Pilgrims in retreat from progress: God and the Celtic Tiger

For 1,500 years, Lough Derg in Donegal has been a place of pilgrimage. Now a new generation is going barefoot to this ancient site in an attempt to escape the pressures of the modern world. By David McKittrick
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The Independent Online

Scores of pilgrims stood quietly on the shore on a bright Sunday morning, waiting for the ferry that would take them off the holy Irish island and back to the commonplaces of everyday life. They had come, as others have for centuries, to Donegal's Lough Derg for a three-day ordeal which, while physically draining, had clearly recharged their spiritual and mental batteries.

Today there is a new aspect to this special island which has attracted pilgrims for perhaps 1,500 years - beginning, it is said, with St Patrick himself. Today, the pilgrims are not just deeply spiritual Catholics but also those who feel caught up in the fast-paced Celtic Tiger lifestyle.

While the new era of economic boom has undoubtedly brought unprecedented prosperity, it has also brought a much more pressured way of life. Several of the pilgrims waiting for the boat said their three days on the lough had helped them to cope with increased tension. They had found an ancient remedy for a very modern form of stress.

"It's very easy to fall into the rat race," said Brid Deery, who works in investment fund management in Dublin. "It's work, get home from work, eat, maybe fit in one thing, sleep, get up and go to work again. The weeks just fly in to one another, and it's very rare that you have time to sit down and reflect like this."

Her sentiments were echoed by Ciaran Rouse, an insurance broker and building society manager: "I feel I want to get out of the world, away from the rat race. Apart from the spiritual end of it, it's to escape the pressure of this commercialised world."

Present-day motives are bringing a new generation to this ancient place. Its age-old themes are pilgrimage and penitence, but its centuries of continuity have also been marked by a less obvious but steady evolution.

Its continuing relevance is reflected by the fact that 1,000 people made the trek on the first weekend of the 10-week season which lasts until mid-August. Pilgrims came from all over the world, including Iraq, Samoa, Nigeria, Lithuania and Martinique.They are mostly Catholic but other faiths are represented.

The Catholic Church in Ireland has its woes, as the changing times and a reaction to sex scandals has contributed to a drop in church attendance. Yet Lough Derg gives every appearance of being a thriving enterprise with the knack of providing both continuity with the past and an approach relevant to modern Ireland. It has applied contemporary methods without detracting from its spirituality.

The religious head is the Prior, Monsignor Richard Mohan. According to Mgr Mohan: "Lough Derg responds to a deep-felt need for personal reflection and renewal, a need as old as time itself, as pilgrims reclaim inner peace." But another important figure is the manager: and she is, surprisingly, a woman, Deborah Maxwell. Even more unusually, she is not Catholic but is a local Protestant with a background in marketing.

In recent years, Lough Derg has run advertising campaigns designed to broaden its appeal and convey that it should not be seen merely as a place for the traditional faithful. Since the Irish know that Lough Derg pilgrimages are undertaken in bare feet, advertising campaigns have featured smiling people, pictures of feet, and punning slogans such as "Soul survival" and "Time for body and soul". Ms Maxwell confirms the changing patterns among pilgrims. She has just received an MBA for a research project in which she chronicled where visitors came from, and what drew them to Lough Derg.

She recorded an increase in the number of male visitors, including young professionals in their mid-twenties. "There's more stress on the males and they're looking for something," she reported. "The growing trend is that they're coming for time out, seeking to slow down and take stock. One pilgrim called it a 'detox for soul and body'."

The barefoot tradition is part of Lough Derg's strict regime. Pilgrims must fast before they arrive, and during their stay are given only dry toast or oatcake, with black tea or coffee.

They must bring no food or drink, no games, cameras, radios or phones. No children are allowed, and pilgrims must be fit.

The pilgrimage exercises consist of a sequence called a station, a well-known Celtic form of devotion involving mantra-style prayers said while walking barefoot around outdoor "beds" devoted to saints.

But for much of the time there are no beds for the pilgrims themselves, since a central part of the experience is a period of sleep deprivation. They are required to stay continuously awake for 24 hours, from the evening of their first day.

There are periods of silence and contemplation, and other times when pilgrims chat together. "People tell you amazing things about their lives," said one. "Things that they wouldn't tell a stranger anywhere else."

A number commented on the sense of bonding that came from the discarding of footwear. "Everybody's treated the same," said Ciaran Rouse from Mayo. "Tony Blair could be here and he wouldn't get any favours."

Several pilgrims admitted that the sleepless night, spent in the island's basilica, was a particularly testing ordeal. A centuries-old Catholic text prescribes "keeping vigil and praying without respite, without leave to sleep - as though one were at the very gates of hell". Today's pilgrims testify to the effectiveness of the practice. "It's tough at two o'clock in the morning, when you get a freezing breeze down your neck and you can't sleep and you're hungry," said Nuala McParland, a Donegal doctor. "But afterwards you think it's 100 per cent worth it, definitely." A teacher from Monaghan agreed: "There were times during the night when I said, 'I just want to go home, there's no way I'm going to last, why am I here?' But then you get over that and you're grand again."

This effect is exactly what the Lough Derg authorities are aiming for. According to Father Joseph McGuinness: "All pilgrims have to contend with the twin demons of exhaustion and discouragement. The vigil is a trial for the strongest of bodies and the stoutest of hearts."

The lough itself has an understated, brooding beauty and a sense of remoteness. Since at least the sixth century it has been known as a monastic retreat and a place of prayer and contemplation, an Irish version of the biblical desert. But, even earlier, Celtic pagan cults were strong in the area, so that its tradition could be an example of the familiar process by which Irish Christians have deftly absorbed elements of previous belief systems into their own.

Tradition has it that St Patrick came to the lough around 700AD, spending time in a cave, where he is said to have seen visions of purgatory. He received visions, they say, depicting "not only the torments of the wicked but also the joys of the blessed".

In ancient times, many were ready to believe that this faraway place could provide access to the afterlife, since Ireland was regarded as one of the "final parts of the world". If Lough Derg was at one of the ends of the earth, the belief went, then it might provide fleeting glimpses of the next world. Reports of visions of purgatory and paradise persisted for many centuries, serving to attract pilgrims from the continent. The island was famed internationally, and was the sole Irish landmark on several maps of the Renaissance period. But the more melodramatically supernatural aspects faded towards the end of the 15th century: one theory has it that Columbus played a part in dispelling the mystique when he demonstrated that Ireland was not, after all, at the edge of the world.

After this the prevailing idea became that of penitence for the forgiveness of sin. But the centuries that followed were by no means dull: Catholic authorities say proudly that they have witnessed "native tenacity, European fame, puritan persecution and Catholic revival".

One historian writes: "Lough Derg represented a particularly repellent example of Catholic superstition, a view reinforced by the many legends and visions associated with it." The 17th century, for example, saw its supression by the English, with an Anglican bishop "personally supervising the destruction of everything on the island".

An Act of Queen Anne, which said that Lough Derg "greatly increased the superstitions of Popery", laid down that anyone assembling there might face a public whipping.

Derg faced such challenges with the same stoicism it showed facing raids from Vikings and other marauders, correctly calculating that in the end it would survive them all. This is a place where time is measured not in centuries but in aeons, where such challenges are patiently seen off. Its genius lies in its ability to preserve tradition while embracing change. It has real meaning for today's pilgrims, many of whom repeatedly return to experience its hardship, hunger and exhaustion.

A woman waiting for the boat to take her home to Cork illustrated its continuing attraction. "I have the satisfaction of doing something good," she enthused. "It was hard but I feel full of energy again. I loved it, loved it. I'll come back here."