Lough Derg - A penitential retreat

by Ed Micheau

The Lough Derg Pilgrimage is a penitential retreat on an island in Co Donegal. The pilgrimage is also referred to as St Patrick's Purgatory - it is believed that St Patrick stayed in a cave there. Legend has it that St Patrick was subjected to many temptations and was also given a vision of hell, hence the title St Patrick's Purgatory.

In recent decades, the pilgrimage has become popular with hundreds of thousands of people making the trip to Donegal. The pilgrimage is based on the theme of Purgatory. Pilgrims undertake a three-day fast for the period of the retreat. No food is taken except for black tea/coffee and dry toast. On arrival at the island, pilgrims remove their footwear and complete the pilgrimage bare-footed.

The Pilgrimage Exercises consist of a prayer sequence called a `Station'. It is a familiar form of prayer in the Celtic tradition and involves moving around from Station to Station accompanied by mantra-like prayers. Over the three-day period, a total of nine Stations are completed - five in the open air on the Pentitential Beds and four inside the Basilica. Each Station outside is dedicated to a saint - Brigid, Brendan, Catherine, Columba, Patrick, Davog and Molaiste.

Pilgrims arrive on the island between 11am and 3pm, having fasted from midnight previously. No sleep is permitted on the first night to allow an all-night vigil to take place. On leaving the island on the third day, people must fast until midnight to complete the pilgrimage.

The pilgrimages only take place between June and August each year due to harsh weather conditions on the island. Even still, the island can be a damp, cold and uncomfortable location during the summer months. The pilgrimage is therefore not suitable for everyone. But for those who complete it, there is certainly a sense of achievement.

** Pilgrims may begin the Pilgrimage on any day from Friday, June 1 until Monday, August 15 inclusive. No advance booking is necessary. A fee of 25 is charged and includes boat fare. Pilgrims are advised to bring warm and waterproof clothing.

For information: www.loughderg.org

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