Retreating into myself in Lough Derg, where damnation, hell and nasty black tea are box office
Right after the nine o'clock news the other night, an advert appeared for a weekend spa break. At least that's what it looked like at first, what with mellow music, enticing scenic vistas and loving couples strolling hand in hand. It was, in fact, a glossy promotion for Knock Novena Week, starting tomorrow, and the first time I'd seen such an event advertised on prime-time TV.
And why not, indeed, as this vibrant, but less prominent aspect of our culture proudly struts its devout stuff in the last of the summer sun? While thousands of us may be getting ready for Electric Picnic, there is clearly a whole other cohort of citizenry keen to groove to a very different kind of celestial rhythm as the harvest season comes around. Novenas are big - huge actually - with places like Mount St Alphonsus, Esker monastery and St Michael's Ballinasloe attracting thousands of worshippers, complete with clogged streets, traffic tail-backs and merchandise stalls turning normally quiet corners of the country into spiritual Woodstocks for the devout.
Mass attendance may be dropping, but novenas, pattern days and pilgrimages continue to be hugely popular, with Knock attracting over a million visitors every year and the Croagh Patrick climb often topping 30,000.
We may all chorus lustily to that Garth Brooks ditty about "friends in low places", but this is definitely a world where a finding pal on high is the main attraction.
There's a little of the pilgrim in all of us, and that advert did prompt a memory flash of my one and only visit to Lough Derg over 20 years ago.
Signing on for the three-day pilgrimage with a sense of reverent curiosity, as well as journalistic recompense, I journeyed forth into the unknown, to an island famous for welcoming "anxious final-exam students, alcoholics seeking atonement and solicitors praying for cushy jobs as county coroner", as the poet Patrick Kavanagh saw it.
Somebody must have alerted the Man Above that there was a renegade amidst the faithful that weekend because He sent down rain like stair-rods, teeming from the heavens as we trudged barefoot across those ancient stones.
After the deluge came the legendary plague of midges - big as bats and twice as bloodthirsty.
Why hadn't I opted for Lourdes or Medjugorje, I moaned silently as another chewed my ear lobe? At least one would return with a tan from those sacred shrines.
Bad as the rain and midges were, the numbing repetition of endless Hail Marys, Our Fathers and Creeds proved the most taxing element of those endless nights.
To keep myself awake, there were moments I toyed with the notion of suddenly breaking free from the murmuring multitudes to dance a mad ecclesiastical jig, roaring my best Father Jack impression: "Feck! Drink! Girls!"
Never had the guts, though.
Costing €70, the pilgrimage involves three days of fasting, walking barefoot, 'station prayers' and a 24-hour vigil. While the traditional trip to 'the holy island' may have been a favourite jaunt for your granny or maiden aunt, it now appears to have cast its net upon a much broader sea, with stressed executives, penitential housewives and hopeful singletons making up the rich cast of characters.
Preconceived notions of being surrounded by hordes of Bible-toting diehards yearning to convert me were firmly dispelled within minutes of arrival. Ranging mostly around the 30-50 age demographic, it was clear that I'd pitched up in a gender nirvana where females had a four-to-one superiority. Having seen the excellent Jon Kenny and Mary McAvoy in 'The Matchmaker' last week, it did occur to me that Lough Derg could well present as the ideal location for the lovelorn to chase that elusive romance.
John B Keane's wonderful creation, Dick Mick Dicky O'Connor, would have a field day making matches on that sainted isle - especially given that nobody surrounded by water can run too far from a love-hungry farmer with amore on his mind.
If the notion of pilgrimage might seem, at first glance, a hard sell to a generation more devoted to Facebook and Tinder than midnight Mass at the crossroads, recent trends suggest that Irish people are discovering a need for inward investment as a contrast to the all-pervasive technology increasingly dominating our daily existence.
We may have spurned Mass, confession and church doctrines in this complex age of enlightenment, but there's clearly still a desire out there to test our spiritual identity, to push our physical limits at places like Lough Derg. In a world where mad political correctness reigns, perhaps the church needs a return to its ancient codes to fill those vacant pews once again?
Maybe hardship and suffering are actually the best advert for its divine wares? Enough already with the happy-clappy music and 'finding oneself' blather - bring back hell, damnation and that nasty black tea, I say.