The Pilgrimage’s Progress – An Irishman’s Diary about literary Lough Derg
Lough Derg: among the pilgrims in June 1940 was Patrick Kavanagh. Photograph: loughderg.org
The Lough Derg pilgrimage owes much of its fame, historically, to a literary blockbuster: a kind-of medieval version of the Da Vinci Code. Written circa 1180, by an English monk called Henry of Saltrey, Purgatorium Sancti Patricii (“St Patrick’s Purgatory”) describes the extraordinary adventures of a knight who descends into the underworld, via a cave in modern-day Donegal, as penance.
The story was taken as literal truth by many readers and was enormously popular throughout the Europe of its time.
Dante probably knew of it, but it inspired many other writers too. It also put Ireland on early versions of the tourist map. On at least one actual map of the country, it was the only place named.
But the venue would not always be so well treated in visitors’ accounts. By 1497, it had become such a tourist trap, with so many locals extorting money from it, that a disillusioned Dutchman (another monk) lodged a complaint with the Vatican, which officially suppressed the pilgrimage.
It survived that, however, and was still popular three centuries later, much to the disgust of the Protestant clergyman and reformer Caesar Otway, who found conditions there “filthy, dreary, and detestable”.
His protégé, William Carleton, agreed. He would later credit a visit to Lough Derg as one of the reasons he abandoned Catholicism in favour of the Anglican Church.
A Victorian almanac, Chambers’ Book of Days (1864), continued the onslaught, recording that the Lough Derg pilgrimage season by then attracted “about eight to ten thousand persons – all, with a very few exceptions, of the lowest class of society”.
It also lamented the “degrading penance” they performed.
But in an interesting post-script, noting how the island measured not much more than “three hundred paces” in any direction, the writer added: “For this small space the Protestant proprietor receives a rental of £300 per annum”.
Then as now, the main visiting season started in June.
And among the pilgrims in June 1940 was Patrick Kavanagh, who had been commissioned to write about it for the Irish Independent.
As a devout Catholic, he might have been expected to be sympathetic. Alas, as his biographer Antoinette Quinn has written, Kavanagh found it necessary to distinguish himself from the others waiting for the ferry, “signalling his special status as a mystical poet by standing apart in meditative pose, gazing intently at the island”.
It was, he later conceded, a “bogus trance”.
Unfortunately, it caused the ferrymen to mistake him for (in Quinn’s word) a “nutter”. A humiliating confrontation occurred, witnessed cheerfully by his fellow penitents, against whose narrow-minded piety he was already prejudiced. Not even the whiskey he smuggled onto the island anaesthetised him sufficiently. His subsequent account was so far from what the Independent required, they refused to run it.
In his long poem Lough Derg, Kavanagh was a bit more reverent, although he still distanced himself from the peasants praying for their children to get good jobs.
Not that he would have been averse to doing that himself if he thought it might work.
Soon afterwards, the Independent sent him on another pilgrimage, to Croagh Patrick.
And having learned his lesson as a freelance journalist, if not as a Christian, he delivered such a glowing account that the Indo was more than happy to publish.
Nor did his reward end there. It so happened that, the day it appeared, Kavanagh was in court suing the British and Irish Steampacket Company for an incident in which a horse-drawn lorry allegedly knocked him off his bike on Dublin’s quays.
He was claiming the usual post-traumatic stress and loss of earnings. And on the latter, at least, he evidence was questionable.
But in an apparent act of Providence, the pious judge had read and enjoyed his feature in that morning’s paper. So after ascertaining the plaintiff was indeed the author, he asked how much Kavanagh earned from writing.
Lying shamelessly, the poet replied that it averaged “about £5 a week”.
The judge duly dismissed B&I’s claim of contributory negligence and awarded Kavanagh “thirty-five pounds and three shillings”, or as Quinn puts it, “the equivalent of six weeks’ fictitious wages plus a little extra for the damage to his bicycle, clothes, and nerves”.
If there is an actual purgatory somewhere, Kavanagh may still be serving time in it.
As for the Donegal version, Lough Derg continues to adapt itself to a changing world. What the website calls its “ever new pilgrimage” now includes “themed retreats”, “quiet days”, and a special outing for families. But the annual season for three-day visits starts again today, and runs until mid-August.