Lough Derg: Penance or Paganism?

With this summer’s three-day retreats to Lough Derg to conclude on 13 August, here’s a little extract from Old Ways, Old Secrets about the famous pilgrimage to the island on the lake which was the sacred Sanctuary of St Patrick.

Another event occurs around Lughnasa each year, although it could hardly be called a celebration. In late July and August, pilgrims throng to tiny Station Island on the remote and mysterious Lough Derg to endure three days of harsh penitential observances. These include staying awake for the first night and all the next day, fasting for twenty-four hours, circling the stony ground of the island barefoot while saying prayers, and generally experiencing discomfort at the level usually reserved for trainee commandos. Yet the pilgrims not only survive, but many come back again, year after year.

In pre-Christian times, there was a belief that here, at the edge of the known world, was an entrance to the Otherworld. Originally it would have been used by druids in their search for illumination and wisdom; they undertook severe trials such as starvation, isolation and sleep deprivation to extend their powers.

Later, it was a place where the wealthy could themselves endure the starvation/sleeplessness ordeal. By experiencing the Christian Purgatory now, they believed, they could reduce the amount of penance due after death. The earliest maps of Ireland sometimes show Lough Derg and nowhere else, indicating its renown. Martin Behaim’s world map of 1492 is one such example. There is certainly evidence of priests complaining to Rome about the charges levied at Lough Derg in medieval times. So popular did it become that several popes tried to close it down.

Early documents record a mysterious cave at Lough Derg. Guillebert de Lannoy, in his Voyages et Ambassades of 1430, made a cryptic reference to a second, by that time forbidden, cavern:

At the end of this cave, in which I was shut up for 2 or 3 hours, they say is a mouth of another cave, but St Patrick stopped it with a stone which he placed upon it, and it is still there …

The permitted cave is clearly marked (as ‘Caverna Purgatory’) in Fr Thomas Carve’s Lyra Hibernica, dating from 1666. Here visions were seen, both hideous and beautiful. Some spoke of strange vapours that put you into a trance. Today, alas, that cave (and any further passages which may once have led off it) lies buried beneath the massive dome of the church that dominates the tiny island. It is unlikely that any concealed entrance, any locked trapdoor could be found under the massive weight of limestone and marble, polished wood and wrought iron. Whatever lies hidden keeps its secrets.

St Patrick, we are told, fought some of his most demanding battles at Lough Derg, conquering a fearful serpent and imprisoning it forever in the lake. As we have seen, a saint taking on a serpent or dragon is always an attack by Christianity on pagan beliefs. Thereafter the island was given the name of St Patrick’s Purgatory. Old boatmen say the serpent comes out during storms and lashes her tail across the lake, showing she’s still there, just biding her time.

The island on Lough Derg is a strange, brooding, almost threatening place when viewed from the embarkation pier on the mainland. The church and associated buildings so completely cover the little islet that they look to be floating in the water. Casual visitors are not allowed. You go there on pilgrimage for the full three days or you don’t go at all.

And yet pilgrims praise the Lough Derg experience as one of enormous peace and happiness. ‘I loved it. It was so peaceful, and you had time to think,’ says one. ‘I went because I needed an answer to something really important, and I got it,’ says another. ‘I went with a special request and promised I’d go back if it was granted, and it was, and I did!’ says a third.

Druids seeking enlightenment, pilgrims seeking answers? Perhaps the island on Lough Derg hasn’t changed its nature very much after all. We’ve just changed the way we express our beliefs.

Extract taken from Old Ways, Old Secrets by Jo Kerrigan (published in May 2015)

About the Author:

Jo Kerrigan grew up amid the wild beauties of West Cork; after working in the UK as writer, academic and journalist, she returned home to the place she loved best. She now writes regularly for a range of publications, including The Irish Examiner and the Evening Echo as well as international magazines, and operates a very popular online weblog.