Monday 24 October 2016

Inspirational pilgrimage restored me

I went to Lough Derg to impress a man, and left the island invigorated and inspired

Gemma Fullam

Published 10/08/2015 | 02:30

That May, in an attempt to purge my crippling anxiety, I'd spent my 40th birthday taking ayahuasca - a mind-altering healing plant - in the depths of the Peruvian Amazon, surrounded by screaming, retching, sobbing strangers; so, several months on, I was undaunted by the idea of Lough Derg.

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The pilgrimage is an annual part of my partner's summer schedule - his "reboot", he calls it. It brings him peace. He's not religious, but he's connected to the man upstairs all the same, and, as I was to discover, Lough Derg isn't anything to do with religion, really.

It's to do with yourself.

Truth be told, my decision to 'do' Lough Derg was partly to impress him (we hadn't been going out long), partly curiosity and partly a desire to 'have some of what he's having'.

I forgot all the recommendations of rain gear and layers and midge nets, but remembered one vital item: a rosary beads, rose-scented and loaned by my mother.

As it turned out, the jungle and Lough Derg had much in common: both hold a mirror up to the self.

St Patrick's Purgatory is a test, mentally and physically - the 'beds' (an oxymoron, if ever there was one) are not for the faint-hearted; they're stony and slippery and unyielding; the cold goes into your bones, up through your bare feet; and the desire for sleep, once it gets you, is unrelenting.

The vaginas appear in the marble about four am. You hallucinate, you see, with the tiredness. In the wee hours, the glorious Harry Clarke windows are dark, but the Basilica's red-veined walls throb and pulsate, inviting you in. Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

But the physical trials aren't the hard part, really. If you've never experienced 'hell is other people' in all its glory, at Lough Derg you get slapped full force with it.

You feel condescension towards the gluttons stuffing themselves with the dry toast like there's no tomorrow; impatience with the slowpokes who break the rhythm of your station; irritation at the monotonous droner who is giving out the rosary; annoyance at the lecturing tone of the monsignor's sermon; disdain at the pilgrims pacing themselves so that their knees meet soft padding rather than hard stone, and a million other needling irritants.

But then you catch yourself, and you realise: I'm the impatience. I'm the anger. I'm the annoyance. I'm the disdain. I'm the judgment. It's not them.

It's me.

And you have to face yourself and forgive yourself. Or else you sit with the anger and the irritation and the annoyance because there's nowhere else to go and nothing to distract yourself with. There's no escape - from the island or from yourself.

So I prayed and I knelt and I sat with myself and my fears and my anxiety and I confessed and I cried and I watched the dawn rise. Then, with the vigil candle finally extinguished, I slept the best sleep of my life.

The next morning, on the boat back, I belted out Hail Glorious St Patrick with the gusto of the restored, reset and rebooted.

And yes, he was impressed.

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