St. Patrick Opened a Portal to Purgatory on This Little-Known Irish Island

Medieval pilgrims flocked to the site for spiritual purification

A stained-glass depiction of Saint Patrick
Religious lore suggests that God showed Patrick the entrance to purgatory, where the Irish could witness the consequences of not embracing Christianity with their own eyes. Andreas F. Borchert via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Today, St. Patrick’s name conjures up images of shamrocks, mugs of beer and the color green—all staples of his March 17 feast day. Some St. Patrick’s Day celebrants are familiar with the man behind the myth, a Christian bishop who supposedly drove the snakes out of Ireland. But few know this popular saint’s secret: Patrick went to purgatory. And in doing so, he helped shape the medieval concept of purgatory as an intermediate state akin to a temporary hell.

Patrick is famous for spreading Christianity to Ireland during the fifth century. Born in Britain, he was captured and enslaved by the Irish but eventually escaped. Later, he went back to Ireland to preach to his former enslavers.

A little-known story about Patrick, set on an equally little-known island, had an outsized impact on how Western Europeans thought about life and death, framing purgatory as a physical place rather than an abstract process of purification. Now called Station Island, this pilgrimage site in northwest Ireland, on the long, narrow Lough Derg, was once considered the edge of the known world.

A statue of Saint Patrick near the dock of the ferry to Station Island
A statue of St. Patrick near the dock of the ferry to Station Island Andreas F. Borchert via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Christian tradition links Patrick to the island through his disciple St. Dabheog, who established or oversaw a monastery there. But the earliest written source for Patrick’s connection to the island is the Treatise on St. Patrick’s Purgatory, a Latin text written around 1184 by a monk named H. of Saltrey (or Sawtrey). In it, the author describes Patrick praying to God to help him find a way to convert the stubborn Irish. God’s answer, it seems, was to point Patrick to the pit of purgatory. Whoever descended into the chasm would face flames and terrifying monsters; they would witness the consequences of not embracing Christianity with their own eyes.

Medieval texts claimed that this pit could still be found on a remote island in Ulster. While accounts of St. Patrick’s Purgatory vary, many early visitors reported it to be a cave of modest dimensions, roughly the size of an ancient Irish sweathouse, in which smoke was traditionally inhaled for spiritual or medicinal purposes. As Gerald of Wales wrote in his 12th-century history of Ireland, “This part of the island contains nine pits, and should any one perchance venture to spend the night in one of them, … he is immediately seized by the malignant spirits.” Anyone who survived the experience “as a penance imposed upon him [would] not afterwards undergo the pains of hell, unless he commit some sin of a deeper dye.”

The legend of St. Patrick’s Purgatory

H. of Saltrey learned about the cave’s existence from a knight named Owen, who embarked on a pilgrimage to the island around 1153. Before entering St. Patrick’s Purgatory, Owen fasted and prayed for 15 days. The monks in charge of the site conducted a funeral mass for him, marking his symbolic death. They led Owen to the entrance of the cave, then locked him inside. Over the next 24 hours, Owen supposedly faced a series of tests and temptations involving dragons, demons and serpents. He saw people nailed to the ground, hanging from iron hooks, spinning on a wheel of fire and strung up on a spit. He had entered a land of pain and suffering, and he only survived his ordeals by repeatedly calling on Christ: “Jesus, as thou art full of might / Have mercy on me, sinful knight.”

A medieval drawing of St. Patrick's Purgatory
A medieval drawing of St. Patrick's Purgatory Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Eventually, Owen crossed a bridge to a peaceful paradise, where he joined the other saved souls waiting to enter heaven. After a full day in the cave, he finally emerged, purified of his sins after faithfully enduring the cleansing fires of purgatory.

Owen’s harrowing journey quickly became a medieval bestseller. The Treatise of St. Patrick’s Purgatory was adapted and translated across Europe, with the first female French poet, Marie de France, publishing a popular version around 1190. Everyone from princes in Spain to nobles in Vienna to leading Renaissance figures in Italy knew about St. Patrick’s Purgatory. The site was featured in a 1346 Italian fresco and referenced in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It also influenced Dante Alighieri, the artistic master of journeys through the afterlife.

St. Patrick’s Purgatory quickly became one of the most famous pilgrimage sites in the world, with Christians from France, Spain, Hungary and Italy trekking to Ireland to follow in Patrick and Owen’s footsteps. The cave may be on a tiny island seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but it literally put Ireland on the map. In many Renaissance-era navigational charts, virtually the only site noted in the entirety of Ulster is St. Patrick’s Purgatory.

Even more significantly, the island put purgatory itself on the map, pinpointing an exact location of the land of the dead.

A 1714 map of St. Patrick's Purgatory
A 1714 map of St. Patrick's Purgatory Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Defining purgatory

The idea of purifying fires and a waiting place before final judgment existed in Christian thinking long before Patrick’s lifetime. The Bible speaks in 1 Corinthians of a fire that “will test the quality of each person’s work.” By the end of the second century, early Christian theologians like St. Clement of Alexandria described two fires: one that destroys and one that sanctifies. According to Clement, the dead would face tests in which their remaining sins were burned away, as iron is forged in the fire. For those who remained faithful, the process culminated in an experience akin to a phoenix rising from the ashes.

As historian Jacques Le Goff argued in his 1981 book, The Birth of Purgatory, describing purgatorial fires as a theological concept was one thing; defining purgatory as a place was quite another. Purgatory, Le Goff wrote, was traditionally understood as a condition or process. The word wasn’t used as a noun until the end of 12th century, right around the time that stories of St. Patrick’s Purgatory started gaining traction around the world. It was only in 1274, around 100 years after the publication of H. of Saltrey’s treatise, that the church formally defined purgatory, declaring, “If those who are truly repentant die in charity before they have done sufficient penance for their sins, … their souls are cleansed after death in purgatorial or cleansing punishments.”

Depiction of a fiery purgatory in the Duke of Berry's 15th-century Book of Hours
Depiction of a fiery purgatory in the Duke of Berry's 15th-century Book of Hours Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Patrick’s story didn’t necessarily invent this new vision of purgatory, but it certainly helped popularize the idea. Visions of the afterlife were quite common in early Christian history, such as the fourth-century Apocalypse of Paul, which describes a river of fire and vivid torments that rival Owen’s in their level of graphic detail. But accounts of St. Patrick’s Purgatory differ from these other tales in a very important way: They feature purgatory as a physical place with physical features, which people could visit and see for themselves. All they had to do was head to a small island in western Ireland.

In suggesting a mysterious correspondence between a person’s inner world and the physical world, stories of St. Patrick’s Purgatory began to map out a landscape of the soul that mirrored the landscape of the earth, spanning the highest and holiest pinnacles and the most desolate abysses. These legends allude to the existence of hidden worlds above and below the visible one, with cracks occasionally forming between them. Purgatory blurred the boundary between the living and the dead.

Being able to visit the dead came with consequences for the living. Pilgrims reported not only what they saw in purgatory but also who they saw. At the time, one of the pope’s chief sources of power was excommunication, which essentially kicked someone out of the church and, by extension, heaven. Since purgatory was reserved for people on their way to heaven, a pilgrim who claimed to find an excommunicated person there could be seen as reversing the pope’s decision and challenging the church’s authority.

A 19th-century illustration of pilgrims on their way to St. Patrick's Purgatory
A 19th-century illustration of pilgrims on their way to St. Patrick's Purgatory Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Regulating what happened on a faraway Irish island—much less regulating what was supposedly happening in purgatory—posed a problem for the church. Records indicate that Pope Alexander VI tried to shut down the cave in 1497. But the order was either poorly executed or outright ignored, as pilgrimages to the cave resumed almost immediately.

Competing conceptions of purgatory were also a major catalyst for an event that would splinter Christianity and, with it, all of Western Europe. In 1517, the German priest Martin Luther protested problems within the religion—chief among them the sale of indulgences, which promised reduced time in purgatory in exchange for donations—by nailing his 95 Theses to the door of a church. Luther eventually split from Rome, forming the first of what would become thousands of Protestant branches of Christianity. The Protestant Reformation he began ushered in centuries of disagreements, persecution and war. The crack between the living and the dead had fractured a continent.

Preserving St. Patrick’s Purgatory

Today, Station Island looks quite different than it did during its peak in the Middle Ages. In 1632, British Anglicans destroyed everything on the island, including a small church, to stop Catholics from visiting it. All that remained were the ruins of early monastic beehive cells, or cone-shaped stone huts. But even under threat of a fine or a public whipping, pilgrims still flocked to the site by the thousands.

A basilica on Station Island
A basilica on Station Island Lanta Davis

In 1790, Patrick’s cave was filled in and replaced with a chapel. In 1846, 30,000 people journeyed to the site, though this number dropped dramatically in the years following the Great Famine.

A new basilica opened on the island in 1931. Its stained-glass windows—jewel boxes of color embedded in otherwise gray and dour surroundings—were designed by Ireland’s most renowned stained-glass artist, Harry Clarke, who, in a fitting turn of events, was born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1889.

Contemporary Catholics still view the island as a major pilgrimage destination—one of the most intense experiences of its kind. Pilgrims begin fasting at midnight the day before they arrive. After stripping off their shoes and socks, they climb aboard a ferry to Station Island, where they kneel and pray in front of designated locations for 24 hours straight. During the three-day visit, pilgrims are only allowed to eat dry toast or oatcake, and they can only drink coffee or black tea.

This pilgrimage is modeled after the original to encourage worshippers to confront their internal demons. The 24-hour vigil recreates early visitors’ 24 hours in the cave. Inclement weather, a lack of footwear, and food and sleep deprivation all contribute to pilgrims’ immersion in the penitential suffering of purgatory. Clarke’s stained-glass windows, which depict Christ undergoing the stations of the cross, encourage meditation on death.

Over the course of several centuries, Station Island went from one of Ireland’s most famous places to one of its best-kept secrets. Yet the island continues to wield influence. Many acclaimed Irish writers, including Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney, W.B. Yeats and Colm Tóibín, have written about the island, with Heaney even naming a book of poetry after it.

In Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border, Tóibín captures both the brutality and the beauty of the pilgrimage, writing, “I was hungry, I was tired, I was bored. But there was something wonderful in the poetry of this, hundreds of people moving on a small piece of ground, quietly praying and coming then to the edge of the water to stare toward the shore and pray.” After spending a few more hours on the island, however, the author concluded, “This wasn’t St. Patrick’s Purgatory, this was hell.”

In many ways, it’s fitting that this strange place, existing somehow in a plane between worlds, is so intimately connected with Patrick, a figure who himself transgresses boundaries. He’s one of the world’s most famous saints, but he has never been canonized by the Catholic Church. He’s practically a personification of Ireland, but he was born in Britain. Patrick seems to exist in a liminal space between the natural and the supernatural, legend and fact. St. Patrick’s Day itself falls on March 17, a day not quite spring and not quite winter. Perhaps, in the end, it’s unsurprising that purgatory, the most famous of all in-between spaces, largely began with Patrick.

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