Memories of a Lough Derg Pilgrimage

By Ed Micheau

Lapsed Catholics, take note. The words `Lough Derg pilgrimage' are synonymous with fasting, lack of sleep and bare feet. It's enough to turn off most right minded people. But even fully-paid up members of the fold (the lapsed brigade that is) should perhaps pause and reflect for just a moment.

Lough Derg is an island retreat in the wilds of Co Donegal. Each year, it hosts thousands of hardy pilgrims who make their way to this remote part of Ireland to fast, pray and deprive themselves of sleep. A visit to the island leaves a lasting impression, and perhaps too an opinion that politicians found in contempt of court should be sent here and not to Mountjoy.

It's almost 10 years since I visited Lough Derg, but my recollection of the experience remains vivid - I have only to look at my feet to remind myself of the pain and suffering I had to endure. But a decade on, I am beginning to believe there may be method in the madness.

Back then, I wasn't a willing visitor. A moral imperative compelled me to make the trek to Donegal. However, the imperative wasn't religious in nature. I had lost a bet with my mother and was obliged to undertake the retreat to settle matters. My mother, it should be pointed out, is an Old School Catholic. And like all Irish mothers, her son can do no wrong. I may have erred from the Church, but one day I would need the Lord and sure enough, he would take me back. Secretly, I think she hoped a visit to Lough Derg would kick-start my faith again.

I like to term myself as an 1970s Irish Catholic. During this decade, I went to mass every Sunday, and proceeded through the ranks of the faith from altar boy, to First Communion and on to the Confirmation. The journey wasn't too bad, and financially rewarding (I made a whopping 110 for my Confo) And like many contemporaries, I lost my way somewhere in my mid-teens. As an inhabitant of this spiritual void, the prospect of three days on Lough Derg was like an invitation to visit another planet.

I had become used to sleep deprivation, having only just completed my final exams at university. The black tea and dry toast couldn't be a lot worse than some of the food served in the college canteen. Bare feet I could handle - metaphorically - as long as everybody washed. The prayer bit was a worry, though. Minus faith, how on earth could I keep my rambling brain occupied during all those repetitive prayers and songs?

The bus journey up to Donegal was an event in itself. As the youngest member of the party - by about 20 years - I found myself surrounded by forty, upright (as opposed to righteous), middle-aged folk. A curiosity, I was soon at the receiving end of much friendly attention. I was struck by a subliminal bond that I thought existed among the group - a quiet satisfaction that there indeed was something more to life than mere existing, probably the presence of something more profound after we shuffled off this mortal coil. As a product of the university system with the world before me, the need for such comfort seemed totally irrelevant.

Fasting from midnight the previous evening, the novelty of the surroundings and the good company I was becoming acquainted with meant that the hunger did not become an issue. Sleep, or lack of it, was an entirely different matter. Somewhere between 2am and 3am, I must have nodded off in the Basilica. I'm not sure for how long I was asleep but a sharp prod into my ribs soon had me praying again. It was to be a long night. The worst part was to come, however.

As a poor sportsman, it had always struck me as ironic that I had been plagued by the condition known as Athlete's Foot. Like the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage, visitors walk around Lough Derg in bare feet. It includes walking on rosary beds made of stone, many of which have sharp edges. As the night wore on, I was finding it increasingly difficult to walk. The rain-lashed stone beds had opened up the cuts and abrasions on both feet. By noon the second day, I couldn't physically take another step. After a visit to the island's medical staff, I was bandaged up and confined to barracks. The remainder of the retreat was spent with my two feet up, reading newspapers. It didn't make the dry toast taste any sweeter but it sure bet another decade of the rosary.

The pilgrimage concluded, we left for home licking our lips with eager anticipation of the hearty fry-up we had promised ourselves at midnight (of the third day). Boy, did it half taste good.

Looking back now, the memory of the entire experience remains vivid. I didn't find the Lord, nor did he find me. And while it is too much to call it an epiphany, recalling the event 10 years on now has the benefit of new perspective. In this rat race we call the Celtic Tiger, a visit to the island seems strangely cathartic. Perhaps that is the attraction for the hundreds of thousands of visitors to Lough Derg. I don't expect to return to Lough Derg but in the meantime, I will continue to wonder why my Athlete's Foot complaint has never returned!

 © 2009