I am standing barefoot in the back of St. Patrick’s Basilica on an island in the northwest of Ireland.
It’s dark inside — between midnight and dawn — and I’m having trouble seeing my notepad as I record some notes about a group of 58 men and women keeping a 24-hour vigil and fasting for three days.
And since I’m part of the group and haven’t eaten or slept in hours, I’m feeling the fatigue and wondering, “What on earth is this New Jersey guy doing here?”
The path to this moment opens when my Irish cousin Patrick Lohan invites me to join him on a trip to Lough Derg.
It is his response to me saying I’m interested in myths and plan to visit Ireland during the summer Celtic holiday of Lughnasa, August 1.
Patrick lives in County Galway on the farm where my grandfather, also named Patrick, was raised.
A devout Catholic with siblings dedicated to the religious order, the younger Patrick has been making an annual pilgrimage to Lough Derg since the mid-1980s.
“It’s on an island on a lake in Donegal,” he continues. “It’s very old and connected with Saint Patrick. It’s not easy.”
He then calls its historic name, Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, and mentions the fasting and the all-night vigil.
Although I am not familiar with the place, I am intrigued and say, “Sounds good.”
“Are you sure you want to do that trip?” my adult son asks later. “I looked it up online. It looks tough. Perhaps you can just go as a writer and observe.”
I shrug and say I agreed and that I can always stop if and when I want.
I then decide to do as little pre-investigation as possible in order to discover — rather than anticipate — the journey.
But if I had done some preliminary study here’s what I would learn:
Lough Derg is Gaelic and translates as Lake Red. While certain minerals sometime make it seem red, legend says the name came from the blood of a giant serpent.
St. Patrick is credited with killing the serpent and allegedly claimed an island there from the Druids in the 5th century. He then used it as a retreat to strengthen his spirit through prayer and fasting and had a vision of Purgatory — the afterworld place where sins are burned away before entering heaven.
A monastic order then settled there and forged the site’s connection to prayer, penitence, and renewal.
A pilgrimage destination since the Middle Ages, it is now one of Europe’s oldest and has the reputation as being one of the toughest — with a 2018 Irish Times article calling it the “Ironman of Pilgrimages.”
Its severity comes from that connection to Purgatory and the ancient penitents who locked themselves in a makeshift cave to atone for their sins.
Some also claimed to meet devils and see hell.
That reputation was cemented in the 12th century with the appearance of “Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii,” Irish knight Sir Owyn’s account of visiting the fiery underworld.
Manuscript copies spread like hellfire and reportedly shaped Dante’s vision of Purgatory. It also attracted pilgrims who wanted to see for themselves.
That was until one found only an empty cave and complained to the pope who in turn told the island’s religious order to curtail the tales and purge the practice.
Now after centuries of modifications the “cave” has evolved into a basilica directly linked to the pope, and pilgrims – between 15,000 and 30,000 annually — come as remorseful penitents, religious devotees, those seeking to strengthen their souls, and those who want to get away from the contemporary world.
Others, like me, find their way by happenstance.
I arrive in Ireland on a Sunday morning, meet Patrick, and we begin our fast at midnight.
Early the next morning we take the three-hour trip through several Irish counties and arrive at the Lough Derg center, pick up our three-day passes, and take the ferry for mile trip to the place of the retreat, Station Island.
About the size of New York Harbor’s Liberty Island, it is a small city on water and dominated by the 1931 basilica, a chapel, and a cluster of gray buildings.
We debark and are assigned to a group of fellow pilgrims and instructed to remove our shoes until the completion of the pilgrimage. We also give up the use of cellphones and most everyday products and beverages beyond water, tea, or coffee — that includes beer.
“You are here for a reason you may not know,” says Monsignor La Flynn, Lough Derg prior, as he launches the formal part of the pilgrimage.
It’s a predictable statement, but it also reflects something about human beings who are frequently governed by unconscious urges.
And then we start.
This day includes an afternoon of devotion stations, an evening church session, and rest. Tomorrow is the start of the 24-hour session running from morning to morning. And finally there is the completion of the vigil, a rest, a session in the church, and departure. Each day includes a small fasting meal of black tea, brown bread, or wafers.
The physical scope of our pilgrimage is contained to the grounds before, around, and within the basilica.
One important area is a green that connects to the lake. There are a series of circular stone prayer stations dedicated to several Irish saints — with special attention to St. Patrick. They are the remains of ancient beehive prayer cells.
While the pilgrimage is open to anyone of any belief or lack of, it is rooted in Catholic traditions and uses several familiar prayers recited in prescribed patterns — mainly following circular paths that spiral in and out of stations.
The actions are simple, but soon the back and knees ache from the required kneeling and bending and the feet hurt from stepping on sharp-edged stones.
The long day then moves into night, quiet reflection time, and the darkness of the dormitories — one for men and one for women.
Early the next morning soft-toned bells summon us to the basilica, where we join a group just finishing its 24 hours.
After a joint prayer and the lighting of our vigil candle we began where they finished and repeat yesterday’s prayer cycles throughout the day and again feel the various aches and the growing fatigue.
Evening now takes us into the basilica where the main doors are ritually closed — an echo of the closing of the penitents’ cave in earlier times.
We now walk in patterns around the building and participate in several prayer cycles that reverberate throughout the structure and fill the night.
The ritual, however, allows a few breaks to go to an adjoining wing with bathrooms and a community room with chairs and a station to sip hot or cold water.
They seem short, and soon enough we return to the basilica and our cycles.
It is then I break from the group, stand alone, and jot my fluctuating thoughts.
“I am lightheaded,” I write. “The first half of the pilgrimage is complete, and over the past few hours the air has become warm. I am not used to being barefoot.”
I also note something surprising: The majority of my group is made up of women. And while there were some with white hair, most seem to be between 30 and 50.
I also note that there is only one other American and a woman from Scotland. The rest are from Ireland.
Seconds later my mood changes like the Irish weather, and I think of the absurdity of the scene: Shoeless individuals walking in circles in a dark building on a small island.
And I ask myself, “Why the hell am I doing this?”
I then realize that this is what I was looking for: an authentic and enduring ancient practice that weaves the various strains of my life together: heritage, religion, mythology, history, and writing.
Suddenly energized, I rejoin the others and continue until we gather in the pews to watch the priests reopen the doors and to let the morning light pour in.
And my mind lights up with the stories of renewing light: Lugh banishing the forces of darkness, the solstice light at Stonehenge, purified penitents emerging from St. Patrick’s cave, and Christ’s statement, “I am the light of the world.”
We then finish our final stations and gather once more in the basilica.
The pilgrimage is over, Fr. Flynn tells us, but you still have your journey through life to continue — so take the experience with you.
Then shoes are put on, and we board the boat to return to the mainland.
As we leave the islands passengers sing a song about Saint Patrick I’ve never heard, and I let the strange sounds fill my ears as I look forward, renewed by the unexpected light of the Celtic summer sun.
For more information on Lough Derg and St. Patrick, visit www.loughderg.org.