Guest Post: Paradise on a Penitential Island (Part 1)


Let me introduce you to Mary Barber. Mary is a member of the local writing group here in Kilcullen. Everything she reads to us makes me think and makes me laugh. On Culture Night she shared this story of her experience of pilgrimage on a cold wet island in the middle of a lake in Donegal, Ireland.
On the promise of a coffee and maybe a slice of cake to go with it, she has allowed me to post in here. 
It’s quite a long piece so I’ll give you half today and I know you’ll be wanting to come back to here the rest of it… Enjoy 🙂

Paradise on a Penitential Island (Part 1)

Photo taken from Wikipedia
Photo taken from Wikipedia

I know that it is ungenerous of me but when someone describes themselves as ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’, a little unkind part of my brain thinks that this is the equivalent of saying that you have a slow metabolic rate rather than admitting that you just couldn’t be bothered exercising.
You see I told you it was ungenerous and unkind, but unfortunately a big chunk of me has ungenerous and unkind tendencies.

I have no real idea what I am, but I think that at this stage of my life, viewed from the outside, I could be considered religious.
Obviously I do hope that there is a spiritual element to my religious efforts, but a part of my brain – the self congratulatory part, thinks that doing religion is to God what laundry or putting the bin out is to your spouse – obviously not essential elements of the relationship but when done with good cheer they certainly help the wheels of the relationship to turn.

This summer, as part of my religious efforts, I ‘did’ Lough Derg. I suppose the hope was that I would have a spiritual experience – whatever that is.

For now I would just like to invite everyone – spiritual, religious or both – to ‘do’ Lough Derg.

Not the balmy one described by Wikipedia as “Lough Derg Shannon”, but the one described as “Lough Derg Ulster, best known for St Patrick’s Purgatory, a site of pilgrimage on Station Island in the lake.”

The reason I extend the invitation is because it was there on that island of purgatory, and penance and stations, that I discovered that I am neither religious nor spiritual.

I am pure flesh

– a great lumbering body of raw animalistic appetites.
Deny me my food, deny me my sleep, and by the second day I might just eat someone alive.

To give some background information and to save me the effort of coming up with original material I will now quote from the Lough Derg website:

“The traditional Three Day Pilgrimage follows a 1000 year old pattern. As soon as you arrive on the Island you take off your shoes and socks. You start the traditional series of Station prayers, walking around the penitential beds.
(At this stage I must digress and inform you that what they call a ‘bed’ is not to be confused with the pocket sprung, memory foam, type of thing we normally call bed.
What they call a bed is actually an uneven circle of rock about the same size as a dinner table for ten. So imagine you and six or seven other people stepping from plate to plate on top of this table for ten. This gives you some idea of the physical dexterity required to walk around the penitential bed.
All eyes are down, focused on rock and other people’s feet. Early on you realise that feet come in all shapes and sizes.
Your eyes are down and your entire mental effort is given over to not falling between the cracks. It all feels insanely pointless but maybe that’s exactly the point.
Back to the brochure…)

At 10pm you begin a 24-hour vigil which ends when you go to bed on the second night.
You will experience a great sense of community as you celebrate Eucharist, the Sacrament of Reconciliation and take part in time-honoured rituals and prayers.
You leave the Island on the morning of the third day, although your fast continues until midnight.
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have managed to complete this pilgrimage, thought to be the toughest in all of Europe, perhaps even in the whole Christian world.

(Another aside – when they say ‘fast’ they are not talking Usain Bolt or ‘one full meals and two collations’. What they are talking about is described in the website as follows: )

Pilgrims are allowed ONE Lough Derg meal on each day of their pilgrimage, consisting of Toast (without butter), Oatcakes and Tea/Coffee (without milk). On the third day of the pilgrimage, once pilgrims have departed from the Island they are permitted to take Soft Drinks. Still water is allowed at all times throughout the pilgrimage and drinking fountains are available, while bottled water is available to purchase in the souvenir shop.
Please note pilgrims must be at least 15 years of age, and in good health.”

Age restrictions and the term “in good health” is always a bit concerning!

With the benefit of hindsight I can admit that there was enough information in those few paragraphs to have given me full warning, but I thought I was made of stern stuff.

Dry toast, black tea – no problem. My waist hip ratio bears witness to the fact that I am well prepared for a nuclear winter.

“Vigil ends when you go to bed on the second night.”

This bit really did have me worried…

Part 2 coming soon… 🙂 A x

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