In Dante’s Inferno, our hero passes through the Gates of Hell, which bear an inscription, the final line of which is the famous phrase “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate”, Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” No such ominous eloquence greets the visitor to Ireland’s Gates of Hell, two sites that have acquired legendary reputations for being entrances to the underworld. One has been shut by papal order since 1625 and the other is a fetid mud hole associated with cats. One is firmly Christian and the other purely pagan. One is now chiefly regarded as an ancient seat of royalty, the other an ancient site of strict pilgrimage.
In this piece, we shall look at the Christian Gates of Hell, a site that was known throughout the whole of Europe for centuries as being a place where the unbeliever could expect to end up in if they did not find the light, the truth and the way.
Spitting out hot molten lava with the ensuing devastating consequences, one can appreciate why volcanos have long since been associated as possible earthly locations for the Gates of Hell. Into the medieval period, Mount Etna in Sicily was considered to be an entryway to Hell. During this period Icelanders also believed their own Mount Hekla was a gateway to Hell. Helka’s neighbouring volcano though, Eyjafjallajökull, if not quite bagging the dubious title of the Gates of Hell was regarded by many as creating Hell on Earth in the Spring of 2010 when it erupted thus shutting down European airspace due to dense dust clouds. It even briefly came back in 2011 and had President Obama rearranging his flight schedule from Ireland lest he suffer from its evil dust cloud. The most powerful man on Earth indeed.
However, by far the most famous of medieval gateways was St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Lough Derg, County Donegal, Ireland. According to legend, the site dates from the fifth century, when Christ showed Saint Patrick a cave, sometimes referred to as a pit or a well, on Station Island that was an entrance to Hell. Legend maintains that St. Patrick had grown discouraged by the doubts of his potential converts, who told him they would not believe his teachings until they had substantial proof. St. Patrick prayed that God would help him relate the Word of God and convert the Irish people, and in return, God revealed to him a pit in the ground, which he called Purgatory; by showing this place to the people, they would believe all that he said. By witnessing Purgatory, the people would finally know the reality of the joys of Heaven and the torments of Hell. Fair enough, but let’s dig a little deeper here.
Charles Baudelaire famously stated that “the greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world that he did not exist.” This sentiment was used with great effect in the denouement of 1995’s modern classic, The Usual Suspects. Besides the blarney and bluff of our perceptions of St. Patrick, the greatest trick he ever played was convincing pagan Ireland that the devil did in fact exist and to look lively or else they’d be getting to know him for eternity. St. Patrick remains a phenomenon in Ireland – revered by all as the quintessential Irishman, yet in truth a Welsh shepherd; remembered with a holy feast day every March that has notoriously become the world’s greatest excuse to get pissed. There are four iconic sites of St. Patrick on the island of Ireland: St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Donegal, Croagh Patrick in Mayo, the hill of Tara in Meath and the Rock of Cashel in Tipperary. Interspersed with these four are plenty of holy wells and other sites from Slemish to Downpatrick that peripatetic Paddy is believed to have been.
Each of these locations serves a purpose in the phenomenon of the saint’s mission to convert pagan Ireland to Christianity. On Croagh Patrick mountain in Mayo, he spent the forty days of Lent where he was harassed by demons in the form of blackbirds, clustered so densely that the sky was black, but he continued to pray, and rang his bell to disperse the assailants. An angel then appeared to tell the saint that all his petitions for the Irish people would be granted, and that they would retain their Christian faith until Judgement Day. Message: come follow me and you shall be saved against dark forces upon the day of reckoning. Impact: 5/10.
Patrick famously made his way to the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath, seat of the high king of Ireland. For good measure, the legend has him changing into a deer to get past the guards. Arriving on the eve of Bealtaine, now Easter (thanks to him), he lit a paschal fire on the nearby Hill of Slane. At this time of year, it was pagan practice to put out all fires before a new one was lit at Tara. When the druids at Tara saw the light from Slane, they warned King Laoghaire that he must extinguish it or it would burn forever. Patrick was summoned to Tara, and on the way he and his followers chanted the hymn known as “The Lorica” or “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate”. The king could not put out the fire and while he himself did not convert, he allowed Patrick to continue with his mission to convert without recourse. Message: take on the status quo head on, then set up the opposition with impunity. Impact 6/10.
Perhaps the best-known legend of Saint Patrick involves the shamrock, the little plant that has gone on to become famous throughout the world as a symbol of Irish heritage. After training as a priest and bishop, Patrick arrived in Ireland in AD 432 and immediately set about trying to covert the pagan Celts who inhabited the island. Having previously lived and worked there, he was very probably already aware that the number three held special significance in Celtic tradition (and, indeed, in many pagan beliefs), and he applied this knowledge in a clever way. Down in Cashel in County Tipperary, he used the shamrock, a three-leaved clover which grows all over the island, to explain the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity i.e the theory that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are each separate elements of just one entity. As always, we have the Devil not far away from the action – flying over Ireland as he was wont to do, he espied Patrick in Cashel. The Devil bit a large chunk of rock from a nearby mountain and hurled it at Patrick, missing him, but creating the Rock of Cashel. The Devil’s Bit as it is called to this day can easily be found while the Rock became a centre for anointing Irish bishops for hundreds of years. Message: explain a complicated concept in a bite-size portion that can be easily remembered. Impact 3/10.
What was really going on was ecclesiastical imperialism. The Catholic church via the various embellishments of Patrick’s stories, snuffed out well established creeds and traditions and rebranded them as their own. Every major Christian feast day in Ireland is taken from a previous pagan feast from Imbolg to the Winter Solstice. St Patrick is credited with drawing a Christian (or Latin) cross through the circle, and blessing a standing stone. In this way it is said he created the first Irish Celtic Cross and showed himself willing to adapt heathen practices and symbols to Christian beliefs in order to ease the transition from pagan to Christian. This mark would have been familiar to all pagans as a symbol of the sun or moon gods.
However, the piece de resistance in converting the motley crew of Irish heathens was in showing them the stick, not the carrot. St. Patrick’s Purgatory served to frighten the bejesus out of the poor pagans. Sure, you can continue to live a pagan life, but ultimately unless you offer your soul to God, you are damned to Hell in the next life. Shamrocks, blackbirds, fires and snakes are but frilly soft furnishings – the centre piece of the house of God in Ireland was built in Donegal with the Gates of Hell. St. Patrick’s Purgatory and its symbolic value spread across Europe for centuries afterwards; even in Denmark we have Hamlet swearing on an oath to St. Patrick after seeing his father’s ghost doomed to suffer in Purgatory. Nothing works better on an indifferent pagan mob than showing them in a vivid and terrifying vision of the Gates of Hell through which they shall pass if they do not alter the folly of their ways. Repent and be humble lest their ongoing indifference shall have them burn for an eternity in Hell or wallow in Purgatory. Message: join us or else. Impact: 10/10
It’s a powerful message and one that effectively did the ‘heavy lifting’ in the conversion of pagan Ireland to Christianity. It was in fact a master stroke and one that has been used to great effect by generations of Catholic priests to terrify the ignorant that everything from masturbation to telling fibs would have the poor souls burning in the fires of Hell. In his 1843 essay ‘St. Patrick’s Purgatory, an Essay on the legends of Purgatory, Hell and Paradise’, writer Thomas Wright wrote that ‘the Roman Catholic system was (and continues to be) a mixture of Christianity with Paganism, in which too generally the pure religion of the gospel is stifled under the weighty superstructure. Superstitions such as those described in this Essay were at first tolerated among a newly converted and ignorant people; but they were subsequently approved and encouraged by a political priesthood as a powerful instrument of domination and oppression until they were finally accepted as an integral part of the doctrine of the church. Although it has been my object to treat the subject generally, i have taken for the title of this Essay a special case, that of St. Patrick’s Purgatory because it is the most remarkable of all the purgatory legends and it is the only one that remains in force to the present day. Unhappy Ireland has suffered more perhaps than any other country from the religious system just mentioned. Romanism has been there for centuries a religion of sedition and we may there contemplate in as great a degree as modern laws and the condition of modern society will permit the social evils which accompanied it in the middle ages. We see there a Catholic priesthood using the grossest means and practising the most vulgar deceptions to keep in ignorance the miserable population’.
St. Patrick’s Purgatory is still used by thirty thousand pilgrims between June and August each year. The cave that started it all has been closed since the 25th October, 1632 and covered over by the Basilica. No longer is the ostensible mission to frighten the ignorant into submission, but rather to allow the converted to submit themselves to God through penance, suffering and reflection via all night fasting and prayer. The philosopher Alain de Botton observed that ‘the church has wisely insisted that we are inherently flawed, incapable of lasting happiness, beset by troubling sexual desires, obsessed by status, vulnerable to appalling accidents and always slowly dying’.
The sword of a diabolical Damocles still remains, but the emphasis these days is on the possibility that a deity might be able to help us out and that a spot of pilgrimage is the order of the day. Here is a place where believers can gather to reflect on their shortcomings and beg their creator for help. Remove God from the equation with only the Devil for company and the world would surely be doomed. At least on Station Island, the dejected are to be found in solidarity with their shortcomings. Sites like St. Patrick’s Purgatory make out a locus where the anguish we otherwise bear silently within us can be revealed for what it truly is, merely a thimbleful of sorrow in an ocean of suffering. Bow down and be humble and your chances of passing through the Pearly Gates shall far outweigh passing through the nearby Gates of Hell.
Seamus Heaney famously published Station Island in 1984 named after a visit to the place which is worth a read, but we’ll end this article by looking at fellow poet Patrick Kavanagh’s take on it. He went there in 1940 and 1942 with sandwiches and whiskey, somewhat unusual items in a pilgrim’s luggage. His motive in going there was more temporal than spiritual: he was gathering material for an article that was published in The Standard in June 1942. He did not enjoy the experience and his comments were even harsher than in his poem: “Lough Derg is typical of… the Irish mind. No contemplation, no adventure, the narrower primitive piety of the small huxter with a large family”. Kavanagh may not have liked the place, but he wasn’t a fool with the poem appearing some time after his death: – ‘They come to Lough Derg to fast and pray and beg/ with all the bitterness of nonentities, and the envy/ of the inarticulate when dealing with the artist … Solicitors praying for cushy jobs…/ shopkeepers threatened with sharper rivals…/ Mothers whose daughters are final medicals,/ too heavy-hipped for thinking…’
So a sacred place for self-denial, contemplation and spiritual renewal or a place where the mediocre pray for the impossible? Maybe both? As for Hell, its gates are not in Lough Derg, nor Iceland nor even Sicily. Perhaps the philosopher Sartre nailed it when he wrote simply that ‘Hell is other people’ and that we are all in fact in an ongoing Hell with places like Station Island being a brief Summer respite from the masses and the troubled times we are living through. Oh, the irony.
‘Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out Contagion to this world:
now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on.
Hamlet, 5th soliloquy– Act 3, Scene 2, lines 419-24, Folger Edition
Find St. Patrick’s Purgatory at Point 24 on the Greatest Shrines tour of our free Donegal App.
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