Lough Derg- St Patrick’s Purgatory

Lough Derg
Lough Derg

Lough Derg is situated about four miles north of the village of Pettigo in County Donegal.  The small lake-island renowned in Irish Christian tradition since the time of St. Patrick, has been receiving pilgrims for well over 1000 years. St. Patrick while in a cave on the island is said to have had a vision of the punishments of hell, hence the place came to be known as St. Patrick’s Purgatory.

In former times the emphasis was more on the physical penance and hardship of the pilgrimage exercises.  Nowadays the pilgrimages see it as a grace filled opportunity to get away from the stress of modern life.    

Lough Derg provides an opportunity for people to take time to step back from their lives, and to examine the direction that their lives are taking.  For many it is a time to get closer to God through prayer and meditation.  The island itself has been made holy by the millions of prayers made by pilgrims over the centuries. 

The island offers a wide range of programmes to the pilgrims.  The most famous of these pilgrimages is the traditional three day pilgrimage, which commences at the end of May and ends mid August annually.  Pilgrims must be at least fifteen years of age, in good health and be able walk and kneel unaided.  The pilgrimage is a three day fast which includes a 24 hour vigil.  Pilgrims arrive on the island having fasted from the midnight before.  They have one simple meal a day which consists of dry toast, oatcakes, black tea or coffee on each of the three days.  The central prayer of the pilgrimage is called a ‘station’.  Each station involves the repeated praying of the Our Father, the Hail May and the Apostles Creed, as pilgrims walk, kneel or stand barefooted. Pilgrims depart on the third day and the fast concluded at midnight.

The One Day Retreat was introduced in 1992, and is available to adults only.  It is a structured day of prayer and contemplation and pilgrims need not fast or walk barefooted.  Pilgrims are invited to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and to the celebration of the Eucharist.   

On 5th March, 2014 the Very Rev John Dunlop, minister of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland joined the new Prior of Lough Derg, Fr. Owen J McEneaney in unique circumstances to mark Ash Wednesday on the Lough Derg for the very first time.    The Day of Friendship and Prayer on Lough Derg, an inter church day, is a unifying occasion for neighbours to reach out through their shared Christian heritage on this unique island made sacred through centuries of prayers.