Go Walk: Lough Derg, Co Donegal
Lough Derg, Co Donegal
Getting there: From Pettigoe, which lies on the Fermanagh/Donegal border, follow the R233 leading directly to Station Island pier
It is sometimes said that paradise is likely to prove disappointingly non-exclusive, for everyone ultimately wants to go there. The first thing I discover on arrival at Lough Derg is that purgatory is also a surprisingly popular destination, for people are queuing to go.
Considerable numbers of mostly young adults, who have already been fasting since midnight, are waiting patiently in line for a boat to the austere, Alcatraz-like buildings on Station Island that house St Patrick’s Purgatory. Here, their holiday weekend will be spent in barefoot prayer and fasting, on a remote island once considered the edge of the world.
They seem so resolutely stoical about it all; so serenely unconcerned about missing the Olympics, Madonna or the Galway Races, that for one mad moment I am tempted to renounce my misspent youth and join them – but fortunately, for all concerned, duty calls. So instead I set off in pursuit of the ancient medieval pilgrim route that once brought penitents from across Europe to this spartan Donegal shoreline.
By the 12th century a cave on Lough Derg, known as St Patrick’s Purgatory, had become a renowned European place of pilgrimage and one of very few Irish locations denoted on early European maps. The final part of the redemptive path that led to the shoreline opposite Saints Island has now been recreated and starts from the modern disembarkation point for Station Island.
Following the waymarkers, I immediately joined a well-surfaced forest roadway skirting Lough Derg that provided occasional dreamy views across the waters to the buildings on the penitential island.
St Bridget, I had always associated with Co Kildare, but apparently she also journeyed to Donegal, for I came upon a viewing point denoted as St Bridget’s Chair and later a favours-adorned holy well in her honour.
Here, the modern route joins the old pilgrimage trail that brought the medieval atonement-seekers on the final leg of their transcendental journey from Templecarne Church, Pettigoe. Now following in the footsteps of these early penitents, as the route gradually swings north by the lakeshore, I find it is easy to imagine their weary rejoicing at the first sight of Lough Derg before they continued along this lonesome shoreline and then crossed the bridge to the Augustinian Abbey on Saints Island.
From the headland, which is marked by a simple modern cross, I gaze across at Saints Island. Here nothing now remains of the monastery in which penitents spent several days in spiritual preparation before being rowed across for a 24-hour redemptive vigil in the cave on Station Island.
Saints Island ultimately fell victim to the 16th-century dissolution of the monasteries and from then on pilgrims went directly to Station Island.
There remains, however, an atmosphere of deeper resonance about the place, which makes it as far removed from the materialistic world as it was in medieval times. It seems a wonderful setting to reconnect with the spiritual but unfortunately I must take leave and continue by circling further the serene lakeshore.
Eventually the waymarkers veer inland and take me past the lonely curl of water that forms tiny Black Lough before rejoining my outwards route.
Now it’s just a question of retracing my steps to the Station Island pier. Here, in further proof that the past never truly dies, more pilgrims have arrived and are queuing to reject the modern world and live, for a time, the life of a medieval penitent.