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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

The history of this Purgatory of St. Patrick is very curious and interesting. The first recorded account of the place is from the pen of Henry, a Benedictine monk of Saltrey, in Huntingdonshire, England, who wrote a treatise ‘De Purgatorio S. Patritii,’ about the year 1152. He declares that he received his information from Gilbert, a monk of Luda, or Louth, in Lincoln, who himself received all the details from a certain ‘Oenus Miles,’ or a soldier-knight called Owen, who served in the armies of King Stephen. Owen was an Irishman, and made a pilgrimage to the Purgatory, all of which he in confidence communicated to Gilbert. Henry of Saltrey adds that Owen’s account was confirmed by the testimony of Patrick, third of that name, who was bishop of the place where Lough Derg is situated, and who also declared that ‘many of those who visited the cave never returned, and even those who return pine away because of the great torments they suffered.’ There is no bishop of the name of Patrick at this time in the lists given by Ware either for the diocese of Clogher or Raphoe. Henry of Saltrey’s story is to this effect: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, visibly appearing to Saint Patrick, led him into a desert place, and there showed him a circular cave (fossam rotundam) dark inside, and at the same time said to him, whoever, armed with the true faith, and truly penitent, will enter that cave and remain in it for the space of a day and a night, will be purged from the sins of his whole life—in modern language, obtain a plenary indulgence—and moreover, passing through it, if his faith fail not—(si in fide constanter egisset)—he will witness not only the torments of the damned but also the joys of the blessed.” He then adds, that after this vision, St. Patrick in great joy built a church on that spot, and made the Canons of St. Augustine guardians of the same, and he surrounded the cave, which is in the churchyard in front of the church, with a wall, and closed it with a—

Dore bowden with iron and stele,

And locke and key made thereto,

That no men should the dore undo.

Metrical Version.

He gave the key to the prior of the convent, without whose permission no man could enter the cavern. Owen then narrates what he himself witnessed in the cavern—how he met fifteen venerable men clothed in white, who received him kindly, and told him to act manfully or he would perish body and soul, that he would be assaulted by demons who would by torments strive to drive him back:—

But if they will thee beat or bind,

Look thou have these words in thy mind—

Jesus, as thou art full of might,

Have mercy on a sinful knight.

Metrical Version.

So when he was attacked by the demons, who were about to throw him into hell, the invocation of the Holy Name saved him. He then had to cross a high, narrow, slippery bridge, called the bridge of the three impossibilities, but strengthened by faith and prayer, he crosses it safely. Next he comes to a bright crystal wall, having a door adorned with gold and jewels, through which he is admitted to the terrestrial paradise where the unwise Adam and Eve dwelt when on earth, and where many persons still remain free from sensible pain (a pœnis liberi sumus), but not yet admitted to the joys of heaven (Nondum tamen ad supernam sanctorum lætitiam ascendere digni sumus). Owen was very anxious to remain there, but was not permitted. Then a ‘Bishop’ showed him the celestial paradise and the hill leading thereto, after which he is let out of the cave, safe and sound, to the great joy of the clergy. His life was ever afterwards changed for the better; he went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and lived many years after his return, when at length he died a holy death.

It cannot be denied that if this is merely an allegory it contains an excellent moral lesson. The Bollandist writer remarks that we must not suppose Owen Miles saw all this ‘oculis corporeis, sed imaginationi sunt subjecta quae ita prorsus hominem afficiunt ac si corporeo intuitu fuerunt usurpata’ (Boll. Acta SS. 17 Martii).

Before any person was permitted to enter this cavern—and few even of those who made the pilgrimage had the courage to enter it—it was necessary, in the first place, to get the permission of the bishop by letter addressed to the Prior, and the bishop always dissuaded the pilgrims from attempting it. Having presented the bishop’s letter to the Prior, the latter also dissuaded the adventurous individual, but if he persisted in his purpose, he had to remain five days in retreat; then a Requiem Mass was celebrated, at which he received the Holy Communion, and he finally made his will. After these somewhat terrifying preliminaries, if he was still determined to visit the cavern, the clergy, in solemn procession, accompanied him to the pit’s mouth, singing the litanies, the Prior unlocked the door, the adventurer took holy water, signed himself with the sign of the Cross, and entered the cave, which was closed after him. Next day the clergy went again to the pit’s mouth; if there was no appearance of the pilgrim, he was given up for lost, but if he did appear, he was taken out, the clergy with great joy conducted him to the church, where he spent fifteen days more in thanksgiving for his deliverance, which was almost regarded as a mark of predestination.

We have not space to discuss whether this alleged vision of St. Patrick was an imposture, or a reality, or a delusion. Lanigan calls Henry of Saltrey’s account ‘stuff,’ which he would not condescend to refute. A Spanish Benedictine, called Feijoo, wrote a treatise against the genuineness of St. Patrick’s Purgatory, which was received with great approbation on the Continent. Their arguments may be briefly summed up:—

1. There is no evidence that St. Patrick was ever in Lough Derg at all.

2. There were no Canons Regular of St. Augustine in Ireland before the beginning of the 12th century; and, therefore, they could not have been made guardians of St. Patrick’s Purgatory in the 5th century.

3. It is heretical to speak of the terrestrial paradise as the abode of souls, and distinct from Purgatory and Heaven; the II Council of Lyons, and the Council of Florence, according to Feijoo, at least implicitly, condemn this error.

In our opinion these arguments are by no means conclusive. It does not surely follow, because we have no written record of the fact, that St. Patrick never visited Lough Derg. Have we written records of all the places he visited during his seven years’ sojourn in Connaught? We have a strong and vivid traditional record that he visited Lough Derg, and this tradition is confirmed by Lanigan’s own account of how our Apostle, when in the district of Tyrconnell, went back eastward towards Lough Erne, the very place where Lough Derg is situated. We know, too, that our Saint was in the habit of withdrawing to lonely and retired places for the purpose of prayer and penance, and no place could be more suitable for that purpose than an island in Lough Derg.

The Bollandists answer the second objection. It is true there were no Canons Regular in Ireland before Imar of Armagh introduced them to his great Church of St. Peter and Paul, built about 1126; but as the Canons Regular reformed or repeopled most of the old Irish monasteries desolated during the Danish wars, the custom gradually grew up of calling their monastic predecessors also in those houses Canons Regular, and even St. Patrick himself was called a Canon Regular, and his festival specially celebrated in their Order. As to the charge of heresy no one expects that the vision of a rough soldier like Owen would conform to strict theological accuracy. The Councils mentioned, too, were held since the time of Henry of Saltrey.

St. Patrick most likely did visit the lake, and may have spent some time in one of the islands, or in this lonely cave. He certainly was frequently favoured with heavenly visions, whether the one recorded by Henry is genuine or not. At any rate the place was sanctified by his presence. St. Dabheoc, who founded a monastery there about the year 490, and his disciples, would follow St. Patrick’s example and use the cavern as a duirteach, or solitary praying-cell; ‘some had visions, like those recorded, others imagined they had, and, perhaps, some pretended they had;’ and thus the origin and history of the cave might easily be explained without insinuating, as Dr. Lanigan does, that St. Patrick’s Purgatory on Lough Derg was got up as a rival to Patrick’s Purgatory at Croaghpatrick, mentioned by Jocelyn.

Henry of Saltrey’s story, improved by Cambrensis after his peculiar fashion, and copied by Mathew Paris, soon made St. Patrick’s Purgatory famous all over the Continent. Three metrical French versions of Henry’s story were published in the 13th century, and two English ones, one in the 14th and one in the 15th century; copies are in the British Museum. It was celebrated in an Italian romance called ‘Guerino detto il meschino,’ and Calderon made the ‘Purgatorio de San Patritio’ famous throughout all Europe. Illustrious pilgrims from every country came in crowds to Lough Derg. It was, like our own, an age of pilgrimages. Great men in those days committed great crimes, for which they had the grace to do rigorous penance. In 1358, Edward III. granted to one Malatesta, a Hungarian knight, and to Nicholas de Brecario, of Ferrara, in Italy, a safe conduct through England, on their way to St. Patrick’s Purgatory. Richard II. granted a similar safe conduct to Raymond, Viscount of Perilleux, a knight of Rhodes, with a train of twenty men and thirty horses.

Froissart gives an account of Sir W. Lysle and another knight’s visit to the cave when Richard was in England. Raymond of Perhilos, a Spanish nobleman, visited St. Patrick’s Purgatory, and his experiences there, even more marvellous than those of the knight Owen, are given at length in O’Sullivan Bearc. The Four Masters, under date of the year 1516, tell of a French knight, who, on his return from Lough Derg, stopped at Donegal with O’Donnell, and, in return for his generous hospitality, sent him a ship, with large guns, which enabled him to retake the Castle of Sligo from O’Connor Sligo. But it seems the very fame of the place led to abuses.

A Dutch monk, from the monastery of Eymstede, came in pilgrimage to Lough Derg. With great difficulty he got the requisite permission from the Bishops, Prior, and Prince of the territory, to enter the cavern—‘omnes enim petierunt pecuniam’—and he had none to give. However, he was let down into the cave by a rope, taking with him a little bread and water; but, whether from a want of faith or of imagination, he saw nothing in the cavern. Going forthwith to Rome, he declared the whole story of the cave was a fraud, and, by way of proof, narrated his own adventures in Lough Derg. Accordingly, in 1494, Alexander VI. issued a Brief, directed to the Guardian of the Convent of Donegal, and the official of the Deanery of Lough Erne, ordering the suppression of the pilgrimage and the destruction of the cave—‘quia fuit occasio turpis avaritiæ.’ The aforementioned monk was himself the bearer of this Brief to Ireland. On the 17th March, 1497, the orders of the Pope were executed; the pilgrimage was suppressed and the cave destroyed.

Strange to say, the Four Masters, writing little more than a century afterwards at Donegal, make no mention of this suppression. But it is recorded in the Annals of Ulster, by Cathal M‘Guire, their author, who was ‘Dean of Lough Erne and Deputy of the Bishop for fifteen years before his death,’ and who was one of those who aided in the execution of the Pope’s order.

The pilgrimage, however, soon revived; very probably it was never wholly suppressed, for we find the visit of the French knight recorded by the Four Masters in 1516. It is not easy, however, to determine when the formal transfer of the station to Station Island took place, or when the guardianship of the place passed to the Franciscans. In Peter Lombard’s time the change of place had occurred, but not of guardianship. The Canons Regular were still on Saints’ Island, but the Prior of the Purgatory lived on Station Island. It is not improbable that the change took place on the revival of the pilgrimage after the Pope’s prohibition. In 1632, some years after the plantation of Ulster by the English and Scotch ‘Undertakers,’ by order of Adam Loftus and Richard Boyle, Lords Justices, Sir James Balfour and Sir William Steward ‘drove the friars from the island, caused their dwelling to be demolished, and the cell (on Station Island) to be broken open, in which state it hath lain ever since, so that the pilgrimage is now come to nothing,’ says Boate (in his Natural History), who wrote in Cromwell’s time. But as soon as the fury of the persecution had blown over, the pilgrimage was again resumed, for in the 2nd of Queen Anne, it was enacted that—“whereas the superstitions of Popery are greatly increased and upheld by the pretended sanctity of places, and especially of the place called St. Patrick’s Purgatory, in the County Donegal, be it enacted that all such meetings shall be deemed riots and unlawful assemblies, and all sheriffs, &c., &c., are hereby required to be diligent in putting the laws in force against all such offenders.”

The pilgrimage, however, flourished all through the 18th century. Dr. Burke, the learned author of Hibernia Dominicana, who himself visited the island in 1748, and greatly extolled its fame and sanctity, tells us that Benedict XIII. when a cardinal, preached a sermon in Rome, in which he praised and approved of the penitential austerities of Lough Derg.

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