Once Ordinary…

 “Here she comes again
Standing by my side, breathing on my skin
She’s a breath of life
I’ve nothing left to hide
My arms are open but my soul is tired”

( Holmes/Abrams/Rev)

“Evening Paul, hope you are well, another tough week for you. Are you free Wed 17th May for an ‘interesting’ day out ?”

I received this message a couple of months ago from my great friend Milo, whom I’ve known since we were 13, which was a wee while ago now. I have learnt to say yes to almost any offer of adventure, so , intrigued I answered yes.

“Brilliant ! Leave it with me. Hope you doing OK  with all the prods and tests.”

Milo , as well as being a lifelong friend, is also my optician , and had referred me to an ophthalmologist in Dublin who had determined that I needed a series of eye injections, which is what the ‘prods and tests’ alluded to.

I replied that all was well, and thought that maybe he felt guilty for putting me through these procedures, and that he was making up for it with this ‘adventure’.

“Ah that’s good. All booked, be in touch.”

I didn’t bite and ask immediately where we were going, but thought it must be a gig. Then I remembered that Milo’s musical tastes never really evolved past Chicago or The Eagles and I was quite sure that most of them had…stopped gigging.

A book signing ? Unlikely.

Rally ? Not on a Wednesday.

Before I thought too much more about it Milo sent me a screen shot of an event, an event I would not have guessed in a bajillion years :

Lough Derg – Day of Friendship & Prayer.

I showed it to my Soulmate. She smiled and asked if he was joking. “I certainly hope so !” I replied. “I hope he’s not.” She giggled.

I messaged him back “Can’t wait to find out where we’re really going !”.


For my non-Irish friends, Lough Derg is a lake in Donegal in which there is an island , Station Island, and on this island is St.Patrick’s Purgatory , a series of stony outcrops, a large church, dormitories , and a gift shop. There has been a history of a pilgrimage to this place since time immemorial , and written records dating back to 1185.

The pilgrimage entails spending two nights on the island in prayer and fasting, and barefoot. The first night is spent awake in a vigil and the second day in prayer. You are allowed sleep on the second night for a short while before leaving at dawn on the third day. You are not supposed to eat from midnight of the night before you arrive and until midnight on the day you go home. You are allowed some dry toast and black tea on the island.

Milo and I had done this pilgrimage in 1984 after we had finished our Leaving Certificate exams. I’d never had any desire to go back, Milo couldn’t get enough of the place and , it transpired had returned annually.

Up until Milo arrived to collect me on Wednesday morning, I still had half a notion that he was joking, but when I hopped into his car I saw that the sat nav was aiming for Pettigo, a village on the shore of Lough Derg.

We chatted the way old friends do the whole way to Pettigo, comfortably, honestly and regularly laughing loudly. Milo is blessed with a great laugh. We were parking on the shore before we knew it. When I’d last been there the boat across was a large wooden fishing boat, but now they had three large covered cruisers, seating 40 people each. We got the first one across and were greeted on the other shore by Fr. Flynn, Prior of Lough Derg, and our former music teacher when we were at school. He welcomed Milo warmly, as did every single member of staff on the island that day subsequently. I felt like I was his PA.

We wandered around in the sunshine, reminiscing about my last visit, and Milo explaining all the buildings that had been added in the intervening years, and carrying on our general chat. We had tea and scones and another wander about before taking a seat near the jetty to watch the rest of the pilgrims arrive.

“It’s not everywhere we go these days that we’re the youngest, I’m enjoying it” I said to him as we watched more people arrive.

When everyone was on the island and had had their scone, ( only jam on one side allowed…this is a pilgrimage! ), and a wander about we gathered in a meeting room where we were to hear a talk on “What Does The Lord Require Of Us ?”. I was tempted to write on my booklet to show to Milo “ If it involves any more meagrely jammed scones I’m commandeering that boat and going home !” but I didn’t have a pen!

Everyone had been lovely, but I just felt like such a fraud among all these holy people and in this holy place, not being a regular mass goer anymore and having a very anti-bureaucratic faith, and was in danger of hiding this feeling with my tried and trusted jokey cynicism.

 But then Fr. Flynn started the event and spoke with honesty and humility about this place and this day and I just relaxed and decided to go with the flow.

Monsignor Peter O’Reilly then spoke of his friendship with the main speaker , Rev. Kenneth Hall. Their respective churches are across the street from each other in Enniskillen and when Rev. Hall arrived in his new parish Monsignor O’Reilly was surprised to be invited to his welcoming service, and more surprised still to find five or six Catholic priests from Rev. Hall’s previous parish already there.

“It was nine !” Reverend Hall interjected from his seat.

They were very comfortable with each other.

Monsignor recalled Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Enniskillen in 2012 and Reverend Hall , after her visit to his cathedral, escorting her across the street to his church St. Michael’s, the first time she had visited a Catholic church in Ireland. He also stated that Rev. Hall had changed his life , and we could all see it.

Reverend Hall talked about his childhood, the start of the troubles, bullying on the school bus, teachers having handguns on the desk at school, near misses in car bombings, and looking back how ordinary and everyday it was at the time, but seems extraordinary in hindsight. He talked about his time as a minister in Cookstown when the Omagh bombing took place, and the difficulties they had as ministers and priests of different Christian faiths in coming together for the community. But come together they did and discovered each other’s humanity.

When he finished, to loud and heartfelt applause, Fr. Flynn asked us to spend a moment or two speaking to someone beside us about anything that struck us or made an impression on us from what we’d heard. Milo turned to me and said “Well ?” , fully expecting a smart alec reply.

“The things that we go through that appear ordinary, but looking back we see that they were extraordinary.”

I left it at that.

We then made our way across the island to the church and had a short service of readings, poems, and hymns , before heading to the dining hall where we had soup and sandwiches. I’d said to Milo on the way to the church that if we were the last in we’d be first out for the food, and we were. When we entered the dining room all of the waiting staff knew Milo and had big hellos for him. One of the ladies asked me when my last visit had been, and when I answered 1984 she said “Jesus, were you 10 ?”, and I beamed from ear to ear so much that I dribbled my soup. Fr. Flynn sat at our table and told us a risqué story about a Nell McCaffrey visit to Maynooth, and then said that he would give a short tour to anyone who was interested afterwards.

Milo and I joined the tour, Fr.Flynn saying that Milo could probably give it better than he could. We wandered around listening to his anecdotes, and some of the other pilgrims’ memories of their own previous visits. I drifted off a little and felt a peace and calm. This island was a special place before the Christians came. There had been a cave or opening into the earth and people would visit the cavern and meditate , inhale medicinal herbs and dream. Lough Derg translates into English as ‘Lake of The Cave’.  St.Patrick called it Purgatory, or the gates to hell, and it proved a huge attraction to early Christian pilgrims, and a huge money-spinner, so much so that bishops argued among each other over what was the ‘true’ pilgrimage route from Dublin, hoping to have pilgrims make donations on their way through their diocese rather than travel through a neighbouring bishop’s turf.

During the Reformation the all-conquering Protestant Bishop John Spottiswood levelled all of the churches and buildings on the island and filled in the cavern. Catholics were eventually allowed to return to the island, but on condition that the cave was not reopened.

There is a belltower built above the old cave entrance now, below which are the ‘beds’ , circular outcrops of stones that you walk barefoot on during the proper pilgrimage.

Before we left the island I walked up around the belltower and touched the old stones. Milo followed me. I stood for a moment and looked out across the lake.

This is indeed a special place. Perhaps always has been, always will be.

And the day had been a special day, spent with good people…and Milo.

There is a smaller church near the jetty where they used to hear confessions, but it’s a warmer place now where you can just sit and pray…or just sit. There was a wooden counter at one side where you could write a  prayer intention and pop it in a box that someone might look at someday. The slips of paper had two pre-printed half sentences for you to complete :

I’m grateful for….

I would like prayers for …..

I wrote ‘Today’, and then ‘For those who need them most’.

Then I sat down for a moment and said a prayer for you ,, and all sinners !

I wanted to look in the gift shop before we left, Milo waited outside chatting to a nice lady who worked on the island. The shop was similar to the gift shops you now get at all of the tourist attractions around Ireland, it was very like the one we’d visited two years ago at the Cliffs of Moher, except with fewer tea towels and more rosary beads.  I didn’t buy anything and came out to find Milo waving at me to hurry on to the jetty where the boat was leaving.

“Couldn’t get you onto the island, and now you’re the last to leave !”

We stopped in Pettigo to get a coffee and a 99 , which Milo insisted on calling a ‘Whippy’, for the journey home. Again we talked about everything and nothing and were home too soon.

“Are you going to do the full pilgrimage this year ?” I asked him as he dropped me off at my house.

“Yeah….would you go ?”

“I would…aye…yeah I would.”

“Seriously ?”


“Brilliant ! I’ll let you know dates that suit later.”

I will go.

But I’ll be bringing a shovel … and I’m digging out that cave !



Author: paul

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *