St Patrick’s Purgatory, an ancient pilgrimage site on Station Island in Lough Derg in County Donegal is, according to legend, the site where Christ took St Patrick to show him a cave that was the entrance to Purgatory.
The story goes that St Patrick received visions of the punishments of hell at the cave and was able to use the site as proof of the afterlife for his doubting followers.
Given the obvious lack of any documentation during fifth-century Ireland, there is no proof that St Patrick ever visited Lough Derg, but there was certainly a monastery on the island at that time – it was the only Irish site on Martin Behaim’s world map of 1492. That monastic compound still exists to this day, although much extended, some of the original foundations still remain as does its status as a site of pilgrimage.
Every year the main pilgrimage season begins in late May/early June and ends mid-August, on the 15th, the feast of the Assumption of Mary. The three day retreat is not for the faint hearted. Following a boat trip from Lough Derg to Station Island, penitents surrender their socks and shoes and take part in three long days of fasting and prayer.
The first night is spent praying in the Basilica, followed by prayers and incantations said continuously whilst walking barefoot around the ‘stations’ that are the remains of monastic huts. Aside from a daily snack of dry toast, black tea or coffee, the only other sustenance is the famous Lough Derg ‘broth’ – hot water flavoured with salt and pepper. There are only a few hours designated sleep throughout the weekend and the fast must continue after the pilgrims have returned home until midnight of the third night.
The Lough Derg pilgrimage was very popular when I was growing up, however, having seen my mother do it twice, I was never tempted!
Given its reputation as a place, associated with contemplation and self-denial, Station Island has long been attractive to writers and poets – among them William Carleton, Denis Devlin and Patrick Kavanagh.
The poet Seamus Heaney did the pilgrimage on several occasions and his 1984 collection Station Island features a long poem dedicated to the place. It is broken into twelve stanzas and, taking its inspiration from Dante, follows Heaney on his pilgrimage as he encounters ghosts from his past who engage him in dialogue.
Heaney called it
the three-part Dantean journey scaled down into the three-day station, no hell, no paradise, just ‘Patrick’s Purgatory’.
Among the ghosts he meets are his mother, an old school teacher, a priest he knew who died, a school friend shot by the IRA and a second cousin who was killed by a Protestant along with William Carleton, Patrick Kavanagh and finally James Joyce. He enters into conversation with those he meets, musing on religion, politics and death and his place as a poet in society. Memories drum him back to his past. An old monk tells him to ‘Read poems as prayers’ while Joyce tells him to
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough.
Now strike your note.
Here is my favourite stanza from this stunning poem.
Morning stir in the hostel. A pot
Hooked on forged links. Soot flakes. Plumping water.
The open door letting in the sunlight.
Hearthsmoke rambling and a thud of earthenware
drumming me back until I saw the mug
Beyond my reach on its high shelf
The one patterned with cornflowers, blue sprig after sprig
Repeating round it, as quiet as a milestone,
old and glazed and haircracked. It had stood for years
in its patient sheen and turbulent atoms,
unchallenging, unremembered lars
I seemed to waken to and waken from.
When had it not been there? There was one night
when the fit-up actors used it for a prop
and I sat in a dark hall estranged from it
as a couple vowed and called it their loving cup
and held it in our gaze until the curtain
jerked shut with an ordinary noise.
Dipped and glamoured from this translation
it was restored with all its cornflower haze
still dozing, its parchment fast –
as the otter surfaced once with Ronan’s psalter
miraculously unharmed, that had been lost
a day and a night under lough water.
And so the saint praised God on the lough shore.
The dazzle of the impossible suddenly
Blazed across the threshold, a sun-glare
To put out the small hearths of constancy.
Happy St Patrick’s Day!