Last weekend 23 pilgrims joined the Bishop of Derry, Rev. Donal McKeown, as he walked the 48 miles to St. Patrick’s Island, Lough Derg, before undertaking the three day pilgrimage.
Others who didn’t walk, joined him at the island. They told ‘Journal’ reporter ERIN HUTCHEON why they decided to take on the historic pilgrimage.
Bishop Donal McKeown was inspired to walk to Lough Derg after meeting Thomas Gallagher from the Cursillo Group when he made the pilgrimage to the island last year.
“For the past five years a group of Cursillo men have walked to Lough Derg,” noted Bishop McKeown.
“For the Year of Mercy I suggested that, as we were arranging pilgrimages to Rome and Lourdes, that we would arrange a walk to Lough Derg.
“And, of course, I wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself.”
Bishop McKeown said the walk, ahead of the gruelling three day pilgrimage, left him feeling energised.
“Walking is very energising,” he said. “ I met a lot of good people and we had the time to talk. We were discovering our identity in church as a pilgrim people and we were all on the journey together. After the walk it was an ordinary Lough Derg pilgrimage for me.”
The Bishop said that the Year of Mercy gives people the opportunity to do things that are slightly unusual. “There is a wisdom in there,” he said. “This is what we do as a church. Prayer and fasting are part of what we do. We are all the same in Lough Derg especially when the shoes come on, and we all experience the same when the feet are hurting.”
The Derry pilgrimage began last Wednesday when pilgrims walked the 48 miles to the island of Lough Derg. On the way the group stopped at various intervals and markers to pray the Rosary.
Day 1 was from Derry to Killygordon (23.5 miles) with a break on the way in Ballindrait. The first night was spent in Killygordon. Day 2 took in 20 miles with an overnight stay in Pettigo. On the third day the pilgrims made the last leg of the journey walking the 4.5 miles to Lough Derg. Those who didn’t walk last week joined the Derry group by car or bus on the Friday morning.
Another group from the diocese will be visiting Lough Derg again this year from August 4th to 7th.
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Helen McLaughlin, a mother of two and parishioner of St. Patrick’s Church in Pennyburn, walked the 48 miles to Lough Derg before taking on the three day pilgrimage. She is already planning next year’s trip . . . .
“Last weekend was the Triathlon in Derry.
“The Derry Diocese organised what I call a ‘religious triathlon.’
“There was no competition, no best time to beat and better than that, we took it to another dimension of our lives; the spiritual, the missing piece in the puzzle.
“I have walked with Thomas Gallagher and the Cursillo Group to Knock for six years and when asked if I was interested in going to Lough Derg I didn’t exactly jump at the offer. It was the Lough Derg experience that didn’t entice me, I had heard about the hardships of Lough Derg.
“The walk started on Wednesday and we met as strangers setting out from the Cathedral. The 48 miles walk bonded the group with a sense of caring, camaraderie and compassion (especially for those with sore feet).
“There was also plenty of laughter, prayer and fun along the way. The weather was good and the company was better as we walked the countryside. Prayer and the support of the group made the walk possible.
“Our arrival in Lough Derg on Friday was a different challenge for each one of us.
“A 24 hour vigil, one meal per day, no shoes or socks and believe me, we were not walking on the grass. Truth be told I found walking barefoot on stones very difficult but each one of us had something that was difficult, perhaps lack of sleep or hunger.
“It was truly stepping out of the material world and making room for God.
“Considering how much I was dreading Lough Derg, it was amazing how I can now say it was a wonderful experience and would do it again. As I said I had difficulty walking on stones, at one point I looked up and asked God if he was having a good laugh? He was just leading me closer to him.
“Thanks to Thomas Gallagher for organising this and including me.
“Special thanks to Bishop Donal McKeown for his help and support along the way. On completion of this triathlon I got a medal - a holy one. ‘I am the door, enter and be safe.’ John 10 v 9.”
Patsy McCallion (58) from Derry is married to Veronica and they have four children.
“This was my first time in Lough Derg. I did part of the 48 miles walk with the group but because I am self employed I had to return home for work. I am part of the Cursillo Group and we provided the back-up for the walking group.
“The walkers were in great spirits. They spent their nights in Killygordon and Pettigo, Bishop Donal led the attack and right from the start he was very involved and wanted to get to Lough Derg by the traditional route.
“Lough Derg had been on my bucket list, I always thought it was a place for sinners and now I am convinced.
“The island is a very personal experience. Lough Derg is about you, your prayer and reconciliation. The stations were tough but that might have been because I was doing three times more prayers than I should have been. I started praying at 11.20 a.m. and was still going at 5.20 p.m.
“I only noticed when people kept passing me. The fasting was no problem and I am a person who likes my food. But, for me, sleep was the big thing.
“At night when we were inside the Basilica doing the Stations, there were times I wasn’t praying but babbling. That said, there were 140 of us there and when you have that amount of people in one place praying, it makes it a very prayerful place.
“I am more of an action man and for me to sit and be quiet was a real wake-up call. The island gives you that time with no distractions. It’s very intense. I like quiet prayer and Rosary. When we walk to Knock we do the Rosary and it’s 15 decades every four miles. I am glad I went. Our Bishop is something else, no matter what we were doing he was there with us.
“I liked being able to sit and talk to the people on the island. I met one man who has done Lough Derg 32 times and another who does four days work and three days on the island every week in the Summer.
“It is a skip back to the dark ages and I do believe you can just as easily find God in your own parish. But it was spiritual and prayerful.”
Father of three Paddy Kelly (48) was part of the support team on the walk and took part in the three day pilgrimage himself.
“There was a great atmosphere, the weather was good and the walkers were enjoying it. Some of them had blisters but we were lucky we had a nurse with us.
“I was there to help the walkers giving them water and helping make the beds in Pettigo.
“I don’t think I’d ever really wanted to go to Lough Derg. My son passed away last year and I had lost a few friends to illness. I had watched a programme about Lough Derg on TV at Christmas. I decided that I was going to go, not just for me, but to offer it up. And I wanted to do it for all the people who couldn’t do it
“I’d heard it wasn’t easy and I knew it would be tough but I still wanted to experience it. There were people with us who have done Lough Derg 30 odd times.
“It was the stations that I found the toughest bit, for me the fasting and the lack of sleep were not a problem.
“We were always mixing and chatting to other people and I met two girls from Dublin who had come because their dad wanted them to do it.
“I enjoyed the Blessings and Confession when I had a good chat to a priest and that helped me a lot.
“Life is hard but I believe that if you can do Lough Derg you can do anything. I have heart failure and heart disease.
“Lough Derg is just a different world and when you are there you are completely focused.
“I had some great friends there and the Bishop was with us.
“The midges on Lough Derg are something else though, I have never experienced anything like them. I got a few bites on my legs but I saw some people wearing the bee keepers hats to try and keep them away.
“I might go back some day. I would never say no.
“I might now that I know exactly what is in front of me.
“That Sunday when we got up after the sleep was a great feeling.”