All posts in Pilgrimage

  • Nine Stations, Lough Derg

    Lough Derg is one of the main sites of pilgrimage in Ireland. Station Island or St Patrick’s Purgatory is a small island on the lake in south-eastern Donegal. It has been a place of pilgrimage and retreat for over 1,000 years. The primary practice associated with the island is the three pilgrimage which sees the pilgrims fasting, keeping Vigil, going barefoot and completing a series of exercises and a set number of ‘stations’.

    I recently completed the pilgrimage and later returned to the island as a researcher observing and discussing the pilgrimage. To give a sense of what is involved in this pilgrimage, I have put together this account of the pilgrimage station and some of the exercises. It is a synthesis of observations and recordings over a four day period.

    Station Island

    Station Island

    Pilgrims arrive on the morning/early afternoon of the first day, having fasted since midnight. The journey across to the island is the physical element of the break from the world, this is also facilitated through the non-use of mobiles. A central component of a pilgrimage is a break from the everyday which allows pilgirms to consider deeper more meaningful aspects of their lives.



    Pilgrims remove their shoes almost immediately on the island. As well as being part of the traditional penitential exercise, the removing footwear creates an equality and shared-experience among the pilgrims. It doesn’t matter what you do outside of Lough Derg, everyone is equal.

    The Bell, standing on the site of the original cave in which pilgrims spent their Vigil, punctuates daily life, announcing ceremonies in the Basilica and marking the Angelus.

    Order of the Station:

    Tabernacle, St Patrick's Basilica

    Tabernacle, St Patrick’s Basilica

    Each station begins with a visit to the Blessed Sacrament in tabernacle in St Patrick’s Basilica.

    St Patrick's Cross

    St Patrick’s Cross

    Pilgrims go to St Patrick’s Cross, adjacent to the Basilica, kneel down, and say one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Creed; and finish by kissing the Cross.

    St Brigid's Cross

    St Brigid’s Cross

    At Brigid’s Cross, on the outside wall of the Basilica, pilgrims again kneel down and this time say three Our Fathers, three Hail Marys and one Creed. Standing with their back to the Cross and arms outstretched, they say three times “I renounce the World, the Flesh and the Devil”.

    Rounding the Basilica

    Rounding the Basilica

    The Basilica is then rounded four times, clockwise, during which seven decades of the Rosary and one Creed, at the end, are prayed silently.

    The Penitential Beds

    The Penitential Beds

    There are six penitential beds – St Brigid’s, St Brendan’s, St Catherine’s, St Columba’s, St Patrick’s and Saints Davog and Molaise’s (the latter two are a double bed). At each bed the pilgrims: walk three times around the outside, clockwise, while saying three Our Fathers, three Hail Marys and one Creed; kneel at the entrance to the bed and repeat the prayers; walk three times around the inside and say the prayers again; and, finally, kneel at the Cross in the centre and say these prayers for the fourth time. There is a slight variation at the last double bed which is circled six times, while saying six Our Fathers, six Hail Marys and one Creed.

    Beads and Booklet

    Beads and Booklet

    Pilgrims frequently carry Rosary beads on the station to assist in the saying of prayers. The pilgrim leaflet acts a guide to the stations and is carried around as well

    St Columba's Penitential Bed

    St Columba’s Penitential Bed

    Large numbers of pilgrims frequently complete the stations together. Here there are number of people circling the outside of St Columba’s Bed, two kneeling and four at the cross in the centre.

    Praying at the water's edge

    Praying at the water’s edge

    At the water’s edge, pilgrims stand saying five Our Fathers, five Hail Marys and one Creed and then kneel repeating these prayers; after which they, make the Sign of the Cross with the lake water as a reminder of their Baptism.

    St Patrick's Cross by the Basilica

    St Patrick’s Cross by the Basilica

    Pilgrims return to St Patrick’s Cross; kneel down and say one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Creed. They proceed to the Basilica and conclude the station by reciting Psalm 16 (or by saying five Our Fathers, five Hail Marys and One Creed), for the Pope’s intentions.


    Pilgrim Meal

    Pilgrim Meal

    The Lough Derg Meal, which is available at any stage from 1.15-8.15, consists of black tea or coffee (sugar is available) with dry bread, toast and oatcakes. This is eaten once on Day 1 and 2, pilgrims are allowed a similar meal off the island on Day 3.

    Night Vigil:

    The all-night Vigil is a central part of the Lough Derg pilgrimage, it involves pilgrims staying awake for 24 hours. It begins with the group gathering in the Basilica and the doors being locked. This refers back to a time when pilgrims spent the Vigil in a cave or when they were locked into the ‘Prison Chapel’. While it remains symbolic as the doors are opened later and pilgrims are free to move around the Basilica, it still resonates as a group of people cut themselves off from the world and pray together throughout the night.

    The Vigil Candle

    The Vigil Candle

    The Vigil Candle remains lighting for the 24-hour period, its lighting marking the beginning of the Vigil and its extinguishing, at Night Prayer, signifies that the pilgrims can go to their beds.

    The Basilica at during the Vigil

    The Basilica at during the Vigil

    The light and sounds of the the vigil pour out from the Basilica on an otherwise silent island.

    During the night, four stations are completed within the Basilica. One of the pilgrims leads the prayers, with everyone else responding. The communal prayer helps each person keep their Vigil

    Praying the Night Vigil

    Praying the Night Vigil

    The doing of the station within the Basilica involves pilgrims circulating while following the pattern of movements (rounding, kneeling, standing), as if they were outside.

    Pilgrims departing

    Pilgrims departing

    On the morning of Day 3, pilgrims, having completed all the stations, put on their shoes, gather their belongings and leave the island. However, they continue fasting until midnight that night. The fantastic and tranquil feelings this morning is hard to describe, but many are confident they will return.

    While Lough Derg is firmly one of those places that must be personally experienced to truly understand it, I hope I have in some conveyed even a sense of the place and the practices. I would urge anyone with an interest or subtle desire, to go on pilgrimage to Lough Derg; it will be worth it. The three day pilgrimage runs from 31st May – 13th August annually (see the website for further details).

  • Máméan: Chapel and Bed

    Máméan (the pass of the birds) in Connemara is a rugged pass in the Maamturk mountains. A small complex of features mark this out as a site of pilgrimage:  ‘St Patrick’s Bed’ a rock located in a small hollow/grotto, two holy wells, a small chapel and a set of the stations of the cross, the latter two being more recent addictions. Stony paths lead up from either side of the ridge. The photo shows the chapel, the structure over St Patrick’s bed and a statue of the saint on the main pilgrimage day 2012, the first Sunday in August. The white wooden cross leaning against the chapel is used in reciting of the stations of the cross.

  • The Path: Croagh Patrick


    This collection of images represents the main path on Croagh Patrick. Most people who climb the mountain do so along this route, which runs from Murrisk, with a car park and amenities, up the to main ridge, along a section of that ridge and then up the Reek proper. This path is what defines the Croagh Patrick experience for most people. Its uneven surface, its weaving up the ridge and its loose screen shape the climb. The devoted pilgrim, the curious tourist and eager hillwalker all engage with the same trail, each experiencing it in their own way.

    Photos, clockwise from top left-hand corner: the statue of St Patrick at the base of the mountain; walkers moving through a narrow gap in a small ridge shortly into the climb; the path weaving up the northern slope of the main ridge; looking down on Casán Phádraig (the path of St Patrick) with its steep incline and loose scree; a group of pilgrims eating and chatting in the shelter of the chapel on the summit; Casán Phádraig climbs up the scree on the side of the Reek.

  • Characteristics of Pilgrimage

    Pilgrimage is one of the oldest and most widespread forms of human activity there is. Not along is pilgrimage practised in all major world religions - Buddhism, Christianity (particularly Catholicism), Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism (although, it is a disputed practice) – but it has also been a feature of all known major religions and cults in the past.

    Furthermore, pilgrimage is now seen as having moved beyond religious definitions with the emergence of different types of pilgrimage, such as those centred on the cultural sphere (e.g. Graceland or Disneyland), on nationalism (e.g. monuments, graves, battlefields) or on personal motivations (visiting or returning an important place, or a migrant coming home).

    Pilgrimage, despite its prominence and changing-nature, can be seen to have a number of key characteristics that define it and differentiate from other forms of human behaviour. While these elements maybe found in other activities, it is their combination that make pilgrimage so unique.


    Movement: Pilgrimage is a performed activity that is traditionally associated with a long-distance journey and different rituals. As a phenomenon, it is basically about physical movement. Pilgrims travel to a certain place. In this setting, the journey is considered to be an important part, if not the most important part. For example, thousands of pilgrims annually trek across the Camino of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, with the journey being seen as the defining element.

    Place: The sites and routes of pilgrimage are all located somewhere. Pilgrimage is inherently spatial. There is a particular place that is the destination; frequently, there are particular routes one must follow; and, there are stations of prayer and ritual. Specific places are considered to be holy, that is, they are different from normal places and are worthy of being visited. The sacred nature of the location is usually due to some supernatural event, such as a the presence of a deity or a divine/holy figure, or an apparition or a miracle. Mecca or Guadalupe, Mexico, for example, are treated differently to other places, they are distinct and special.

    Meaning:  There is a deep motivation and understanding at the core of pilgrim. It involves the belief in something and the search for an authentic, meaningful experience. Traditionally, religious or spiritual pilgrims were motivated by desires to encounter the divine, to do penance for transgressions or to gain some spiritual or corporal favour. Hindus bath in the waters of the Ganges river in Northern India to wash away their sins. Motivation or meaning also define secular pilgrimage. Those journeying to the war graves or battlefields of WWI or to Graceland are equally inspired by a belief in something.

    Transformation: A transformative or otherwise significant experience is part of pilgrimage. People travel to encounter something outside of their ordinary lives. The journey and the challenges associated with it are designed to prepare you for the main site. On returning from pilgrimage, the pilgrim is supposed to be spiritual renewed, essentially returning as a new person who has been transformed through their experience.

    Embodiment: Pilgrimages are very physical and corporeal things. They centre on bodies. They involve long journeys and complex rituals. Pilgrims walk long-distances, they pray in certain ways, they fast or eat prescribed foods, they wear certain clothing, they bath. When pilgrims cannot engage in the general activities, frequently due to illness or age, an extra significance is attached, as pilgrimage sites are often visited by people who are unwell and they are given a special place in proceedings – for example, in Lourdes, France

    Suggested Reading:

    Stoddard, R.H. and Morinis, A. (eds.) Sacred Places, Sacred Spaces: The Geography of Pilgrimages. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, pp. 1-24.

    Nolan, M.L., Nolan, S., 1992. Christian Pilgrimage in Modern Western Europe. University of North Carolina Press.

    Reader & T. Walter, eds. Pilgrimage in Popular Culture. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, pp. 29–62.

    Coleman, S. & Elsner, J., 1995. Pilgrimage : past and present in the world religions, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

  • Reek Sunday 2012: Pilgrims climb Croagh Patrick

    A photo showing people climbing Croagh Patrick on the annual pilgrimage day, Reek Sunday (the last Sunday in July). The photo looks eastward, down the path from a little way up the scree-covered peak and across the ridge, which the main path runs across. This section of path is known as Casán Phádraig, the path of St Patrick. The significant number of ‘pilgrims’ results in lines or flows of people, almost creating one continuous row going up the mountain. The large crowd animates the path itself. The erosion of the path, the relative smooth surface of the most walked-on section and the loose nature of the outer track are all evident. The mountain rescue/first aid tents are visible below in the middle ground.