Lough Derg pilgrimage: a writer’s retreat to the water and the wild

Labyrinths abound in metaphysical detective fiction. I chose Lough Derg’s spiralling pilgrim paths

St Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg.

St Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg.


Before the world went into lockdown this year and coronavirus forced us into isolation, I found myself undergoing a self-imposed form of confinement in the drizzly days of late August, cocooned on a remote island on a Donegal bog lake for three days.

Some writers work best without distractions, some work better with distractions – I’m definitely in the latter brigade. For the past 10 years, I’ve written in an environment that is the polar opposite of the writing retreats that have sprung up in the beauty spots of the world and are heavily advertised these days on the internet.

Scroll through Airbnb, writing forums and blogs, and you’ll find them. Neo-classical renaissance villas on Tuscan hills, writing studios in Norwegian forests and timber pods in the high deserts of California, all offering creatives the promise of inspiration and endless hours of procrastination.

But I’ve always written at home, surrounded by our four children, in the snatched time between meals or in the middle of the night. Sometimes with an infant sleeping on my chest. Unless one’s bank account has been magically filled by a lottery win or a generous inheritance, writers, at least the ones I know, tend not to get the chance to seal themselves away from the world and its responsibilities. Writing is done in between the jobs that help pay the bills, while juggling family duties and household chores.

So, I’d never considered a writing retreat before. The cost alone was a barrier. It would also mean taking myself seriously as a writer, a temptation I’ve tried to avoid, and unfairly burdening my wife with the child-care. A writer’s retreat sounded like the worst possible combination of pretentiousness and introspection, and an invitation to the curse of writer’s block.

But it was the summer of 2019 and political doom filled the air. The news media was awash with Brexit, bigotry and the inexorable rise of Boris Johnson. The entire country needed a spiritual retreat from itself. Besides, I had decided to make this particular lough and its island in Donegal the setting for my ninth novel Turncoat, a metaphysical detective tale set during the Troubles that was the poor neglected child of my creative writing PhD at Queen’s University.

Anthony J Quinn, author of Turncoat
Anthony J Quinn, author of Turncoat

Labyrinths and infernal paths abound in metaphysical detective fiction. Whereas writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Paul Auster explore the metropolises of London and New York, in Turncoat I decided to reshape an important touchstone of Catholic identity and faith in Ulster as the novel’s labyrinth – the pilgrimage site of Station Island on Lough Derg with its spiralling prayer paths.

And so, one Monday afternoon last August, I waited with a group of strangers for the boat to the island, a swarm of midges enveloping us with an aggressive frenzy, each one of us attracting our own columns of biting insects in the way magnets attract iron filings. I was tired and hungry and just looking at the lough through the grey fuzz of flies reminded me that I was heading towards a place of suffering.

For ordinary Catholics who aren’t overly religious or physically brave, Station Island offers an escape valve, a place where you can disappear for a few days and nights, and return to enlighten friends and family with awful stories of sleep deprivation and hunger.

For the devout, however, it is a place of renewal and hope, from which faithful pilgrims can emerge weak and sore but reborn from the rituals of self-purification.

In Turncoat, the prayer paths of Station Island turn out to be as disorientating as the urban labyrinths of Poe’s short stories. My detective protagonist wanders them barefoot but gum-shoe style, in the half-light and drizzle, lurching from alcoholic intoxication to romantic yearnings, between despair and hope, religious visions and diabolical encounters with doubles.

He took a deep drag, and with a smoky sigh, tossed the butt into the dark waters. “The midges on the island are worse,” he warned us. “These ones have only one set of teeth.”

When the boat arrived, we walked towards it with the uncertain gait of sleepwalkers. From the cabin, the boatman appeared, blocking the gangway. At first, it seemed he wasn’t going to let us board, and then I realised he had stepped out to finish a cigarette. He took a deep drag, and with a smoky sigh, tossed the butt into the dark waters. “The midges on the island are worse,” he warned us. “These ones have only one set of teeth.”

The boatman revved the engine and then we set out into deep water. I stared at the other passengers swaying blindly to the motion of the boat. I feared there would be no inspiration or peace for me on the island, just the bewildered faces of other lost souls and two days of trials, endless prayer, and hunger.

Even though I had come to pray, spiritual redemption wasn’t exactly at the top of my agenda. I wondered would the priests spot that I was a fraud, an impostor. But wasn’t writing an act of faith, too?

A few seagulls escorted the boat as we spun out into the lough, which stretched before us like a vast sheet of silver. A black wall of deformed pine trees rose along the Donegal shore, and then a rugged chain of hills and mountains took over, covered in more trees and heather, the shades of blue and purple merging and growing deeper towards the horizon.

We were the only intruders in a landscape completely devoid of people, houses, cars, or farm animals. In sharp contrast, the island we were heading towards was packed with church buildings, like the thin remnants of an ecclesiastical city that had survived a great flood. Within its precincts, I could make out a throng of shuffling stick-like figures.

Our destination swung into view. First the monolithic octagonal basilica, and then the grey dormitory that looked as though it could serve as a medium-size prison, followed by the buildings’ eerily extravagant reflections on the smooth lough. The light in the sky strengthened, giving a shine to our arrival as the boat ghosted into the island’s narrow bay. When I stared at the monastic waters, I could see another island trapped beneath glass, a darker tier in the labyrinth. The goose pimples tightened on my arms and shoulders.

A young man, who might have been a student priest, greeted us and led the way to the dormitories. He pointed in two directions, men in the left wing, and women in the right wing. He performed his duties with the minimum of communication and fuss, giving me a ticket with a number on it. The tickets were now our only official form of identity. Later they would be used to allocate our daily meal of black tea and toast.

I found my bed in a cubicle with three other bunk beds. I took off my shoes and socks and placed them underneath the bed. From now until the third morning, I would be barefoot. The dormitory was chilly and austere with its bare walls and rows of bunk beds housed in cubicles, but somehow, I found the dispiriting atmosphere soothing. I was now an inmate of an institution for people hankering to be good and saintly, hidden away on a lough of gloomy water and secret islands. Even the idea of giving up my shoes and socks for the next two days felt secretly pleasing.

Another boat arrived, and the island filled with more pilgrims. The sociable murmur of their prayers passed from group to group so intensely that at times it sounded as though a delicious piece of gossip were doing the rounds. I paced amid the pilgrims, at cross-purposes to their shuffling, moving between them as though trying to find a path through a maze. Some of them had sat down and were dozing. I bumped into a Traveller woman sitting alone, talking to herself in between bouts of croaking laughter. She kept exclaiming, “The midges are eating me alive,” and, “Oh, my poor feet are burning.”

I looked down and was met by a sea of tired-looking feet. Never had I seen so many swollen ankles and cracked soles with patches of thickened skin and bunions angling this way and that in the mud, reddened toes feeling for leverage on the sharp stones. Undaunted, determined to find a refuge for my thoughts, I threaded my way through the labyrinth of squirming feet.

In terms of seeking inspiration for a crime novel, the island was a disaster. I felt restless and bored, an impostor and an outsider. Then, on the second morning, I felt peace

In terms of seeking inspiration for a crime novel, the island was a disaster. I didn’t write a single word, and, for the first day and night, I felt restless and bored. I was an impostor and an outsider. Then, on the second morning, I felt a sense of peace fill the air as I gathered in the canteen with the other pilgrims. A peace that came not in the shape of thoughts or words but as a form of shared consciousness, a mood, a light that we all seemed to inhabit, filling the air like the steam from our cups of hot black tea. A special light that seemed to make our exhaustion and lack of sleep more noble and bearable.

I felt closer to the world of my grandfather and his moods, a farmer from south Tyrone who made the pilgrimage to Lough Derg countless times. A man who walked more miles than anyone I knew, who dressed in his Sunday best when he came here and put on his finest hat. This had been the island for him. A man who was used to walking all day, but finding himself in the same place, surrounded by the familiar folds of his fields. A man who would not have been upset by hunger or tiredness or the fierce monotony of prayer. A man who enjoyed the rituals so much that after leaving the island he would spontaneously volunteer to return for another round of fasting and prayer. I smiled at the thought of summoning his ghost by walking and praying where he had walked and prayed.

I grew up in what was originally a long farmhouse, with my parents and six siblings at one end, and my widowed grandfather at the other. My father blocked off the adjoining corridor with a brick wall when we were toddlers, and then divided the house in two. Our wing of the farmhouse extended over the years with a new two-storey block of bedrooms, a sunroom and porch, while my grandfather’s wing remained the same with its corrugated tin roof, slowly slipping into ruin after his death in 1993, making the distorted dwellings even more lopsided.

My mother was against knocking down the old house, and strangers who visited us walked around the property with a look of bemusement. But the rambling farmhouse held more truth than a brand new building, and my grandfather’s cottage, with its dark windows still intact, gave the impression that his gentle gaze remained upon us as we went about our lives in a new century. My own house, and those of my two sisters, are built on the family land, radiating out in an arc from the central farmhouse, stretching out into the wildness of the wooded fields and little streams.

In search of inspiration, I usually go for long walks, moping around the parish like a dog that has lost its scent

In search of inspiration, I usually go for long walks, moping around the parish like a dog that has lost its scent. I walk the familiar route between my parents’ farmhouse and the cottage where my mother grew up, now abandoned and used as a cowshed by a neighbouring farmer, the white church at Ackinduff with its square tower, which my grandfather had helped build, and, along the way, the hidden springs and little glens of holly and hazel.

I explore the small fields of my grandfather’s farm, trailing through hummocky grass and peering into thickets of blackthorns. It’s a lopsided landscape, rising quirkily and dipping into little streams and marshy bogs. This part of the parish is known as Fashglashagh, which my Irish teacher once translated as “the watery wilderness”. As a boy, I loved exploring its spongy boundaries and its profusion of springs shimmering in the sunlight.

No doubt something violent and glacial once passed through Fashglashagh, twisting the symmetry of the landscape. The land is always sinking and rising, and men and women like my grandfather and his mother contained the land with their spades and ploughs, digging drains, cleaning out ditches, unblocking wells, soothing and curbing the unstable water that lay beneath. My grandfather’s mother spent the coldest months of the year cleaning the brimming ditches of the fields she rented, and I could imagine her silent vigilance as she patrolled the brink between land and water. Generations of her family had done the same, managing this equilibrium between the elements.

They’d grown up in meadows covered in bitter sorrel, water-mint and sloeberries. All their lives, they’d been nourished by this watery wilderness. They’d never known acres of green pasture, fertile fields of grain, or potato drills clear of stones and boggy hollows. They were reared amid springs that shifted and shimmered underfoot, overflowing wells, narrow fields that flooded every winter and were home to strange vapours, rows of mouldy crops, weed-filled ditches that had to be cleared every year, bankrupt farms and rotting cottages, a landscape that penetrated to the marrow of their bones and made them constantly fearful.

Watching over them always was the remote but ever so close figure of the landlord, his silent bureaucracy indifferent to the hardship of toiling in such a landscape.

I find new vantage points of the landscape I share with my parents and my sisters and their young families. It strikes me that I am always father, son and brother at the same time in this landscape, and often the father in me is struggling against the son in me. Sometimes, I feel trapped here, surrounded by too much home, but my thoughts are focused elsewhere, in another version of reality. One part of me is sinking deeper into my roots, and the other is struggling to get away, to evoke a freer world in my writing.

Life at home is so predictable, controlled and safe. I have to make myself write every day to feel any hint of danger or trespass. Writing about the Troubles feels fraught with danger, but it is also a way of expressing and exerting myself. Every time I turn an empty page, the world of my fugitive detectives opens, and I feel a shiver of excitement.
Turncoat by Anthony Quinn is published by No Exit Press, at £9.99

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