Call for pilgrims to support ancient Lough Derg pilgrimage

Fr Owen McEneaney says three-day retreat offers ‘counterculture’ experience

People line up to pray at a pilgrimage at Lough Derg, Co. Donegal. File Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

People line up to pray at a pilgrimage at Lough Derg, Co. Donegal. File Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Wed, Aug 27, 2014, 01:00

The prior at one of the world’s toughest Christian pilgrimage sites has called on pilgrims to support it to ensure its future.

Prior of St Patrick’s Pilgrimage at Lough Derg in Donegal Fr Owen McEneaney says support for the centuries-old retreat is essential for its continued existence.

This summer’s three-day pilgrimage season ended last week with staff reporting a “slight drop” in the number of pilgrims. Described as a “spa for the soul”, the pilgrimage requires three days of fasting, a 24-hour vigil and nine “stations” carried out barefoot on the island’s penitential beds.

The ancient island site offers a “counterculture” experience, according to Fr McEneaney, who invited past pilgrims back to Lough Derg to rediscover the experience.

“Many elements of modern life lack depth and in many ways are transient and short- lived. There is a rich heritage of faith here at Lough Derg, an opportunity to experience the deeper meaning of God and life.”

The island offers young people in particular a chance to escape the distractions of modern technology, as phone and internet devices are not allowed.

‘Mollycoddled young’

“There is an idea that young people are too mollycoddled these days and not up to the challenge, but we’ve had young people with us throughout the season. The experience can put them in touch with an anchorage that stands them in good stead in today’s cynical world,” the prior said.

Almost 18,000 people visited Lough Derg last year. While three-day retreat numbers are down, the numbers attending one-day retreats are up 16 per cent, according to media manager at Lough Derg, Sharon Hearty. The annual cost of running the island is just over €1 million. Retreat numbers last spiked at the height of the recession in 2008 but have since evened out.

“We are just the guardians. It is pilgrims that keep Lough Derg open. It’s a place that has come down through the generations; we can stand in solidarity to keep it open,” she said.

The gruelling retreat attracts a diverse range of pilgrims from all over the world.

‘No one judged’

“It’s about closeness to God; pilgrims are not bound by any church or religion. Many non-Catholics that come here find something that they can’t find anywhere else. No one is judged,” Ms Hearty said.

The benefits include spiritual healing and renewal, but the true value is a mystery, according to Ms Hearty.

“It’s not a physical pleasure, and because of that we find it difficult to relate to or articulate. We can’t see the great work that’s being done on an inner level. There’s a lovely mystery in that, just to let it work quietly within us.”