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  • The Lough Derg Pilgrimage in the Age of the Counter-Reformation
  • Bernadette Cunningham (bio) and Raymond Gillespie (bio)

The study of pilgrimage in early modern Ireland presents important challenges to historians. Few sites have attracted any detailed historical analysis.1 Superficially, the continuity of use of pilgrimage sites at Lough Derg in County Donegal, Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, and Holy Cross Abbey in County Tipperary points to a long tradition of Catholic devotional practice. This argument was espoused by nineteenth-century controversialists, such as Canon Daniel O'Connor, concerned to demonstrate the antiquity, and thereby the validity, of the Catholic church. In O'Connor's view Lough Derg formed "a connecting link between the days of St. Patrick and the present time."2 The idea that the remote lake-island site in West Ulster known as St. Patrick's Purgatory provided a privileged glimpse of the afterlife had dominated the medieval tradition. A corpus of medieval manuscript material extant throughout Europe attests to its renown in the Middle Ages. Giraldus Cambrensis, [End Page 167] that sometimes hostile commentator on twelfth-century Ireland, described St. Patrick's Purgatory in significant detail, while various high-status knights recorded their pilgrimages to the island with its cave marking the entrance to purgatory.3 Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the site still continued to attract pilgrims.4

This evidence for continuity, however, must be set against changes in the nature of the pilgrimage. These shifts are difficult to document given the desire, present from the inception of the pilgrimage, to present it as an unchanging entity validated by hagiographical tradition. Yet that tradition was itself unfixed. As the papal nuncio of the 1640s, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, observed, "As prayers have been offered up in this deep cave from time immemorial, so the date of their commencement is uncertain."5 The location does not feature in any of the early lives of St. Patrick, who was traditionally associated with the site, and it may have originated as late as the twelfth century with the growth of the doctrine of purgatory and the arrival of the Augustinian canons in the locality.6 Since hagiographical tradition, rather than the presence of relics, was its guarantor of legitimacy, seventeenth-century contemporaries reacted against any suggestion that the pilgrimage was not traceable to Patrick. In the 1630s Geoffrey Keating denied Meredith Hanmer's suggestion that it was not St. Patrick who established the pilgrimage.7 In the 1680s one Dublin scribe may have been trying to assert the antiquity of the pilgrimage by ascribing the poem A Dhuine Théid Go Loch Derg [Friend Who Goes to Lough Derg] to the manuscript known as the Psalter of Cashel, which was by then valued because of its antiquity.8 Despite the urge to preserve an image [End Page 168] of an unchanging pilgrimage, evidence for its evolution certainly exists. One late sixteenth-century poem, for instance, associated St. Katherine with one of the pilgrims' penitential beds, yet this Anglo-Norman saint cannot have been associated with the place before the thirteenth century, and the link may be later.9 The Annals of Ulster recorded a significant medieval change. Noting the destruction of the focus of the pilgrimage—the cave that marked the entrance to purgatory—on papal instructions in 1497, the annalist observed, "It being [i.e., was] understood by everyone in general from the history of the Knight and other old books that this was not the purgatory Patrick got from God, although they were, everyone, visiting it."10 By the end of the fifteenth century the focus of the pilgrimage had shifted from Saint's Island to another island on Lough Derg—Station Island. No attempt was made to revert to the earlier site.11

The most significant shift in the nature of the pilgrimage has been little discussed by historians. Changing Catholic religious sensibilities, termed the Catholic Reformation or the Counter-Reformation, placed increasing emphasis on interior piety at the expense of external practice. This had an impact on the conduct of the pilgrimage. Preachers emphasized the spiritual dimension of the inner pilgrimage journey rather than its outward manifestations with their accompanying social elements. One...


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pp. 167-179
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