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Patrick's Purgatory, Lough Derg, (not to be confused with the lake of the same name on the Shannon River) is among the oldest centres of Christian Pilgrimage in Western Europe, supposedly dating back to the sixth century.
Lough Derg lies about 6 kilometres north of the village of Pettigo in County Donegal, in the Diocese of Clogher.
Station Island, the location of the Pilgrimage is often referred to as Saint Patricks Purgatory or simply Lough Derg.
This is a special place of peace and personal challenge.
This small lake-island, renowned in Irish Christian tradition since the time of St.
Patrick, has been receiving pilgrims continuously for well over 1000 years.
Its importance in medieval times is indicated by the fact that it was among the principal landmarks on maps of Ireland.
It was, for example, the only Irish site named on a world map of 1492.
The pilgrimage was very popular among Europeans at that time and there are records of pilgrims having travelled from Hungary (1363 and 1411), France (1325, 1397 and 1516), Italy (1358 and 1411) and Holland (1411 and 1494).
The association of the name of St Patrick with Lough Derg dates back as far as records go and the legends that link him with the place point to a tradition already firmly established by the twelfth century.
While in a cave on the island, Patrick is said to have had a vision of the punishments of Hell.
Hence the place came to be known as St Patrick's Purgatory.
Each year the traditional three-day pilgrimage begins at the end of May and ends mid-August.
Pilgrims must be at least fifteen years of age, in good health and able to walk and kneel unaided.
The pilgrimage is a three-day fast incorporating a 24-hour vigil.
Pilgrims arrive on the island between 11.
00am and 3.
00pm, having fasted from the previous midnight.
They have one simple meal of dry toast, oatcakes and black tea or coffee on each of the three days.
The central prayer of the pilgrimage is called a 'station'.
Each station involves the repeated praying of the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Apostles' Creed, as pilgrims walk or kneel or stand, barefooted.
The greater part of a station is made on the Penitential Beds (these are thought to be the remnants of beehive cells used by the early monks).
Three such stations are made on the first day.
Four more stations are made in common in the Basilica during the night vigil and one is made on each of the second and third days.
In former times the emphasis was more on the physical penance and hardship of the pilgrimage exercises.
Nowadays those who make the pilgrimage see it as a grace-filled opportunity to get away from the stress of modern-day living.
They talk about the cleansing value of fasting and see the intensive and concentrated nature of the routine as giving opportunities for prioritising values and being physically and spiritually renewed.
They find that the particular prayer-form, which they often refer to as 'body-prayer', is very satisfying and expresses in a non-verbal way what they often cannot put into words.