Before going on holidays it makes sense to check out for yourself certain facts regarding your destination. But as a young one with little common sense this was deemed bothersome and unnecessary, and I was carried away by the flowery descriptions of a mischievous friend acting as a travel agent.
She did not go into details about the destination but promised an unforgettable experience.
So it was that one sunny Friday morning many years ago my pal Nellie and I and boarded a Keneally Tour Bus from Listowel to a lake island in the West of Ireland.
The only details that our friend had afforded us was of a small island in the centre of a lake. This conjured up scenic images of an interesting boat journey across a lake to a romantic island where we would lie in the sun and listen to “lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore”.
On our way to this anticipated paradise we experienced a wonderful sunny day’s travel up through the most scenic parts of Ireland. All this heralded well for the experience ahead.
The first inkling of reality lapped into our minds when the following morning, before boarding the bus for our final destination, breakfast as expected was not on the menu. But we were not unduly concerned as we felt that we would remedy this omission once we arrived on the island.
In actual fact, the idea of a lakeside breakfast was far more appealing than the strong smell of hotel bacon, egg, and sausage wafting from the overcrowded dining room.
When we arrived at our lakeside destination the little island shimmered in the distance and having boarded a long wooden boat the swish of the oars slowly brought this mirage closer. Sitting along the shore were barefooted people basking in the sun. The perfect picture of people getting away from it all.
Other people, however, were clambering over little hillocks in the centre of the island muttering to themselves with rosary beads swishing around their knees. We did wonder what on earth were they up to but we followed the crowd off the boat towards an elegant long grey building behind a huge Basilica at the far side of the island and up the stairs to the dormitories.
Here all was slightly institutional but this was intriguing rather than alarming. Not sure of the next step we followed a pleasant-faced woman who kindly enquired, sizing up our scanty summer apparel, “First timers?” “Yes,” we confessed.
“Take off yer shoes,” she instructed, “and follow me.” And that is exactly what we did. First to stand feeling rather foolish and self-conscious in front of a crucifix evicting the divil from our lives. Though I felt sure that the devil would not come within a donkey’s roar of this determined woman who would soon drown him into the surrounding lake water and quickly cool his hot embers.
Then we headed off after her around the outside of the large Basilica repeating prayers off the leaflets that she had thrust into our hands. Third time round the Basilica all traces of self-consciousness were eroded and exhaustion was setting in. But our guide was tireless and we could see that she was a seasoned campaigner. So we followed her lead.
After the Basilica she headed for the little hillock where we had seen the people with the rosary beads. These she informed us were the ‘beds’.
Now the term ‘ beds’ in this instance was a trifle misleading because if you were expecting to rest your weary bones you were in for a rude awakening. These beds were designed to test your bone marrow for osteoporosis and had to be experienced to be believed.
They were a collection of stony circular enclosures strewn over the side of a still stonier hill. At the centre of each bed was an iron cross bearing an obscure saint’s name in Gaelic and some of these saints were more intent on extracting beads of suffering than others.
Saying specified prayers you walked in a sea of feet around the outside of the bed, knelt at the entrance and then walked around inside, and finally on to your knees at the cross in the centre. By then you were so exhausted that you clung on to the cross lest you collapse in a puddle of exhaustion in the middle of the bed and become a roadblock to the progress of other bare footed pilgrims.
When all the beds were completed you got a momentary reprieve by easing your bruised soles in the cool waters of the lake. The ‘doing’ of these beds as our guide termed it, took over an hour, and on this first day of the pilgrimage she firmly instructed us that doing these beds three times was part of the proceedings. Boys oh boys!
By now alarm bells were definitely beginning to ring. But strangely enough, everyone was in great form and an amazing sense of camaraderie and wellbeing prevailed.
Having completed the brutal beds three times it was then time for our tea. By then we were both starving and remembered longingly the early morning smell of rashers and sausages. But this tea consisted of boiled water with a shake of salt and pepper and dry toast. We scoffed it off and were still starving and by now slightly nauseated as well. Not sure if the nausea was from hunger, shock, or the thought of what might still be up ahead.
Later came Mass, where some of the lack of sleep muddled pilgrims who had been up the previous night slumped against more upright friends in a stupor of exhaustion.
Mass over, they shot out the door and teemed up the stairs into the dormitories. For them the worst was over. But for us it was about to begin! By then we had no illusions and knew that there was a long hard night ahead.
During the night, ‘doing the beds’ was done inside the Basilica instead of outside on the hillock where you might come a cropper and freeze to death. The temperature had plummeted and our light summer dresses afforded little shelter. Our self-appointed guardian angel pulled two enormous handknit Aran sweaters out of a gigantic bag and draped them around us.
To say we were grateful is an understatement. We might not have been a fashion statement but we were warmer. Then to my amazement, I discovered as the night went by that sleepwalking became a reality. You could be at the back door of the enormous Basilica and wake up at the top and not remember having moved.
An interesting mixture of people were in the Basilica ranging across all age groups including many students and, oddly enough, a few peculiar-looking men. At least peculiar for the location. They were thick set rough-looking individuals who looked capable of robbing a bank and exterminating you in a shoot-out if necessary. You certainly would not have expected to find them here. They sat along the back seat emitting an occasional loud snore and slept soundly the whole night through. I wondered if like my friend and I, they too had caught the wrong boat.
Finally, the grey light of morning streaked across the lake and the sleep reinvigorated pilgrims poured into the church and now it was our turn to slump forward in exhaustion.
The day that followed was the longest day imaginable. Each hour dragged by as we tried desperately to stay awake despite tiredness and starvation.
In order to pass the time people chatted freely with each other and Nellie and I met up with two young fellows who like ourselves had taken on more than they had bargained for. These lads were smokers and I was introduced to my first cigarette, which was not a great idea as later my empty stomach wavered like the waves on the lakeshore. An anti-smoker was born!
Finally, it was bedtime and never before or since has a bed felt so good. What seemed like minutes afterwards, the church bell was ringing but by then, we were the bright eyed and bushy tailed in the church and feeling sorry for the poor souls who had endured the night up and now had a long testing day ahead of them.
As the boat pulled away from the shore I waved goodbye to that merciless little island swearing never to set foot on it again. But unbeknown to me, the island like a quiet silent ghost slipped into the boat and came home with me. During the following weeks, I had the strangest feeling that for those three days I had stepped off the ordinary world into another world and that part of that strange place had come away with me.
So the challenging island called me back and each time that I returned the experience was different. It warmly welcomed me and treated me kindly, leading me to the foolish conclusion that I had mastered it. Only the next time to be grimly gripped by the hair of the head and have the living daylights shaken out of me.
With Lough Derg, one could never be sure of the reception but whatever treatment it doled out, part of that extraordinary island came home with you and like a tranquil oasis stayed within long after you had recovered from its excruciating physical challenges.
- Alice Taylor’s new book will be published in October.