St. Patrick's Purgatory is an ancient pilgrimage site on Station Island in Lough Derg, County Donegal. According to legend, the site dates from the fifth century, when Christ showed Saint Patrick a cave, sometimes referred to as a pit, on Station Island that was an entrance to the hell. Its importance in medieval times is clear from the fact that it is mentioned clearly in texts from as early as 1185 and shown on maps from all over Europe as early as the fifteenth century. It is the only Irish site designated on Martin Behaim's world map of 1492.
In the nineteenth century there was some confusion about the actual site of the Purgatory - whether it was on Station Island or Saints Island on Lough Derg, County Donegal. For instance the early nineteenth-century Ordnance Survey maps of Ireland (1837-42) locate the Purgatory on Saints Island. However, its location on Station Island is a tradition that continues unbroken from the Middle Ages. It is clearly indicated on documents dating from that time, and it appears as "Caverna Purgatory" on the detailed map of Station Island in Fr. Thomas Carve's book, Lyra Hibernica (1666).
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.
Given the sparsity of any documentation for fifth-century Ireland, it is not surprising that there is no proof that St. Patrick ever visited to Lough Derg. And while this is the legend, it is a rather late legend dating probably from the twelfth century. There is however a much more firmly established tradition regarding St. Dabheog or Dabheoc, a local abbot who presided over, and possibly established, the monastery on the site during the lifetime of Patrick. His name has been associated from these early centuries with several places in the area, for instance: St. Dabheoc's Chair on the south bank of Lough Derg, the townland of Seedavoc (St. Dabheoc's Seat), and a mountain in that townland, Seavadog Mountain. One of the islands in Lough Derg was also named after him: St. Dabheoc's Island, which may have been Saints Island or another island entirely.
Although the cave has been closed since October 25, 1632, several descriptions by early pilgrims survive. They referred to it as a cave or cellar or as an enclosed pit. The entrance, which was kept closed and locked, was quite narrow: about 2 feet wide and 3 feet high. Once inside there was a short descent of about six steps. The cave was divided into two parts: the first was about 9 feet long, probably with banked sides and only high enough to kneel in; after a turn there was another niche about 5 feet long.
Since the site has never been excavated, we can only rely at this point on these descriptions of the cave. However based on other archeological excavations it seems clear that this was probably an ancient structure. Some have suggested a souterrain, a place for storing crops and animals. However, the size of the cave would make this seem very unlikely. A much more plausible suggestion is that it was one of the ancient sweat houses, which were actually still in use in Ireland into the twentieth century. From modern practice we know that people would enter these small enclosed places to inhale medicinal smoke produced by burning various plants. The name "purgatorium" could possibly have been used here originally with its Latin meaning as a place for cleansing and purging - much like a modern sauna; especially since the modern notion of "purgatory" as a place for punishment in the afterlife did not come into common use until the thirteenth century. The cave would then have been a place that people went to for physical or spiritual healing, even before it became associated with St. Patrick in the twelfth century as a place for strictly spiritual healing.
The monastery and its functions:
A monastery probably existed on the islands in Lough Derg from the fifth century and it probably included anchorites who lived in beehive cells - which may be preserved in some form in the penitential beds that can still be seen on Station Island.
Around 1130 the monastery was given to Augustinian Canons Regular by the authority of the cathedral in Armagh, under Saint Malachy. The monastery on Saints Island offered hospitality to pilgrims, who would visit in a spirit of penance and prayer. It also served as a place where pilgrims could prepare themselves for visiting the Purgatory. Documents report that pilgrims who did want to visit the Purgatory would arrive with letters of permission from a bishop, either from their own region or from Armagh. They would then spend fifteen days fasting and praying to prepare themselves for the visit to Station Island, a short boat ride away. At the end of the fifteen days, pilgrims would confess their sins, receive communion and undergo a few final rituals before being locked in the cave for twenty-four hours. The next morning the prior would open the door, and if the pilgrim were found alive, he would be brought back to Saints Island for another fifteen days of prayer and fasting.
From the time of St. Dabheoc, it appears that this region attracted pilgrims from far and wide. By the twelfth century they came from all over continental Europe, most likely sailing from England and landing at Dublin or Drogheda. From those ports they would make their way by foot, stopping at monasteries along the way on what would probably be a two-week journey across the Irish countryside to their destination. In this period many sinners and criminals were sent on pilgrimage to atone for their deeds and seek forgiveness. St. Patrick's Purgatory would be a likely destination for these penitential pilgrims, or exiles, since communities of anchorites were often considered to have special power to absolve them.
The monastery was dissolved in 1632, although the local lord apparently allowed the monks to remain. By 1710 the Franciscans were present on the island in the summer to administer to the needs of the pilgrims. They built a church, St. Mary of the Angels, on Station Island in 1763. In 1785, administration of Station Island came into the hands of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Clogher.
There is no evidence that the pilgrimage to St. Patrick's Purgatory was ever interrupted for any period of time. It continues even today, after almost one and a half thousand years. Every year the main pilgrimage season begins in late May/early June and ends mid-August, on the 15th, the feast of the Assumption of Mary. It is a three-day pilgrimage open to pilgrims of all religions, or none, who must be at least fifteen years of age, in good health and able to walk and kneel unaided. Pilgrims, who should begin fasting at the previous midnight, assemble at the Visitor Centre on the shore of Lough Derg early in the day (between about 10 am and 1 pm). From there a boat ferries them on the brief trip out to Station Island. Once on the island they are assigned a dormitory room, and barefoot they begin a specified and almost continuous cycle of prayer and liturgies.
These prayers - the Our Father (or Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Apostles' Creed (all included in a booklet they receive)- are carried out at designated 'stations' on the island, including six 'beds' that are the remains of ancient cells or beehive huts, named for famous - principally Irish - saints. These are thought to be the remains of early monastic cells.
Pilgrims spend the first night in the island's basilica in prayer, and only on the second night can they finally sleep in the dormitory. Each day on the island the pilgrims have one simple meal of dry toast, oatcakes and black tea or coffee. On the third morning they are ferried back to the mainland, where they will continue their fast until midnight.
There are also other programs throughout the year, including Quiet Days, Family Days, and One-Day Retreats.
The site is under the stewardship of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Clogher. The staff includes people who can help with both spiritual and practical concerns. Facilities include a kitchen, laundry, first-aid station and book/gift shop.
Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii is a 12th-Century account in Latin of a pilgrimage to St Patrick's Purgatory. Marie de France translated it into French and expanded it into the Legend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick.
Other medieval works include The Knight of Hungary, or George Grissophan, Provençal, mid-14th C.; the Vision of Louis of France (Visio Ludovici de Francia), French, 1358; the Vision of Raymond de Perehlos, 1397; The Vision of William Staunton, English, after 1409; and the Vision of Laurent Rathold de Pasztho, 1411. A fascinating account of a visit to Lough Derg by Spanish pilgrim Ramon de Perillos in 1397 is given in Haren and de Pontfarcy's book., along with several other pilgrims' accounts.
Station Island (poetry) is a long poem written by Séamus Heaney about his experience of the pilgrimage. Other well-known poets, such as Denis Devlin and Patrick Kavanagh wrote works on St. Patrick's Purgatory as well. "The Lough Derg Pilgrim" by the Irish writer William Carleton recounts his experience there, which led him to abandon thoughts of becoming a Roman Catholic priest; he converted to the Church of Ireland. Pete McCarthy's visit in 1998 is described in McCarthy's Bar.
Since the records were destroyed in 1632, we have no way of knowing exactly how many people made the pilgrimage each year in those days. However, since that time, records are available. and we know, for example, that in 1700, 5,000 pilgrims were recorded for the season; by 1826 the number of pilgrims grew to 15,000, and to 30,000 by 1846, just before the onset of the Great Famine. From 1871 to 1903 approximately 3,000 pilgrims visited annually; and from 1908 to 1921, the number averaged over 8,000. From 1929 to the end of the century the number never fell below 10,000 pilgrims, and in many years was twice, and sometimes thrice, that number. The site has been attracting about 30,000 pilgrims in recent years during the main part of the pilgrimage season from early June until August 15.
Notable pilgrims include:
Georgius Ungarus, also George Crissaphan or George Grissaphan (Krizsafán fia György, in Hungarian), knight in the army of Louis I of Hungary
Malatesta Ungaro, Italian condottiero
Laurence Rathold of Pászthó or Laurentius Tar (Tar L?rinc, in Hungarian), a courtier in the court of Sigismund of Luxembourg, king of Hungary - the report of his pilgrimage: "memoriale super visitatione Domini Laurencii Ratholdi militis et baronis Ungariae factum de purgatorio sancti Patricii in insula Hiberniae" (in Hungarian)
Guillebert de Lannoy, a chamberlain to the duke of Burgundy and knight of the Golden Fleece, made the pilgrimage in 1430.
Francesco Chiericati, papal nuncio, visited the site in 1522
Mary McAleese - President of Ireland
Frank Duff - Founder of the Legion of Mary
There are thirty-three pilgrims to St. Patrick's Purgatory between c. 1146 and 1517 who can be identified by name.Thirty-two are listed in Haren and de Pontfarcy; Francesco Chiericati saw the name of the 33rd, Guarino da Durazzo, in a book on Station Island during his visit, before all of the records on St. Patrick's Purgatory were presumably destroyed on October 25, 1632.