Voice of prayer continues at Lough Derg
In any other year, the traditional three-day pilgrimage season would have started at Lough Derg yesterday.
But 2020 has already proved to be a year like no other, with Covid-19 not only making social distancing an imperative but also placing restrictions on places of public worship, no matter how ancient.
With a Christian heritage believed to date back to the fifth century and St Patrick, Lough Derg - situated in Co Donegal, beside its boundaries with Fermanagh and Tyrone - has been a place of uninterrupted pilgrimage for 1,500 years.
Fr La Flynn, the pilgrimage's Prior, is determined that coronavirus won't change that.
So while St Patrick's Sanctuary, the pilgrim island also known as Station Island that lies in Lough Derg, should have been welcoming the first of hundreds of barefoot visitors, Fr Flynn instead made the short boat trip alone.
He intends to keep a prayerful vigil on the island - "the voice of prayer is never silent," he says - until pilgrims are eventually able to return; something he hopes may happen later in the summer if Covid-19 restrictions continue to ease.
"Lough Derg is still here," said Fr Flynn.
"At this time of year for many centuries now, pilgrims have come to this place apart, to this out-of-the-way corner of God's creation.
"They come to 'do Lough Derg' - to make space for the deeper things, to find peace, spiritual nourishment and new direction on their journey of life."
Those entrusted with care of the pilgrimage face a challenge "at this extraordinary moment in history," he said.
"How can we be faithful to its tradition and show solidarity with those faithful pilgrims who would normally be here but are currently prevented from making the pilgrimage?"
Fr Flynn said his response - "to be that voice of prayer on Lough Derg until the pilgrims can return" - was not an heroic act.
"It is a small prayerful witness on behalf of pilgrims who would otherwise be here themselves," he said.
"It is also a token of assurance to those who have sent their petitions and prayers to Lough Derg, that these will be placed before God through the intercession of St Patrick.
"Many of these prayers speak of the struggles, the challenges and the loss that people have been experiencing during this time of the Covid-19 pandemic, and of their trust that God is with them, to see them through."
From June 27 to 29, Fr Flynn said that people could "do Lough Derg from wherever they are, alongside the Prior and some members of the Lough Derg Pastoral team who will take their shoes off to do the full pilgrimage over that weekend".
This 'remote' pilgrimage has happened only twice before.
"In 1921 about 250 detainees at a prison camp in Ballykinler in Co Down sought permission to perform the pilgrimage exercises there in the camp," said Fr Flynn.
"Two years later the same request was made by 194 republican internees on board the prison ship Argenta moored in Belfast Lough.
"On both occasions, because of the exceptional circumstances, the Prior granted permission to do Lough Derg from afar."
The three-day pilgrimage programme involves prayer, fasting, walking bare-footed and undertaking a 24-hour Vigil. These traditionally take place from the start of June until August 15.
Lough Derg normally runs one-day retreats and special retreat days run in May, late August and September, with youth retreats in September and October.