St. Patrick's Purgatory

As St. Patrick attended to his fifth-century assignment of converting native Irish to Catholicism, he often faced the obstacle of the doubt that potential converts raised as to the truth of his teachings, and the realities of heaven and hell. Faced with this significant problem of demonstrating the truth of his beliefs, legend has it that Christ let St.

Lough Derg
Patrick to Ireland's County Donegal, and the location of Lough Derg, in which was located what is now known as Station Island, where was found a cave that within its inner sanctum, was the entrance to Purgatory.

He was, legend has it, instructed to show those who questioned his teachings the "reality" of Purgatory, and with it the "joys of heaven" and the "torments of hell". Some ancient writings indicate that Patrick spent time there in 445, "alone in penance and prayer".

Lough Derg itself is only six miles long and four miles wide, with shores in part covered in heather and in others parts being bogland. Due to the bogs, the water itself is unusually dark, and many traditional legends of the area describe any number of sea creatures and monsters inhabiting its waters.
Numerous writings that date from the 12th century document the establishment of a monastery on Station Island dating to the fifth century or even earlier, and a virtually uninterrupted continuum of pilgrimages to the location through the present day. Though the cave that contains the alleged entrance to Purgatory has been closed since 1632, the "Pilgrimage Season" occurring from May through August of each year remains a popular experience. Partaking of such a pilgrimage, a three-day event after a difficult journey to first reach Lough Derg, is an arduous adventure and it is limited to only those in good heath. Back in St. Patrick's day, a visit to the Purgatory was a much more dangerous activity, and many who partook of the full experience were said to have never been seen again.

Irish-born diplomat and writer Sir Shane Leslie, whose family owned Station Island for for many years, has described St. Patrick's Purgatory as a:
"…medieval rumour which terrified travelers, awed the greatest criminals, attracted the boldest of knight errantry, puzzled the theologian, englamoured Ireland, haunted Europe, influenced the current view and doctrines of Purgatory, and not least inspired Dante."
Pilgroms Praying at Lough Derg
Many legends abound through ancient writings about the place itself and the ordeal that fifth century and later pilgrims were put through upon visiting the Cave of Purgatory. The commonest themes related the practice of a 15 day preparation time of fasting and penance, after which he would be thrust into the cave, virtually locked in, for 24 hours. Such legends alleged that many such pilgrims did not live through the 24 hour period.

One well known medieval legend describing in great detail a typical visit to St. Patrick's Purgatory tells the tale of the Knight Owen, who followed his pilgrimage to Lough Derg by then going on a crusade to the holy land. The Knight Owen's story, as told to a monk named Gilbert, who then then related the tale to Henry of Saltry who wrote it all down for posterity, tells of an experience where Owen encountered darkness, terrible demons, and thousands of souls seemingly paying for their sins by enduring depraved tortures such as immersion in boiling metal, being nailed to red-hot wheels, and being subjected to blasts of unbearable cold. At one point, Owen was thrust by a brief but powerful hurricane into a noxious stream, and eventually transported to the entrance to hell, into which he was thrown. There he is said to have seen a fiery pit containing millions of souls. the legend then relates how Owen called on God for help, and was then cast out of the pits of hell and into a passageway where he encountered devils, more noxious streams, and other such impediments. Eventually he encountered a lighted area and a jeweled gate and a group of "radiant dignitaries" who informed him that he had passed through purgatory, and was led to a beautiful mountaintop, where he spent time in prayer. After being told that it was his duty to inform others of his experience, he was led back to the cave's entrance. Today, hundreds of copies of Henry of Saltry's account, which was widely popular in
its day, still exist.
St. Patrick

Later accounts of visits to St. Patrick's Purgatory vary from pilgrims who thereafter devoted their lives to religious practices to others who felt nothing extraordinary and had nothing in their lives change, some saying that their experience in the cave was fantasy, perhaps visions induced by mind-altering vapors.

Sometime in the very late 1490s, a penniless and disgruntled monk who had traveled to Lough Derg and then had great difficulty gaining permission to enter the cave, having no funds to pay the required entry fees, and who then was said to have seen no visions or encountered any life-changing experiences, rather only cold and discomfort, sent a complaint to the Pope, who then ordered the cave closed. A few short years later, with a new Pope in power, the cave was re-opened, but then deemed solely an Irish pilgrimage site, still closed to foreigners.
Ownership of the land in later centuries passed from the Catholic church to private ownership to the Church of Ireland to the British government, and eventually again to private ownership. It continues to be a popular destination for religious pilgrims from all around the world, at least among those willing to endure the trip there, the strict regulations of conduct and activities before and during the visit, the fact that the cave itself is off limits to any visitor, and who are willing and able to pay the entry fee.


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