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Curious Eye

The intriguing history of the picturesque island on Lough Derg known as St Patrick’s Purgatory

This sacred island continues to be a popular pilgrimage destination, but in the 5th Century the Sanctuary of St Patrick was thought to lead to the gates of hell.

IN THE MIDDLE of County Donegal’s Lough Derg, you’ll find an unusual site. Contained within its approximately 9km size, as though floating on the lake’s surface, is a quaint island populated with monasteries and greenery. 

Known as St Patrick’s Purgatory, there are legends dating back to the 5th Century about its extraordinary history. Thought to have been visited by St Patrick – yes, the one who drove the snakes out of Ireland – who was supposedly shown a cave on the site by Jesus. 

What St Patrick witnessed in this cave can neither be confirmed nor denied, as there are no reputable records dating back to the 5th century. This legend didn’t appear in texts until the early 12th century. However, for thousands of years, it has been said that this cave provided a portal to another dimension. A portal, perhaps, to what awaits us after life. This cave was called, as Jesus told St Patrick, “Purgatory” and was to be used to prove the realities of hell and heaven. 

This gateway to hell was thought to have been useful to St Patrick to expose any reluctant converts to prove the Christian afterlife. In the years since there have been other suggestions as to what the cave-like structure of St Patrick’s Purgatory was. One idea is that it was a “sweat-house”, a structure akin to a sauna that was used by people in Ireland during the 12th century. This is most likely, especially as the term “purgatory” – as it is defined today – did not come into use until the 13th century. 

thebeautifulloughdergincountydonegal-ireland Shutterstock / Lukassek Shutterstock / Lukassek / Lukassek

Regardless of the history of St Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg continues to provide a space for a divine experience. On Station Island, the foundations of the 15th century monastic structures remain intact and in good condition. 

Today, from the start of June and the end of August, people continue to take a boat to Station Island to do their pilgrimage. Depending on one’s ability, you can choose to spend 1 to 3 days visiting the Sanctuary of St Patrick on Lough Derg. It is considered one of the more testing pilgrimages in Europe as participants are required to leave their shoes and socks behind once they step foot on the island as they fast and spend the time in deep contemplation. 

thebeautifulloughdergincountydonegal-ireland Shutterstock / Lukassek Shutterstock / Lukassek / Lukassek

On the website for the annual pilgrimage, it notes that the Sanctuary of St Patrick on Lough Derg has “[welcomed] pilgrims for over a thousand years. In the past 150 years, over 2 million people have spent time in prayer and contemplation on the Holy Island.”

One such pilgrim was Northern Irish writer and poet, Seamus Heaney. The Nobel Prize winner visited Lough Derg several times when he was a student at Queen’s University, Belfast.

loughdergmonasterysaintpatricksbasilicadonegalireland Shutterstock / Ondrej Prochazka Shutterstock / Ondrej Prochazka / Ondrej Prochazka

He wrote about his experiences and drew inspiration from the island in his 12-part poem, ‘Station Island’, which also gives the name of the poetry collection published by Heaney in 1984. The collection, which has 3 sections, ultimately, sets out to explore Heaney’s relationship with the politics and religion of Ireland. As well as Heaney, writer and poet Patrick Kavanagh also made the voyage to St Patrick’s Purgatory once during his lifetime.

While Station Island is not typically open to visitors looking to have a peek at the legendary site, why not sign up for a Lough Derg summer retreat and tread the same paths explored by St Patrick.

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