Lough Derg - the perfect antidote for 21st Century Living

Pilgrims at Lough Derg.
Pilgrims at Lough Derg.

Where would you get it? An activity break that includes coach transfer, return boat trip your own island retreat and two nights’ accommodation with ‘full’ board for just £60.

The island retreat in question is Lough Derg, also known as Station Island or St Patrick’s Purgatory, which lies about four miles north of the border village of Pettigo in County Donegal. A place of pilgrimage for around 1500 years, it is one of the oldest and, some say, hardest places of pilgrimage in the Christian world. Lough Derg can be a cold and inhospitable place. Throw in sleep deprivation, hunger pangs and the ubiquitous midges and you can see why it can be a hard sell to get people to this particular island retreat. It’s not called St Patrick’s Purgatory for nothing!

Over the past two decades, millions of pounds have been spent upgrading the existing buildings and providing new facilities on the island, Yet, for all the changes and improvements to the physical fabric of the island, the structure of the traditional three day Lough Derg pilgrimage remains largely unchanged.

People ‘do’ Lough Derg today in much the same way as they’ve been doing it for centuries. I did it last month – and was fortunate to get ideal Lough Derg weather: warm, dry with enough wind to keep the midges at bay.

Pilgrims on the three day pilgrimage arrive on the island anytime from midday to the middle of the afternoon on the first day. Some will have travelled for hours - not easy on an empty stomach - so by the time they get to Lough Derg, they are already tired and hungry.

On arrival, pilgrims check into their adequate but basic accommodation, remove their shoes and make their barefooted way to the Basilica to start the first of nine ‘Stations’.

Three Stations are completed before the vigil, another four during the night, the eighth on the morning of day two and the ninth and final station after 6.30 am Mass on day three before pilgrims leave the island around 9.30 am.

A station consists of mantra type prayers said standing, kneeling and walking as pilgrims make their way around the Basilica and the penitential ‘beds’.

The beds are a Lough Derg euphemism for the stony and often remnants of 9th century monastic cells. Watching barefooted pilgrims of all ages circle first the outside and then the inside of each of the beds is a strangely humbling and almost hypnotic experience. No matter how careful you are, you will still stub a toe or two on sharp edged stones lurking beneath the surface of a muddy puddle. As you make your way around, you’ll hear the occasional sharp intake of breath but the air is not littered with expletives - which says a lot for the peaceful, contemplative atmosphere that is uniquely Lough Derg.

Pilgrims break their fast with one Lough Derg meal each day. The meal consists of as much dry toast or oatcakes that you could possibly eat at one sitting, washed down with as much black tea or coffee as you could possibly drink. As a nod to changing tastes, green and fruit flavours teas were introduced in 2009. The ‘good news’ for those with lactose intolerance is that they can have as much gluten free bread as they want.

The first night on the island is spent on vigil so when the vigil candle in the Basilica is unceremoniously snuffed out around 9.45 pm to signal the end of the vigil, pilgrims on their second day leave the Basilica, deliriously happy at the thought of bed. Lack of sleep and not lack of food is the hardest part of Lough Derg. Most people sleep without rock until they are eased into the new day by the strange sound of a muted horn. After 6.30 am Mass pilgrims on their third day complete their last ‘station’. Then it’s back to the dormitory to put on shoes and walk in comfort to the boat and the short trip back to the mainland. Although not quite in the spirit of Lough Derg, it’s hard not to feel smug as you walk past Day 2 pilgrims who at this stage are just midway through their vigil.

Away from Lough Derg the fast continues until midnight on day three but pilgrims can drink soft drinks at any time. This soft drink concession is to keep people hydrated as many will have a long journey home ahead of them while others are heading straight back to work. Once off the island, people can also look forward to their third Lough Derg meal.

Regular pilgrims to Lough Derg are easily identified as they move silently around the island. They know that for all its wild beauty, Lough Derg can be desolate place so they come well equipped for the vagaries of an Irish summer. They are ones with wet gear, hats, scarves, gloves, legwarmers – maybe even a hot water bottle - and good waterproof jacket with plenty of pockets for insect repellent and sun cream, just in case.

On the other hand, those not familiar with the rigours of Lough Derg pack differently – like the lady who brought her running gear with the intention of going for a jog. Not only did she not realise that she would be barefoot for the duration of her visit but that the Basilica and other buildings pretty much occupy the entire island leaving no scope for even a short barefooted jog.

Lough Derg is an opportunity to step back from your usual routine. To paraphrase WB Yeats, ‘peace comes dropping slow’. Away from the trappings and distractions of modern day living, there is time to talk to friends and meet with strangers but also time to be alone. Solidarity and solitude both come easy on Lough Derg.

Walking barefoot is a great leveller – and not just in the most obvious way – and sharing a Lough Derg meal with strangers is not as strange as you’d think. Conversation flows freely in the dining room where the usual ‘starters’ are along the lines of ‘are you up tonight?’, is this your first time?, or ‘where are you from?’ and before you know the conversations around the table take off, meandering in and around all kinds of interesting topics.

Doing Lough Derg gives you a chance to meet people from many different backgrounds who each have their own reasons for going. It could be a personal challenge, in thanksgiving or just curiously. Like the American who walked all the way from Dublin to Lough Derg before starting his three day pilgrimage just to see if he could; the English lady now living in the US who had heard so much about Lough Derg from her Derry born mother that she wanted to experience it herself.

You also get a chance to meet some truly inspirational people. Charlie McEvoy, a sprightly 94 year old from Ardee, was making his 59th visit the island - or maybe his 60th, he wasn’t sure - and he hopes to return again in 2016. At the other end of the age spectrum was a 19 year old UCC student on his first visit with his mother who was a regular. Against her advice, he didn’t bring bedsocks or hot water bottle as once he decided to go, he said there was no point in being soft about it. Not everyone would be so hardcore.

Lough Derg is perfect antidote for modern day living. Mobile phones are not allowed but even if you were tempted to bring one, the chances of getting a signal are nil. Most people though, once they get over the initial withdrawal systems, admit to being surprisingly relieved to get away from the phone, the radio, the television and constant barrage of news and noise.

Doing Lough Derg is an opportunity turn down the volume, appreciate the sound of silence and take in the natural beauty of the surrounding countryside – when it’s not shrouded in mist. If the weather is kind, you could witness an amazing sunset or sunrise. If spiritual fulfilment is your thing, then the oratory, ceremonies, Taize chants, quiet room in Davog House and piercingly beautiful sound of the cantors, will tick the boxes.

Although traditionally associated with penance, today Lough Derg is more likely to be seen as a spiritual retreat and opportunity to step back from the fast pace of modern living.

Catchy marketing slogans like ‘Tune into a new Station’ and ‘Fast Food for the Soul’ show that Lough Derg, is moving with the times. It has embraced social media and when they return home, pilgrims are encouraged to ‘like and share’ on Facebook as a way of reaching a new generation of pilgrims.

One day retreats (no fasting or barefeet) were launched in 1992 for people unable to endure the physical challenge of the three-day retreat. These have introduced the island’s special spiritual atmosphere to wider audience and extended the Lough Derg season from May through to September.

Since the start of the 2015 season in May, approximately 7,000 pilgrims and visitors have been to Lough Derg and around 5,000 of them have completed the Three Day Pilgrimage. If the trend for the early part of the season continues, there will be a steady increase in pilgrim numbers peaking in the second week of August. Iinternational pilgrims are only a small percentage of the overall pilgrim numbers but so far this year, there have been pilgrims from: USA, Austria, Canada, France, Italy, Lebanon, Poland, Kuwait and Malaysia.

Bishop of Derry, Dr Donal McKeown is leading the Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lough Derg next weekend.

While he admits that Lough Derg may seem like a strange place to go for a weekend break, Bishop McKeown says that in recent years there has been a rediscovery of the idea of pilgrimage, even for apparently non-religious reasons.

“On Lough Derg, in your bare feet, everybody is on the same level as they struggle with tiredness, hunger and discomfort.

“Croagh Patrick, the 125 mile Walk to Knock, and Lough Derg have all retained a strange attraction for those who want to push themselves beyond the normal. This second Derry diocesan group is part of our shared faith journey as we travel to pray in a unique spot, which has no comparison anywhere in the world.”

The all in price of £60, which includes all transport to and from the island, accommodation and one Lough Derg meal each day, which must make it the best value activity break in Ireland this summer. For further information contact Niamh Moore n.moore@derrydiocese.org  telephone: 02871 264087