Lough Derg's pilgrim spirit undeterred by pandemic
IN normal times, the Prior at Lough Derg and the team who run the pilgrimages synonymous with the Co Donegal oasis of peace and prayer would by now be reflecting upon another busy season.
But these are not normal times. The coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions it has placed on everyday life, including places of worship, meant that the Prior, Fr La Flynn, realised it would be impossible to hold the three-day Lough Derg pilgrimages which traditionally run between the start of June and the middle of August.
Nor would one-day retreats to Station Island be viable, or any of the other activities which punctuate the pilgrimage season.
With a Christian heritage believed to date back to the fifth century and St Patrick, Lough Derg has been a place of uninterrupted pilgrimage for 1,500 years.
Fr Flynn was determined that Covid-19 wouldn't stop that. In June, when the island should have been welcoming the first of hundreds of barefooted and fasting pilgrims, he made the short boat trip alone, and began his own prayerful vigil: "The voice of prayer is never silent," he said.
Online retreats were also offered. At the end of June, around 1,000 people all over the world took part in a 'remote' three-day pilgrimage to 'do Lough Derg'.
Another innovation was the opening in July of the refurbished 'pilgrim path' - with 8km and 12km options - along the shore of the lough.
The 'walk and pray' path's history can be traced back 400 years to a period when penal laws placed a ban on crossing to the island.
Undeterred, pilgrims nonetheless made the journey to Lough Derg and instead said their prayers along the lakeshore.
"Their resourcefulness inspired us to put together a form of pilgrimage using our refurbished pilgrim path and offering a prayerful walking experience in the spirit and tradition, we hope, of the best of Lough Derg," said Fr Flynn.
Trying to run such events, even outdoors and with the requisite social distancing and public health compliance, proved difficult.
Tightening Covid-19 restrictions meant that by mid-August the lakeshore pilgrimage had to be suspended.
It was able to resume again on Sunday, following a change in government guidance over the numbers allowed to attend outdoor events.
Sunday's pilgrim walk was followed by another yesterday, with a further planned for Saturday.
"Part of the experience will include Mass at the Mass Rock near the old quarry if the weather is on our side," said Fr Flynn, who said he hoped many friends of Lough Derg would be able to join him.
More information at www.loughderg.org