Pilgrims progress on island of self-denial

It was a folk fact that any poor divil with a drink problem would go to Lough Derg, doing a double pilgrimage of six days of barefoot starvation, to prove he could beat his demon.

Station Island, Lough Derg, Co Donegal, a pilgrimage site since St Patrick visited in 445AD. Very important in medieval times, the lake is the only Irish site on a world map of the 1490s.

I am going to arise soon, as Yeats advised long ago, and go to the real Innishfree, which is Lough Derg in the County Donegal, otherwise known as Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, and I will suffer sore there for three days, barefoot and starved and eaten alive by swarms of bull midges that never go away, and I will report back to ye a week later, if I survive yet again, because I have been there before several times, especially as a schoolboy, and that is not alone the pure truth but also a solemn promise which I have to honour before the 1,000-year-old pilgrimage season on Station Island in Lough Derg outside the village of Pettigo, ends at the end of August.

Believe it or not, I am already looking forward to the surreal mixture of pain and spiritual satisfaction which this promise binds me to. We are, as ye well know by now, a totally cracked nation.

When I was a schoolboy in the Catholic catchment region of the Island, up in the North West, you had no sooner completed a State examination such as the Leaving Cert is today than your mother dispatched you to Lough Derg, usually your first bus journey alone, directing you towards the kind of Divine intervention which would improve somehow your examination results.

The bus dropped you on the shores of Lough Derg and you boarded the ferry, looking sharply around you all the time, hoping there was no red-haired pilgrim amongst your companions, an ancient superstition, and then you landed on the Island and took off your shoes and socks and subjected yourself willingly to three amazing days of barefoot penitence and starvation. That is the harshest Catholic pilgrimage of all, and it is hard indeed.

And it is also a beautiful immersion in the subliminal Ireland. I know from the website information that the modern Lough Derg exercise has adapted hugely to the modern world. I’m truly agog to discover what the modern reality is like.

When I was a schoolboy and the Irish world was different altogether, it was a fact that the only destination to which Catholic lovers were allowed go together was Lough Derg. The lady slept overnight in the Women’s Hostel and the fellow went to the Men’s Hostel. When they eventually were allowed go abed after a million prayers on the second night on the island, his feet were bleeding and she was knackered, and chastity was guaranteed.

It was also a folk fact back then that any poor divil with a drink problem would go to Lough Derg, maybe doing a double pilgrimage of six days of barefoot starvation, in order to prove that he could beat his demon. It happened all the time. You won’t find that reality on the official website today but it, also, was the pure truth of the time.

My own recollection is of truly beautiful fellow pilgrims surrounding me as I prayed my way around the stone “beds” and the great gaunt Basilica which crowns the island.

Your prayers became a mantra which got you to the next stage and you were a zombie by the evening of the second day in the hours before you were allowed to collapse into your bed.

The most exquisite of the torments were the smells of rashers from the priests’ quarters as you were fed only black tea and toast, and the endless attacks of those clouds of bull midges. And sleep, when you eventually were allowed collapse into your spartan bed, was sacramental. I am looking forward to that release already.

Times have changed, of course. In my time, the population of the island was totally Catholic and predictable and everybody was there for the mandatory three days. Now, I learn from the website, everybody is welcome, whatever their creed, and you can even come for a one day trip. That boggles my barefoot mind. And the Island authorities are promoting Lough Derg as a unique Gathering arena for this summer.

They are even promising to feed them! And there will be music! It cost about a fiver for three days when I was a schoolboy pilgrim, but I note I will have to fork up about €70 this summer. Sure that is another sign of the changing times and I’m not complaining at all even if, as always, I will be required to fast until the midnight after I depart from Purgatory after those three days of suffering.

Is there any fellow columnist who willingly subjects himself to such suffering as I do? There surely is not and that is the pure truth too.


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