Digital Derg

An Environmental Humanities Deep Map by Dr James L. Smith

Open Note: Encountering Lough Derg

‘Lines Written on St Patrick’s Purgatory’, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0675, Page 144,, CC-BY-NC 4.0 []

Thou art not beautiful and fair to view,
As islets rich in flowers and verdure green,
But one can feel the beauty deep in you,
As a pure soul illumes a body mean.

To even tread thy soil is to have shared,
The mystic sanctity that hovers round,
One listens for the voice that Moses heard,
‘Take off thy shoes for this is holy ground.’

Lines Written on St Patrick’s Purgatory,’ The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0675, Page 144, stanzas 3-4,, CC-BY-NC 4.0

Hello Reader. Today I’d like to share another open note taken from my draft musings for the monograph project. There is still a lot of research to go before I can write it properly, but every bit helps.

I have been using Hemingway Editor to write this, which helps to prevent overly long sentences, cumbersome grammar and other infelicities of style. This is a ghost map in many ways, written from literary memory. Next year I will trace its paths myself, walking the lines of force that make the place and telling my own stories. Later, I hope to invite you to tell your own stories, layered upon mine.

This is raw text taken from the editor without any citations or additions, but I hope that you’ll enjoy it.


There is a timeless quality to the experience of approaching the lake. The journey repeats in descriptions of the place, etching it onto the landscape. North from Pettigo, through the blanket bogland, or its memory, towards the ferry house. Once the line of power would have stretched along the shore, following the pilgrim path. Once, all journeys converged at Saints’ Island, ruined home of monasticism. Now empty. They came from the South, through Pettigo from Connaght or Ulster. The path once stretched from the West, bonding ocean to lake via Donegal town and the Pettigo plateau. North and East once linked Purgatory to Tyrone and Derry. Pilgrims followed the river Derg, now a severed artery bleeding memory into Northern Ireland. Today it is a journey by car, with parking space awaiting. Once it was a long meander on foot, drawing pilgrims on.

Lough Derg is a place of physical movements and repetitions. Patterns of back and forth, of itinerary, of station motions. Grooves of human activity worn into time, the abrasion of place. Not all links are active. Some nodes in the assemblage of tasks atrophy with disuse. One can walk the ghost path west from the ferry house and encounter the abandoned Saints’ Island. In the Middle Ages lauded by Catholic writers of place, this was the primary vector of approach, the heart of the pilgrimage. Now it is vestige, a path to nowhere with the stumps of a ruined bridge in the water and an island of memories and weeds at its end. Time has obscured it. Others links are lively. The much-trafficked path across the water from ferry house to Station Island remains a pulsing conduit of people and their dreams. It contains living embodied action as well as history and precedent. At its heart is the embellished joy of the place, the iconic dome of the Basilica, the swarming ant-hive of prayers around stations.

To encounter Lough Derg is to enter into an atmosphere. It is a bubble with its own rules, changeable and evolving and yet asserting its eternal nature. It is an archive of places and spaces, nestled together in ever-diminishing containers. Each evokes a different affect, a different narrator. Scales of engagement vary. Within the bubble, goes the story of those who dwell there, the cares of daily life recede. By bathing in the insular pilgrim subjectivity of the lake, it is possible to reach out and connect. This encounter aesthetic is well understood by the custodians of the site. Storytellers of place apprehend its significance, manipulating the repository of memories.

Encountering a place is bathing in a collection of memories and knowledges already imparted. It is also personal and pre-hermeneutic, a wash of sensory data. When the two intertwine, they create curious, often fantastical and often fanciful impressions. Another layer of complexity emerges from the process of recording experience. Many of the most famous accounts of Lough Derg were decades or centuries in the making, a careful curation of ideas. Some emerge from a specific place and time. Others exude a sense of timelessness, repudiating modernity for an eternal Catholic engagement. Time is a tool of encounter. Space morphs into place, filtered by a cloud of objects and actors.

Encountering a book, article or story about Lough Derg is also a complex enterprise. Every writer has an encounter to tell of couched in the vehicle of a textual encounter. Motivations vary. Some seek to valorise, others to historicise, others still to destroy. Irish place and space have been carved up like a steak on a plate in the interests of power, sectarianism, identity. Lough Derg has been reconstituted again and again from fragments: material, textual, personal, emotional. Stories discuss place as if it is immutable, preserve a conceit that they are eye-witness accounts. In reality, they have passed through many filters to reach the reader, and the place they describe is a mirage. Encountering Lough Derg means very different things if one is a pilgrim visitor or a reader. The two lives of the lake feed into each other, with history and embodied practise co-creating.

[Header image: John Norden, The Six ‘Escheated’ Counties of Ulster, 1609, British Library, Cotton Augustus, I.II f.44, public domain]

Next Post

Previous Post

© 2024 Digital Derg

Theme by Anders Norén