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St Patrick’s Purgatory: oracle of the dead

The Irish sanctuary of St Patrick’s Purgatory is a unique religious pilgrimage destination. World-famous in medieval times, the site still attracts thousands of pilgrims each year. But what is experienced today, is vastly different from what the site originally did: it offered a metaphysical experience on par with the ancient mysteries of ancient Greece.

Philip Coppens



Ireland was never conquered by the Romans. It means that this island just off the west coast of Britain went from being a Celtic to a Christian country. The rules and regulations of the Roman Empire, its deities and its road system never made it to Ireland. This absence of direct Roman control in Ireland is an often overlooked aspect of European history, but nevertheless important, especially when studying St Patrick’s Purgatory, which was clearly once an oracle of the dead, and now one of Ireland’s most famous pilgrimage sites.
Today, the location of where the purgatory is precisely located is hard to find on any modern map. The situation is not helped by the fact that there are two Lough Derg – the purgatory being in the one you don’t immediately see on a modern map. But on a world map of 1492, the small island in the middle of the lake on which the purgatory sat was the only Irish site named for this entire country! Indeed, between the 13th and 15th century, St Patrick’s Purgatory and Ireland were often synonymous. So even though today the Purgatory remains popular, a few centuries ago, it seems that it was the only true destination any foreigner would ever have in this country!
The modern visitor arrives at the shore of the lake, and sees the complex a few hundred yards in the lake, on what is known as Station Island. Buildings that house the pilgrims and a large church are the most easily visible features. Five centuries ago, however, the original pilgrim site was on the nearby Saints Island. It is on this now deserted island that the story of Saint Patrick’s Purgatory began.

The story of St Patrick’s Purgatory in a Christian context goes back to 445 AD, when according to legend the greatest of Irish saints, Saint Patrick, visited the lake. Prosper of Aquitaine's “Chronicle” states that Patrick was sent by Pope Celestine I as the first bishop to the Irish Christians in 431 AD. He went around the country, trying to convert the pagan people – and their sites – to the “new” Christian doctrine, earning him the title of patron saint of Ireland.
While preaching, Patrick arrived on the island, entered the cave and had a vision of the punishments of Hell… hence the name St Patrick’s Purgatory was born. However, modern scholars say St Patrick never referred to Lough Derg in any of his writings, never visited the lake, and was wholly unconnected to the island until several centuries after his death. So is the story purely invented? So little remains of St Patrick’s life that logical speculation needs to enter the equation. Either St Patrick did not visit the island, and the legends of this pagan cult centre was veneered with a Christian context. But is it not far likelier that Patrick indeed visited a site that was famous for its religious experiences – a site which he had to Christianise?

No tourists can visit Station Island; it is reserved for pilgrims only and 20,000 still arrive each summer. The sanctity of the place is apparent in the fact that cameras are actually forbidden on the island. Any pilgrim can arrive at any day of the season until August 13, though he or she must be over 14 years old and free from disability. “The nature of the penances excludes anyone under doctor’s care and the very old”, the sign states.
Today, the start of the pilgrimage is the crossing of the lake to Station Island, a few hundred yards off-shore. The basilica is said to mark the place where St Patrick descended into Purgatory, but we know this is not the case as until the 16th century, the site of the Purgatory was on a different island in the lake, Saints Island. In the 12th century, St Malachy of Armagh encouraged canons of St Augustine to found a priory on Station Island. They copied the pattern of their Celtic neighbours on Saints Island, who had a cave associated with their founder Saint Daveoc, who was said to have been left in charge of the facilities by St Patrick himself.
Very little is known about Saint Daveoc, though his name does mean “vat” and “tub” – a cauldron? Either way, it is an apt description for the cave and the belly of the serpent, or the womb of mother earth, in which the pilgrims were to descend.
Hence, the Anglo-Normans located a cave on Stations Island, claiming St Patrick had been led to this newly dug cave by Christ, having his vision of Purgatory. The Celtic Church was probably outraged, but also outperformed, and some time later, the community on Saints Island was disbanded. Today, Saints Island is largely forgotten and definitely abandoned, while most visitors believe the Purgatory has always been located on Station Island.
On Station Island, there is a “bed” dedicated to St Brigid, which is still actively used by the pilgrims. In 1701, Archbishop Hewson described these beds as six circles of stone, above a foot high, and five or six feet in diameter, with a dap in the side of each. In his days, those shut in the Purgatory, were given water and tobacco, but denied sleep. In 1727, the cave of the Purgatory itself was said to be 6.5 metres long and only 63 cm wide, and 89 cm high.

Whereas today thousands of visitors descend on the island, in medieval times, the operation of the site – or at least certain sections of it – was far more exclusive. Not everyone was allowed to experience the sacred island. It also seems that, like those who visited the oracles of ancient Greece, the medieval pilgrims were encouraged not to discuss too many details of the experiences they had. Still, some accounts survive. Giraldus Cambrensis wrote in “Topography of Ireland” that Saints Island was visited both by good spirits and evil spirits. Each were present on one part of the island. He described the evil part of the island as covered with rugged crags. It contained nine pits and those who stayed overnight in one of them, were tormented. This North-western part of the small island was called Kernagh, meaning “Island of Clamour”. Here, as stated in 1411, was the residence of Satan and his satellites, including one “Cornu”, who was like a heron without wings or feathers, who “uttered a cry like a blowing of a trumpet, which presaged the death of some pilgrims”. In Latin, Cornu means horn and it was clearly an atrocious beast that resided here.
The wall defining this part of the island still stands. A plot of 35 by 4 metres in the south-west of the islet was dedicated to the angels and called “Regles”. Cambrenseis wrote that “it abounds in oak, yew and other agreeable trees.” When the pilgrimage transferred to Station Island in the 16th century, the same subdivision was created there.

One famous account of a voyage to the Purgatory is that of Ramon de Perillos, an Aragonese noble. When King John I of Aragon died on May 19, 1396, at the young age of 46, Ramon de Perillos was called to account for what had happened. Though no charges were ever pressed and his interrogation was more protocol than anything else, de Perillos felt that he should go on a pilgrimage to Ireland, as a public act to show his innocence.
He went to Avignon and informed the Pope of his decision to partake in the pilgrimage. The pope tried to dissuade Ramon. Ramon then spoke to “Tarascona”, who was of the Galniello family (believed to be Fernando Perez Calvillo), and Jofre de Sancta Lena. Ramon’s brother, Pons de Perillos, was also present. He had been majordomo to John I and chamberlain to John’s wife Violante. Ramon left Avignon on September 8, 1397, accompanied by some members of his family. From Avignon, the party headed to Paris and the court of the French king. There, he received letters of commendation from the king and his uncles, the duke of Berry and the duke of Burgundy, to use with the king of England. He then set off to Calais, to cross the Channel. He left on All Saint’s Day (November 1) to London, passing by the church of St Thomas of Canterbury. In London, he was told that the king was in “Got” (Woodstock Manor), some eight miles from Oxford, Estanefort, to which the company travelled and where he was received by the king.
After several days at the court, he left for Sextrexier (i.e. Chester), where a ship was chartered for the crossing of the Irish Sea. The ship kept along the Welsh coast, until Holyhead, where it crossed to the Isle of Man, and a few days later he landed in Dublin. In Dublin, he met Roger Mortimer, the Earl of March, who gave him two squires, to aide him with the remainder of his voyage. It was now time to visit the archbishop of Armagh, in the town of Durdan (Drogheda). He visited the man a second time, shortly afterwards, in Dondale (Dundalk), when he sent a message to the Court of Niall O’Neill, the Irish king, who was in Armagh. Everything was now in place for the party to make their approach to the Purgatory itself, after months of travelling and seeking all the right documentation. It shows that making the pilgrimage was not easy.

Why was Saints Island, the site of the original pilgrimage, closed? It is clear that Celtic and Roman Christianity were in a fierce and open competition for a number of centuries as to which island was the real place of Purgatory. In the end and no doubt unsurprisingly, Roman Christianity won. Victory came about when a Dutch monk complained that he had not received any vision while inside the cave of Saints Island. In 1497, Pope Alexander VI therefore closed the island. But it seems that with the closure of Saints Island, a very specific “rite” of making contact with the divine came to an end and little more than “a pilgrimage” is now all that remains of what was once a powerful initiatory experience, on par with the oracles of the dead in ancient Greece. Indeed, in Celtic times, the site was clearly used to allow the pilgrims to pierce through the veil of the Otherworld and see the souls of the dead in Purgatory.
What is Purgatory? It is defined as a state or place in the “next world” where souls of those who died in grace but that are not free from all imperfection, make expiation for unforgiven venial sins, and thus are purified before entering heaven. At Lough Derg, access to Purgatory could be gained by the living through incarceration in the island cave, where visions of Heaven and Hell, were bestowed upon some.

Though pagan in origin, Michael Dames shows that there is no real problem in making the leap from the Celtic operation of the sanctuary to the Christian context in which the site was run: “It was Christ’s supernatural journey after Calvary that underlay the pilgrimage. ‘He descended into Hell, and on the third day he rose again from the dead; before ascending into Heaven.’”
However, no historical records – if only because the Romans weren’t present in Ireland – exists of how the Celts operated the site. The first recorded reference to St Patrick’s Purgatory, “the Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii”, or “The Treatise on St Patrick’s Purgatory”, was written as recent as 1184-1186, by an unnamed Cistercian Anglo-Norman monk from the abbey of Saltry (England). The monk’s name has been given as Henry of Saltrey. The account contains the story of the Knight Owein and his entrance into the Otherworld at the Purgatory. The story is a second-hand account, told for the first time to the writer between 1148 and 1153. But even though it is written by a Christian monk, it is clear that the account reads more like an initiation into a mystery cult, than a traditional Christian pilgrimage.
The story of Owein is comparable to Virgil’s account of Aeneas on his initiatory journey to Hades. And, indeed, the cults practiced at Lough Derg seem to have been similar, if not identical, to the ancient oracular sites of ancient Greece. There, too, the person in search of knowledge had to stay a few days on the site – maybe in one of the cells – before being admitted into the inner sanctum, where he met the oracle, endured temple sleep, or where visions were induced via other means. It is apparent that this practice occurred in Ireland, too, but that in the late 15th century, the Church finally put a stop to it.

In the absence of historical data, folklore and legends of Ireland must fill in the void. And the main theme is that of the hero who goes into the underworld and is swallowed by the Great Swallower, and is reborn. W. Y. Evans-Wentz’s “The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries” is one of the most in-depth and scholarly attempts to explain the phenomena of the Celtic belief in fairies. Based on Evans-Wentz’ Oxford doctoral thesis, the book is the ethnographic fieldwork conducted by him, creating an invaluable snapshot of the fairy belief system taken just on the cusp of modernity. In 1919, he collated a number of legends, which showed that the islands of Lough Derg were indeed connected with the Otherworld, in pre-Christian times.
One ancient legend linked the island with the flight of Finn Mac Coul, a mythical hunter-warrior of Irish mythology. He was the son of Cumhall, leader of the Fianna, and Muirne, daughter of the druid Tadg mac Nuadat. Finn is said to have dropped his mother’s legs into Lough Derg, and the lake became therefore known as Finn Mac Coul’s lake. The lake was said to have an enormous water-monster, the Corra, which in Irish mythology is the warrior aspect of the triple goddess. However, the Corra is also the goddess of prophecy and it is of course prophecy that is at the centre of oracle centres!
This water-monster is what St. Patrick many centuries later had to fight and kill. He found her laying in the water as a serpent and as he approached her, she opened her jaws and swallowed him. It took him two days and nights for him to cut himself free, killing her. As the struggle went on, the lake ran red with the blood of the water-monster, and so the lake came to be called Loch Derg… the Red Lake. Her body itself turned to stone and became the stones that to this day form the islands and jut out of the lake. Variations on this legend say, however, that it was Finn Mac Coul or his son, Conan, who killed the serpent. Another related legend is that Saint Patrick drove all the serpents from Ireland into this lake and that he had his final battle with them there, gaining complete victory. According to science, there were no longer any serpents in Patrick’s day, though it is known that serpents were linked with druids, and it should therefore not come as a surprise that the old men and women in the area – as Evans-Wentz learned – used to believe that Lough Derg was the last stronghold of the Druids in Ireland. He concluded that “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.”
Evans-Wentz summarised that the lake was held sacred in pre-Christian times and that the cave was used for pagan mysteries – which he placed on par with the ceremonies that were celebrated in other ancient Irish sites like Newgrange: “Evidently, in the ordeals and ceremonies of the modern Christian Purgatory of St. Patrick, we see the survivals of such pagan initiatory rites.”
It is therefore clear that the island was not only of tremendous importance to the druids, but that druidic cults were practice here. And it are these cults that were Christianised and became known as the pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Purgatory.

If Ireland had known a Roman occupation, than this purgatory would have closed down, just like all oracle centres were ordered to be closed. But as Ireland was not, something very ancient survived well into modern times.
The Purgatory was so famous that when the Calvinists closed it down for a number of years, several of the parishes in Ireland created their own versions. At the Chapel of Monea in Clogher, “a large hole was made in the Chapel floor and filled with water as a representation of the holy lake, and at Cornea, Co. Cavan, circles were cut in the Chapel floor, and figured chalked on the walls in imitation of the beds and crosses of Station Island.”
But in 1789, the cave of Station Islands was filled in by order of the Catholic prior, because the pilgrims were in danger of suffocation through overcrowding. The pinnacle of the basilica today marks the precise location of the former cave and it is all that remains of one of the most famous sites in the Christian world. Though the tradition of the oracle has survived the millennia, the actual sites have not. But somewhere on Saints Island lay the remains of one of the greatest initiatory sites the world has ever seen…