Lough Derg

Four miles north of the village of Pettigo in county Donegal, Lough Derg is undoubtedly Ireland’s most challenging place of pilgrimage. An ancient sanctuary of St Patrick, it is a deeply spiritual place that offers renewal and growth without distraction or artifice. Many describe it as a place of penance and purgatory.

In earlier times, the area around ‘Station Island’ was a place of protection for anyone in trouble, its monastery offering hospitality to all. Today, it’s a place of rest for the soul and the mind and is a living remnant of the early Irish church, retaining vestiges of our Celtic heritage.

The traditional Lough Derg retreat season runs from 1 June to 15 August. Pilgrims on three-day retreats held in June, July and August are asked to “pray with their whole body” and embark on a punishing, centuries-old routine of fasting and walking barefoot as they pray in a sequence of nine ‘stations’ over the three days. They’re allowed one meal of dry toast or oatcakes and black tea each day, until the third day when they’re allowed to make themselves a sparse Lough Derg-style meal. A central exercise of the retreat is the vigil, where participants stay awake for 24 hours from 10pm on the first night.

Special group retreats can be organised. This is no easy-going retreat. It’s described as mentally and physically harsh by some pilgrims. And yet, many people return year after year in search of that space for the mind and soul.