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A pilgrimage for all ages

From a distance there is little to identify it as anything but a very small island in the middle of a lake, incongruously dotted with buildings far out of proportion to its size.

If you are fortunate you will first see it in sunshine and think "Oh, it can't be all that severe. And anyway it's only for three days."

What you will experience during those three days is an individual matter. Those three days may change your life permanently, or only for a short time until the everyday world catches up once more and you go on as you have always done.

But the memory of them will last a lifetime.

The island is located on Lough Derg, in Tirconaill, that being an ancient name of Donegal, the northernmost county in Ireland, and is home to an annual pilgrimage that has drawn people to it for a thousand years and more.

Once believed to be the site of St. Patrick's Purgatory, and containing one of the few entrances to Hell (there are others famous in story and legend in remote spots throughout Europe), that little island continues to draw pilgrims from all over the world.

Just last month a special group went there, special in that they were reliving the experiences of ancestors dating back to the Middle Ages, and special in themselves in that they were in Ireland to participate in the Special Olympics for the handicapped.

They were members of the Hungarian delegation, and their boat trip around the island was an historic reminder that, in the early Middle Ages, Hungarian noblemen made frequent pilgrimages to the holy island in the centre of the Lough.

Manus Brennan, spokesman for the local Donegal Olympic host committee, was told of the unique link by Gyula Sumeghy, first secretary of the Hungarian Embassy in Dublin.

Said Mr. Brennan, "This is history repeating itself and it makes it very appropriate that this delegation should have been sent to Donegal town, so close to Lough Derg."

What's it really like? Those three days?

From a landing dock at the loughside, pilgrims are ferried to the island, discard socks and shoes, and spend the rest of that first day in bare feet making the devotional rounds of various "beds", reciting the Rosary, meditating, and getting over the shock that everyone else, young, old, men and women, are doing the same thing.

This is all outdoors, come rain come shine.

That night, still in bare feet, devotions are held at regular intervals in the Church. First-day arrivals do not sleep. And the hardy also continue making the rounds of the "beds".

Well on into the second day the strict observance of spiritual exercises continues, mainly outdoors.

There is one relaxation. Whenever penitent pilgrims wish to break their fast they are free to eat as much soup as they wish. This gives them the chance to reinvigorate themselves.

Those who had been on previous pilgrimages chuckle when first-timers find out that the soup consists of boiled lake water, slightly coloured in its natural state without straining, but flavoured with salt and pepper to suit each individual's taste.

Further relief comes when pilgrims are allowed to sleep on the second night, and what a wonderful sleep it is, with a purged conscience and a soul at ease with itself.

Surprisingly, despite being drenched, possible for two days in a row, pilgrims have affirmed time and time again that none suffered any ill consequences.

Brief morning devotions on the third day are followed by a ferry ride once more across the lough, and departure homeward by bus or train.

There is one additional observance to be followed. Pilgrims may not eat food until midnight on that third day.

The effect can be temporary or long lasting. That is up to the individual. But the memory of the pilgrimage can never be erased.

The good people of Donegal town and environs did their utmost to host the young Hungarian athletes during their four-day stay. Coming from a land-locked country, many had never seen the sea, any sea, and arrangements were made to bring them to the seaside resort of Rossnowlagh and for a boat outing in Donegal Bay.

May their memories of their experiences in Donegal be lifelong happy ones. And may their descendants five hundred years hence return on their own pilgrimages


More on Lough Derg and St. Patrick's Purgatory may be found on the World Wide Web, in particular by accessing the official Lough Derg site.

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