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Writing Lough Derg
From William Carleton to Seamus Heaney

Peggy O’Brien

Cloth $49.95L    |    0-8156-3073-5    |    2006

Paper $29.95s    |    0-8156-3098-0    |    2006

Examines two hundred years of writing about the pilgrimage site also known as St. Patrick’s Purgatory.

"A highly original narrative about remarkable contemporary Catholic poetsPatrick Kavanagh, but especially Seamus Heaney in his relation to the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, and to Paul Muldoon, Eil´ean N´ ? Chuillean´ain, and Medbh McGuckian. . . . O’Brien fills the role of companion, midwife, psychoanalyst, Sherpa, border patrol, guide, and even, goad. As a talented poet herself, she guides us skillfully in this border district which is analogical, purgatorial, transitional, and finally unmappable."
Dillon Johnston, author of Irish Poetry after Joyce

"A scrupulous, sustained and beautifully written study of the troubled relationship between Irish writers and Catholicism which concludes with a superb study of the poetry of Seamus Heaney."
Kevin Whelan, Director of the Keough-Naughton Centre of the University of Notre Dame, Dublin

Colin Graham’s Review in The Irish Times of Writing Lough Derg
Please scroll down or click on A pilgrimage through the pages

The overarching purpose of this volume is to show how a discrete tradition of writing about Lough Derg helped contemporary Irish poets rescue metaphysical inquiry from the grip of nationalism. Linked with the supernatural from pagan times, Lough Derg had by the early twentieth century become an icon of the fusion of the Catholic Church and the Irish nation. Surveying literary treatments of Lough Derg from William Carleton through Denis Devlin, Patrick Kavanagh, and ultimately to Seamus Heaney, Peggy O’Brien addresses the role of spirituality in an increasingly cosmopolitan, postmodern, post-Catholic Ireland. O’Brien’s extended consideration of Heaney culminates in an insightful juxtaposition with Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet who also struggled with the conflation of Catholicism and patriotism.

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Peggy O’Brien is a poet and author of Sudden Thaw, a collection of poems. She is professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

7 x 10, 376 pages, notes, bibliography, index

A pilgrimage through the pages
Colin Graham

" ‘Doing’ Lough Derg has been a central physical and psychic experience for generations of Irish people. ‘A grim jewel in a gloomy and uninviting sheet of water’ is how Geoffrey Taylor described Lough Derg in his 1950s travel book The Emerald Isle.

In an otherwise inane, Blarney-filled tour of Ireland, Taylor cannot sentimentalise this Co Donegal place of pilgrimage. Its symbolic importance is too dark and visceral. The Lough Derg pilgrimage stops even the jolliest of writers in their tracks. Peggy O’Brien’s beautifully written book recounts the ways in which a series of Irish writers have responded to what Lough Derg means for them, personally, nationally and in terms of their faith.

The literature of Lough Derg is extensive, stretching from its pre-Christian myths of origin, through the visions of purgatory that St Patrick had there, to the poets and pilgrims who have confronted its privations since it became a sanctified site. O’Brien discusses writers as diverse as William Carleton, Denis Florence MacCarthy, Denis Devlin and Patrick Kavanagh. But it is Seamus Heaney, and particularly his long poem Station Island, which is the eventual focus of this book. In Station Island, a pilgrimage to Lough Derg is recalled by Heaney, but not through memoir or anecdote. For Heaney, Lough Derg is transformed into an imaginative place of ghosts, figures from Heaney’s personal and literary past (Joyce, for example), who confront and challenge him. The enforced facing up to the past that this entails leads Heaney to describe the clarity of vision that Station Island brings to him as a ‘clear barometer’, a measurement of himself. O’Brien returns continually, and with great nuance and subtlety, to this ability that Lough Derg has to provoke the most profound mixture of self-analysis and transcendence in those who write about it.

O’Brien suggests that, in thinking about Lough Derg, writers find that the stresses placed upon the individual body, which are part of doing Lough Derg, only make sense as part of a collective religious experience. It may be that Lough Derg is a way of testing out the personal meanings of national identity. More important, as O’Brien notes, is that Lough Derg attracts writers because it is a symbol of what we want great writing to be. Lough Derg’s fame comes about because it is, supposedly, a point of access to another world. It is a threshold, once thought of as a literal point of passage out of this world and into another one. Now, perhaps, we are more comfortable in thinking of such places as having a kind of psychological function as a place of transition. In an increasingly secularised age, Lough Derg’s position on the edge of this world, hinting at and pointing towards another possible world, might seem outmoded—but then even the sceptic holds out the possibility of faith.

O’Brien’s convincing explanation for the sheer volume, as well as the extraordinary intensity, of the literature of Lough Derg is that the meaning of the place is something akin to the best of what we look for in literature. Poetry also strains towards the threshold of a mysterious other world that might exist just beyond what we know. Like Heaney’s imaginative version of the pilgrimage, poetry is similarly looking both ways at once, to this world and to an alternative one that we can only intimate but never fully experience.

LOUGH DERG HAS been written about and argued over for centuries. For some in the new Irish State after independence, Lough Derg was an intensified microcosm of Catholic Ireland, in all its ascetic piety. For a succession of Protestants it was either an abhorrent or strangely intriguing place of ancient ritual. For the writers O’Brien discusses, Lough Derg has been a place in which they have communed with each other. ‘All know that all the dead in the world about that place are stuck,’ says the speaker in Yeats’s poem The Pilgrim. Those dead may be stuck there, but they are far from quiet about it.

Each generation of Lough Derg writers leaves a cumulative legacy for the next. The hauntings in Heaney’s Station Island remind his readers that Lough Derg has been traversed many times before and that the traces of our ancestors are always waiting to be discovered and their echoes heard. Lough Derg’s doorway into the next world allows two-way traffic, at least in literary terms. O’Brien’s empathetic readings of the noisy ghost-talk of Lough Derg writings believe that reading a poem can sometimes elevate our sense of who we are and who we might be. In this way, perhaps, the literature of Lough Derg aspires to the experience of ‘doing’ Lough Derg."

The Irish Times
Colin Graham is a lecturer in English at NUI Maynooth.

Writing Lough Derg

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