St. Patrick's Purgatory was a principal Irish landmark on a world map of 1492. Today, it remains the only penitential pilgrimage site in the modern Christian world. Situated on a small remote island in northwestern Ireland, the Purgatory has a continuous and unbroken tradition of pilgrimage since the time of St. Patrick. For centuries the shrine has conducted three-day pilgrimages of prayer, fasting, and penance. Even today, the site draws more than 30,000 people a year from all walks of life.
The first writings of St. Patrick's Purgatory, or Lough Derg, go back to 784 A.D. Annals of Ireland. In the Middle Ages, the island was so famous that Shane Leslie once wrote, “St. Patrick's Purgatory was the medieval rumor which terrified travelers, awed the greatest of criminals, attracted the boldest of knight-errantry, puzzled the theologian, englamored Ireland, haunted Europe, influenced current views and doctrines of purgatory, and not least inspired Dante.” Throughout the years, especially since the 16th century, the penitential activities, prayers, and focus of the island have changed little. Prayer, conversion, and reparation remain the major themes of St. Patrick's Purgatory.
During a typical three-day pilgrimage to the isolated island, pilgrims fast from all foods and liquids, except water. The fasting begins from the midnight before the pilgrim's arrival on the island. Once at Lough Derg, pilgrims continue to fast for the remainder of the three-day period, except for one light meal daily consisting of bread and oat biscuits, water, tea, and coffee. Once on the island, pilgrims remove all footwear and remain barefoot during their entire stay. The first night consists of a “sleep fast”—pilgrims spend the night performing various stations in or near the basilica. These stations consist of prayers, meditations, and spiritual exercises. At dawn, Mass is celebrated, along with communal morning prayers. After evening Benediction on the second day, pilgrims are allowed to retire to bed—the first moment of sleep for the visitors in 24 hours.
The three days are spent mostly in quiet prayer (silence is not mandatory), with continuous walking, standing, and kneeling at various assigned stations or penitential “beds.” One station, for example, would include visiting the Blessed Sacrament in St. Patrick's Basilica, then going to St. Brigid's Cross near the outer part of the basilica, walking over rough stones around the “beds” while reciting the rosary, then repeating the process on one's knees, and then with arms outstretched saying three times, “I renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Pilgrims perform nine stations similar to this one. Morning prayer, Mass, confession, the way of the cross, the rosary, a renewal of baptismal promises, evening Mass, night prayer, and benediction make-up the remaining part of the scheduled spiritual exercises.
Given all the comforts of the modern world, why would one go to St. Patrick's Purgatory? Several reasons emerge from the testimonies of the thousands of people who go on pilgrimage there yearly. For some, it is a place of solitude; for others, a place of thanksgiving for a favor receive; for others, it is a place of reparation for past sins. Most, however, come here to be face to face with God without the cozy chairs, padded kneelers, full stomachs, and soft beds encountered elsewhere. The three-day immersion in prayer and penance gives pilgrims the chance to attempt to imitate Jesus' experience of fasting and praying in the desert.
For those who are up to the challenge of St. Patrick's Purgatory, the pilgrimage season lasts from May 1-Sept. 20. Three-day pilgrimages take place between June 1-Aug. 15, and one-day retreats on specific dates during the months of May, August, and September. For the three-day retreats, pilgrims must be at least fifteen years of age and in good health. The one-day retreats, which are much less demanding than the traditional three-day retreats, do not require fasting or walking barefoot. Private and silent retreats are also available by arrangement during the months of March, April, October, and November.
Advance booking is not necessary for the three-day retreats and pilgrims may arrive on any day of the week. Boats run from 11:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. each day. Those who would like to do one-day retreats should make reservations beforehand. The one-day retreats begin at 10 a.m. and end at 5:00 p.m., and boats will be waiting to bring you to the island. As the weather is often wet and cold, it is advisable to bring warm and waterproof clothing.
Lough Derg is located in a secluded area of northwestern Ireland—the nearest village being Pettigo, four miles away. In traveling to St. Patrick's Purgatory from Dublin, take N3 to Cavan Town and Butler's Bridge, and then follow N54 (Monaghan) for approximately seven miles. Then pick up A34 to Newtown, Butler, Lisnaskea, and Maguiresbridge. From there take A4 to Enniskillen, A32 and B82 to Kesh, and finally A35 to Pettigo. The trip from Dublin to Pettigo takes about two and a half hours.
The nearest train station is approximately 50 miles west of Lough Derg in a town called Sligo. The daily coach service from Sligo connects with the train and also with coaches from Galway, Knock, and Westport direct to Lough Derg during the three-day pilgrimage season (June 1-Aug. 15).
From Dublin, there is daily coach service during the three-day pilgrimage season direct to Lough Derg from the Central Bus Station. The bus departs each morning at 10:00 a.m. Connections are also available from Shannon Airport and Galway city. Although bus service is not available outside the three-day pilgrimage season, individuals and parish groups may arrange private coach trips from different areas of the country during the oneday retreats. St. Patrick's Purgatory, however, is not open to the public for pilgrimages or retreats from November until April.
For more information on making a pilgrimage to St. Patrick's Purgatory, contact one of the many Catholic travel organizations or contact the shrine's pilgrimage office at: The Prior, St. Patrick's Purgatory, Lough Derg, Pettigo, County Donegal, Ireland; tel. & fax 011-353-72-615.18; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kevin Wright writes from Bellevue, Washington.