Lough Derg

I recently went to visit the in-laws in Ireland, and while I was there I had the opportunity to make the traditional 3-day pilgrimage to St. Patrick’s Purgatory, more commonly know as Lough Derg.

A friend of ours dropped me off at the visitors center and I rode the ferry over to Station Island a few minutes later.  It had started to rain while we were driving and by the time I got to the island it was a full scale rainstorm with temperatures in the 50s and 20-30 mph winds (and this was on August 1).

Originally the pilgrimage consisted of a period of prayer and fasting in preparation for a 24-hour vigil in a cave on the island.  But the cave was filled in (the reason is kind of unclear) and instead the pilgrims spend the vigil praying in the basilica on the island.

The three primary activities on the pilgrimage are the vigil, the fast, and a series of prayers called ‘stations’.   You also go barefoot from the time you arrive on the island until the time you get ready to get on the boat to go home.

  • The vigil is officially 24 hours, from 10 p.m. of the first day to 10 p.m. of the second day.  However you don’t really have time to nap when you’re there so you are up from the time you woke up the first day until about 10:05 p.m. of the second day.  For me that worked out to be about 40 hours.  This was the hardest part of the weekend for me.  Several times I found myself dozing off on my feet and almost falling over.  I didn’t get to pray as much as I thought I would on the second day because every time I closed my eyes, sat down, or even stopped walking I started to fall asleep.
  • The fast runs for three full days, including the first day before you actually arrive and continuing until midnight after you get home on the third day.  You get one meal a day of dry bread or dry toast or a sort of crunchy oat cookie, and black tea or black coffee with your meal.  You can eat as much of this yummy food that you like at the one meal, but once you get up from the table you’re done for the day.  This wasn’t really too hard.  There were a few times I got kind of hungry but most of the time there was so much other stuff going on I didn’t have time to think about it.
  • The stations are a series of prayers that you repeat nine times over the course of the three days.  You say some Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and Apostles’ Creeds while kneeling outside the basilica and add a prayer renouncing ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil’.  Then you walk around the basilica while saying seven decades of the rosary.  From there you go on to a series of those prayers while walking around, kneeling on, walking in, and kneeling in the ruins of the 6th century monks’ cells which by now are basically just six circular piles of rock.  You follow these up with more prayers at a spot by the lake side and then finish the station up with more prayers on the plaza in front of the basilica.  When I got home I did the math and figured out that the nine stations come out to a total of 846 Our Fathers, 1,413 Hail Marys, 261 Apostles Creeds, and 9 recitations of Psalm 19.  The first four stations are done in the afternoon of the first day after you arrive on the island.  The next four are done in a big group in the church during the overnight part of the vigil.  The eighth station is outside again on the morning of the second day after Confession, and the ninth station is outside on the morning of the third day after Mass.

As I mentioned above, it was a howling rainstorm (a cold howling rainstorm) on the first day when I got there.  The first three stations were completed in that storm, walking barefoot around the basilica on the stone paving and then walking around on wet brick to soccer ball sized rocks while trying to keep track of where I was in the prayer sequence.  A couple of times I was almost blown over by the wind.  Despite the apparent misery I was actually kind of enjoying it.  It was supposed to be a penitential experience so I wanted it to be as penitential as possible.

During the night we prayed more stations in big group in the basilica and then in between we had about 20 minutes to try to stay awake through.  The main activity was drinking something called ‘Lough Derg soup’ which consisted of hot water with salt and pepper in it.  That drink has been part of the experience for decades if not centuries, so gave it a try.  Maybe there’s something to it since it did wake me up.  I don’t know if there’s a stimulant quality to hot salty and peppery water or if it just tastes so foul it keeps you awake for 20 minutes.

On the second day we had a break from the regular schedule.  In addition to the twice-a-day masses we had an extra mass at around noon.  It happened to be a Sunday and RTE, the Irish TV company, picked Lough Derg to be the site of that week’s Mass of the Week.  I must have gotten on TV since there was a camera a couple of rows right in front of me doing crowd shots.  It was right in the middle of the 40 hour vigil so hopefully I didn’t doze off on TV.

My feet and knees were sore for a couple of days after I got back from all the barefoot walking and kneeling on rocks, and my ankles were also sore for a while, I guess from all the walking.  In addition to the stations and the four Masses (five in my case) the middle day of the pilgrimage also includes Confession, renewal of our Baptismal promises, and the Stations of the Cross.

Like I said earlier I didn’t get as much praying done as I had hoped.  We had a fair amount of free time in the afternoon and evening of the second day but I was so exhausted all I could do was trudge around various points of the island looking at the architecture and reading various historical tidbits.  There was a rock chair in a hidden spot overlooking the lake that I found and that was nice and peaceful and I was able to get some praying done there before I had to get up and resume my hike around the island.

Over all I found it to be a rewarding experience and would recommend it to anybody in Ireland who has time to fit it into their schedule.  Due to the weather the season for pilgrimages runs from the end of May until the middle of August.  The facilities on the island are open for other activities such as one-day retreats and school retreats during the rest of the year.

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