Baring my soul (and feet) on pilgrimage to Lough Derg

Bishop Donal McKeown with parishioners from the Derry Diocese who went to Lough Derg ar the weekend.  DER3115GS53
Bishop Donal McKeown with parishioners from the Derry Diocese who went to Lough Derg ar the weekend. DER3115GS53

The priest tells us we’re the luckiest group they’ve had this season because it’s the first night it hasn’t rained.

But I don’t feel particularly lucky sitting in the chilly St Patrick’s Basilica, barefoot, waiting to begin my all night vigil.

This is St Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg, an island thousands have flocked to over the centuries. And now it’s my turn. This is no weekend spa retreat. At Lough Derg, there’s no priority boarding and no room upgrades.

“Once the shoes come off we’re all equal,” says Bishop of Derry, Donal McKeown.

Last weekend Bishop McKeown led 43 pilgrims from the Derry diocese on a pilgrimage to Lough Derg, a place where the human body is pushed to the limit not only because of a lack of food and sleep, but the huge physical exertion it takes to conquer the penitential beds by walking around them barefoot.

I was given plenty of advice before setting foot on Lough Derg.

Midge repellant was top of the list, warm clothes, at least three layers, and rain proof gear. No one mentioned knee pads which really would have come in handy given the sorry state of my knees after three days on the island.

As I checked my bag before I left I bemoaned the fact I was leaving behind my hair straighteners, my make up, and my beloved mobile phone, how was a girl expected to survive?

The island has a strict ban on mobile phones and all electronic devices.

Pilgrims must remain barefoot and the only meal allowed is dry toast, wheaten bread, and black tea or coffee, served once a day.

The penitential bed dedicated to St Columba.

The penitential bed dedicated to St Columba.

We arrived on Friday afternoon just after 3 p.m. and were shown to our rooms, a small cubicle with bunk beds.

It’s at this point you say goodbye to your shoes, and you don’t see them again until the morning you leave, because pilgrims negotiate the island barefoot.

During our three days we have to complete nine stations, three of which had to be done before 9 p.m. on the first day.

The station begins by the pilgrim reciting seven decades of the rosary while walking around the basilica barefoot. You then make your visit to the six penitential beds.

In busy times pilgrims have to queue at the penitential beds.

In busy times pilgrims have to queue at the penitential beds.

The beds are rings of boulders and rough stones embedded up-end in the soil, some on a steep incline, in the centre of each stands a crucifix.

Four sets of prayers are said at each bed, dedicated to six different saints, with the pilgrim kneeling and walking around at different points, finishing with more prayers as you kneel in the centre.

The beds are a little tricky to begin with, and I was confused about what I was doing.

But there’s always a priest around or member of staff happy to answer your questions.

It was Father Cathal Deery who gently pointed out that I had started at the wrong end of the penitential beds, so I started again.

I struggled to get my three stations completed before the 9pm. deadline, even missing out on a promised one hour of rest before the all nighter began.

Shauna McGrath and Megan Cassidy serve the Lough Derg meal of black tea and coffee and dry toast.

Shauna McGrath and Megan Cassidy serve the Lough Derg meal of black tea and coffee and dry toast.

Seasoned Lough Derg pilgrims told me that to complete the beds in time, I should have got there earlier. One man, who had walked all the way from Derry told us he arrived at lunchtime, completed the three stations, had his Lough Derg meal and gone for a kip.

While most pilgrims struggle with the lack of sleep on their three day pilgrimage, it was the penitential beds that gave me the greatest difficulty. The beds, particularly the first two were very difficult to negotiate, while praying.

On the beds, I saw immense acts of kindness, one young man held his hand out to help me while I was negotiating a tricky rock. Kneeling on the beds is a painful task, but one we all tried to “offer up.”

It takes around an hour to negotiate a full station and nine must be done in the three days.

But the bulk of the work is undertaken on the first day when a total of seven stations are completed.

During the pilgrimage we had two Lough Derg meals, which comprised as much dry toast, wheaten bread, and black tea or coffee as you can stomach.

One of our group experimented making his own jam from tea leaves and sugar. Only go for one meal though, one pilgrim tried to sneak back for a second meal only to be recognised by the kitchen staff who sent him on his way.

The night vigil is a part of the pilgrimage that can bring the human body to breaking point.

It begins with some quiet reflections and the rosary, before the group, 241 of us on the night of my vigil, made our fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh station.

This time instead of outside on the penitential beads, the stations are done inside the magnificent basilica. Again this takes about an hour. It’s a little strange at the beginning to see 241 people walking around the church, kneeling at various intervals, then standing and sitting.

After each station, there’s a short break before the next one starts.

It’s a long night, made worse by the piercing cold. Outside, where you find yourself when your eyelids begin to get heavy, the ground is so cold it feels like tiny knives stabbing you through your heels and soles.

I thought of my contraband hot water bottle sitting in the dormitory and wondered if I could sneak up and get it. But no, that would be breaking the rules.

But you can take refuge in the Flood Room, a special part of the island where pilgrims can shelter from the elements, and drink hot water or Lough Derg Soup, hot water with pepper, a delicacy that’s best avoided.

It was during the breaks that I got to meet a few of the other pilgrims. One woman told me this was her 56th time at Lough Derg. Another man said this was his sixth visit, his coldest retreat, adding “I’ll never be back.”

But most of the pilgrims give you that line, and it’s almost become a standing joke. Lough Derg tends to call people back again and again.

It’s a long six hours until 6 a.m. and the end of the evening part of the vigil. The fourth station is a bit of a blur and lack of sleep had me forgetting things, at one point even the words of the Hail Mary. But the more experienced Lough Dergers explained that disorientation is to be expected under the circumstances.

The morning after, we’re reminded that some difficult hours still remain ahead as we’re expected to stay awake until 10pm. which will be a full 24 hours since the vigil began. We’re asked to refrain from lying down on our bunks when we go for a wash and a change, because of the temptation to snatch a quick sleep.

The morning of the second day pilgrims have the opportunity to take part in the Sacrament of Reconciliation - that’s confession to you and me.

It’s a difficult sacrament for some, and the priests encouraged everyone to come forward and take part, even if many years have passed since they’ve last been to confession.

I don’t do confession, haven’t done so for a long time, but I decided that the Lough Derg experience wouldn’t be complete without it.

Father Cathal Deery, is one of the many priests at the island who put so much time and energy into making the three days an opportunity to take time out, look at the past, deal with the present and look to the future.

He barely flinched when my first ‘confession’ of the confession was that I hadn’t taken part in the sacrament for 22 years.

He’s a gifted and compassionate priest. My confession was a very spiritual, maybe a life changing experience and the one part of my pilgrimage that will stay with me forever.

Day two can be a difficult day, pilgrims only have one station to complete and tiredness is kicking in.

Despite the Lough Derg rule of ‘don’t lie down and don’t stretch out’ some of the pilgrims did succumb to power naps.

The day ends with evening Mass and night prayer before the vigil candle is finally extinguished signalling our vigil is over.

The it’s off to the dormitories for the first bit of sleep in 36 hours.

In the women’s dorm I threw on a pair of woollen socks and sank into bed. But no sooner were my eyes closed than the bell was ringing us for 6.30am Mass.

I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for my fellow pilgrims who were only coming off the night vigil, while my group had just had eight hours sleep.

One more station round the basilica and the boats had arrived to take us off the island.

As I waited to board, the pain in my swollen feet and the stiffness in my joints reminded me of everything I’d accomplished in three days.

At Lough Derg it’s not about focussing on the things you can’t have while you are there, it’s about what you can have. Time to switch off, distance yourself from the stresses and pains that take up so much of your time in real life. Time for a little solitude, guidance and grace.

That and the 3,745 Hail Marys I recited (yes I counted them).

The island gave me a truly spiritual experience. I was especially grateful to be rid of my mobile phone for three days. When I eventually switched it back on and saw how little had happened while I was away it made me wonder why I’m normally so surgically attached to it.

Lough Derg’s Prior Father Owen McEneaney shook the hand of every single pilgrim as they got on the boat and we made our way back to the mainland singing Hail Glorious St Patrick.

Legend says that if you don’t look back over your shoulder at the island you’ll never return.

I had a half look over my shoulder.

Another legend says that if you visit Lough Derg three times you’re guaranteed a place in heaven.

I’m a third of the way there now, surely?

My only disappointment is that the gift shop didn’t stock T-shirts stating #ididloughderg - I’d have bought one of them.

Will I go back? Bishop McKeown says God willing, he’ll be taking members of the diocese again next year.

Ask me then.

The Lough Derg season finishes on August 13, the last day pilgrims can begin their three trip. One Day Retreats begin on August 17 and continue on certain days in late August and September.

Next year’s season begins on Wednesday June 1.

To find out more ring 02868632391 or email

Pilgrims pray at the cross of St Patrick.

Pilgrims pray at the cross of St Patrick.

The vigil candle remains lit for 24 hours.

The vigil candle remains lit for 24 hours.

Journal reporter Erin Hutcheon  with Bishop Donal McKeown.

Journal reporter Erin Hutcheon with Bishop Donal McKeown.