This is Pilgrim Paths week which reminded me of a recent visit to the shores of Lough Derg, Co Donegal. Lough Derg lake is home to St Patrick’s Purgatory (located on Station Island) one of Ireland’s oldest and most popular pilgrim sites. Each year large numbers of pilgrims travel to the Island during pilgrim season that runs from May to September to partake in an arduous penitential pilgrimage which can last up to three days.
A modern walk skirts along the shores of the lake and is open all year round. This walk is a part of the Pilgrim Paths network of walking routes. The network of routes known as pilgrim paths are a group of modern Irish walking routes that in many cases incorporate sections of or follow closely the route of older pilgrim routes some of which may be of medieval date. In 2014 National Pilgrim’s Paths Day was held to promote these routes by hosting a series of organised walks. The event proved very successful and was repeated in 2015. As interest in the pilgrim paths has steadily grown in popularity the organisers will this year host a series of walks that will extend from the 22nd March to 29th March.
The Lough Derg pilgrim path runs for 12km (7 miles) along the edge of the lake.
A few weeks back on a flying visit to Lough Derg, I walked a short section of this path. The pilgrim path beings in the car park of the visitor centre. Its worth taking the time to stand and look out at Station Island.
From the car park the path runs along a modern forestry tracks that hugs the lake edge until it reaches a point opposite Saints Island. In in medieval times this island was the site of an Augustinian monastery and acted as a gateway for pilgrims who wanted to make pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Purgatory.
I am working on a post about the medieval pilgrimage at Lough Derg, so I wont go into too much detail. St Patrick’s Purgatory, the focus of the medieval pilgrimage was a deep artificial cave or pit into which pilgrims entered for a set period of time in the belief they would experience the torments of purgatory. The cave has since been destroyed but the tradition of making pilgrimage here survived and evolved to its current form.
The walk is not a very challenging one but every now and then you are rewarded with views of the lake and its islands. There are also a number of interesting spots along the way. After walking for about 1.15km, I came to a sign for St Brigid’s chair. At this point I left the main the track and follow a path down to the lakes edge. The fencing along the path and the lakes edge is in poor state of repair so care is needed. The chair is a large rock at the water’s edge.
I then return to the track and after walking a few hundred meters or so I came to another sign for St Daveoc’s/Dabheog’s Chair.
I followed the track leading into the forest until I came to a fence at the edge of the forestry, the chair is located on a height above this point. As I didn’t have enough time to explore properly I had to returned to the path without locating the chair. According to Harbison & Lynam St Daveoc’s/Dabheog’s chair is ‘partially natural, but it seems to have had one or two large blocks added to it, hinting that it may once have been a Bronze Age burial place’. I am very grateful to Keith Corcoran who writes the Journey in Wonder blog for permission to use his image of St Daveoc’s/Dabheog’s chair. As you can see from his photo its worth making the effort to find this site.
St Daveoc’s chair is located close to the point where an older pilgrimage route marked as ‘ancient road’ on the first edition OS 6-inch maps and traced back to Templecairn, merges with the modern path.
Back on the track I continued walking until I came to St Brigid’s holy well. The well is located just off the forest track at the edge of the lake.
St Brigid’s well is marked by a modern metal cross now covered in rags, socks, ribbons, religious medals and beads. It is enclosed by a circle of sandstone stonework which also has a modern appearance.
I went no further than this point but the track continues from here along the edge of the lake until it reaches a point opposite Saints Island. According to my guide-book the remains of the stones that formed part of bridge that would have brought medieval pilgrims across to Station Island, are still to be seen.
From Saints Island the path continues swinging around in a loop before joining back with the original track. I really enjoyed my walk and I looking forward to returning and walking the path in its entirety in the future.
Harbison, P. & Lynam, J. 2004. ‘Lough Derg. The Shore by Saints Island, Co Donegal. Medieval Irish Pilgrim Paths No. 3. Heritage Council.