description St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was famed for his strict fasts and his practise of extreme bodily mortification, not only for the conversion of Ireland but also to atone for his own sins.

Why was fasting and penance so important to him? According to Catholic teaching, if you do not make reparation for your sins, even if you are saved, you must still make satisfaction for them in the next life in Purgatory where your sins are ‘purged’ from your soul before you may enter Eternal bliss. Saints and mystics who had been granted visions of the dreaded place of cleansing described the various torments endured there, each torture depending on the nature of the sins committed. One poor soul who had been granted permission to come back and tell of his sufferings said the pains were so bad that minutes felt like hours if not whole days. Also, there were many poor souls there with years, even centuries, left to serve on their sentences in that woeful prison. In all, the soul warned it was far better to do penance on earth than see what may await you in Purgatory.

Returning to St. Patrick, Station Island situated on Lough Derg, County Donegal became famed for his teaching on the subject. According to one story, he gave a sermon on Hell and Purgatory to the locals, but they remained sceptical about the existence of these places saying they would not be so doubtful if one of them could be permitted to descend, see what was there, and return to tell the tale. The saint was so upset by this lack of faith he wondered how he could convince the Irish and prayed to God for assistance. Christ appeared and showed the entrance to a cave on the island which led to Purgatory and Hell. A man was sent down to see these strange abodes, and according to the story, returned to describe what he had seen. In other stories, St. Patrick ordered a pit to be dug into which the man descended. Medieval accounts describe the ‘pit’ as a shaft that was a low and narrow kiln. Ever since, the island has sometimes been referred to as ‘St. Patrick’s Purgatory’.



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Illustration of Station Island by Thomas Carve, (1666). 'Caverna Purgatory' marks the site of the cave.



Was it just a legend? There is in a fact a cave on the island, which has been closed to the public since October 25, 1632. Some authorities claim it received the name ‘purgatory’ from the Latin medical term of ‘purgatorium’, a room to purge the body of all ailments and impurities, further pointing out that the ancient druids would often use caves to smoke medicinal herbs to cleanse the body through sweating similar to modern saunas. In addition, historians note that the ‘purgatorial’ nature of the cave was not attached to St. Patrick and the Christian doctrine of Purgatory until much later in medieval documents. Despite these observations, the old texts are still fascinating. They tell of other brave souls who wished to follow in that first adventurer’s footsteps and see the gloomy realms of the Christian underworld for themselves. By the time the monastery was built on the island, the brave pilgrims had to seek the permission of its founder, St. Dabheog, who was one of St. Patrick’s disciples, before they could venture into the pit, or a series of nine ‘pits’, after which they were lowered into the final dreaded shaft.



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Picture of the chapel, bell tower, and 'penential pits' or 'beds of the saints'on Station Island. The cave lies under the bell tower.


What did the penitents endure? Here legend becomes blurred. One story relates that St. Patrick was attacked by demons in the shape of black crows for forty days on the island as a penance, and that those who came to the island were assaulted by the same bird-like demons. If they survived, they had accomplished their purgatory. The text by the famed medieval chronicler of Ireland, Giraldus Cambrensis, relates a different description. According Giraldus, the island was occupied by the monks on one side and a hoard of demons on the other that continued to cause an uproar and disrupt the monks’ peace with their pagan festivities. By then, the pilgrimage had developed a set ritual. Before they were permitted on the island, the pilgrims had to seek permission of the local bishop whose duty it was to dissuade them from undertaking this perilous journey. First they would be reminded of the horrific torments they would endure, then learn about the fate of those penitents who had never been seen again. Tales abounded of those reprobates who were not worthy of salvation and were dragged body and soul to hell instead. If the pilgrims persisted in performing the penance, they were conducted to the shaft with all due ceremony and lowered down by means of a rope with nothing but a loaf of bread and a vessel of water to sustain them in their fight against the evil demons. The pilgrims spent a night in each of the nine ‘pits’ and were tormented in a thousand different ways by devils for those nine nights before being lowered into the cave. At the end of each night, if the pilgrim survived, he was taken to the church in a joyous procession bearing the cross and chanting psalms. If a pilgrim was not to be found, the sacristan simply closed the doors to the church, that soul was lost for all time.

In some texts there is evidence the ritual of the pilgrimage had changed in the later Medieval period, that the penitents were allowed only one drink a day from the sacred lake, but were not expected to go into the nine ‘pits’. Instead, they took part in procession and prayed at the ‘stations’, or ‘penitential beds of the saints’ for nine days. On the ninth day they listened to sermons telling them of the danger they were about to undergo by venturing into the cave, and if they still wished to undertake the penance of staying a full day and night in the kiln, they forgave their enemies and said farewell to each other before they were lowered into the cave in case they might never be seen again.

The various legends state that several people returned to bear witness of the terrible sights they had seen of Purgatory and sometimes Hell. The place was so terrifying they could laugh no more and could no longer take part in anything mirthful on earth. The reputation of the island became so great during the Middle Ages that it was a continual point of reference for preachers when people doubted the existence of Purgatory. Many flocked there to perform penance, and perhaps, to see what awaited them in the next world. A ‘Knight Owen’ supposedly made a descent in 1153 and came back to tell of his experiences. In 1358 Edward III gave a Hungarian nobleman letters patent attesting that he had indeed ‘undergone his purgatory’.

Believe it or not, the island is still a popular place of penance and is often booked out. For three days pilgrims ‘undertake their purgatory’ by going barefoot and saying prayers, walking around to the famous ‘prayer stations’ or ‘beds of the saints’ in all weather be it rain or shine. On the first day, a twenty-four hour prayer vigil is commenced, only on the second day are they allowed to sleep. Until then, each pilgrim must watch out for their neighbours and prod them awake if they happen to nod off. Mass is also celebrated, and of course, penitents participate in the sacrament of confession. Furthermore, a strict fast of one meal a day is observed and consists of dry toast, oatcakes and black weak tea or coffee. If this is too unbearable, I have heard that the staff will provide a bowl of broth, but don’t expect it to be fancy! The penitential soup is so watery that the poor pilgrim is wondering what was boiled in it, if indeed, anything made it into the pot at all besides a dash of salt and pepper. Lough Derg is considered the toughest Christian pilgrimage sites in all of Europe if not the world, and not recommended for anyone under the age of fifteen or who has health issues. At least the ordeal now lasts only three days instead of nine!

Interested in booking a pilgrimage? Visit: http://www.loughderg.org

For those who are curious about Purgatory, this is one of my favourite books on the subject:

Purgatory Explained by the Lives and Legends of the Saints by F.X. Schouppe

Purgatory: Explained by the Lives and Legends of the Saints



(Commentary for this blog post about the medieval legends of St. Patrick’s Purgatory taken from: ‘The Poetry of the Celtic Races’ by Ernest Renan (1823-1892), The Harvard Classics, Vol. 32, pp. 177-178.)

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Published on March 16, 2013 16:19 • 3,360 views • Tags: christian-traditions, lough-derg, medieval-legends, middle-ages, purgatory, st-patrick, st-patrick-s-purgatory

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