The New Old Tourism

Culture - May 22, 2024

As members and friends of the ECR meet to reflect on the history of our continent and its interaction with a deep Christian heritage they do in one of the worlds great repositories of the plastic art of western civilisation. In an increasingly secular world it is in the great museums of the world that we remember where we came from, and to what we still owe a deep debt of gratitude. The religious art on the walls and the great and small churches abbeys and cathedrals that dot Europe teach if nothing else of the great and inspiring power that faith had for nearly millennia of our ancestors. In recent years there had been growing interest in rediscovering another vital element in the religious and cultural life of old Christendom, the pilgrimage.

The earliest form tourism surely the map of medieval Europe was criss-crossed with routes to sanctuaries and shrines. Of course certain destination ancient and modern have continuously attracted visitors Rome Lourdes Fatima and the Holy Land when possible but others have fallen from fashion and largely been forgotten, In Spain however one venerable pilgrimage had in the last 30 years reasserted its hold on our consciousness and become once again a great attraction to the religious and irreligious alike.

The Camino or the pilgrimage to the shrine of the Apostle James in Compostela has become hugely popular once again attracting young and old for whom the element of quest, physical challenge and connectivity with a past speak very powerfully. The revival of the Camino has lead to a re-examination of other routes, some international some local, for seekers who perhaps one or two generation ago would have looked east for spirituality but now these post Christian Europeans recognise the wealth that exists in their own traditions,

The most famous Irish pilgrimage that you have never heard of is St Patrick’s Purgatory locally better know simply as Lough Derg. The story goes that St Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland was vouchsafed a vision of a cave on an Island where the suffering of sinners in Purgatory could be contemplated. This cave he found on an Island in a lake in Donegal in the north east of Ireland. It proved to be a very useful tool in turning the initially sceptical Irish away from sin when they saw what would otherwise await them. Whether or not Patrick ever set foot on the Island or indeed knew of its existence we can never know but there is a very strong tradition of associated with St Dabheoc a disciple of Patrick and his founding a monastery on the Island, The origins of the pilgrimage site are reckoned to go back one and half thousand years.

Some historians believe that the cave was both a liminal place but also a Purgatory but not in the later Dantean sense. The ancient Gaels had a practice of using naturally enclosed spaces to create a sweat lodge or kind of sauna and they would burn different wood and herbs to inhale. It is possible that some of this inhalation aided in the visions of Hell that pilgrims reported experiencing.

While outside of Ireland and limited Church circles Lough Derg is largely unknown it was not always thus. If fact in the Medieval world it was famous. There are accounts extant from the period in English, French, Provençal, Catalan and Latin. It is mentioned by Froissart in his Chronicles and by Rabelais in Gargantua and Pantagruel. On cartographer Martin Behaim’s 1492 map of the world only Irish site is St Patrick’s Purgatory.

If you should be interested in doing the pilgrimage the season will open soon, on the 31st of May. Before you go you should understand the second reason it is called a purgatory as this is very much in the line of a short sharp penitential pilgrimage experience. You must fast from the midnight before you take the boat to Island. You do not have to be a believer but you must at least 15 years old, in good health and have good mobility. You will do the spiritual exercises for the 3 day barefoot and the only sustenance allowed being black tea and dry toast or oatcakes. However most pilgrims attest that the hard part of the experience is that you may not sleep until the second night of the pilgrimage and you can rely on fellow pilgrims to intervene should you nod off. Even once off the Island you must fast until midnight of the third day. The Island is small and numbers limited so it is best to go online and book in advance.

The season ends on the 15th of August so if you time right you can hit two penitential birds with one stone. A two and a half hour drive from Lough Derg is the small rocky mountain of Croagh Patrick. The legend has it that St Patrick went up the mountain to pray and fast for forty days and forty nights and there has been a church on the summit since the 5th century. Partick may have chosen the mountain as it was the focus of an ancient ritual landscape. The last Sunday in July is know as Reek Sunday when thousands of pilgrims come to climb to the summit, a practice that dates back to at least the High Middle ages. The mountain is ascended with what are called Rounding rituals and walk sunwise around the Reek. The part that makes this penitential, like all old Irish religious practices, is that this should be done barefoot. However in these softer modern times many pilgrims do wear shoes. The view from the summit is spectacular, looking out over Clew Bay and its hundred sunken drumlin islands.

If however after the rigours of of Lough Derg you wanted something a little easier, a little kinder then precisely on the day that the Purgatory closes another short season opens on the opposite corner of the country. The pilgrimage to Lady s Island goes back certainly to at least the 12th century as we have an account of a knight making a votive pilgrimage before his departure to fight in the Crusades. As an early Christian site it is probably even older than lough Derg as the tradition is that the first church built was built by a disciple of St Ibar aka Iberius. St Ibar was one of the Quattor sanctissimi Episcopi  who preceded Patrick in the evangelisation of Ireland and the south east of the country already had a Christian population to whom Palladius was sent in 431 AD. The Island is in fact not an Island but a spit of land that juts out into a tidal inlet which looks like a lake, The pilgrim rounds the “Island” praying 15 decades of the rosary, stopping at certain point along the route. The round is done shod not barefoot and beside the Island on the shores of the lake is a church centre which serves tea and very good cake to the hungry and thirsty. The season opens on the feast of the Assumption and ends on the 8th of September the feast of the nativity of of the Blessed Virgin with mass celebrated by the local bishop and a torchlight procession. No booking needed .