Monday, July 26, 2010

Lough Derg - the French Connection

Still on the theme of Lough Derg, Laurence Flynn reproduces this image, in which Christ gives Saint Patrick his pastoral staff, and also shows him the purgatorial cave. The staff is known in Irish as the Bacall Íosa or staff of Jesus.

The first French connection is that the image is contained in a manuscript held in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. A second connection is provided by the French actor and writer Antonin Artaud (1896-1948). Troubled throughout his life by depression, drug addiction and mental instability, Artaud was a compelling actor and a visionary writer of plays, poems and essays. In the Paris of the 1920's he carved out a role in avant-garde theatrical productions, in cinema (playing the part of Jean-Paul Marat in Abel Gance's Napoleon), and with the surrealist movement. In the following decade he would further develop his ideas on theatre, and produce his innovative adaptation on Shelley's verse drama The Cenci.

In the late 1930's Artaud travelled, to Mexico, Brussels and .... Ireland. Dr. Douglas Smith of University College Dublin presented a paper on Artaud's Irish visit at a conference held in Dublin in 2007. Dr Smith discussed the three reasons given by the French writer for his trip, and explained that only the first of these came from a shared intellectual experience. This was Artaud's search for the living roots of an ancient Western tradition, that of the Celts. His motivation here was in tune with the early twentieth-century feeling about Celtic culture, which influenced contemporaries such as J. M. Synge and Robert Flaherty (director of the film Man of Aran). Artaud's other motives, while also linked to the culture of ancient Ireland, reveal his mental isolation and vulnerability. He believed that a decorated walking stick he had been given in Paris was the Bacall Íosa, the staff of Saint Patrick himself, and he wanted to return it to Ireland. Lastly, Artaud wanted to find the "cup of Christ", the Holy Grail, which he was certain could be discovered in the National Museum in Dublin.

The full story of Artaud's stay in Ireland is related by Stephen Barber in his 1993 study Antonin Artaud : blows and bombs. Arriving in Cobh on 14th August 1937, Artaud was deported from the same port as an "undesirable alien" on 29th September. He had stayed in the West, both on the island of Inis Mór and in the city of Galway. With little English and very little money, he left behind him a string of unpaid bills, and ended up in Dublin, where he slept rough until he was arrested for vagrancy. He was imprisoned for six days in Mountjoy prison before his deportation. The cane, the Bacall Íosa, disappeared during his arrest. While in Dublin Artaud had visited both the National Museum and Saint Patrick's cathedral with the aim of returning it to the Irish.

This French connection to the Purgatory of Lough Derg is completed by a letter Artaud wrote from Galway to a friend in Paris, mentioning that he would like to extend his journey north, to Donegal, because of the county's connection to Patrick. It is likely that he had the Purgatory in mind.

Friday, July 16, 2010

St Patrick's Purgatory, Lough Derg

One of our recently acquired books is a volume from the Irish Heritage Series. Written by Laurence J. Flynn, it describes the pilgrimage site known as St Patrick's Purgatory, on Lough Derg in County Donegal.

A Lough Derg motif has been running through library events in the first half of 2010, as we had a lecture on the topic in May from Professor Jean-Michel Picard of University College Dublin, and also organised an exhibition with displays of maps, guidebooks, histories, illustrations and literary references to the site.

Lough Derg, with its cave, exemplifies the medieval conception of purgatory as a physical place, rather than merely the "state" of church teaching. According to medievalist Jacques Le Goff, this emphasis on "place" rather than "state" occured between 1170 and 1200. Le Goff calls the development "the birth of purgatory". The cave known as St Patrick's Purgatory is one of the oldest of these sites, and its location on an island in the middle of a lake illustrates the medieval motif of water (whether lake, river, or well) constituting a border between this world and the spiritual world, allowing passage from one to the other.

Professor Picard, during his talk, discussed the wealth of medieval descriptions of the Lough Derg pilgrimage which were produced throughout Europe. These include Hugh of Saltry's Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii (The Legend of St Patrick's Purgatory), written in 1184. Hugh described a pilgrimage of thirty days, undertaken once the authorities on the island had made clear the trials to be undergone. The pilgrim would fast for fifteen days, after which he would attend Mass and receive communion. He would then be lead to the entrace of the purgatorial cave, and warned of the devils and other dangers to be faced. If his resolve held, Benediction would be said, the pilgrim would enter the cave, and the door would be bolted after him. He would expect to see visions of the otherworld, of the pains of purgatory and the joys of heaven. Once released from the cave the next morning, the pilgrim spent another fifteen days on the island, and thus completed his pilgrimage.

The modern pilgrimage is, of course, very different, and information on this can be found at But the medieval belief that Purgatory had "a local habitation and a name", where the worlds of human experience, temporal and spiritual, could intersect, continues surely to resonate.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

New from the Central Catholic Library

This blog is a new feature for the Central Catholic Library site.

I've called it Frontispiece because I imagine it as having the same relationship to our web pages as an illustration or frontispiece has to the title page of a book.

I'll be using the blog to situate aspects of our activities, collections and services within the wider cultural world of which the library is a part.