St. Patrick’s Purgatory, more commonly referred to as Lough Derg because of its location in the lake of the same name in Co Donegal, is a pilgrimage site which dates back to the Fifth Century. Since then, uninterrupted for over 1500 years, it has been a place of Christian pilgrimage and prayer.
The pilgrimage takes place on Station Island, and it has St. Patrick as its patron. The original monastery on Saints Island in the same lake claimed St Davog, one of Patrick’s disciples, as its founder abbot.
Mainly due to restrictions of weather conditions, the pilgrimage season is a relatively short one: the traditional Three Day Pilgrimage runs from 1st June to 15th August; Day Retreats are held in May, late August and September; school retreats are held in April-May and in September.
Three Day Pilgrimage
The traditional Three Day Pilgrimage is a programme of prayer, fasting (one simple Lough Derg meal each day), walking bare-footed and undertaking a 24hour Vigil. Without shoes and sleep and with little food, pilgrims are confronted with the essential aspects of life, an experience which can enable them to discover their hidden strengths and rediscover what really matters in life. Many people find that their pilgrimage to Lough Derg helps them to deal better with life’s ordinary struggles.
Begun in 1992, the day retreats were designed to make Lough Derg accessible to those who were unable for health, age or other reasons to do the Three Day Pilgrimage. They offer a day for busy people who really appreciate a break away from what may feel like relentless routine, and for those who value the opportunity to make time in life for the deeper things. A Day Retreat does not involve fasting, and shoes remain on.
Confirmation candidates from surrounding parishes avail of the Confirmation Retreats on the Island in April each year. In a beautiful, peaceful and sacred location, these children reflect on the significance of the sacrament for their lives ahead.
Post-primary students, mainly from Leaving Certificate or A-Level classes, come from all over Ireland for either a Day Retreat or an overnight Retreat. The Island location provides a wonderful opportunity for these young people to consider more deeply their faith and its place on their life journey.
“The twentieth century blows across it now
but deeply it has kept an ancient vow.” – Patrick Kavanagh, Lough Derg
Spiritual practices that were part of life in the Celtic monastery on Saints Island in the early medieval period still live on in the Three Day Pilgrimage: the out-of-the-way location, keeping vigil, frugal fare to eat and drink, sustained vocal prayer, immediate contact with nature and weather, and bodily prayer practices – kneeling, standing, praying with arms extended in the shape of the cross. Station Island – the name refers to the practice of penitential devotions – was the place apart to which the monks could withdraw for more intense prayer. Monastic hospitality welcomed penitents and devout Christians as pilgrims to Lough Derg.
Around 1220, Lough Derg became an Augustinian priory under the Abbey of Sts Peter and Paul in Armagh, and the Celtic monastic rule gave way to a spirituality that was more pastoral in approach. In this phase ‘St Patrick’s Purgatory’ became renowned across Europe, drawing intrepid pilgrims from as far away as Spain, Italy and Hungary. Vivid accounts of the experience were circulated widely, and literary references occur in Dante and Shakespeare. Early printed maps of Europe always include St Patrick’s Purgatory.
In the Reformation period, the Priory was dissolved, its lands confiscated, and in the following centuries the pilgrimage was ruthlessly suppressed. Catholic clergy were outlawed, but from 1594 to 1780 Franciscan friars ministered to the pilgrims who continued to come in their thousands over the summer months. The Station Prayer of the Three Day Pilgrimage in its main lines is mentioned from this period.
Diocese of Clogher
Since 1780, Lough Derg has been under the care of the Diocese of Clogher. The title of Prior designates the priest with responsibility for the pilgrimage and its facilities. Dedicated to St Patrick, the main church on the Island was built through the 1920s and honoured with the title of basilica by Pope Pius XI in 1931. Pilgrim numbers peaked in the early 1950s at around 33,000 annually. Currently Lough Derg welcomes around 11,000 pilgrim visitors each year, mainly in the programmes described above.