A lough and a hard place


For this Irish Timesjournalist, it was a sleepless, shoeless, soggy purgatory, but Lough Derg is many things to many people: a motivation camp, a meditation zone, or a deeply spiritual voyage

THERE WAS no shortage of survival tips for the newbies. Which was nice. “Bring warm thermal leggings and long-sleeved tops (it was minus four when I was there last year!)”, chirped one email. “Leg warmers a must and you can discreetly pull them over the ankles of your feet when doing night vigil in the Basilica; knees get very sore – cut off seat of tights, stuff with paper and strap to knees (personally, I think it’s kind of cheating – ha ha!); fresh lemon to ward off mosquitos; bring clear nail varnish so if you get bitten by mosquitos (despite best efforts with lemon), apply the varnish to stop the itching. . .”

There was more, lots more about blister prevention and “GENUINELY waterproof rain gear”, plus advice from a rather amused cleric to “bring suncream for your toes and insect repellent to spray on hat for midgets”. We think he meant midges. His “midgets”, in fact, were the one overt miracle – they remained impervious to the biblical deluges (the worst in 33 years, said the sympathetic Prior) and managed to penetrate five layers of clothing.

Some 48 hours on, the itching still brings the night alive at 4am. And there is still a dull ache in the lower back, which – according to a fellow pilgrim cum physical therapist – is the upshot of the perpetual struggle between the injunction to kneel and the impulse to keep aching knees off the rough stones. But that’s nothing compared to the drama of the young woman who has a weakness during the discussion session on day two and strips down to her (father’s XL) thermal vest before being escorted to the First Aid centre for doses of glucose and consigned to bed with – oh, the decadence – a hot water bottle.

We gaze from afar, weak with hunger, cold and sleep deprivation, and crave a fainting fit for ourselves. Or even her father’s thermals.


Lough Derg is a bit like childbirth; nothing prepares you for the reality. “Oh God. It’s Alcatraz . In the rain,” says an arrival, eyeing the island from the car park.

Time is measured out in a highly regimented manner: 72-hour fast, a 24-hour vigil, nine “stations” as well as Masses and prayer services, all done barefoot. That means no footwear (or socks), from arrival to departure. It means fasting from the midnight before arrival to midnight the day of departure, relieved with one meal a day of black tea or coffee, dry white toast, brown bread and oatcakes made of minced cardboard (or something very like it).

The vigil formally runs from 10pm on day one to 10pm on day two and requires pilgrims to stay “completely and continuously awake for 24 hours”. In practice, the sleeplessness can extend to 38 hours or more, since many people don’t get the precious hour’s pre-vigil sleep permitted on day one (don’t get me started on sharing bunk-bedded dorms with strangers who snore, rifle endlessly through plastic bags and/or can’t shut their beaks). Note to potential cheaters: the dorms are locked outside permitted forays.

So far, so clear. Then there are the nine “stations”, centred mainly on the six “beds” (stones and rocks said to have come from ancient monasteries on the site, laid within low stone-built circles with crosses at the centre, each dedicated to a saint) and the nearby basilica.

The station journey begins with an Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Creed at St Patrick’s Cross, moving on to St Brigid’s Cross (carved in the basilica’s stone wall) arms outstretched to “renounce the world, the flesh and the devil” three times, then straight into four slow walks all around the basilica while reciting seven decades of the Rosary and a Creed.

This is followed by the six “beds” where the basic rule is to walk three times around the outside of each one while saying three Our Fathers, three Hail Marys and one Creed; kneel at the entrance to the bed while repeating those prayers; walk three times around the inside of the bed while repeating the prayers, kneel at the cross in the centre and repeat the prayers. Repeat all this at each of the other five beds, then go to the water’s edge to repeat some more before finishing up inside the basilica by reciting Psalm 16 (or five Our Fathers, etc) for the Pope’s intentions.


All that adds up to just one station and takes up to 90 minutes, mainly because there are dozens of others slowly shuffling along the same ordained journey, eyes focused on their tender bare feet (those revolting ads for nail fungus treatment are no exaggeration; the stuff should be added to the holy water like fluoride) so as to step onto the least sharp, least slippery stones and not to fall into the person in front.

Three of those stations must be completed before 9.15pm on day one, as well as getting in Mass at 6.30pm, the “meal”, pre-vigil lie-down at 7.30pm, then night prayer and Benediction at 9.20pm. Each of the church services is lightened and gilded by the magnificent singing of 22-year-old Patricia Moyna, 18-year-old Rachel Manning and her 16-year-old organist brother, Peter.

It would be fair to say that my preparation had not been thorough. The naif’s rather lovely plan had been to while away the long night vigil with Hilary Mantel’s 650-page doorstopper. Silly, silly pilgrim from the Pale. Of course, night hours were entirely ordered in the form of a gentle, reflective introduction to the vigil by Mary McDaid, a Rosary and four – FOUR – stations (conducted inside the basilica) to be completed before 6.30am.

I confess. At around 3am, after the second station (the fifth in 16 hours), driven almost insane by the aimless trudging around the basilica, trying to stay off the tender heels of 250 exhausted souls, I surrender to the devil. Escaping into the night shelter (hot water with salt and pepper anyone?), I find one fellow dissident in the form of an ultra-fit, 40-something health specialist here on his 30th pilgrimage and third visit this season alone. At home, between work and long-distance running, he finds 20 minutes every day to spend in contemplation in a church.

If this faithful man of God can rebel in clear conscience, why not I? Anyway, our rebellion is mild. We sit up straight and talk while, every 45 minutes or so, Joseph stirs another sachet of rehydration salts into his water.

He staunchly observes the key requirements of both fast and vigil, but otherwise follows his own schedule, doing a station a day but mainly meditating “and trying to find that wee space between yourself and God. . . I’m here this time in thanksgiving for all the gifts and talents I’ve been given to be used for the betterment of others. . . I enjoy coming. It’s never a chore”, he says.

I glance at the clock again and try to lift my drooping head, kept alert only by my cold, bare feet – that stay cold on the parquet flooring – convinced this is purgatory in the form of miserable night without end.


He suggests, gently, that perhaps the priests could “tweak it a bit. It’s very regimented. Your individual expression is very much suppressed by this very old-fashioned dogmatic attitude. . . It seems there’s a lot of Catholicism but not enough spirituality. . .”

As darkness fades into blessed dawn, the monsoons are unleashed and don’t let up for 24 hours. Later that day in the large discussion group in a modern, comfortable conference room in Davog House, much of what my fellow conspirator had to say is borne out. The participants offer words such as “peaceful”, “tranquil”, “spiritual” when asked to describe their experiences.

One middle-class Dubliner hisses repeatedly that it’s “dreadful!” – but not to the open floor – before conceding that this is her 27th pilgrimage. She takes umbrage when our sub-group asks her to reconcile the two.

The only open complaints relate to the policing of the silence rule. “Where many other more petty things are policed, the most important – silence – is not,” says a man with a distinguished South County Dublin accent.

Then someone pipes up : “Is Lough Derg just for Catholics?” The moderator seems unsure: “Um. . . yes, it’s for all faiths and none.” No one mentions the abyss between her view and the lines in Psalm 16 (prescribed after each station): “Those who choose other gods increase their sorrows. Never will I offer their offerings of blood. Never will I take their name upon my lips.”

Later, in chats with some younger people, a few draw surprised attention to this. They say hesitantly – fearing to seem disloyal – that they would like to see more joy, more warmth, more affirmation from everyone in Lough Derg – not just from the hard-working priests who put in long, antisocial hours, but from everyone including the canteen and office staff, some of whom can be incongruously distant and snippy, for such a spiritual place. “I have to almost disconnect myself from this representation of the gospel,” says one young woman, “this attitude that ‘you’re all sinners, you’re all bad’. There’s no sense that life is amazing, joyous, that we DO love our families. . . It’s all about endure, shiver, starve, be on time for Mass or night prayer or we’ll close the doors on you”.

Another who has been to confession to the Rwandan priest emerged in tears simply because of his warmth: “He said, ‘you’ve had a long night, you deserve everything God can give you’ and he promised that God would get rid of my short temper”, she says with an exhausted grin.

But Lough Derg works for many in ways they cannot explain. A mature student from the midlands on his second pilgrimage this season and studying for his law exams describes it as “motivation central”.

A Dublin businessman, a first-timer and “not a strong Catholic by any means” who arrived with a two-week headache forces himself to persist with the night stations, despite a growing intolerance of the repetition. During the fifth station, his headache eases and vanishes.


On the final morning during a magnificent Ave Maria at 6.30am Mass, he finds himself weeping. “It just snuck up on me. I went outside and just sobbed my heart out. I can’t explain it.”

He says it will be 15 years before he comes back, if ever. “But it’s not a penance or a competition and I feel a bit sorry for the people who style themselves as strong Catholics and talk about this being their 42nd or 77th time. They’re really missing the point.”

This man’s experience is not unique. Others confide that they found themselves welling up unexpectedly during the bells of the Angelus in that last Mass. It could be the detox effect of the fast; it could be that the mantras, the repetition, the concentration on familiar words and the constant movement combine to switch off the mind from the everyday. Or it could be that continuous, spiritual line between us and those wonderful uncomplaining generations who went before us, who walked these same stones, knelt in these same pews, fasted and shivered as we did. . . Or maybe it is just the thought of getting back into warm shoes and socks.

We sing Hail Glorious St Patrickon the boat back to reality, led by the prior, Richard Mohan. And – damn it – I feel my eyes filling up again. But I don’t look back, because tradition says that if you do, you will be back. And I won’t. Please God.

Facts & Figures

Pilgrim numbersup by 8.5 per cent on 2008 figures

Ratio of male to female pilgrims: 30:70 (although there was one day last year when males outnumbered females by a margin of one)

First-time pilgrims: 18 per cent

25 countrieswere represented during the 2009 season – including the US, Canada, Brazil Philippines, New Zealand, Australia, Lithuania, Slovakia and others

Aside from Ireland, Englandwas the country represented by the most pilgrims

The top three countiesrepresented were Dublin, Donegal and Tyrone (in that order)