Faith Matters

Lough Derg: Steeped in history, looking to the future

As it prepares to reopen after two years of Covid-enforced closure, Lough Derg - a pilgrimage site associated with St Patrick since the 5th century - is looking to the future while paying homage to its rich past...

After two years which saw pilgrimages suspended because of Covid restrictions, St Patrick's Purgatory on Lough Derg is ready to welcome pilgrims back.

AS Fr La Flynn, the current Prior of Lough Derg observes - with some understatement - the sacred pilgrim site set in Co Donegal is "absolutely steeped in history".

Though the coronavirus pandemic has been historic in its own grim way, its two years of disruption need to be seen in the context of a story which stretches back more than 1,500 years.

That's when the first monks settled at Lough Derg, not long after St Patrick came to Ireland.

As the 21st century stewards of the pilgrimage get ready for a post-Covid reset of the three-day and one-day retreats, they are fully mindful of the legacy they have inherited.

"For more than 1,500 years Lough Derg has been a sacred place and over the centuries it has been synonymous with the name of St Patrick," says Fr Flynn.

"It would seem to have been well established as a place of pilgrimage by the 9th century, and on a world map of 1492 the only place marked within Ireland is the penitential island named as St Patrick's Purgatory."

The emergence of a pilgrimage to St Patrick's Purgatory - another name, along with 'Station Island', by which Lough Derg is known - made this remote part of Donegal "famous across Europe all through the Middle Ages", says Fr Flynn.

"Still today, the island can offer a meeting place where God's healing grace is experienced in an intensity seldom encountered elsewhere, through the spiritual programmes, the companionship of fellow pilgrims and the sense of a place apart that is enhanced by the location of the island."

Given the history of the place, establishing a museum on the lakeshore has been a dream of the team at Lough Derg for some time.

This recently became a reality thanks to the support of Donegal County Council, who contributed significant funding to help develop a museum.

"We will be delighted to welcome many people - pilgrims, visitors and tourists - to this wonderful new facility when the pilgrimage season officially re-opens on Sunday May 1," says Fr Flynn, who is also the Administrator of Pettigo Parish.

The Lough Derg team and representatives from Donegal County Council at the official opening of the new Pilgrim Shelter Museum.

Called the 'Pilgrim Shelter Museum', it is hoped it will serve as an "institutional memory" of Lough Derg as a place of pilgrimage and as a new point of interest, to complement a revamped visitor centre.

"In addition to the thousands who come each year as pilgrims, many other visitors arrive at the lakeshore - walkers, cyclists, families on days out and organised tour groups," says Fr Flynn.

"The Pilgrim Shelter Museum and the newly refurbished visitor centre will surely enhance the experience for visitors and pilgrims alike.

"The 1,500-year timeline illustrated in the visitor centre, and the range of perspectives offered by the museum, will provide a whole new dimension for those who enjoy an opportunity to look anew at the past."

Before the pandemic, the last time the pilgrimage season was suspended was in 1828.

In a normal season, more than 10,000 pilgrims travel to the island. When that had to stop, suddenly, in 2020 - and again in 2021 - the Lough Derg team came up with imaginative ways to continue the unique mission.

These included a 'Do Lough Derg wherever you are' online event in late June 2020 - the first time that the pilgrimage, including an all-night vigil, was experienced digitally.

More than 1,000 people took part, with some joining from Vancouver and Beijing.

And with Covid restrictions reintroduced last year, the 'virtual pilgrimage' took place again.

Another positive development that grew from the enforced suspension of the traditional pilgrimage was a guided walk on the lakeshore Lough Derg Pilgrim Path.

And while the digital pilgrimages are - hopefully - not to be repeated, the guided pilgrimage walks on the path look likely to become a fixture in the Lough Derg programme.

Before the pandemic struck, one pilgrim summed up Lough Derg's appeal in this way: "Lough Derg is a special place, a hidden treasure. It is pure and untarnished.

"It is a place of beauty and rhythm, which provides sanctuary from much of the slavery of modern living - no mobile phones, no wifi, no TV, just the sounds of the creatures of nature, the lapping of the lake water, and buildings and spaces which nourish the spirit."

Fr Flynn is clearly delighted that the pilgrimages to St Patrick's Purgatory have been given the green light to resume. He is looking to the season ahead with confidence, and believes that Lough Derg is back with a stronger mission than ever, faithful to the spirit of Ireland's patron saint.

"Re-opening the island for the usual one-day retreats in May, August and September, and for the three-day pilgrimages from June 1 to August 15 is a historic moment in itself, and our dedicated team have been putting plans in place for pilgrims to return in a safe manner," he explains.

"This is the year to encourage anyone who has always thought about visiting, or who has had the three-day pilgrimage on their 'bucket-list', to come and see what it is all about.

"It is an opportunity particularly for those who feel the need to 'switch off', and for others it may perhaps be a call to re-connect in a vital way with God.

"Our boats are ready to welcome pilgrims on board, no matter where their spiritual journey has taken them."

Information about Lough Derg's one-day retreats, three-day pilgrimages, lakeshore Pilgrim Path and group tours and visits is available from loughderg.org, by emailing info@loughderg.org or telephoning 00353 (0) 71 986 1518.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

Faith Matters