Today, I’m taking you to a place in Donegal which, in medieval times was one of the most famous places in Ireland. It is one of those places that has many layers of history, folklore, ritual and fascinating culture, located in an absolutely beautiful setting on a small lake called Lough Derg. Beautiful it may be, but many Irish people who have been to Station Island will not remember it for scenery!
First of all, when you get to the lake edge and look across to Station Island, it looks like an Irish Alcatraz – you can see the outline of a lot of tall grey buildings, and if you’re going, you take a boat. It is a place of pilgrimage, and not for the faint-hearted. ‘Doing’ Lough Derg usually means a three-day visit, and rituals include walking barefoot on stony ground, reciting prayers, fasting, and no sleep on the first night.
It is known as ‘St. Patrick’s Purgatory’, as legend says that a cave on Station Island was shown to Patrick, and he was told it was the gateway to Purgatory (which is a kind of holding-pen for Catholics not quite ready for Heaven.) There’s no evidence this actually happened, and if St. Patrick actually blessed all the wells, islands, rocks, mountains and hills that he’s supposed to have, he’d never have had time for a prayer! But there is evidence of a monastic site here associated with St. Dabheog (Davoge).
Back in medieval times, pilgrims would travel first to Saints Island, and when suitably prepared, would then go to the cave on Station Island for a purgatorial stint. The tradition was rooted in the practice of austerity that was popular among monks- isolating themselves in remote places, often islands, to focus on introspection and faith. Some of the original pilgrim’s pathway is still here, as per the photos. Saints Island is abandoned now, and pilgrims go directly to Station Island. It was very popular to ‘do’ a pilgrimage right up until the eighties, but numbers have fallen a lot in the last thirty years.
Seamus Heaney has a book of poems called ‘Station Island’, with a sequence of poems that use two real-life visits to the island as a reflection and clarification of his artistic, personal and public life. Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh also visited it, and probably sums it up very well –
‘The twentieth century blows across it now
But deeply it has kept an ancient vow.’