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Updated 04/09/2014


Lough Derg

Lough Derg (from Irish Loch Deirgeirt, meaning "loch of the red eye") is a lake in County Donegal, Republic of Ireland near the border with Northern Ireland.  It is the second-largest lake (or lough) in Ireland and is the third-largest in the whole island.    It is best known for St Patrick's Purgatory, a site of pilgrimage on Station Island in the lake.

Map of Station Island, Lough Derg, County Donegal, Ireland - 1666

According to legend, the site dates from the fifth century, when Christ showed Saint Patrick a cave, sometimes referred to as a pit or a well, on Station Island that was an entrance to hell.  Legend maintains that St. Patrick had grown discouraged by the doubts of his potential converts, who told him they would not believe his teachings until they had substantial proof. St. Patrick prayed that God would help him relate the Word of God and convert the Irish people, and in return, God revealed to him a pit in the ground, which he called Purgatory; by showing this place to the people, they would believe all that he said. By witnessing Purgatory, the people would finally know the reality of the joys of heaven and the torments of hell. 

Although the cave has been closed since 1632, several descriptions by early pilgrims survive. They referred to it as a cave or cellar or as an enclosed pit. The entrance, which was kept closed and locked, was quite narrow: about 2 ft. wide and 3 ft. high. Once inside there was a short descent of about six steps. The cave was divided into two parts: the first was about 9 ft. long, probably with banked sides and only high enough to kneel in; after a turn there was another niche about 5 ft. long. 

A monastery probably existed on the islands in Lough Derg from the fifth century and it probably included anchorites who lived in beehive cells which may be preserved in some form in the penitential beds that can still be seen on Station Island.

Pilgrimages continue even today, after almost fifteen-hundred years. Every year the main pilgrimage season begins in late May/early June and ends mid-August, on the 15th, the feast of the Assumption of Mary. It is a three-day pilgrimage open to pilgrims of all religions, or none, who must be at least fifteen years of age, in good health and able to walk and kneel unaided.