St Patrick’s Purgatory, Saint’s Island
According to tradition, whilst St Patrick was converting the Irish pagans to Christianity in the 5th century, he had a vision whilst in a cave on Saints Island, just off the shore of Lough Derg. This vision was of Hell and its many punishments and the cave, which became known as St Patrick’s Purgatory became a world famous medieval site for holy pilgrimage, which still attracts thousands of people to this day, although the modern pilgrims visit St Patrick’s Purgatory on nearby Station Island.
According to ‘The Fairy-Faith In Celtic Countries by W. Y. Evans Wentz (1911), related a story composed of folk-opinions, told to him by the caretaker of Purgatory in 1909, Patrick Monaghan. ‘I have always been hearing it said that into this lough St. Patrick drove all the serpents from Ireland, and that with them he had here his final battle, gaining complete victory. The old men and women in this neighbourhood used to believe that Lough Derg was the last stronghold of the Druids in Ireland; and from what I have heard them say, I think the old legend means that this is where St. Patrick ended his fight with the Druids, and that the serpents represent the Druids or paganism.’ These and similar legends, together with what we know about the purgatorial rites, lead us to believe that in pre-Christian times Finn Mac Coul’s Lake, later called Lough Derg, was venerated as sacred, and that the cave which then undoubtedly existed on Saints’ Island was used as ‘a centre for the celebration of pagan mysteries similar in character to those supposed to have been celebrated in New Grange. Evidently, in the ordeals and ceremonies of the modern Christian Purgatory of St. Patrick, we see the survivals of such pagan initiatory rites. Just as the cults of stones, trees, fountains, lakes, and waters were absorbed by the new religion, so, it would seem, were all cults rendered in prehistoric times to Finn Mac Coul’s Lake and within the island cave. Though the present location of the Purgatory is not the original place of the old Celtic cults, there having been a transfer from Saints’ Island to Station Island, the present place of pilgrimage, where instead of the cave there is the Prison Chapel, the practices, though naturally much modified and corrupted, retain their primitive outlines. Patrick in his time ordered the observance of the following ceremonies by all penitents before their entrance into the original cave on Saints’ Island and for a long time they were strictly carried out: — The visitor must first go to the bishop of the diocese, declare to him that he came of his own free will, and request of him permission to make the pilgrimage. The bishop warned him against venturing any further in his design, and represented to him the perils of his undertaking; but if the pilgrim still remained steadfast in his purpose, he gave him a recommendatory letter to the prior of the island. The prior again tried to dissuade him from his design by the same arguments that had been previously urged by the bishop. If, however, the pilgrim still remained steadfast, he was taken into the church to spend there fifteen days in fasting and praying. After this the mass was celebrated, the holy communion administered to him and holy water sprinkled over him, and he was led in procession with reading of litanies to the entrance of the purgatory, where a third attempt was made to dissuade him from entering. If he still persisted, the prior allowed him to enter the cave, after he had received the benediction of the priests, and, in entering, he commended himself to their prayers, and made the sign of the cross on his forehead with his own hand. The prior then made fast the door, and opened it not again till the next morning, when, if the penitent were there, he was taken out and led with great joy to the church, and, after fifteen days watching and praying, was dismissed. If he was not found when the door was opened, it was understood that he had perished in his pilgrimage through purgatory; the door – was closed again, and he was never afterwards mentioned. An enormous mass of literary and historical material was recorded during the mediaeval period, in various European vernaculars and in Latin, concerning St. Patrick’s Purgatory ; and all of it testifies to the widespread influence of the rites, which already then as now attracted thousands of pilgrims from all parts of Christendom.According to Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) (born 1146 – died 1223) in Topography of Ireland, “THERE is a lake in Ulster containing an island divided into two parts. In one of these stands a church of especial sanctity, and it is most agreeable and delightful, as well as beyond measure glorious for the visitations of angels and the multitude of the saints who visibly frequent it. The other part, being covered with rugged crags, is reported to be the resort of devils only, and to be almost always the theatre on which crowds of evil spirits visibly perform their rites. This part of the island contains nine pits, and should any one perchance venture to spend the night in one of them (which has been done, we know, at times, by some rash men), he is immediately seized by the malignant spirits, who so severely torture him during the whole night, inflicting on him such unutterable sufferings by fire and water, and other torments of various kinds, that when morning comes scarcely any spark of life is found left in his wretched body. It is said that any one who has once submitted to these torments as a penance imposed upon him, will not afterwards undergo the pains of hell, unless he commit some sin of a deeper dye.”
I am unsure how popular the notion of the island having a good and evil side was. However, it was probably on this ‘evil’ side that we would find the legendary, demonic Cornu, that is said to have inhabited St Patricks Purgatory.
St Patricks Purgatory also appears on a late 15th century map by Abraham Ortelius.
Today St Patricks Purgatory is found on Station Island, the site of a 12th century priory, where pilgrims have flocked for many centuries and according to W. Y. Evans Wentz, in the 17th century the English government ordered the original Saints Island cave to be destroyed, though the original community there may have been disbanded earlier following the popularity of Station Island.