[HCCN] IN HONOR OF ST. PATRICK AT LOUGH DERG, DONEGAL
hugh.curran at maine.edu
Mon Mar 15 14:08:42 EDT 2021
*In honor of St.Patrick at Lough Derg*
St.Patrick’s Purgatory at Lough Derg was first written about in the 11th
century as one of the most rigorous pilgrimages in Europe. Our small family
went there for a three-day retreat and given only bread and water while
having to walk in bare feet throughout the three-day retreat.
According to an ancient legend there was a battle that Patrick had to fight
against a monster that inhabited the lake. He was compelled to fight this
giant lake creature so he entered naked into its great mouth with his
pointed crozier and managed to slay the monster from the inside out. This
is why the lake is called Lough Derg (the red lake).
Older legends maintained that St. Patrick responded to the doubts of his
converts, who told him they would not accept his teachings until they had
substantial proof. He went to the island of Lough Derg and on Station Islnd
a large cave was revealed to him which eventually became to known as
By the 12th century a basilica was built to replicate the cave, and instead
of a quest for visions, the emphasis was placed on penitence. The name
"purgatorium" in Latin, meant a place for cleansing and purging. The idea
of "purgatory" as a place for punishment in the afterlife did not come into
use until the thirteenth century, being adopted by Dante Alighieri in the
early 14th century as the name for an after-life existence between heaven
and hell. The famous poem was “
*The Divine Comedy”. *
By the twelfth century pilgrims came from continental Europe, landing at
Dublin or Drogheda. From those ports they made their way by foot, stopping
at monasteries along the way on a fourteen day pilgrimage across the
countryside. At that time many sinners and criminals were sent on
pilgrimage to atone for their misdeeds and to seek forgiveness. Lough Derg
was one of the chief destinations for such penitential pilgrims, since
communities of anchorites (hermits) living there were believed to have
special powers to absolve afflictions and sins.
The monastery on Saints Island offered hospitality to pilgrims, who visited
in a spirit of penance and prayer. It also served as a place where pilgrims
prepared themselves to visit the Purgatorial cell. They spent fifteen days
on Saints Island, fasting and praying to prepare themselves for the visit
to Station Island. At the end of the fifteen days they confessed their sins
and underwent final rituals before being locked in the cave for twenty-four
hours. The day following that the abbot brought the pilgrim back to Saints
Island for another fifteen days.
Due to its penitential nature Irish poets, such as Seamus Heaney, attended
the retreat and wrote about it in*“Station Island*”. This was his way of
reflections on the “troubles” taking place in Northern Ireland.
*That eternal fountain, hidden away, I know its haven and its secrecy
…,which is all sources’ source and origin …*
Patrick Kavanagh also wrote extensively about his retreat:
*Lough Derg, St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Donegal, …The twentieth century
blows across it now But deeply it has kept an ancient vow**.*
WB Yeats wrote “The Pilgrim”, referring to Lough Derg:*”** I fasted for
some forty days on bread and buttermilk…Round Lough Derg's holy island I
went upon the stones,”*
By the 20th century the retreat duration had become contracted into several
days and no longer required preliminary preparations. My father made two
retreats to Lough Derg before coming to the decision to immigrate from
Ireland to North America with his large family and seek his fortune in gold
mining and working in the Arctic, although there was no fortune to be had
and there was more than enough misfortune.
St. Patrick’s Purgatory at Lough Derg continues to be a place for making
decisions with many thousands coming each year to pray for good results in
their school exams or how best to lead their lives, whether to immigrate or
not, and among the elderly, to find some degree of solace in the besetting
problems of illness and age.
Each year the Lough Derg retreat season begins in late May and ends in
mid-August and is open to anyone from any religious tradition with
retreatants expected to be at least fifteen years of age and in good health.
Our son was fourteen at the time but an exception had been made since he
was accompanied by his parents.
In earlier days, as in Dante’s Purgatorio, the main purpose of going to
St.Patrick’s Purgatory at Lough Derg was to overcome the vices of envy,
greed, anger, indolence, lust and gluttony and aspire to the virtues of
humility, generosity, charity, moderation, patience, temperance and
kindness. There is little doubt that many pilgrims felt they had achieved
some equanimity and peace by the time they returned home.
*Hugh Curran was born in Donegal and immigrated with his family to Canada
and then the U.S. He teaches in Peace and Reconciliation Studies at the
University of Maine.*
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