To most of us, St. Patrick’s Day means green beer, funny hats and a chance to let loose as winter gives way to spring. But Ireland’s saint has been celebrated with a feast for almost 300 years and still, few know his story. John Kernaghan and Pam Martin went looking for it, paddling in his wake on standup paddleboards and travelling his paths in a hulking camper van. We also found a remarkable landscape of sea, sky and land as well as a welcoming people. Here’s Day 2 of our seven-day countdown to St. Patrick’s Day.
A statue of St. Patrick, who visited here around 435, welcomes visitors to Station Island. Photo by Pam Martin
The reality was crushing, a biting wind driving whitecaps that only the most skilled paddler would dare try. Still, it is an astonishing location to view from afar with the big welcoming statue of Patrick, the view of St. Patrick’s Sanctuary, also called the Purgatory, on the island and the knowledge people have worshipped and sought enlightenment here since the 500s.
It would put us squarely between the location where some histories place his period of slavery playing out, Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, site of another pilgrimage, and the glens of Antrim on the island’s north coast, a possible point of his enslavement close to where pirates used coastal caves to unload their human cargo.
You don’t need to be particularly religious to feel the power of the pilgrimage to the lake and the Sanctuary looming at it’s centre. And as always, there’s a tale or two associated with the location, stories tourism material is keen to share.
In one, St. Patrick drives the last snake from Ireland, turning the lake red with its blood. In another, Christ dramatically reveals to Patrick the entrance to Hell in a cave.
First, you are welcomed by an arms-open St. Patrick, the three-metre high statue depicting how he would have appeared during his mission. He grasps a sturdy staff, a satchel slung over one shoulder and full-length cloak gathered at the neck.
What histories are available, largely taken from Patrick’s writings, place him here roughly around 435 when it is said he was rowed out to Station Island, where he inhabited a cave and prayed. As his story became known, the island became a popular point of pilgrimage.
The cave was filled and a chapel built and other buildings added including a basilica, dormitories and bell tower. In the more recent past, shops and dining facilities were added as thousands began visiting annually.
Now there is a one-day and a three-day pilgrimage, the latter including a 12-hour vigil on its middle day covering four of the nine stations. Pilgrimage exercises are done in bare feet and a three-day fast is interrupted only by one Lough Derg meal daily. That’s black tea or coffee with dry toast, wheaten bread or oatcakes.
“Remarkably the Island continues to hold its appeal for young and old alike,” a Lough Derg brochure declares. “People continue to come for all kinds of reasons.
“Some come to reflect on life changing decisions, to come to terms with where they are at, to give thanks to God for joy in their lives, to overcome loss, to pray for themselves or a loved one.”
By the year 700, 5,000 visitors were recorded. And that jumped to 30,000 by 1846.
In 1795 disaster struck when a boat carrying 93 passengers sank, close to a smaller island a very short distance from the quay at Station Island. Only three passengers survived.
Almost 225 years later, we looked at the aggressive wind and angry chop of water and concluded we would not test those conditions.
So we moved on to the gentler Lower Lough Erne in Fermanagh and, with Patrick’s privations in mind, as he travelled rough, a soft landing at Finn Lough, a beautifully-appointed resort on a 75-acre peninsula thrusting into the lake.
Maury was comfy enough, but this was being spoiled with a deep mattress, massive bath area and excellent cuisine.
Lower Lough Erne, part of a lake system that covers one third of the county, was tranquil the next day as we pumped up the boards and did a circuit of a section of lake near the resort.
It was accompanied by the usual musical birdsong backdrop and was easy on the eyes with green hills rolling away from the lake’s edge.
Next up was Derry and as we wended our way there we remarked on how vital we felt after adjusting to a new time zone.
Surely, the seaweed treatment was part of that, but we felt the air, water and food were purer than at home and our skin and hair felt better. And maybe some St. Patrick magic was at work, too.
Next: More Donegal, Derry and navigating the River Foyle and Lough Foyle.
Featured image: Pam and John cruise along the verdant banks of Lower Lough Erne, one of many lakes in the Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.