The pilgrimage season has begun again at Lough Derg, one of Ireland's oldest prayer sites where the faithful subject themslevs to a gruelling three-day rite at the island sanctuary of St Patrick's Purgatory. Footwear and food are abandoned for the duration of the pilgrimage which promises the opportunity to step back, take stock and examine life.
For over 1,000 years pilgrims have come to Lough Derg to reconnect and to pray in hope, in gratitude or in sadness. The pilgrimage begins the night before you arrive when you begin to fast, and for the next three days you will be allowed black, unsweetened tea and some dry bread or oatcakes to eat once a day. A 24-hour vigil is required on your first day on the island and pilgrims remain awake, praying and moving across the nine pilgrimage stations througout the darkness.
Cold, wet, tired and hungry, pilgrims continue to pray throughout the three days in order to gain a plenary indulgence (a remission of penance), which was granted in perpetum to pilgrims by Pius IX in 1870.
The island pilgrimage site has been used since the 9th century and the ancient penitential beds are the remains of the old beehive prayer cells used by the monastic community that settled here.
Pilgrims follow 'stations' which combine prayer and movement with an emphasis on kneeling and walking while reciting prayers.
In 2013 duing the summer season 18,000 people completed the pilgrimage. Although the number has decreased in recent years, for many Irish people a trip to Lough Derg is still an extremely important ocassion undertaken either annually or in times of need.