The Challenge

Last week I did the 3-day pilgrimage in Lough Derg; I had completed it years ago, probably about 17 or 18 years ago but this time I was going back in memory of dear friend of mine who passed away after a short illness with cancer earlier this year.  My friend Teresa was a regular pilgrim to Lough Derg completing it many times over the years.

To be honest the task of getting there was nearly as much of a challenge as doing it, as can often be the case in a busy household, but I got there in the end and had started my fasting from midnight the night before.

I arrived at the small village of Pettigo, Co. Donegal and began to follow the signs to Lough Derg, I got there around 12:30pm, powered off the phone and leaving it behind, I registered and made my way to the boat.  It seemed there were on 12 pilgrims on before me for our pilgrimage, I was hoping the numbers would significantly increase!  A group of 4 joined me on the boat and then a single lady adding to our little group full of anticipation.  There were two ladies in the group of 4 that were clearly regulars and were full of advice for the 2 lads joining them.  They had Donegal accents and I had already decided they would be up for a bit of a laugh, that was of course if there was anything to laugh about!

Lough derg aerial

So, getting off the boat we were directed towards the dormitories to leave all bags and of course our shoes behind and make our way to start the first station, the weather was nice, and it was dry so that was a bonus.  As I made my way to the basilica, I as approached by a priest who welcomed me to the Island and asked if I would do one of the readings at the 6:30pm mass, I agreed; kind of feeling like I was an easy target fresh off the boat! but that was ok, I am comfortable reading so it was not a big deal.  I started the first station and almost immediately as I knelt on the uneven stone I was brought right back to a time all those years ago when I last went on pilgrimage.

lough derg beds

Three stations must be completed by 9pm on the first night, so I completed the first two, taking about an hour each and decided it would be a good time to go for my ‘meal’…. If you could consider dry toast and black tea a meal, then I was eating what my heart desired!  I arrived into the dining hall to find two people sitting there, a lady who said she had completed one station and a man who said he was there since the day before but had no interest in doing the ‘Way of the Cross’, as the conversation continued he told me he was from Leitrim and had decided that it was ‘man’ that formulated the various ‘rules’ for the pilgrimage so he had decided his own way of doing it was “just as good” and sure he was happy with that.  I have to say he was in the minority, everyone on pilgrimage seemed to be following the directions given and sticking to the formula!

I went back out, completed the 3rd station and then went to the basilica to collect my reading and prepare for mass.  All the services during the pilgrimage were delivered with care and attention to every detail; from prayers and hymns to reading and serving at mass.  Whether tired, hungry, wet and miserable or all together everyone involved participated with reverence and respect.  The staff and clergy lead the culture and the pilgrims continued in the same vain.

After mass we had the opportunity to rest for an hour before coming back for evening prayer and starting the vigil part of the pilgrimage.  It was with great joy the group from the previous day headed off to bed at 10pm and we prepared for the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th stations throughout the night, it was cold, oh so very cold and wet but these stations are completed in the basilica, so we were only getting wet in between.  I hit my lowest point of the pilgrimage towards the end of the 4th station.  The person leading the prayers adopted a slow but steady pace, it was slower than my regular pace, so I struggled, the hunger was in full flight and the tiredness evident.  I hit rock bottom when I came across another pilgrim wearing Lancôme perfume ‘la vie est belle’.  Strange you might think but I wore this perfume when I was expecting my first child, and suffered hyperemesis (severe nausea, vomiting) for the full 9 months, with the result that if I get a sniff of it I’m right back there!  And sure enough, my head was spinning, my stomach was heaving, I started to gag and got weak. I really did think, I’m not going to survive this experience.  I moved to a seat, took a few deep breaths, caught sight of what the lady was wearing and then added that to my list of what I was keeping track of;

  • How many Our Father’s
  • How many Hail Mary’s
  • How many creeds
  • What Penitential Prayer bed?
  • What stage of the bed; kneeling, inside, outside?
  • Where is the lady in the black hat with green writing?!

It wasn’t long before I composed myself and got right back into it but just really hoped I would just make it through the night.  The person leading the next station suited my style (quicker) much better and it picked up momentum, ticking off the hours as we went.  As we came to the end of the 7th station, the sun was rising, and hope was in the air.  At 6am the other pilgrims began to rise from their slumber and we all celebrated mass at 6:30am.  There was a real sense of achievement from everyone in the group.  We started to talk about strategies to keep everyone going through the day and the prescribed plan was well laid out in terms of activities; Sacrament of reconciliation at 8:30am, followed by the 8th station, renewal of baptismal rights at noon, the way of the cross at 3pm, and mass at 6:30pm.  There was plenty of time of quiet reflection, an opportunity to meet with counsellors if you wished, time to shop for religious goods and time to reflect and write petitions and words of thanks.

At this stage the group of 4 from around Donegal town had really taken me under their wing, Eileen had given me a spare jacket I could wear over the one I had!  The chats we all had were interesting, easy, funny even hilarious at times but probably mostly down to the altered state of hunger and tiredness!  We had also engaged with various people on our pilgrimage; the variety of backgrounds and the journey each person was on was so varied it was amazing.  Interesting people with interesting stories, from young and old, some of hardship, loss, sorrow. People from all over Ireland and people from as far away as London and even New York!  People there for the first time and people that have done it every year for the last 30.  Single, married, widowed, those in happy relationships and those in sad circumstances.  Mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, friends, parishioners, and those who knew no one before coming on the island.  Each with their own story, their own journey, their own thoughts and feelings, all united in prayer and sacrifice.  We even shared our meal that evening with Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin, primate of All Ireland, a pilgrim just like us, barefoot, wet and cold; all sharing the humble meal.  We had some interesting discussions, including the decline in pilgrim numbers, 48 the day before us, 37 on our group and 44 started the day after us.

As it approached evening and the thought of lying on that thin mattress sitting on a sheet of plywood became more and more like a fantasy the group asked me if I had a hot water bottle and that I could fill it from the boiler which we had access to for ‘Lough Derg soup’, i.e. hot water with salt and pepper added.  Aside: this also added to my gagging tendency during the night so was to be avoided at all costs!  Of course, I didn’t have one, the very basics were all that were found in my bag.

My feet were so cold; numb with the cold and the wet, so as the saying goes ‘necessity is the mother of all invention’ and I got my thinking cap on.  I had bought empty holy water containers earlier in the day that had yet to be filled with water, so I thought surely if put a little cold water at the bottom and fill the rest with boiling water it won’t melt the bottle??! Surely?  Well it worked a treat, I got the water, wrapped my pj’s around and popped it in the bed before evening prayers (one of which was said so that bottle wouldn’t leak before I got back!!!).

I was never so happy to hop into that bed and once the feet defrosted I was out like a light, I woke at 5:10am not really knowing where I was but I turned over and slept again until the morning bell rang at 5:45am – more like a siren to be honest, and went off at 5 minute intervals so no way you would have the excuse of sleeping in.  Up we all got, freshened up and skipped (barefoot!) in the wet and cold to mass in the basilica. I was on prayers of the faithful this time around.  I have to say I felt for those who were in the middle of the vigil, but I tried to encourage them by saying they were over the worst of it….. or so I thought until I bumped into or rather got a sniff of the lady with the Lancôme – her idea of freshening up was to reapply the perfume and change clothes including her hat, ok so now she was the lady with the pink hat with the tassel, with my head spinning and my stomach doing somersaults I updated the list!

After mass we completed the 9th station and there was nothing left to do except to strip the bed, pack the bag, take some time to visit the various quiet spaces and put on my sandals!  One of life’s luxuries.  We were all ready to board the boat at 09:40am, had a lovely send off from one of the priests and whilst the idea of fasting until midnight continued to pose a challenge, there was certainly a great sense of achievement and comradery amongst the group as we sailed the short distance to the mainland.

So how would I describe the experience?

Challenging but rewarding, tough but doable, thought provoking but interesting, solitary but communal, personal but shared, humbling but also proud of the achievement.  I met some lovely people along the way both clergy and lay people, pilgrims and staff.  It was refreshing to be without social media, a phone or constant connection with the outside world and despite the lack of communication with the outside world the sun rose and set, everything continued as normal and Limerick beat Cork after extra time!

Legend has it that if you look back at the island when you are leaving on the boat, you will return, I remember looking back all those years ago.  This time around I didn’t look back, but never say never…

If you have any interest in travelling this journey for yourself, check it out here