Lough Derg Retreats

Saint Patrick's Purgatory Is Not for the Faint- or Half-Hearted

St Patrick's Purgatory, Station Island, Lough Derg, County Donegal, Ireland
Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty Images

Lough Derg, also commonly known as Saint Patrick's Purgatory, is as far from a tourist attraction as you can get - instead, this is a pilgrimage site strictly open to those seeking meaning and direction (or simply some quiet contemplation) only. And, to be honest, would be off-putting to anybody not of the Roman-Catholic persuasion, as the rites and rituals of this faith pervade the site.

Visits of the "let's have a quick look, let's take a selfie, and then away again (unless they have a coffee shop)" kind are definitely discouraged.

They are, to be blunt, also impossible - once you are on the island, you are stuck, and no payment to the ferryman will change that.

But for any traveler wanting to experience the spirituality of Ireland, Lough Derg and Saint Patrick's Purgatory are definitely worth serious consideration. Serious in every sense, as the full pilgrimage should not be taken lightly. And takes some time.

Pros and Cons of Visiting Lough Derg

The pros of visiting Lough Derg include:

  • Lough Derg is one of the classic pilgrimage sites of Ireland, and one of the few that are still accommodating pilgrimages on a very regular basis.
  • The island in Lough Derg offers full pilgrimages, retreats, and also simple quiet days.
  • Visiting Lough Derg can be a rare spiritual experience, but the full pilgrimage will be physically (and mentally) demanding.

The cons include:

  • This is definitely not an attraction for the average tourist, who will have to stop on the mainland.
  • The full three-day pilgrimage is a grueling experience involving sleep deprivation and fasting.

A Short History of Lough Derg

The islands in Lough Derg have long been connected to Saint Patrick, Ireland's patron saint - who not only worked wonders here but also descended into purgatory. This was facilitated, according to legend, by Jesus himself, so that Patrick could preach hellfire and damnation with more conviction.

Later simply dubbed "Saint Patrick's Purgatory", the islands became a major pilgrimage site in the middle ages. Part of the attraction was a cave system, apparently, which induced visions in many ... whether due to noxious fumes, tricks of the light, or simple hysteria is open to discussion - though the church (of course) insisted that this was all a sign of God's hand at work (in the usual mysterious ways). The tradition of visiting Lough Derg was severely curtailed by the reformation.

Revived as a pilgrimage site in the 19th and 20th centuries, Lough Derg started to offer more and more comprehensive pilgrim facilities, but little comfort. Three-day pilgrimage thus should be undertaken by devoted pilgrims only - they are definitely not a "fun experience".

Is a Visit to Lough Derg for You?

Lough Derg, still known as Saint Patrick's Purgatory, is just off the shore, tantalizing near, yet very far away (and reachable only by ferry). The ecclesiastical buildings of the island retreat in Lough Derg are usually visible from the southern shore. Here the R233 from Pettigo suddenly ends after taking the traveler northwards through the wilderness for a few miles. And for the occasional visitor this will also mark the end of the journey - unless you are going to the island on a spiritual search you will not be allowed to proceed.

Proceed you should (only) if you are looking to experience the total immersion into Irish spirituality (of the strict Roman-Catholic persuasion).

For this, Lough Derg offers the following options:

  • Three Day Pilgrimages
    This full, classic pilgrimage can be commenced on almost any day between June, July or August and has to be started by fasting from midnight before arrival. Pilgrims must be at least 15 years old and in moderately good health. This pilgrimage involves fasting, walking barefoot (sometimes through ice-cold water), sleep deprivation and frequent kneeling!
  • One Day Retreats
    This is a sort of "Pilgrimage light" with less grueling conditions, it requires advance booking. Retreat days are in May, August, and September.
  • Quiet Days
    Lough Derg also offers simple, quiet days "where you can be all by yourself and rest for a while". Reservations are essential to ensure the correct contemplative atmosphere.

    If Lough Derg tempts you, be sure to visit their website - and you might also want to read Pete McCarthy's "McCarthy's Bar" for a very personal (and in parts quite hilarious) description of the full pilgrimage.