Viking Traces

If you want to find some remote Irish history which is a long way off the beaten track, try the city of Dublin! Just a few minutes’ drive from the edge of this bustling metropolis (and down a long, rough and muddy farm track) is a collection of carved stones which have their roots in the time of the Vikings.

Here, in the barony of Rathdown, the remains of a small ruined church date from the twelfth century, but a monastic settlement was set up long before that by St Comgall of Bangor, who lived from 520 to about 600 AD. There is the stump of a round tower here, known locally as the Skull Hole, as bones from the surrounding graveyard were thrown in here. Some say, also, that it is actually the entrance to an underground tunnel going down to the coast: furthermore, a piper was once seen to enter the tunnel playing his pipes – but was never seen again!

There is another piping tale connected with a nearby site: Puck’s Castle. A fairy piper is often seen jumping from rock to rock while also playing his pipes. We watched and listened, but in vain . . . Here are some of the noteworthy ‘modern’ gravestones in the cemetery at Rathmichael:

But the real treasure of the place are the carved stones which date from Viking times, and which are probably early Christian grave markers. They are generally known as The Rathdown Slabs. Some of these we would classify as ‘Cross Slabs’, even though, on some, the cup marks and concentric circles make us think of Prehistoric Rock Art. Well worn by time and weather we can still make out the various motifs – and we are fortunate to have good drawn records of these stones dating from a study carried out by Pádraig Ó hÉailidhe, a member of the Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, and published in volume 87 of the Journal of that Society in 1957.

Rathdown Slabs (top to bottom): 1 and 2; 8 and 9; 3 and 4 – as classified by P Ó hÉailidhe in his 1957 study

From around 850 AD we find mention of Norse names: Amláib (Olaf the White) arrived in Dublin in 853 and ruled jointly with Ímar (Norse Ívarr inn beinlausi – ‘Ivar the Boneless’). Amhláib was a Norwegian but Ímar may have been a Dane. Ímar is mentioned as ‘king of all the foreigners in Ireland’ at his death in 873. The grave slabs at Rathmichael probably date from the time when Viking settlements were established in the Dublin area, and – although we tend to think of the Vikings as plunderers of monasteries – it seems that they began to follow Christian practices once they settled in Ireland. 

Top – Rathmichael Church with its round tower and Viking graves was established on an ancient Rath or fort, in fact one of the largest in the locality: you can see the probable circular outline of the fort in this extract from the National Monuments Service Archaeological Survey Database; middle – ruins of the medieval church at Rathmichael and, lower – fragments of Bullaun Stones at the church site

Other – probably related – inscribed slabs from the wider area are recorded by Pádraig Ó hÉailidhe (below): Dalkey Castle Heritage Centre displays one of the finest of them all (left), while the Tully Slab (right) is assumed to have come from another remote church ruin close by – however I cannot find any record of its current whereabouts. If anyone can throw light on this, please let us know.

Dalkey and Tully grave slabs – drawn by Pádraig Ó hÉailidhe, 1950s

I have used the drawings by Ó hÉailidhe because they are so clear: we visited the Rathmichael site this week and were struck by how faded much of the inscription seems to be. It could be that we were not seeing the carvings in a good, clear light. Worryingly, it may also be that the stones are suffering from accelerated weathering (much as our unprotected medieval high crosses appear to be) due to acid rain and pollution. You can see for yourselves by comparing the drawings above with our own photographs, a selection of which form the tailpiece of this post.

Pagan and Pure

How does a prehistoric calendar mark turn into a pagan feast and then into a Christian saint’s day? This year, the cross-quarter day is Feb 3, yesterday: that is, the day that lies half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Together with the solstices and equinoxes, the cross-quarter days divide the year into eight ‘months’ and they also establish the dates for the ancient festival days of Imbolc ( Feb 2, spring), Bealtaine ( May 1, summer ), Lunasa (Aug 1, harvest), and Samhain (Oct 31, start of winter). In fact, the actual cross-quarters times don’t fall always on those dates but close enough so they have become established as the festival days.

The Brigidine Centre in Kildare, run as retreat and contemplation house. The lead image in this post is a St Brigid stained glass window in Ballinrobe, Co Mayo

As so often happens when an ancient culture is Christianised, Imbolc became conflated with a saintly feast day, that of our own Saint Brigid, the female patron saint of Ireland. Brigid may have originally been a female deity, also called Brigid, or perhaps Danu. This is all controversial, of course – did the idea of the goddess or the idea of the saint come first, for example? Whatever the origins, the marking of the cross-quarter day turned into Imbolc the pagan festival, and finally into Saint Brigid’s Day, and all over the country we make St Brigid’s Crosses, leave a scarf out at night for her to bless, or, still, in Kerry, dress up as ‘Biddies’ and go from house to house, carrying a Brídeóg doll and singing and dancing in a ritual that must be as old as time.

Another custom is to visit those holy wells that are associated with Brigid. Amanda has a special post on that – and is celebrating two years of holy well hunting!

On one Imbolc that lives in our memories Robert and I arose early in the morning and went to watch the sun rise over a small prominence, standing on a piece of 5,000 year old rock art. Our account of that occasion is here, and below is the thrilling moment the sun rose, and lit up the ancient carvings.

Our friend, the poet Paul Ó Colmáin, from whom we take Irish lessons, used one of his own poems as a teachable moment this week, and I was struck by how perfectly it captures that sense of the turning year, the joy of sunrise, the deep embedding in our Irish souls of the ancient and the traditional and the embracing of both. I give the poem first in Irish. For those of you who do not speak it, you can take my word that the language is beautiful and contains nuances that his English version cannot capture, brilliant as it is.

Lá ‘le Bhríde

Dhúisigh an ghrian sinn

an mhaidin úd,

solas órga

ag stealladh

‘is ag scairdeach

isteach ar an urlár,

ag slaparnach

thuas na fallaí,

ag sruthlaíonn

an doras síor-oscailte isteach.

Níor thuigeamar

ar dtús

cad a bhí ag titim amach.

Níor aithníomar

torann buí na Gréine.

Ach chuimhníos

go tobann ar na bhfocail a dúraís,

mar dhraoi:

“Tiocfaidh an Ghrian thar nais ar Lá ‘le Bhríde.”

Agus d’árdaigh dóchas,

ársa, pagánaigh im’ chroí,

inár suí sa leaba,

Bríd nó Danú,

an lámh in uachtar ag an t-earrach,

bhí an geimhreadh, gruama thart.

“Tiocfaidh an Ghrian thar nais ar Lá ‘le Bhríde.”

Paul’s English version of the poem is given below. At the time he wrote it, Paul, his wife, the artist Marie Cullen, and their sons were living on the Great Blasket*, off the Dingle Peninsula, the only inhabitants of the Island.

The Blasket Islands lie off the cost of Kerry, near the Dingle Peninsula. An Irish speaking enclave, it is now uninhabited

Winter was long on the Island, made gloomier by the fact that the sun, due to a combination of high ground and orientation, did not shine on their dwelling all winter.

The sun awoke us.

Like a fanfare

or a burst of wild laughter.



Spilling in along the floor.

Splashing up the walls.

Streaming in through the ever-open door.

We didn’t – at first-  know what was happening,

Didn’t recognise the bright clamour of the sun.

Then we remembered the words

That you, druidlike, had spoken:

“The Sun will come back on St. Brigid’s Day.”

And a welling of Hope,

Pagan and Pure,

Came rising inside us,

Sitting in bed,

Brigid or Danú,

The Winter defeated:

“The Sun will come back on St. Brigid’s Day.”

We’ve turned the corner and spring is finally in the air. Today was golden and we spent it on The Mizen (see below). Thank you Brigid/Danu/Imbolc/ancient Calendar Keepers!

*If you’re ever in Kerry, make sure to visit the Blasket Centre

Fading Treasures

For me, Ireland’s greatest treasures are those that are shy of publicity. There’s nothing more rewarding than turning off the beaten track and negotiating a narrow boreen with a lush growth of grass down the middle and brambles scratching your car on either side to find – often by chance – a stunning piece of medieval architecture, perhaps just the fragments of a ruin in a field, but revealing the beauty of a decorated doorway or an ornately carved corbel. Always these items are discernible but fading. Their splendour – and the exquisite craftsmanship that created them – are manifest. But there’s a melancholy in these finds: you see them, and wonder at them, yet you ask: how many more generations will be able to appreciate these works of ancient hands?

A classic case study would be the medieval high crosses. There are a remarkable number of these still intact on the island of Ireland, and many more fragmentary remains. We go out of our way to search for all these traces in our travels: some of those we have visited to date can be found through this link. It’s such a rich archive, and there are many more to be written up.

Above is St Cronan’s High Cross, Roscrea, Co Tipperary. As you can see, this example has been removed to an indoor location (Black Mills Heritage Centre), to protect it from further weather deterioration, although all the fine detail has been lost. In fact, this example has been assembled from sections of two different medieval crosses for purposes of display. I am an advocate of protecting these artefacts in this way, as acid rain and modern pollution seem to be accelerating the decay of the stone monuments. As in many cases with the protection measures, a high quality reproduction cross has been placed on the original site in the churchyard of St Cronan’s, just a few metres away. Have a look at my post on Monasterboice for a further discussion on the arguments for preservation of these monuments – and compare the condition of the as yet unprotected high crosses there with the wear and tear above.

While in Roscrea, you can take your own journey along a ‘secret track’ to find treasures. Visit Inis na mBeo (Island of the Living) at Monaincha, just a stone’s throw from the town: you are likely to be the only visitors there and can fully appreciate the solitude of the location while exploring a ruined Romanesque church and a reconstructed high cross (above). The monastic site was founded in the 6th century, and was then a true island, only accessible by boat; now you can walk to it. Not least of its attractions is the fact that you are immortal while you are there (so they say). Certainly, we came back alive, but I was concerned to read later that another tradition has it that when the now dry lough contained water, no woman or female animal could ever set foot in or cross it without dying instantly. (Below – looking along the remote trackway that takes you to the former Island of the Living at Monaincha).

Another ‘rescued’ high cross can be found quietly located in the far less remote (but still a little unsung) Cathedral of St Flannan in Killaloe, Co Clare. Megalithic Ireland has a good account of the history of this cross, which can be seen in the images below (while the header picture at the top of this post shows exquisitely carved detailing from a Romanesque doorway in the same Cathedral):

. . . The High Cross in St Flannan’s Cathedral was moved to Killaloe from Kilfenora in 1821. Originally the cross stood on the highest point south of Kilfenora Cathedral, and became known as the cross on the hill. Dr Richard Mant who was appointed Bishop of Killaloe and Kilfenora in 1820, was appalled by the condition and lack of respect shown for the antiquities in Kilfenora. The cross, which had fallen in 1820, was sent to the Bishop the following year. He had it erected on the grounds of his residence Clarisford Palace. The cross was moved at a later date by a Bishop Ludlow and moved back within the Palace grounds in 1850. In 1934 the cross fell again and this time broke into three pieces. It was re-erected inside the cathedral and fixed against the west gable. In 1998 the cross was repaired and erected as a free standing cross. It stands over four metres high and bears a figure of christ in the centre of the head . . .

The White Cross of St Tola (images below) may not be on everyone’s list of things to see at Dysert O’Dea in Co Clare (you are more likely to be channelled to Corofin), but it’s easy to visit from the better known Romanesque monastery ruins: the ecclesiastical centre was founded by the saint in the 8th century. Cromwell’s forces destroyed the monastery and demolished the cross, but the cross was repaired by Michael O’Dea in 1683. The Synge family restored the cross again in 1871, and in 1960 it was temporarily dismantled and shipped to Barcelona for an exhibition on Irish art.

Clonmacnoise is likely to be on everyone’s list, and rightly so. It was one of Europe’s most important religious centres in medieval times. Ireland’s Ancient East website describes it thus:

. . . The whole of this early Christian site – including ruins of a cathedral, seven churches (10th–13th century), two round towers, high crosses and the largest collection of early Christian grave slabs in Western Europe – is a vast story in stone that keeps alive the spirit of Ireland as a Land of Saints and Scholars . . .

There are three conserved high crosses at Clonmacnoise – all are placed inside the visitor centre, while quality replicas are positioned on the original sites: this is a good exemplar of how to look after ancient stones and, while perhaps the seasonal crowds can be off-putting, I believe it’s the only answer for maintaining access to and displaying this valuable history. Ancient East mentions the important grave slab collection: after the high crosses (and, of course, Romanesque architecture) I feel these are the most beautiful representations of art and craftsmanship that connect us across the centuries to our remarkably focussed forebears.

These are just a few examples of the many grave slabs which are fortunately conserved at Clonmacnoise. But there are many more monuments that are less fortunate, albeit they may enjoy some sort of state care. There are just not enough resources to look after the huge historical heritage of Ireland: we can only hope that, in time, they will all be fully appreciated and that not too many treasures will fade away.

Ireland’s Newest Stained Glass Window

It’s in Tralee, in St John’s Church – and it’s breathtaking!

It isn’t often that new stained glass windows are installed in Irish churches. In fact, depressingly, many churches fall into disrepair from lack of use and the windows break (or are broken). Nowadays we are more likely to be losing stained glass than gaining it. So it’s a huge cause for celebration when a community commissions a new piece. Hats off to Tralee!

The Garden of Eden or an image of reconciliation: one of the window details

This window is out of the ordinary in many ways. Let’s start with who commissioned it, which leads us on to the theme. Although it’s installed in the Catholic church, it was a joint initiative of the Catholic and Church of Ireland congregations. There may be other windows that can claim that distinction, but I don’t know of them. (Readers?)

The theme is Reconciliation, and the central figure is the return of the prodigal son. The right panel is of Jesus reading from the Book of Isaiah and the left is of John the Baptist, patron saint of the church.

The father embraces his prodigal son

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a natural choice to illustrate reconciliation, with the father embracing the son who has squandered his inheritance but returns home, contrite, to his family. Instead of punishing him (as his brother resentfully feels the father should do) his father embraces him, orders that the fatted calf be slain for a feast, and says, It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.

Jesus Reading from Isaiah is perhaps at one remove from a direct reference to reconciliation. It happened in Nazareth, his old home town, and he read at the behest of the elders. The passage is a beautiful one and points to ideas of love and healing, and perhaps to the real purpose of Christianity, no matter the denomination: he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.

St John is the patron saint of the church 

Possibly my favourite image is that of John. Usually, he is shown in the act of baptising Jesus, but here he is, the ascetic in his coat of camel hair, very much as he described himself, as a voice crying in the wilderness.

A myriad of tiny images fills the panels – figures holding hands (reconciliation), swallows (hope of spring, renewal), Tralee Bay, figures from Tralee history. . . there are even tiny names engraved where it is impossible to see them. Take a look at this video, where Tom Denny shows us some of those names.

Tom Denny? Yes – he’s the artist but the significance of that goes beyond the fact that he is one of Britain’s most eminent and respected stained glass artists, responsible for numerous windows in British churches. A browse of his website reveals the breadth and depth of his skill and the uniqueness of his style. The Tralee windows are typical – blazing with colour, filled with large and small figures and scenes that reveal themselves upon close inspection, rich and intricate, thoughtfully composed to draw the viewer into the subject of the panels.

Tralee Bay

You see, the Denny’s came to Tralee as part of a British military expedition in the 1500s and the name is inextricably linked with the North Kerry area. Sir Edward Denny (1547 to 1599) was one of the architects and enforcers of the Plantation of Munster, and was rewarded with lands taken from the Earl of Desmond including Tralee Castle, a knighthood and the title of Governor of Kerry. Tom is a direct descendent. 

Sir Edward Denny. Image used with the permission of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Denny’s stayed in Ireland for hundreds of years, branching out and acquiring land and estates. Eventually the family spent less time in Ireland and concentrated on their estates in Britain**. In Ireland, such a history as this is a complicated legacy, and Tom was eager to be part of the whole idea of a reconciliation window, donating his services to the project. Over twenty members of the Denny family came for the unveiling. This adds a rich and poignant dimension to the purpose of the window – reconciling the past with the present, and looking to the future. 

The father runs out to meet his returning son

Finally, this magnificent work of art is only one of the many artistic delights of this Tralee church. They deserve a post of their own some day, but I will give you a sneak peek by telling you that the Stations of the Cross are by none other than the famous Irish artist, Sean Keating. Here’s a detail from just one of them.

My friend Eileen drew my attention to this new window.  So thank you, Eileen – as you can see I lost no time in making the trip to see it. I am SO glad I did.

**Edit: I got this wrong. There were no English estates. The Denny’s, along with many members of the Anglo-Irish landlord class, eventually lost their lands. In the case of Tom Denny’s grandfather, although he was a baronet he was also a clergyman,  living the life of an impoverished cleric dedicated to his church. The move to England was related to his church service. RTE has now screened their program on the window and it does a marvellous job of adding fascinating detail about the window and the history of the Dennys – mostly supplied by Tom himself.

Off the M8 – Exploring the Delights of Durrow

Earlier this year, Finola wrote a very popular post entitled Off The M8 and into Medieval Ireland. From the responses, we realised that many travellers welcome the idea of breaking up a long journey by taking a diversion to experience some aspects of Ireland’s wonderful historical heritage. So, I’m taking up the mantle today by suggesting that you go a fair bit out of your way – if travelling the route between Dublin and Cork – to visit the ecclesiastical site of Durrow, County Offaly.

You’ll need a bit of guidance in order to find this little piece of medieval Ireland: hopefully the extract from the National Monuments Service Historic Environment Viewer – an invaluable source for us in our travels – will locate you (above). At the time of writing this, there is no signpost on the N52, but the entrance to the site is through a substantial gateway about 3km south of Kilbeggan – from Junction 5, on the M6 motorway – heading towards Tullamore. From the M50 around Dublin, leave at Junction 7 and it’s a one hour journey to Durrow. From Durrow it’s 40 minutes to connect with the M7 /M8 at Portlaoise. So taking this detour will add between 40 and 50 minutes to your overall journey, depending on traffic. But it will be well worth the extra time if, like us, you are mad about Irish history.

As you can see from the header picture – and the one above – the greatest delight of Durrow is the medieval High Cross, now saved from the elements and safely displayed inside the late 18th century church which is probably built on the site of an Augustian Abbey church founded in the 1140s by Murchadh Ua Maoil Sheachlainn, high king of Midhe, who died at Durrow in 1153. The cross – possibly 10th century – is a really good and clearly legible example of the scriptural type, depicting scenes from the Bible. The OPW has annotated all the panels in excellent information boards.

This is the west facing entrance to St Colmcille’s Church, Durrow, which now houses the High Cross and a number of cross slabs and grave slabs, some of which are medieval. A monastery was founded here by Colmcille in the 6th century; it is possible that the stone head which can just be made out above the entrance, and below the bell tower, could date from the earliest building period on this site and was incorporated into the present church. Perhaps it is St Colmcille himself – looking down over the old graveyard, and the original site of the High Cross. Colmcille famously established the monastery at Iona in Scotland, and over sixty churches in Britain and Ireland claim him as their founder.

Above (left) is a photograph taken in 1890 of the Durrow High Cross at its former site, to the west of the church building which now houses it. To the right is a fragment of one of the grave slabs which were embedded in the churchyard wall enclosure and which have also now been mounted inside the church for safety and conservation. This one is said to date from between the 12th and the 15th centuries: the visible inscription has not been deciphered.

Above is an earlier cross-slab which has been described as …possibly of 9th century date… The inscription probably reads Ór do Chatalan (Pray for Chatalan). This carved stone was also located originally in the wall of the churchyard, and is now in the church.

Through a curious twist, the inscribed stone above, dating from 1665 and commemorating a member of the De Renzi family of Hollow House in the townland of Ballynasrah, has been taken from inside the church and placed against the wall of the 18th century burial enclosure of the Armstrong family located outside in the graveyard. Below is a large ‘early Christian’ cross-slab, also taken from the wall of the graveyard and now resting inside the church below the east window.

Don’t ignore the church itself – and don’t get confused with the thriving Catholic Church of St Colmcille in the small village of Durrow, only about a kilometre away. The one here off the beaten track (which now houses the High Cross and the cross-slabs) is a Church of Ireland site, and is a very well presented example of a simple 18th century interior with box pews, a raised pulpit and a ‘preaching box’. It has been the subject of a conservation project by the Office of Public Works, and is more properly classified as a Heritage Centre rather than a working church, although occasional services, concerts etc are held in the building.

You will remember my fascination with Irish medieval High Crosses from my previous posts – and my concerns for those which remain unprotected from the weather. Here at Durrow the damage which has befallen this High Cross over the centuries is all too visible, although conservation works are in progress and will ultimately return it to good condition. It’s a good example for others to follow.

There is yet more to see at Durrow: follow the path to the Holy Well – on your way you will catch a glimpse of the architecturally significant Durrow Abbey House. Built in the Jacobean Revival style between 1837-43, much of it was severely damaged by fire in the 1920s. Subsequent rebuilding incorporated a Queen Anne style Art Nouveau interior. The house is not open to the public.

A walk to the well is rewarding, as the structure itself is in reasonable condition and quite ornate. It is still visited on St Colmcille’s feast day, June 9, when a procession arrives on foot from the Catholic Church in Durrow. We couldn’t complete our visit to the Saint’s special places without leaving an offering!


Journey into Purgatory

I was excited to be travelling to one of Ireland’s oldest – and most important – pilgrimage sites. Finola studies stained glass windows and their artists, and she knew that some particularly impressive Harry Clarke windows can be seen in the Basilica on Station Island, Lough Derg, in County Donegal. The roof of the Basilica, completed in 1931, towers over the island in the picture above, taken from the quay at Ballymacavany. Finola obtained special permission for us to visit the island to view and photograph the windows, after the main pilgrimage season was over: her account of them will appear in Roaringwater Journal in the near future.

It’s salutary to learn how many people and families we know have taken part in the pilgrimage at Station Island. It’s a particularly austere experience, involving a three day cycle of prayer and liturgies, bare-footed and with very little food or sleep. Finola’s father undertook the pilgrimage in the 1950s: the photograph above was taken at around that time, when pilgrims were ferried over in large open boats once rowed by eight oarsmen and subsequently motorised. One of these historic boats is kept on display at Ballymacavany (below). Nowadays the journey is made in a modern covered launch, as seen in the header photo.

Records of the number of pilgrims who travelled to Station Island have only existed in comparatively recent times. The peak seems to have been just prior to the famine around 1846, when over 30,000 went there in one season. The drawing above is by William Frederick Wakeman, who was a draughtsman with the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, and was probably made at that time. Through the twentieth century numbers seldom fell below 10,000 pilgrims each season, but in many years was considerably more. This news item from the RTE Archives demonstrates the strength of the pilgrimage in the year 2000.

The island’s long history takes us back to the time of St Patrick. Despairing at the arduousness of persuading the Irish people to accept his Christian teachings he appealed to God to help. The story is admirably recounted by Dr Peter Harbison, Honorary Academic Editor in the Royal Irish Academy:

…St Patrick … was having difficulty convincing the pagan Irish of the 5th century of the truth of his teaching about heaven and hell; they were not prepared to believe him unless one of them had experienced it for themselves. To assist Patrick in his mission … Christ showed Patrick a dark pit in a deserted place and told him that whoever would enter the pit for a day and a night would be purged of his sins for the rest of his life. In the course of those twenty four hours, he would experience both the torments of the wicked and the delights of the blessed. St Patrick immediately had a church built, which he handed over to the Augustinian canons (who did not come to Ireland until the 12th century), locked the entrance to the pit and entrusted the key to the canons, so that no one would enter rashly without permission. Already during the lifetime of St Patrick a number of Irish entered the pit and were converted as a result of what they had seen. Thus the pit got the name of St Patrick’s Purgatory…

(from Pilgrimage in Ireland: the Monuments and the People by Peter Harbison, Barrie & Jenkins, 1991)

The entrance to this cave is on Station Island, and is the reason for the enduring popularity of the pilgrimage, which has persisted there for over 1500 years. In the medieval illustrations above, the gateway into Purgatory can be seen on the right, while on the left is a knight – Owein – whose terrifying adventures in the cave in medieval times have been written about in many languages: a summary can be found here.

St Patrick’s Purgatory: the name is over the entrance at the reception centre at Ballymacavany, the point of departure for Station Island. The cave which marks the entrance into Purgatory was permanently sealed up in October 1632 when the pilgrimage was suppressed by order of the Privy Council for Ireland; in the same year the Anglican Bishop of Clogher, James Spottiswoode, personally supervised the destruction of everything on the island. Later, in 1704, an Act of Parliament imposed a fine of 10 shillings or a public whipping …as a penalty for going to such places of pilgrimage… The site of the cave entrance lies under the bell tower, seen above. In front are the penitential beds where pilgrims perform rounds to this day. It is thought that these formations are the remains of monks’ cells or ‘beehive huts’.

On the left is a map of Station Island by Thomas Carve, dated 1666. The words Caverna Purgatory, centre left, show the site of the cave entrance. In spite of the efforts of the Penal Laws to suppress the observances, pilgrimages have continued unabated. Above right is a photograph from the Lawrence Collection, dated 1903, showing pilgrims about to embark for the island.

A young St Patrick portrayed as a pilgrim stands in front of the island: the Basilica is on the right. This view indicates the huge development  of the island since its complete destruction in the 18th century and shows the facilities provided for the many thousands who have come here over the generations.

The Basilica is the focus of the pilgrimages today: it was formally consecrated in 1931. The entrance door is a modern interpretation of Romanesque architecture, while the tabernacle is an impressive example of fine bronze work.

Ireland’s great poets and writers have visited St Patrick’s Purgatory, and have responded to the experience:

Donnchadh Mór Ó Dálaigh (1244) “Chief in Ireland for poetry”:

Truagh mo thuras ar loch dearg
a Rí na gceall is na gclog
do chaoineadh do chneadh’s do
‘s nach faghaim déar thar mo rosg.

(Sad is my pilgrimage to Lough Derg, O King of the cells and bells; I came to mourn your sufferings and wounds, but no tear will cross my eye)

Patrick Kavanagh:

Lough Derg, St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Donegal,
Christendom’s purge. Heretical
Around the edges: the centre’s hard
As the commonplace of a flamboyant bard.
The twentieth century blows across it now
But deeply it has kept an ancient vow.

W B Yeats:

Round Lough Derg’s holy island I went upon the stones,
I prayed at all the Stations upon my marrow-bones,
And there I found an old man beside me, nothing would he say
But fol de rol de rolly O.

Most impressive of all, perhaps, is Seamus Heaney whose moving contemplations took him back through his life experiences and produced twelve memorable poems in a volume entitled Station Island:

How well I know that fountain, filling, running,
although it is the night.
That eternal fountain, hidden away,
I know its haven and its secrecy
although it is the night.
But not its source because it does not have one,
which is all sources’ source and origin
although it is the night.
I know no sounding-line can find its bottom,
nobody ford or plumb its deepest fathom
although it is the night.
And its current so in flood it overspills
to water hell and heaven all peoples
although it is the night.
And the current that is generated there,
as far as it wills to, it can flow that far
although it is the night.

Finally, here’s a contemporary journalist’s view, well worth the read!