To hell or Tirconnell

An Irishman’s Diary: On the fame of medieval Lough Derg

‘Lough Derg was internationally renowned during the Middle Ages. Indeed, to say the scenes witnessed by Knight Owain were “Dantesque” is perhaps to put cart before horse.’ Photograph: David Sleator

‘Lough Derg was internationally renowned during the Middle Ages. Indeed, to say the scenes witnessed by Knight Owain were “Dantesque” is perhaps to put cart before horse.’ Photograph: David Sleator

Sat, Jun 1, 2013, 00:01

In Cromwell’s infamous ultimatum, there was an implied comparison between “Hell and Connacht”, as places roughly similar. But it was only a comparison. Whereas in the case of hell’s neighbour, Purgatory, Ireland once boasted the actual location, albeit in Ulster.

The status of Lough Derg, where the traditional pilgrimage season starts today, has been downgraded somewhat over the centuries. It was long believed, however, to be a physical gateway to purgatory, as revealed to St Patrick when he needed something tangible to persuade the heathen Irish to convert. The fame of St Patrick’s Purgatory must have spread across Europe well before 1186. But it was cemented in that year through the published account of a pilgrimage, decades earlier, by one Knight Owain, an Irish soldier.

Having committed terrible sins during his military career, according to the tale, Owain went to Lough Derg to expiate them. There he was led into an underworld, where he witnessed a long succession of Dante-esque tortures inflicted on the souls – and soles, sometimes – of the dead.

Finally, he reached the Garden of Eden (which, by implication, was also located under modern Donegal). But despite wanting to stay there among the happily purged, he was sent back among the living, to report his experiences.

The Legend of the Knight was written by Henry of Saltrey, a Benedictine monk who must have been the Dan Brown of his day. A hint of the legend’s popularity is that some 150 copies still survive in libraries. And it was also hugely influential, considered by many a work of history, not fiction.

For this and other reasons, Lough Derg was internationally renowned during the Middle Ages. Indeed, to say the scenes witnessed by Knight Owain were “Dante-esque” is perhaps to put cart before horse. Dante wasn’t born until 1265, and had almost certainly heard of Lough Derg at a time when it hadn’t yet heard of him.

Long before mass tourism in Europe, St Patrick’s Purgatory was a must-visit destination for those with means. On a 1492 map, it’s the only Irish place-name mentioned. And although Shakespeare didn’t refer to it directly, it is implicit in Hamlet’s oath – “Yes, by St Patrick” – concerning the authenticity of his father’s ghost, presumed to be on leave from purgatory.

That Lough Derg was one of Europe’s early tourist traps is also on record thanks to a 15th-century Dutch monk. The pious monk, who arrived in Ireland penniless, was first disillusioned by the demands for visitor’s fees from both bishop and landlord. After they reluctantly let him into the purgatorial cave without paying, he was disappointed to find nothing unusual happened to him. Never doubting the credentials of the site, he attributed its loss of supernatural power to all the money-making and complained to the Vatican. The pope listened and, on St Patrick’s Day 1497, ordered the site closed.

This proved only a temporary setback. As was the 1632 destruction of the site by the Anglican Bishop of Clogher. Not even a 1704 act of parliament, threatening pilgrims with a 10 shilling fine or public whipping, killed Lough Derg off. By the outbreak of the Famine, some 30,000 people were making the trip annually.

The Famine did drastically reduce numbers. But the Victorian almanac, Chambers Book of Days (1869) reported sniffily that up to 10,000 – “all, with a very few exceptions, of the lowest class of society” – were still doing the pilgrimage between June 1st and August 15th. Chambers took a generally dim view, although not quite as dim as William Carleton, who visited Lough Derg 200 years ago and later credited it with persuading him to abandon plans for the priesthood and become a Protestant.

Mind you, the modern Lough Derg might be unrecognisable to Carleton, never mind earlier pilgrims. It even has a cheerfully-designed website now (loughderg.org), which looks forward to an “exciting” 2013 season. Experiences offered include “Mother and Daughter” retreats and “Body-Mind meditation”. And as well as the three-day pilgrimage, you can also now do day visits under the slogan, “What a difference a day makes”.

There may be a faint echo here of the medieval experience, when the Lough Derg cave was still considered an actual portal and pilgrims were locked in it for 24 hours to see what happened. According to one account, the visitor would fast for 15 days beforehand, and 15 days afterwards. But of course the second part of the programme was always dependent on the pilgrim being “found alive” when they opened the gate.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com