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Our Lough Derg detox: Four stories about the island

Why would anyone spend three days barefoot, hungry, cold and sleep deprived with nothing to do but pray on a monastic island in Co Donegal? Four people tell Helen Carson why they did it.

Published 19/08/2015

Spiritual challenge: Erin Hutcheon with Bishop Donal McKeown before departing with parishioners from the Derry Diocesan on the pilgrimage to Lough Derg
Spiritual challenge: Erin Hutcheon with Bishop Donal McKeown before departing with parishioners from the Derry Diocesan on the pilgrimage to Lough Derg
Family journey: bare-footed journalist Erin Hutcheon (right) with her sister Rosie Doherty at Lough Derg
Pilgrims praying at the penitential beds
Faith matters: Charlie Mullan
Feeling connected: Grainne Smylie

Escaping to an isolated retreat to contemplate your life where mobile phones are not allowed may sound like a trendy, new age idea created for stressed out executives, but a Co Donegal island has been a popular place of pilgrimage since the 12th century.

The spartan conditions of Lough Derg in Pettigoe, where the faithful flock to pray and reflect on life, was visited by more than 30,000 people last year.

Visitors, who are known as pilgrims, travel in a boat to the Christian retreat where they store their shoes away for three days, eat only dry toast, drink black tea or coffee and pray all night. The basic surroundings of Lough Derg include dormitories where people sleep and stash any of the meagre home comforts they bring with them. And with all mobile technology off-limits, the barefoot visitors spend much of their time walking on stones, known as penitential beds, often in the windy and rainy climate of the coastal location.

Pilgrims are also allowed to drink as much of the famous 'Lough Derg soup' (hot water seasoned with black pepper) as they like. Those who are regulars at the retreat say while the soup doesn't sound particularly filling, it does actually offer some sustenance during their stay.

Nine Stations of the cross are completed during the three-day vigil, but it is a challenging experience. Despite this many pilgrims go to Lough Derg three times a year, with some returning to complete the challenging stay when they are well into their eighties.

We talk to four people who explain how disconnecting with modern life is the perfect way to reconnect with faith and yourself.

'Being barefoot pushes you into a place that is not comfortable'

Father Donal McKeown, Bishop of Derry (65), recently accompanied a group of parishioners to Lough Derg. He says:

This was my sixth visit to Lough Derg and the main reason for going to the three-day retreat was in my role as a church leader. If my going inspires or encourages others to go, then that is a good thing.

Going to the island is a very physical experience; everyone must fast the night before they leave home, and it is tiring as you are up all night and have only one simple meal a day. A mixture of people go to Lough Derg - some who are going there for the nth time whereas for others it is their first visit. Some are very religious and other pilgrims may be unsure about their faith - there are all sorts of reasons why people go.

As a church leader I am there to support them. It is good to learn that you can live without all the comforts of home. There are no mobile phones to distract people, no breaks in the day for breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper. When you are barefoot all the time it pushes you into a place that is not comfortable, unlike our society.

Being uncomfortable, cold, hungry and sleep deprived for those three days creates a solidarity with those who suffer like this everyday.

There is a lot of praying through the night and by 3am the physical impact of staying awake can take its toll. The next day is an opportunity to walk around and talk to others and find out how they are doing.

I made sure everyone was okay and asked if they wanted me to hear their confession. Everybody is there for a different reason, perhaps to pray for someone or to address an issue they are struggling with in their own lives.

I met two men who had walked the 40 miles to Lough Derg from Derry over two days before their pilgrimage began.

Lough Derg has been a retreat since 1100, but I was at a meeting with the Chamber of Commerce recently and they have organised a retreat for their members in October which is nothing to do with spirituality.

The idea of escaping from a noisy world is not new, but it is now becoming an option for more people nowadays.

Last summer 30,000 people went to Lough Derg and I believe its popularity is due to a desire to get beyond the excessive comforts society tells us that we cannot survive without.

The modern mantras are about pampering yourself - "You're worth it" and "Obey your thirst" - but there is a big part of ourselves which cannot be satisfied simply by going to the local shopping mall."

‘I said 4,000 Hail Marys and was so tired I forgot the words’

Erin Hutcheon (37), a Derry Journal reporter, lives in the city with her husband, Peter and their children Amy (11) and three-year-old Henry. She says:

I always wanted to go to Lough Derg and talked about doing it for many years as it is a great tradition in Derry. I was brought up in the Catholic faith and was a regular at Mass, and was always saying "I'm going to do it before I'm 40".

I'm 37 now and when I heard the Bishop of Derry was going to take a group I decided to go too. My sister, Rosie, decided to come too the night before and I met another friend I knew on the bus which took us to the island. I admit I was scared of the challenges that lay ahead - being barefoot, having no access to technology and very little food. I did fear that I wouldn't be able to do it. I was worried that I would be the first to fall asleep during prayers and everybody would see me. But I also realised we would all be facing the same challenges.

It was tough - you have no food, no shoes, no sleep and there is a lot of praying. I said 4,000 Hail Marys, and I was so tired at one stage that I forgot the words to prayers that I have know since I was a child.

One of the reasons I wanted to go to Lough Derg was to reconnect with my faith as I had been very religious as a teenager, attending Mass and working for the local priest. While I have always believed, as I got older I wasn't going to Mass as often, so my pilgrimage to Lough Derg was about getting back (spiritually) to where I was as a teenager. I also want my two children to have the religious upbringing I had, and which has given me strength during difficult times in my life.

Going to Lough Derg is an opportunity to get away from everything and anything that is stressful or burdening you. I had to switch off my mobile, I couldn't even speak to my husband. There is no point worrying about anything that may happen as there is nothing you can do about it during those three days.

I wanted to go to confession and I said to the priest "It is 22 years since my last confession' - it was a very spiritual experience. I feel I connected with my faith again, yet you don't have to be very religious to go there. Not all of the people who make a pilgrimage to Lough Derg go to Mass or confession all the time.

Others, meanwhile, are there for something completely different, but everyone is treated as an individual, you're not just another pilgrim walking around in your bare feet. When I was ready to go home being able to put my feet in shoes was the best feeling ever. They say if you look back when the boat is leaving you will return to Lough Derg, and I did look back. I will go back, and had I been able to get time off work for the last retreat of the year I would've gone straight away.

There are people who go to Lough Derg two, three and four times a year, others are in their 80s - that is real faith. There is nothing easy about being there. It is about penance, but when I left and turned on my phone and just wanted to tweet #ididloughderg"

'The conversations that take place are not all about religion, but people's lives'

Charlie Mullan (40) from Derry is a doctor at the city's Altnagelvin Hospital. He says:

This was my second pilgrimage to Lough Derg but I found it tougher this time as the weather was a lot colder. For me it is a very worthwhile thing to do, it is very spiritual. Going there gives you a break from everyday life and being constantly connected to the world by email and mobile phone. The remote location of the retreat means you would never get a mobile signal anyway.

After arriving you put your shoes away in the dorm and then spend a lot of time walking around the penitential beds which are made of stones left over from huts the monks, who previously inhabited the island, lived in.

The stones tend to be crooked so it can be tough trying to keep your balance as you walk on them in your bare feet, especially if it has been raining. You also spend time walking on stones outside the basilica which is the main church - it is all part of the process.

Faith is important to me and I regularly attend Mass, but going to the retreat is a great opportunity to reflect on your life and think about how it is going. Lough Derg is also a great social experience as well as being contemplative. You meet other people who are all doing the same thing as you and it makes them more open to talking about their experiences. You'd be surprised at the conversations that take place as they are not all about religion, but people's lives.

Being on retreat gives you a chance to reset your clock and I think it is a healthy thing to do for a short while. While I wouldn't go more than once a year, it is very rewarding."

'At this stage in life, I feel prayer and being connected to God is important'

Grainne Smylie (42) is a nurse from Carryduff. She says:

I was last at Lough Derg 20 years ago, but my sister-in-law, Roisin, goes every year. If it wasn't for her I probably wouldn't have gone recently, but I now intend to return every year.

I have been learning about mindfulness for the last couple of years. At this stage of my life I feel prayer and being connected to God is important, and it is not all about going to Mass.

I feel I am close to Him all the time.

The first time I went to the retreat I found it difficult to stay up all night, but once you get back home you feel better - there is a great sense of achievement.

I hadn't been to confession for more than 10 years but went at Lough Derg and was really glad I did.

I met so many people and it doesn't matter who they are - they could have a really high-powered job, but everyone is on the same level here. It is a lovely, peaceful time to think and pray."

Belfast Telegraph

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