"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."
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 the original location for what became known as Halloween, the other an ancient site of strict pilgrimage.
In this accompanying 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.
Ramping up the drama, Obama
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 same fella whose bomb-proof million dollar limo got stuck on a ramp earlier that day. 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 hammered.
Ireland's peripatetic patron saint
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.
'That'll be an ecclesiastical matter!'
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’.
Still going strong
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 Damocles
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…’
'Hell is other people'
‘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