The glorious weather that baked Lough Derg during the first week of the pilgrimage season was a stark contrast, according to the sanctuary’s Prior, Fr Owen McEneaney, to that experienced last summer. “We had rather inclement weather with very low temperatures – almost zero temperatures – at night and heavy rain,” he says, “but just being about the place today and yesterday, it’s a very different experience.”
While he says “the Lough Derg experience can be enhanced by the fine weather” and observes that “there’s a great buzz about the place” he stresses that bad weather tends not to deter the island sanctuary’s regular pilgrims.
“The stay on the island can be a lot more pleasant in good weather, that’s for sure,” he says, “but it’s a much deeper experience for many of them, and if the pilgrims come back each year, I think a lot of them see it as their annual retreat.”
Many such pilgrims often aren’t able to take more than a couple of days off, he says, sometimes even having to fight hard to get that time, but with prior experience of the island they know to trust and value the pilgrimage experience. Such regular pilgrims, he says, tend to see the summer as incomplete without their three days on Lough Derg, such that once Easter has passed they tend to look forward to the pilgrimage, making space for it in their lives.
Not that everyone on the island is an old hand at Lough Derg; Fr Owen says that over the first few days of the new season he’d spoken to several of the island’s first-time pilgrims. Explaining why new pilgrims come, he says: “Some of them, perhaps, out of curiosity, they’ve heard about it, but perhaps it’s more their friend, their work colleague, their relative, their family members saying ‘I think you should give it a try’.”
Now in his third season looking after the sanctuary, but with experience of working there as a priest in the 1990s and having first done the pilgrimage himself after his Leaving Cert in the late 1970s, introduced to it by his mother who herself had been a regular pilgrim, he says that regardless of whether pilgrims are experienced or new to the island, the same processes tend to be witnessed among them.
“When you notice the pilgrims coming on any particular day – and some of them have travelled a journey – they go the dormitory, they take off the shoes, and they come up the island, heading towards the basilica to begin their stations, moving at a great pace because their bare feet have just touched the paving stones, but as the hours pass even on that first day, I notice them beginning to slow down, as a rhythm takes hold of them,” he says.
“And when they move on to the penitential beds, and it was particularly noticeable yesterday and the day before, a large number of people were all just circling the beds and each praying away, mindful of each other and each making sure not to bump up against one another, you could almost see them moving towards a still centre in themselves,” he continues.
“For some of them that would be a very troubled centre, but supported I would feel by the other pilgrims around them and having a sense, of course, that when you take off the shoes you’re walking on holy ground – this island was made holy by the thousands upon thousands of pilgrims who have come here.”
Tentatively describing the island as “an uncontaminated place”, Fr Owen maintains that the Lough Derg experience is very much in line with Pope Francis’ vision for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, noting how “the mercy theme has been carried in many of the liturgies”, and pointing both to the Door of Mercy which the papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, opened in May and to the basilica’s threshold stone bearing the biblically-inspired words “I am the door, enter and be safe”.
“One element that has been very clear,” he says, “is that Lough Derg – St Patrick’s Sanctuary – has always been a place that has welcomed people in terms of coming to unburden themselves and particularly in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This is not new for us.”
Describing how the sacrament is celebrated on the morning of the three-day pilgrimage’s second day, he says “pilgrims have the time to come and if they wish they can bear their soul in the knowledge that they’ll be well-received – welcomed – but it’s more than the welcome the priest will extend, it’s the mercy, the forgiveness, the love of God.”
Given this, Fr Eamonn Conway’s new book, Lough Derg: Island of Quiet Miracles, is aptly named, Fr Owen says. “It’s no exaggeration to say we have been humbled as priests celebrating the sacrament here on the island in the morning time, humbled by just what happens before our very eyes.
“You can see people just experiencing that transformation as they name something that has been a burden to them,” he continues, “They may have come in the past intending to name it, but didn’t manage to do that, but when the time is right, they do.”
Even those few non-Christians who visit the island “just blend in and experience it and make their own of it”, he says, but for Christians the island truly represents a much deeper reality. Describing how he makes a point of bidding farewell to departing pilgrims as they leave the island on the third day, he says, “They’ve had a night’s sleep, they have completed the pilgrimage, and that in itself would engender a good feeling, but I know from being here these three seasons and again in the past, it’s a spiritual reality, a spiritual encounter for many of them who would see it in terms of meeting with the Lord Jesus.”