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St. Patrick’s Purgatory is an ancient pilgrimage that has taken place on Station Island in Lough Derg, County Donegal, Ireland. The traditional date of the origin of the pilgrimage is from 445, when Saint Patrick visited the lake. Its importance in medieval times is recorded in the fact that the lake is the only Irish site named on a world map of 1492. The association with St Patrick dates back to legends that while in a cave on the island, Patrick is said to have had a vision of the punishments of Hell. Hence the place came to be known as St Patrick’s Purgatory.
Every year a three-day pilgrimage begins in May and ends mid-August. Pilgrims must be at least fifteen years of age, in good health and able to walk and kneel unaided. The pilgrimage is a three-day fast incorporating a 24-hour vigil. Pilgrims arrive on the island , having fasted from the previous midnight. They have one simple meal of dry toast, oatcakes and black tea or coffee on each of the three days. The central prayer of the pilgrimage is called a ‘station’. Each station involves the repeated praying of the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Apostles’ Creed, as pilgrims walk or kneel or stand, barefooted.
Legend maintains that St. Patrick had grown discouraged by the doubts of his potential converts, who told him they would not believe his teachings until they had substantial proof. St. Patrick prayed that God would help him relate the Word of God and convert the Irish people, and in return, God revealed to him a pit in the ground, which he called Purgatory; by showing this place to the people, they would believe all that he said. By witnessing Purgatory, the people would finally know the reality of the joys of heaven and the torments of hell.
The true site of Purgatory is not known, though it is assumed to be either on Station Island or Saint’s Island. After St. Patrick’s visit to Lough Derg, there was established in the 5th century a local abbot to care for the site, who became St. Dabheog, the patron saint of Lough Derg. The beehive cells on Station Island date from this period, and it is thought that the pit of Purgatory also lies on Station Island. The pilgrimage at this time would last for about a month; the monks would fast and meditate within their cells in preparation for entering the pit of Purgatory, where God would reveal all the possibilities of the afterlife to them.
By the 12th century the care of the site had been given to Augustinian Friars, who built a monastery on Saints’ Island to allow a greater space for preparatory services to enter Purgatory. The church is a basilica. Pilgrims would be processed through this place, and would be given their final sacraments before the short sailing trip to Station Island. From the time of St. Dabheog, the notion of Purgatory and the desire to experience the afterlife on earth grew, so that by the 12th century pilgrims from all over continental Europe were traveling across the northern Irish countryside and walking the pilgrim path around Lough Derg. A fascinating account of a visit to Lough Derg by Spanish pilgrim Ramon de Perillos in 1397 is given in Michael Haren and Yolande de Pontfarcy’s book, The Medieval Pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Purgatory: Lough Derg and the European Tradition (Clogher Historical Society, 1988), along with several other pilgrims’ accounts.
Though Lough Derg’s international fame is diminished, it remains a sacred space and a way to experience Purgatory for faithful pilgrims all over Ireland. Today St. Patrick’s Purgatory takes place on Station Island from June 1 until August 15 every year. Pilgrims fast (being allowed only one meal a day, of black tea or coffee and dry toast), pray all-night vigils, and make barefoot circuits around the stone remains of the ancient beehive cells (nicknamed beds) during their 3-day stay.
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