Dirty weekends in Purgatory-on-earth

As ye all know by now I deal with unusual truths not normally even mentioned briefly elsewhere.

Here for the beginning of the lazy hazy days of summer is another tasty scrap for ye to savour.

It comes directly from the lived realities of the old Catholic Ireland which is now dead and gone and it deals with the amazing truth altogether, that even the most devout families throughout the land long ago actively encouraged their courting sons and daughters to go off together, totally unchaperoned, for a truly dirty weekend!

It happened mostly at this time of year.

It was an era when any mention of sexual matters in public was forbidden. It was an era in which folk had virtually to produce a marriage licence before they could book into an hotel or a B&B.

Yet, despite this reality, the fathers and mothers of courting couples right throughout the provinces virtually drove them out of the house for those dirty weekends. And that is the pure truth yet again.

I recalled it last night, when I saw an advert on Irish TV announcing that the dirty weekends for all are now again in full swing until the beginning of September.

That was heartwarming, because I know for a fact that I would not be here with ye today were it not for the fact that my parents Sandy and Mary, God be good to them now, went off for that dirty weekend decades ago now, and it was during those three days that Sandy actually proposed to my mother. And she accepted at once.

I suppose it is time to reveal to those of you who are aghast and shocked by this yarn that I am referring to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, above in Donegal, near the picturesque little town of Pettigo.

The first wave of pilgrims are already on the island as you read this, and you can be certain that their swollen bare feet are dirty as hell, that they are being eaten alive by swarms of midges over the stone beds which they have to encircle many times, whilst praying their prayers.

And they are starving, because there is no food available on Lough Derg except occasional cups of black tea, and blacker toast. Worst of all for many is the fact they cannot get to their beds at all for the first night of their praying and suffering.

In the small hours of the morning, when it is worst of all, they are like shuffling zombies as they press their backs against the great stone wall of the Basilica and spread out their arms as they renounce the World, the Flesh and the Devil.

If you were born in Ulster it was (is?) very likely that once you had finished off your State exams, similar to the Junior and Leaving down here, that your mother would dispatch you off to Lough Derg on the bus so that the Lord would get you better marks. That happened to me and to all the rest of the family.

You departed from home fasting since the previous midnight, boarded the ferry out to the island, took off your shoes, and began your suffering and pain.

I did Lough Derg three times, and each time it was truly a dirty weekend, because it rained incessantly. You saw older folk with bleeding feet. Your own bled too if you knocked them against one of the many rocks that in their time had been the foundations of the cells of the ascetic monks.

Around you were suffering courting couples who knew:

(1) they would see no bed of any kind that first night, and

(2) when they were eventually allowed to bed on the second night of pain, she would go to the Womens’ Hostel, and he to the spartan male quarters. And never was a bed more welcome. I remember it well.

It was also true back then that it was great craic altogether. The humour might have been black, above the sore feet, but it crackled brightly through the long hours of penitence.

I enjoyed my trips there immensely and, above all, when you were released on the third day to catch the ferry home, there was a mighty feeling of relief, even if you still could not eat until after midnight that day.

Mary told me that on the second day of her first dirty weekend with Sandy, he said to her, “Mary, you will never ever look worse than you do now, soaked and sulky and with dirty feet and the face eaten off you by midges. Since that is the case, will you marry me?”

So she did, and the rest is history.

I am going to go off now and raise a glass to their memory. And maybe a second glass for those who are undergoing a dirty few days on Lough Derg this week.


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