Fr Kevin Hegarty
St Patrick’s Basilica on Lough Derg is adorned by the stained glass windows of Harry Clarke. Admirers of the artist who wish to view the windows during the summer can only do so if they are prepared to undertake the three-day Lough Derg pilgrimage. From, June 1 to August 15 every year, the island is confined to the several thousand pilgrims who continue a tradition stretching back to the early centuries of Irish Christianity.
Lough Derg has been aptly named ‘St Patrick’s Purgatory’. Bishop Joseph Duffy, the retired Bishop of Clogher, describes the pilgrimage as ‘a drama in three acts’. The first act is a fast from food for three days, apart from one daily meal of black tea or coffee and dry bread. It is an act of solidarity with those who suffer famine in the world. The second act is a lengthy session of oral prayers recited while walking barefoot on the rocks and stones of the penitential beds. Act three is a twenty-four hour vigil after the first day of prayer. Pilgrims gather during the night in the basilica for public prayer while valiantly trying to ward off sleep.
Patrick Kavanagh made the pilgrimage in 1942 and later wrote of it in a long poem of which the following is an excerpt:
“From Cavan and from Leitrim and from Mayo,
From all the thin-aced parishes where hill
Are perished noses running peaty water,
They come to Lough Derg to fast and pray and beg
The first evening they prayed till nine o’clock
Around the gravel rings, a hundred decades
Of rosaries, until they hardly knew what words meant–
Their own names when they spoke them sounded mysterious.
They knelt and prayed and rose and prayed
And circled the crosses and kissed the stones
Never looking away from the brimstone bitterness
To the little islands of Pan held in the crooked elbow of the lake.
They closed their eyes to Donegal and the white houses
On the slope of the northern hills.”
The roots of the pilgrimage lie deep in medieval history. It was a time when most countries in western Europe had a designated ‘holy place’. There was Canterbury in England, Bruges in Belgium, Tours of France, Loreto in Italy and St James of Compostela in Spain. On a 1492 map of the world, Lough Derg is the only place marked in Ireland. A few years ago a large fresco was discovered in a convent in the Italian town of Todi which shows Lough Derg was known there in the fourteenth century.
Lough Derg came to international attention in 1184 through the writings of an English monk, Henry of Saltrey. He wrote the story he had heard from a fellow monk who visited Ireland 30 years previously. It seems that St Patrick had difficulty in convincing the pre-Christian Irish of the existence of heaven and hell. They stated that they would not believe unless they could see for themselves. So Jesus Christ showed Patrick a dark pit where whoever spent a day and night in it would experience both heaven and hell and would be absolved of all sins for the rest of his or her life. A visit to this pit or cave convinced the doubters and they were baptised. Henry of Saltrey claims that St Patrick had a church built on the site of the cave. The present basilica, opened in 1931, is on the reputed site of the cave.
Lough Derg has had a chequered history. It incurred papal displeasure in 1494 when a Dutch monk who had visited there reported that it was a money making racket. Puritan extremists vandalised it in 1632. The pilgrimage is now under the patronage of the Diocese of Clogher. The thousands who come there every summer recognise that in the words of the poet T Eliot, it is a place “where prayer had been valid.”