‘How well I know that fountain, filling,
although it is the night.
That eternal fountain, hidden away,
I know its haven and its secrecy
although it is the night.’
Extract from Station Island by Seamus Heaney
Writers through the ages; Dante, Kavanagh, Heaney to name a few have been inspired to put into words the powerful magnetism of the sacred Island familiarly known today as Lough Derg, located in the hills of Donegal, Ireland – a living place of pilgrimage that links back to the 5th Century.
The latest book, published in 2016, entitled Lough Derg ‘Island of Quiet Miracles’ is written to appeal to the people of today. It eloquently fuses the Island’s history, Celtic Christian Spirituality and the personal experience of the author, Rev Professor Eamonn Conway, both a pastor on the Island and pilgrim says, ‘Miracles can actually happen in this sacred place – not the ones that get the headlines. The miracles are a quiet sense of peace and healing that many people seem to come away from Lough Derg with.’
Many personal letters from pilgrims are also testament to the Island as a place of quiet miracles through their witness of prayers being answered following their time on pilgrimage. Pilgrim Mary wrote in 2017, “…our prayers were answered following our visit to Lough Derg this past season. We had a very difficult situation we had been dealing with for a few years – we also sent regular prayer petitions to you. All has now been resolved and we thank you for all your prayers. The Island is a magical place where miracles happen.”
Lough Derg is not about escaping life but about getting to the heart of what life is all about. This could be one reason why it has stood the test of time and why it leaves people bereft of words as to why they continue to – ‘do Lough Derg’ – an endearing term used by many pilgrims to describe the Three Day Pilgrimage.
Lough Derg – a link with the past
Lough Derg the place and the experience are such that only a morsel of its narrative can ever be told. The entire discourse is known only to God. The Island’s spiritual roots are steeped in the monastic tradition. One of the earliest Christian settlements was founded on Saint’s Island and in close proximity was another island which became associated with the pilgrimage from this early time. The Island of pilgrimage is called Station Island and has as its patron St Patrick because of his association with the monastery. Lough Derg is known as a sanctuary due to its links with monasticism and the wider area was also well-known as a place of refuge. The river flowing through the nearby town of Pettigo is still known as Termon, from the Irish Tearmann, meaning sanctuary. A place where you can go to without being judged, a place where you can feel safe… these are some of the words pilgrims have used to describe Lough Derg for hundreds of years.
It was the monks from Saint’s Island who first came to Station Island, the island where the pilgrimage takes place today, a sanctuary where they could retreat to from busy monastic life at the service of others in order to replenish their own spiritual resources. It was at this time that the beehive stone structures were erected on Station Island. Today the circular stones pilgrims walk on during the Three Day Pilgrimage are remnants of these structures.
It was not long before the people who travelled to the monastery, not just for spiritual sustenance but because these places were centres of trade, industry, education and commerce all rolled into one, also travelled for a deeper encounter and the spiritual wisdom of the monks on Station Island. This was the very early formation of the practice of pilgrimage in Lough Derg.
Over the centuries the Island has been plundered and the Vikings destroyed the monastery on Saint’s Island in the 9th Century. Despite the destructive events that fell upon Lough Derg it continued to be a place of pilgrimage and it was in the 1100s that international fame spread about this place then known as St Patrick’s Purgatory. At this time the Augustinian Canons took over administration of the settlement and they ran it as a Priory with the Priest in charge known as the Prior. To this day this title is still in use albeit that the Island came under the custodianship of the Diocese of Clogher in 1780.
There are many legendary stories of spiritual encounter from those who came to the Island to undertake the rigors of the pilgrimage in the middle ages when it lasted for fifteen days with fasting and other penances – the fast only broken once daily by a simple meal of bread and water. By the 16th century the pilgrimage had changed and was reduced to nine days. Today the pilgrimage is over three days and the act of fasting and walking barefoot on the remnants of the beehive structures continues keeping the unbroken tradition of prayer since the 5th century.
In many ways Lough Derg is a contradictory place. It contradicts the accepted values of the world, offering people the opposite of what human beings are supposed to want. Comfort, nourishment and sleep are discarded in favour of the challenge.
This is a pilgrim’s reflection on this contradictory place:
Lough Derg possesses a deep quietness. The sounds to be heard are the lapping of lake water against rocks, the murmur of voices and occasional birdsong. No footsteps disturb the stillness. No TV, phones, computers to intrude here…here your outer layers are striped off. Your mind is cleared of clutter and you set aside all the things that seemed so important on the mainland. You have stepped off the world for two days and Lough Derg removes the dead layers of mental debris. It happens almost without your awareness and as the second day draws to a close you find an inner peace seeping into your being.
Many come back again and again, finding here something that defies analysis. Maybe it is time out of life. The young, the old, the middle-aged from all walks of life people come to Lough Derg.
We went home with quiet pools of peace in our hearts, a peace formed in the hours away from every day routine.” Reflection by Alice.
This reflection echoes the grace of the sacred Island – an oasis of calm. Taking a detour from daily life to this place gives us the distance to establish perspective and focus on what really matters and in the silence that pervades the stillness of the Island we can listen – listen to an interior voice, to be grounded in our reality, resilience and in our relationship with God.
The invitation of Lough Derg remains as it has always been;
Come as you are, friend or stranger, young or old, searching or at peace, in joy or in sadness;
come to the sanctuary of St Patrick, a shrine of prayer and deep awakening to the presence of God.
It is in this sacred Island that everyone is welcome in their real rather than ideal state.
Pilgrimage Season 2017
Today we are living a more frenetic lifestyle than ever before, where the noise of life is so constant that to come to a place which is really free of the way technology can invade our lives – our personal space – to be free of interruption, a place where we can get in touch with our deepest selves, it is really a great gift to come to Lough Derg.
There are a number of opportunities for people to experience this unique place of peace;
A One Day Retreat on the Island offers the opportunity to connect with the spirituality of the Island. The day follows a set programme of prayer, reflection, contemplation and concludes with the celebration of Mass in St Patrick’s Basilica.
The Retreat programme runs from 10.00am – 4.00pm on certain days in May, late August and September.
On Lough Derg the modern day Three Day Pilgrimage is a faith-filled journey to inner peace. A deeply powerful experience that requires endurance and an openness to enter into the spirit of the pilgrimage and to surrender to the tried and tested.
The Three Day Pilgrimage Season opens on 1st June and continues until 13th August this the last day pilgrims can commence their pilgrimage each season.
During the pilgrimage season there are special days where people can join us and have a different experience; Quiet Days, Ecumenical Day of Friendship & Prayer, Living with Suicide Retreat and other day offerings.
For detailed information on the 2017 Pilgrimage Season visit www.loughderg.org or contact 071 9861518.
Sharon Hearty, Lough Derg
Sharon Hearty works with the communications office at the Sanctuary of Saint Patrick, Lough Derg, a place of pilgrimage since the fifth century. This article appears in the July/August issue of Reality magazine and is shared with the permission of the editor, Father Brendan McConvery.