The ‘Beds’ are one of the most prominent features associated with the Lough Derg pilgrimage. The six Penitential Beds – small low circular walled structures – are the remnants of monastic beehive huts. They form a central part of the Stations which pilgrims perform during their stay on the island. This post is a collage of images and texts which centre on the beds.
At each of the beds, pilgrims walk barefoot three times around the outside; kneel at the entrance, walk the interior three times and kneel at the cross; during each of these they say three Our Fathers, three Hail Marys and one Creed.
This image is a collection of different photos I took over three days in mid-July. By connecting a selection of separate, but related, moments, it is possible to see the beds in a fuller manner. A segment from the morning shows only one or two pilgrims, while the afternoon slices – in the centre – has the beds crowded and silently bustling, and, then, the evening photos present empty beds. They are simultaneously spots of movement and pause, physicality and ethereality, and presence and absence.
Every performance of the beds, by each individual, is a new experience. It links the present realities with the prayers and intentions of each person. Also, they are following the paths trod by those who have gone before. Personal and social memories mix with the pilgrimage, as the recent and distant pasts are felt to be present here. The circling and pauses intermix the physical practice and the intentions of the pilgrims so that the beds are both continuity and change.
To this visual presentation of the beds, I wish to add a textual component. Three relatively random quotes about the beds, garnished from historical and contemporary sources I am using in my research, show other perspectives on the beds. Alice Curtayne, writing in 1933, described the activity on that beds as being “endless files of pilgrims, walking, kneeling, dipping, murmuring” which made “a scene fantastic beyond all telling” (p.13). I find parallels between her thinking and my own, as when the beds are in use, particularly with a larger crowd, they are alive. The sheer motion of so many people completing a complex set of rituals animate the place and create a unique scene.
T.R. Gogarty’s account from twenty years earlier is similarly evocative, albeit a bit more penitential. “Paths, worn and quarried by human feet through rocks that wrench and stones that bend every ambulatory muscle with a pain” (p.809). This highlights the intensely carnal nature of the pilgrimage. A focus on the interactions of the unprotected feet and the rough, yet eroded, rock captures so much of what the beds are for pilgrims. Simon Kennedy’s poem Lough Derg, in a lovely recent collection, Pilgrims’ tales … and more, gives a simple structure to the pilgrims encounter with the beds: “Barefoot pilgrim meander | Over your hobble stones | Of penitential beds. | St Patrick – Pray for us. | St Brigid – Pray for us. | St Columba – Pray for us.” (p.90). The physical activity, the personified island and saintly invocations mingle at this place.
Curtayne, A., 1933. St Patrick’s Purgatory: The sanctuary of Station Island, Lough Derg or An excursion into the fifth century. Anthonian Press, Dublin.
Gogarty, T.R., 1913. Some pilgrim impressions of Lough Derg, (with several photographs). The Catholic Bulletin, 3, pp.800–813.
McDaid, M. and McHugh, P. eds., 2000. Pilgrims’ tales … and more. Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Columba Press.