Ireland Travel and Culture

Travel in Ireland: Barefoot Behind St. Patrick - A Pilgrims Progress on Lough Derg

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Pilgrimages have been performed by penitent people from as far back as the Middle Ages and they remain an important aspect of religious fervor today. That fact is obvious to anyone who visits Lough Derg in Co. Donegal. Every year thousands of dedicated Catholics brave harsh weather conditions and a grueling regime to complete a three-day pilgrimage on a small island called Station Island.

It is said that St. Patrick himself spent 40 days in prayer and fasting on this island, hoping to expel evil spirits from Ireland and it is his footsteps that pilgrims wish to follow. The island has been dubbed "St. Patrick's Purgatory" and there is a distinct purgatorial theme in today's pilgrimage. Legend has it that St. Patrick was subjected to many temptations during his time there and was also given a vision of hell.

Lough Derg is not for the casual tourist. It is open only to serious pilgrims and is certainly not for the faint-hearted either. Participants are required to begin fasting on the previous midnight before joining one of the groups leaving the mainland. The ferry ride over to the island takes only 5 minutes but the place is eons away spiritually.

The pilgrimage begins when you take off your shoes in the dormitory and you remain barefoot for the rest of the time. Your main task is to complete stations, involving prayer and walking around "penitential beds" (formerly monastic cells), each dedicated to a different saint. The rocks around these beds can certainly be tough on the feet and may be slippery in wet weather.

No sleep is allowed through the first night, so your second task is to complete a whole night vigil, interspersed with more stations - a total of nine for the three days. The only food allowed is a meal of bread and black tea. You can sleep on the second night and your second day will be taken up mostly with acts of reconciliation, renewal of baptismal vows and the stations of the cross. Mass each morning is at 6am and after a final station you can wear your shoes again and catch the ferry back to the mainland.

Most pilgrims feel an immense sense of achievement on completion of the pilgrimage. It is a personal challenge that can bring much inner peace and renewal of faith - a challenge that about 30,000 people set themselves every year.

For those wishing to attend a pilgrimage, there are one-day and three-day options. No booking is necessary - just turn up before 3pm during the season, already fasted. The season runs from the beginning of June to August 15th and information can be obtained from the visitor center in Pettigo, the nearest village.

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