A Day on Lough Derg

DOES the lady not fish?’ asked the boatman. ‘My God! That’s a wonder!’

No, the lady did not fish. She would have caught the fly in somebody’s hair, or perhaps barbed an ear or a nose as the officer did in Owny’s story of fishing on Lough Derg: —

‘There was three officers come from Bundoran — it was in the Troubles, mind ye, and Sir John gave them leave to fish. The two was good fishermen like himself here, but the other never fished afore. Damn it and ye’d know it, too — did n’t he get me on the face the first time? There was a north wind blowing same as to-day. But the second time he got his own nose, and the barb was through. God, was n’t that a thing to do? I says, “Ye’ll go til Pilgrims’ Island and get the Nurse,” for, mind ye, the pilgrimages was over, forbye it was after August the fifteenth. Did n’t I row them as fast as I could til the island? And it was one o’clock and the Prior at his dinner, but he comed out and he called the Nurse. But she says, “Ye’d best get Paddy and the car and take him til the doctor, for that ‘ll need to be cut out an’ it must be well done.” So he be to go til the doctor at Belleek. Was n’t that a quare day’s sport? Two pound til the doctor and seven shillin’ til Paddy for the car. My God, that was a day! But the other two officers come next day and fished.’

After that story I felt wise in my idleness. The boat danced over the lake water. When the sun shone, a blue net seemed to lie on the little waves and they sparkled as if they were quicksilver. Then a cloud hid the sun and they were dark and gloomy. Lough Derg lies among the hills of six Irish counties, and their mountains are blue on the horizon. It is a stern lake, this place of Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, and severe are the rules of the Pilgrimage that is made for two and a half months of the summer. And yet between fourteen and fifteen thousand pilgrims come each year.

Once the pilgrims’ island held two or three whitewashed cottages and a small chapel. Now the perch of land is covered by a magnificent church which cost a hundred and ninety thousand pounds to build. Beside it are grouped the hostel for women (which can house four hundred a night), the men’s hostel, and the houses of the clergy and attendants.

The rules of the Pilgrimage demand a three days’ fast. The pilgrims come fasting. They take off their shoes and do an hour’s devotions before the one meal of the day, which is dry bread and tea. On bare feet they follow the stations of the Cross outside the church. The first night they have no sleep, but pray until the earliest Mass at six o’clock. The next night they may rest, and on the third morning they leave; but, except for the one meal of black tea and bread, they must keep the fast until the next morning.

‘Dammit, but it’s a great cure,’ Owny told us. ‘Don’t I know well, for I done it twenty-two times an’ never felt better. I nearly lost the eye once, an’ I promised if I kept it I ‘d do the Pilgrimage. If ye’d suffer that hardship another time the priest and the doctor would be by ye; ye’d be falling down. But there’s never anyone but is the better for it.’

I looked with awe and admiration at the crowded railway bus that was gliding down to the landing stage. Big boats were ready to receive the pilgrims and take them out. The Prior’s biretta stood out against the sky line.

The great stone church is built out into the water on concrete staging, for the island is a tiny one and is not the island that legend connects with Saint Patrick on Lough Derg. That island of the Purgatory is now called Saints’ Island and lies dreaming and forgotten. The slopes are white with cotton grass. Enclosed lie a few old stones, fallen among brambles and bracken; these mark the graves of the monks. In past days abuses grew up; the monks came under the displeasure of the Pope, and the Pilgrimage was stopped. It was revived again for a time, but Leslie, the landlord at that period, once again stopped it. The monks left the island. The cave of the Purgatory was filled in and cannot now be found. Another and later Leslie gave the present Pilgrims’ Island for the restored Pilgrimage.

A north wind blew and the water roughened. We rode up and down on dark foamy waves. Owny adjured me not to be frightened. ‘The old boat’s the best in the world. She’s never failed me. She’d brave the worst storm yet. I’d go til America in her. Who ‘ll get the first trout — him or me? We’re going through the Bloody Gap now. D’ye know why it’s called that? I’ll tell ye. Saint Patrick come til these parts an’ he was all alone. He knocked at a door where he saw a wee house, an’ he says he wants a night’s lodgings. “Well, ye can’t have it,” says the old man, “forbye there’s no one intil the house but the old woman an’ meself and we takes turns to watch out for a bloody monster that comes each night. An’ mebbe it’ll kill you as well as ourselves.”

‘Saint Patrick takes no heed of that. “Make yourself aisy, dacint man,” he says, “ for no bloody monster ever got the better of me an’ I’m tellin’ ye.” So he goes off and he follows that monster from Downpatrick an’ he slays him here in the water, an’ that’s why it’s the Bloody Gap. But I’ll tell ye this — he cursed the lake that no salmon would ever come again. They tell it two ways. Some says he slipped on a salmon’s back, they were so thick them days, an’ others says that a man had caught two salmon an’ when the Saint axed would he spare him one, “ I will not,” says the lad. Mind ye, Saint Patrick was a hasty man, saint and all though he was. “Ye will not?” says he. “Then there’ll never be no salmon in this lake no more,” he says. An’ that’s true, for never a salmon that comes up the river comes intil the lake.

‘An’ I’ll prove it’s true, for a rich gintleman come from America an’ says he, “I’ll bring the salmon back surely,” and he catches two and he ties differentcolored ribbons til the bait an’ he lets them go in the water, an’ he got the river netted. And next morning the two salmon, ribbons and all, was at the net, tryin’ to get back intil the river.’

There was a pause. The two men had their work to keep the boat’s head to the wind. If some of the waves had struck us broadside we should have been wet at least.

We fell into the silence that broods over this lake of Saint Patrick’s penance. In winter it must be a dreary spot among these lonely northern hills, yet with an austere beauty. Now it was gentle; its islands were green — white here and there with the flowers on the rowan trees and on the old twisted thorns. Sometimes a sandpiper on sickle wings fled across the water whistling. The gulls called above a rocky island, Terns’ Island, where no terns were to be seen. The curlew gave an anxious laughing cry, ‘Ha, ha, ha! Ha, ha, ha!’ lest we should go near the nest in the rushy grass. When the sun shone again the larks were in endless song up in the blue above the mainland.

‘There’s no cattle here,’ said Owny at last. ‘It’s quare bad feeding. Only sheep — that’s the shepherd’s house, and it’s a lonesome place. But ye would n’t be lonely while ye could fish. I never would. Ah! God, is n’t this man lucky? He’s the luckiest fisherman ever I met.'

We were floating gently now in Connolly’s Bay, and the sun was making diamonds on the ripples and the sky netting the amber water with a tangle of blue. The reel screamed, the line was taut. Again and again the brown trout took the golden-olive fly, played awhile, and met a quick end in the boat, to lie still, gleaming in the lucent mottled colors of trout — lovely little creatures, the largest not much over a pound’s weight, but very good to eat at breakfast next day.

We landed on the Tyrone bank. The grass was bright with little flowers, blue milkwort, pink orchis, yellow spearwort, delicate white umbels of pignut. Owny set himself to boil the kettle and make tea for our lunch. Did Saint Patrick take his food in this fashion with his companions? At times he traveled with a large retinue, but often he must have taken a few of them and known this gypsy life of bread and fish eaten on the lake shore as his Master knew it by Galilee.

Perhaps the nephews fished from the boat and Patrick sat deep in thought, looking at these lands that were yet to win. Cities change, but this lake and its islands and circling shores are just the place that he looked at in the fifth century when he came to Ireland.

Did the scene look dreary after the islands of the Mediterranean, or did he love the fresh wind and the flowers and trees of his adopted land?

In the late afternoon we came to Saints’ Island. The old pilgrims’ road stops opposite it on the mainland. I had seen its beginning near Pettigo, the little border town that is near Lough Derg. In old days there was a wooden bridge from mainland to island. This was the place of Patrick’s fasting and wrestling with the powers of evil. Great foxgloves keep a watch over the old graves, and the white cotton grass is like a quilt over the moss and heather. The fern, Osmunda regalis, grows here. Owny insisted that he should get me some roots. ‘It’s the Rosamunda fern an’ it’ll grow rightly for ye, lady, if ye keep it in moss and gravel.’

When he came back I was telling the fisherman the most convincing fairy story that I have ever been told. Only a few days before I had heard it from the visionary herself and had seen her little green gate looking down on Lough Swilly. But the word ‘visionary’ suggests somebody different from the good housekeeper, the practical matron, a general’s wife and most competent woman of the world, for whom the fairies danced. This was the way of it.

She went through her garden one summer evening at dusk. She was going to visit a friend who lived near her. The year was 1922, the time of the ‘Troubles,’ and she paused at the green gate because below her she saw two men go to the boathouse. They did not come out, and she stood waiting, looking down at the sand left by the outgoing tide. Then she saw about a hundred little men and women dancing together on the wet sand. The women wore full gauzy skirts and the men were in jerkins with peaked caps. She watched them until it was too dark to see any more.

Now that is the story of a woman whose word cannot be doubted. You may call it waking dream or what you will. She has never seen them since that day, but sometimes she hears the thin reedy lilt of the music she heard that night, as others hear it on these lake shores of Donegal. It was in this county that 'Æ' saw visions and painted his pictures of shining sands and fairy figures.

I asked Owny if he ever saw the fairies. The matter was a commonplace to him. Between trout and fairies he saw no great gap. ’I did so. Aye, I did an’ I heerd them. My wife an’ I heerd them in a forth near by, and a great noise they made, singing and laughing, and there was fiddles going all the time. An’ I tell ye what I saw one time: a kind of a funeral, and four fairies were carrying a corp’. That was all I saw.’

That story struck me, for I had heard an old man in the Dublin hills tell nearly the same tale. But he saw a long procession of them going over field and hedge, and he could not see the corpse.

‘They say the fairies would take babies — boys, ye know — I dunno — I’ve heerd it. There was Patsy Muldoon, an’ he was holdin’ the child in his arms at the half door when a strange woman came uptil him. “That’s a lovely child,” says she, an’ she says, “I’ll hold him for ye, for a mankind likely has things he’d be at.” But, mind ye, he saw what she would be at, an’ he held til the child. I doubt but she’d have changed him, else.’

Owny took fairies easily as the rightful owners of the soil, but less interesting than the brown trout of the lough and the badgers and foxes of the islands. I was glad that he kept the badger’s old name, ‘brock.’

But the evening was falling sullenly. A pall of cloud, amber-lined, rainfringed, had covered the westering sun. The waves were rough and the water dark. The two men rowed in silence. The catch was good enough. When they were counted on shore there were eighteen — none large, but they made an excellent breakfast dish. Presently we were close to Pilgrims’ Island. We could look at the great church from the water.

‘Ye’d love to see the lights at night across the lough,’ Owny exclaimed. ‘There’s a great big cross inside an’ it’s all lights. My God, it’s a wonder to see. There’s pilgrims come from all parts, but I never heerd yet of a German or a Rooshian.’

’I think the fast is terribly severe,’ I remarked, thinking of our good lunch of sandwiches and cheese and eggs and contrasting it with the dry bread and black tea of the pilgrims’ one meal.

‘Lady, ye need n’t be feared. Och, it’s not too bad. Ye could smoke an’ ye could talk. Don’t I know a hundred matches that got made up after bein’ here? I met me own wife, an’ she comes from the far side of Lough Esk.’

‘Is n’t it very cold for them, Owny?’

‘It may be, an’ ye can’t bring a rug. It’s against the rule. But ye can ask the Prior to lend ye one. It’s a great place, surely — none like it. I’ve been in Ameriky and in Glasgow, but I never saw the like o’ thon island.’

‘ Does it cost much — the Pilgrimage? ‘

‘It does not — three shillin’ on your boat going out an’ nine shillin’ to keep ye, an’ whatever ye’ll buy of books or beads or what offering ye’ll make. Anyone can do it, an’ ye’ll get great blessings.’

The boats were leaving Pilgrims’ Island to meet the night omnibus. Again I saw the Prior’s biretta against the sky. He sat erect in the stern, an old man who has seen the practical establishment of his dreams — a great church built and the debt paid.

We drove back to Donegal. A quiet evening had settled on hill and valley. Slieve League was a fairy fortress against the northern sky, the Bluestack Mountains dim in the summer evening. You can repeat the names of these mountains like a rune — Carnaween, Croaghnaskeviot, Binbane.

But I could not lose the thought of the Pilgrimage and all that it means to those fifteen thousand pilgrims, each with some heart-deep reason for coming to this desolate lough and its austere island.