I am embarrassed to say that over the course of the last few years and much research into medieval pilgrimage, I have only given a very brief amount of time to one of the most famous pilgrimage sites, not only in Ireland but also in Europe: Saint Patrick’s Purgatory situated on Lough Derg, Co. Donegal. The pilgrimage to Lough Derg offered those who ventured to this little island within an island a penitential experience like no other. It provided the penitent with the opportunity to set out on a physical journey, eventually leading to a spiritual event where visions of both the torments of hell and the pleasures of heaven were witnessed. Its beginnings as a place of pilgrimage are described by H. of Saltery who explains that Saint Patrick, on requests from the Irish to prove the existence of both hell and heaven before they convert to Christianity, is shown the Lough by Jesus.
In The Medieval Pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Purgatory, de Pontfarcy describes the strong relationship between this site and the anchoretic tradition. The isolation of Lough Derg and its history steeped in visions of the otherworld would have drawn not only the truly penitent pilgrims but also those motivated by a desire to see the wonderous and the curious for themselves. The Medieval Pilgrimage to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory provides a study of the various accounts of pilgrims from all over Europe including the earliest which is the Tractus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii describing Saint Owein’s journey and the detailed day-by-day account of the Hungarian pilgrim, George Grissaphan.
It is the account of another Hungarian pilgrim, Laurence of Pászthó, which I am drawn to as his motivations to travel to Lough Derg initially seem to be quite secular but change during the course of his pilgrimage. The compiler of this account is the Dublin notary James Yonge who, having completed the account, questions Laurence about his purpose for undertaking this pilgrimage. Laurence provides three reasons. The first reaffirms that Laurence did in fact question the “catholic faith” and travelled to the Lough out of what appears to be curiosity. He states that his mind has now been changed by his experiences at Saint Patrick’s Purgatory. His second and third reasons hark back to his secular tendencies as he explains that he also travelled to Lough Derg so he could tell the king of Hungary and also so that he could witness the “marvels and the miracles of the saints of Ireland”. I believe Laurence’s experience of pilgrimage provide us with a good model for what pilgrimage had become by the 15th century, a mixture of interest, curiosity, boastfulness and, mixed in there somewhere, spirituality.