Voyages from I to Thou.

Location: Skellig Michel, Ireland

Monday, January 31, 2005

Station Island

Station Island in Lough Derg is the site of the most curious pilgrimages in Ireland. It began in the 12th century when a knight named Owen spent a fortnight in prayer and fasting there. He spent the final night of his vigil in a cave, where he received visions of the afterlife, both heavenly and hellish.

Owen recounted his experiences to a Lincolnshire monk, Gilbert of Louth, who spread the story among the Cistercians. They recognized that Owen’s visions were similar to those of St. Patrick, who, unable to convince his congregation of the existence of heaven and hell, prayed to be shown a place where people could experience them. Patrick then discovered a cave where the visions were accessible.

Owen was declared to have rediscovered it, and it was henceforth called St. Patrick’s Purgatory. It became an important place of pilgrimage, though only pilgrims who were considered worthy, and who had purchased the appropriate permits, could enter the cave. Once there, they were shut in to experience visions of torment. They were warned not to sleep, for, as in all otherworldly myths, once one sleeps in the otherworld, one can never re-enter the world of the living.

The Augustinian Order was put in charge of the cave, but in the late medieval period there were allegations that the cave was no longer effective in giving visions. So in 1497 the Pope ordered the cave-shrine to be closed on the grounds that it was inauthentic. But this was not done, for in 1503 the Bishop of Armagh petitioned the Pope to grant indulgences for those who entered the cave.

Nearly 500 years later, the pilgrimage still exists, though the cave is sealed. It lasts three days and begins with a fast. Barefooted pilgrims visit a number of sacred stopping-places, including St. Brigid’s Cross, St. Patrick’s Cross and six beehive cells, named “beds” of various saints. Until quite recently, it also involved plunging into the cold waters of the Lough, but this has been discontinued.

-- Nigel Pennick, Celtic Sacred Landscapes
(Thames & Hudson, 2000), pp. 97-8


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