A 40th wedding anniversary invitation is a reminder of penitential pilgrimages

There are some startling truths out there.

Can we avoid those connected to the harsher realities of the world we are trying to deal with at the moment, which is challenging on all fronts?

Instead, I will do my best to write a wry grin on some of your faces, and lighten the mood of the week that is upon us all.

Accordingly, it’s yet another pure truth of the kind ye only really encounter here, as I send warm and sincere greetings and congratulations today to a wonderful couple who are celebrating 40 years of happy wedlock, after first falling in love in a stone bed in Purgatory!

We’ll call them Paddy and Bridget in this space, because they’re private people, both of farming stock, and devoutly Catholic all their lives.

I have known them for decades and been in regular contact through social gatherings, and can fully vouch that all that follows here is, indeed, another sliver of the pure truth.

You see, the Purgatory where they fell into the stone bed together, by accident, was the fabled Saint Patrick’s Purgatory on the other Lough Derg, above in Co Donegal, far away from the touristic Lough Derg lapping up near my back garden here in Killaloe.

When Paddy and Bridget and I were in our Ulster teens, and early twenties, that Lough Derg experience was a lot more penitential and punishing than the far gentler programmes available there today.

By Heavens, that is for sure.

In a nutshell: usually directed there by parents, you were packed off to Lough Derg with an empty stomach, had to survive three days of barefooted pain and fasting, and a sleepless night whilst staggering around and inside the circular stone beds which emulated the cells of the ancient monks, and you mumbled a million prayers, all the time.

I will never forget my own pilgrimages there as a teenager, being sent off by my parents because it was hoped I would get better results from my school examinations that summer.

It was the way things were, back then in the North West.

Anyway, to make a long story shorter (and less painful in my memory), it was the regular practice for the male pilgrims to assist others to make their way around the beds.

If it had been raining, and often it had been, the stones were slippery and treacherous under your poor, suffering soles.

Paddy was assisting Bridget in the penitential exercise.

They had not known each other before this.... when both lost their footing, and fell into the symbolic stone bed together

And that is exactly how, by the end of the three-day pilgrimage, they fell in love.

The first date they had, on the mainland when they had recovered from all the fasting and praying, was in the seaside resort of Bundoran, about a fortnight later.

And they happily married the following year.

Bridget is a witty lady, now a venerable grandmother of the rising generation, and she jokes still that any of the many beds they have shared since Purgatory has been a lot more warm and comfortable than the stone bed they tumbled into first.

Paddy says: “I had to go to the altar and buy the wedding ring, before I could get her into any class of a bed again.”

How times have changed since then.

I know I have mentioned the realities of that trip to Purgatory here before, including the great yarn about the Irish-American man who erroneously arrived at the wrong Lough Derg, believing he was going to enjoy a boating holiday... and still went ahead with the penalties and punishments of another species altogether, afterwards praising the exercise to the skies, largely because of the truly Christian qualities of the pilgrims he had shared his time with, in the shadow of the unique Basilica which towers over those stone beds.

But an invitation to Paddy and Bridget’s celebrations reminded me of a charming episode from the history of the twisting and turnings of all our life roads.

And that again is the pure truth, as the soles of my feet vividly remember it.

I hope a few of you were diverted for a little while from more pressing modern problems...

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