigors of the three day fast. It does not require one to go barefoot.
Considering such privations, it is astounding to find that some 15,000 people visit Lough Derg each year, with 80% of them returning pilgrims! Pilgrims share their stories on the Lough Derg website, and the consistent thread to be found in their tales is that they experience some mysterious pull that brings them back year after year.
Pilgrim Paddy shares his story from 2013: “First time I did it I said never, never again. 56 times later here I am with a wonderful group from Cork.”
Father Owen McEneaney, the new Prior of Lough Derg, worked summers on the island in the 1990’s and recalls “the healing and joy that so many pilgrims experienced. For some it was through the Sacrament of Reconciliation – for others still it was just as a result of spending time in this very unique, sacred, holy place.”
Father McEneaney ponders whether pilgrims might indeed be “healed by the place itself.” One can’t help wonder whether the island actually has a special power, reading the joyful accounts of the pilgrims.
If you are considering making the pilgrimage yourself, visit the Lough Derg website. Peruse the pilgrim stories and consider whether you are physically and spiritually ready to commit to the deprivations.
When asked what he might recommend to those trying to decide whether the pilgrimage is right for them, Father McEneaney warmly answers, “Lough Derg is a sacred place – made holy by centuries of pilgrim prayers – a sanctuary where people can continue “to come as they are to a quiet place and rest a while” – a place where people are not judged – a place of care and understanding and compassion – a place where one can encounter the grace of God – meet the Christ who desires them more than they ever fully appreciate.’
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF LOUGH DERG