For over 1500 years pilgrims have travelled from near and far to the shores of Lough Derg in Donegal, where they have awaited transportation by boat to what has often been described as one of the most arduous pilgrimages in Christendom. The Lough Derg Pilgrimage lasts for three full days and in that time people are pushed to their physical and mental limits. Pilgrims are expected to fast for three days, surviving on black tea or coffee and toast, and during this time maintain a vigil of prayer.
The exact origins of the pilgrimage may have been lost through the passage of time but the fundamental basis of the experience remains as it has done for a century and a half. A litany of prayers, known as a Station, is to be followed methodically, barefoot.
Upon arrival pilgrims are shown to their bed space in dormitories. They leave behind all they have brought with them, including their socks and shoes.
In the centre of the island there are a number of ‘Penitential Beds’ which are the remnants of the old beehive prayer cells used by the monastic community that lived on the island back in the ninth century. They are the oldest remaining structures and form the central part of the prayer programme. The prayers could be called body prayers. The emphasis is on kneeling and walking while reciting basic prayers – Our Father, Hail Mary and Creed. The specific and prescribed prayers to make a Station are outlined in the guidance booklet given to each pilgrim on arrival.
At the very heart of the three day pilgrimage is the 24 hour vigil, where pilgrims journey together in watchful prayer. Liturgies celebrated during the pilgrimage include the Eucharist, Reconciliation and the Way of the Cross.
Nine Station Prayers are completed over the three days. The first, second and third Stations are made on the Penitential Beds on day one. Pilgrims make the fourth to seventh Stations together in St Patrick’s Basilica during the night Vigil. The eighth is completed during day two and the ninth before departure on day three.
In the 1950s it was not uncommon for there to be close on 1,000 pilgrims on the island at any given time. They come for many reasons, though the underlying purpose is to cleanse and purge the individual of sin. For many it is a time of prayer and of taking time out of the busy schedule of life to meet with others on a similar journey. Ultimately it is an opportunity to connect or reconnect with God at a deeper and more meaningful level.
As society moves forward we ask ourselves in today’s world: is Lough Derg a relic of the past?
In a world where we are often too busy for God and too busy for others, here at Lough Derg pilgrims have no choice but to connect with others and hopefully with God. The world of modernity has been left behind. Regardless of status, all are treated alike; with limited food, little sleep and barefoot, all journey on the same path. Everyone pays the same charge, eats from the same bowl, drinks from the same cup and walks the same journey. It is this experience of unity that draws the pilgrims closer together as they help and encourage each other through the journey of Lough Derg.
In life we all need a little time out to take stock of where we are, where we have been and where we are going. To connect with others on a similar quest is surely no bad thing.
The three day pilgrimage season at Lough Derg runs from 29th May to 15th August. For more information go to www.loughderg.org
Michael McAndrews works for Castle Craig Hospital, an alcohol and drugs residential rehabilitation centre near Edinburgh.