Going to Lough Derg

By Raymond Abbott

hen Eileen boarded the charter bus for Donegal, late at night as it was, she had the bad luck (she later decided) to be seated next to an elderly American woman who, desiring to express herself, told her that though she wasn’t of Irish ancestry herself (as far as she knew), she had come to Ireland because it was so lush and green. Her name was Bertha, she informed Eileen, and her late husband was Raymond.

Bertha continued talking, on and on, as fast as the words could spill out of her, oblivious to the possibility that Eileen was not interested in what she had to say. Somehow, Eileen had the idea that a woman with the name of Bertha would be large, as well as unattractive. But this Bertha happened to be tiny and frail, with ample facial wrinkles and a deep voice. Eileen guessed her to be about seventy years old.

Eileen wondered what on earth this woman was doing on a charter bus to Lough Derg, but she was unable to find an opening in the woman’s nonstop talking to ask the question. Every time she would try to interject something, Bertha would speak right over her words, drowning her out. This annoyed Eileen greatly.

First, it was an account of her life in great detail, including her marriage to Raymond and his death. Then there came an unabridged accounting of her various ailments throughout the years. After about an hour of this, which was almost more than the reserved and very polite Irish woman could stand, she concluded that perhaps God had given her this woman as an additional penance. This was the penalty for sounding smug with her friend Dympna, when she shared with her the great pleasure she had making the pilgrimage to Lough Derg. She had simply been too chipper for God’s liking about the upcoming weekend of fasting and prayer. Yes, that was it, that was her conclusion. And so Bertha was to be her punishment.

God was testing her. He must be disapproving of her. This God, one of wrath and vengeance, the God of the Old Testament. She was much more familiar with the God in the words of Jesus as told in the Gospels, and even more so with his Mother, the Blessed Mother, to whom she most often prayed. Indeed, it was to the Blessed Mother she had prayed for her brother Giroud’s child, an albino, and born blind.

Eileen wondered if Bertha was going on the pilgrimage to Lough Derg. She couldn’t imagine how such a loquacious person could manage the rule of silence that was strictly enforced. And in addition to that, the physical demands of Lough Derg would surely be difficult for a frail, elderly individual like this woman. But as it turned out, Bertha was on the bus on her way to Galway, and for no other reason. She was allowed to take a seat on the charter by special permission, because the station master didn’t wish to have to listen to the woman talking interminably. He had taken enough punishment hearing her, and by God he was going to put her on the first bus he could.

When the bus arrived at Galway hours later, with Bertha talking the entire time, it was clear to Eileen that she was not to be dropped off at the bus station, but rather at a corner near the Great Southern Hotel on the outskirts of Galway. She highly doubted if Bertha understood why she was left there at 3 a.m.

The driver, figuring that since she was an American, and therefore had money, assumed she could simply pop into the hotel and stay there the rest of the night. But what if the poor soul doesn’t have 150 pounds for the Great Southern? Eileen worried. What would she do? Yet Bertha did not appear to object to where she was dumped.

On an impulse, Eileen left her seat and called out to the driver, asking that he wait a moment. He was reluctant to linger there, as he was already behind schedule, but he complied with a gesture of exasperation.

“I thought you had someplace to go,” Bertha remarked, as the bus pulled away. She was obviously pleased that she had company again. Someone who talked on and on as she did could not enjoy being alone, Eileen concluded. She probably talks to herself when she is alone, she speculated.

Eileen was not particularly attractive. She suffered additionally with a kind of hip displacement, a birth defect the doctor’s called it, which could have been repaired at birth but never was. It left her with a noticeable limp. She was widowed and had one teenaged son, Eric. She knew there would not be another husband in her future, a future that looked rather bleak to her as the years passed. She was grateful to have the one son. But she found Bertha’s life far more depressing than her own, even though it occurred to her that Bertha herself didn’t view her life that way. But she determined that she would do this added penance, help this pitiful American woman. She’d do what she could to help her get on her way, and then go on to the pilgrimage at Lough Derg. That must be what God required of her now.

“Have a place to go?” she asked Bertha.

“No, not really, but here is a hotel.” She gestured toward the Great Southern.

“Yes, but I don’t think you would want that place, not at 200 quid a night.” She was exaggerating the price. She didn’t really know what they charged, but she guessed it was certainly at least a hundred.

“Oh my, no. I’m not sure how much that is in dollars. What is a quid? The money still confuses me, you know.” She laughed nervously. But clearly she was glad to have help, and even more, to have company. Bertha had a throaty laugh and a deep speaking voice, as if her vocal cords were damaged. Probably got that way from talking too much, Eileen surmised. But whatever the cause, her voice was unpleasant to listen to, and often difficult to understand.

“Do you have your plane ticket home?” Eileen persisted, thinking that that was what the woman was probably about to do, go home. Bertha had said, in her lengthy monologue on the bus, that she’d been in Ireland nearly three weeks and was planning to leave soon.

“Oh my, yes, I have it someplace.” She began to rifle through her large black pocketbook.

“That’s all right,” Eileen said, putting up her hands dismissively. “We can look later. Right now we need to find a place to stay. A bed and breakfast, I suppose.”

“But I thought you were going to Donegal, to that place,” Bertha protested.

Well, so did I, frankly, Eileen thought, but she didn’t say it. “Well, there is a temporary change of plans. Yes, later I will go on to Lough Derg,” although by then she didn’t see how she would manage it. Nevertheless, she sensed that she was doing the right thing helping the American woman.

Nearby she found them a bed and breakfast, at the going rate of 13 pounds per person. Much better than the hotel rate was bound to be. Once they settled in a room, which would have a rather spectacular view of Galway Bay in daylight, Eileen set about trying to get the woman sufficiently organized so that she herself might get on course and think about getting to Donegal and from there, to Lough Derg. This proved to be a difficult task, for Bertha wanted to do nothing but talk. Now she was expounding about the travels of her life.

Eileen found herself listening absently, trying not to show her increasing impatience with this woman. Bertha seemed incapable of shutting up, even at this late hour, when both women were close to exhaustion and needing to rest.

“You know, Mrs. Riddle,” (for that was her surname) “you talk a lot.” There, she said it! She couldn’t have not said it.

“Oh my, yes, I do. I should try harder not to. I know, I’m told that all the time. Even my son and daughter tell me. Have I told you about them?” She had, of course. “Oh my, but here I go talking too much again, aren’t I?” And as they began to prepare for bed, for a few minutes she was actually quiet.

They slept only a very few hours before breakfast was served. Eileen hated to pass up the sumptuous meal, yet she figured she might yet make Lough Derg, and would need to continue on her fast. Bertha paid for everything, saying she had money, and that was the least she could do. She had in the meantime produced her plane ticket, which Eileen noted was not for another four days.

“So what was it that you wanted to do in Galway?” she asked.

“I don’t have any family here. I don’t have any in Ireland, although there is supposed to be some Irish blood way back. But this lady I used to work with—did I tell you I’m retired from Western Electric Company?” Eileen nodded, for she had heard it all, at least twice. “Well, she continued, a friend of mine has a cousin in a place called Spiddal, which is supposedly close to Galway.”

“It is.”

“Emily, that’s my friend, she gave me an envelope for this woman. I think there’s money in it, but I don’t know, of course. I didn’t look. I did promise to give it to her, and Emily is a good friend.” She began digging in her large pocketbook, finally coming up with a scrap of paper. She read it. “Dillon is her name, Kathleen Dillon.”

“Then you want to go and see this woman?”

“I did promise.” She paused. “Look, dear, you don’t need to stay with me. You have things to do, important things, more important than me.” The woman was right. But Eileen was now in a quandary. She realized she had no way to get to Donegal, couldn’t afford to rent a car, and who knew when the next bus would come, how long it would take to get there, and what the cost was? “Maybe I will stay around and see that you get to meet your friend’s relative, this Mrs. Dillon.”

The Dillon woman actually lived in a place called Barna, not Spiddal. It was on the outskirts of Barna that they found the house, with the help of a hired car. The house was small and trim, with a definite charm about it. The woman who answered the door was middle-aged, short and heavy-set like the peasant she was. She was also a heavy smoker, as well as a non-stop talker to rival Bertha herself.

Mrs. Dillon was hospitable and welcoming to the strangers, inviting them in immediately for tea. The house was a chaotic mess inside, cluttered and dirty, with a bad smell about it. Several unhealthy-looking cats were in evidence. Kathleen Dillon was able to out-talk Bertha, and she chattered on about herself, smoking all the while, and punctuating her talk with references to deceased persons, pausing to bless the souls of those dearly departed.

When Bertha pulled the thick brown envelope from her purse and prefaced the giving of it, Mrs. Dillon stopped talking, put down her cigarette, and took from her the

thick envelope. She opened it to find a letter and a large pile of twenty dollar bills in US currency. Perhaps several hundred dollars, Eileen guessed, trying not to stare.

“Bless you for taking the trouble to come,” she said. Her happy grin showed mossy green teeth in need of care. “You must have some tea,” she insisted, as she

got up to turn off the kettle in the kitchen. But the prospect of a meal in this dirty house did not appeal to either visitor, and they demurred.

Meanwhile, Eileen was finding the cottage close and smelly, with the stench of garbage and stale tobacco smoke, so she got up and followed one of the cats out the open back door. Outside it was a mild, sunny day, with the grass still damp with morning dew. She spotted a milk cow some distance out in the back, along with more cats. Just then, Eileen slipped and fell hard on her bad hip, but fortunately the impact was cushioned by something soft. That something was a fresh cow flap, which she found herself sitting squarely in, and she wearing the best slacks she owned.

Penance is one thing, she thought to herself, but this is getting ridiculous. She managed a weak smile, as the other two saw what had happened. What an absurd comedy this has turned out to be!

She got up rather gingerly. She ought to feel grateful that she wasn’t injured badly, although gratitude at the moment was hard to summon, sitting as she was on the ground covered with cow dung at ten in the morning in her best clothing, and feeling hungry and weak, as well.

Mrs. Dillon rushed out bearing a not-too-clean towel, trying not to laugh at the scene, while Bertha seemed confused about what was going on. Eileen did her best to clean herself up, and she and Bertha soon left in the rented car which had been waiting for them all this time. It was Eileen’s intention to change clothes at the bed and breakfast, say goodbye to Bertha, and catch the next bus to Donegal and do the best she could with what was left of her time at Lough Derg. She wondered if the authorities would allow her to join the group at such a late time, but she would give it a try.

But when Bertha suggested to Eileen that she go with her to Lough Derg, Eileen was speechless. How could she discourage this woman?

“Maybe I haven’t told you how hard Lough Derg can be, Bertha.” Had Bertha listened when she mentioned the fasting, the kneeling, the crawling over sharp stones? Eileen suspected, but was too polite to ask, that Bertha wasn’t even Catholic, and so all of this would be completely foreign to her. But to go to the island like one of the regular pilgrims, was that appropriate? Would it be allowed? Should it be?

“It isn’t at all easy,” she assured Bertha.

“You said you’re allowed a bit of toast and some tea,” Bertha countered.

“I did say that, didn’t I?” She didn’t add that for additional penance, she usually only took water, no tea, no burnt toast. Eileen, being polite, but wanting desperately to be rid of this woman, made up her mind to be firm and say the obvious: It would be impossible for her to join the pilgrimage!

Bertha went to her bag and began unzipping pockets, looking for something. Then she pulled out a thick stack of travelers checks. “I can easily afford for us to go there by car, and if we hurry, we won’t be so late.” She handed the checks to Eileen. There must have been three thousand dollars in checks in hundred-dollar denominations, and to Eileen’s amazement, none were signed. The bank apparently had allowed Bertha to leave without signing the checks. Why, this was the same as having three thousand in cash stuffed in a bag!

“Do you realize,” Eileen scolded her, “that these checks are unsigned? Did the bank give you them like this?”

“I suppose they did. I got them as I recall the day before I left for this trip and it was late and the bank was closing and the people there seemed upset that I was so late in coming in.” The words tumbled out. “Travel is for the young, or it should be, but you don’t have the cash or time it seems when you’re young and want to do it, and feel up to doing things like climbing mountains and other strenuous activities. You know what I mean?”

Eileen nodded, but she wasn’t so sure. She certainly didn’t have the money to do many things now, and she was fairly young, younger by far than Bertha, and she didn’t see where she would have the money later in her life, unless she got awfully lucky, like winning the lottery.

“First thing you need to do, Bertha, is to sign these checks. Right now, I mean.”

She had authority in her voice. And so Bertha signed all the checks, of which there were many, at least three thousand dollars worth.

As Eileen watched her signing, she thought, What harm could it do if the woman traveled to Lough Derg with me? Then she quickly realized she was being tempted by the money and what it might buy. Like a ride to Donegal. Still, how fine it would be to travel to Donegal in a car hire, a taxi, no less. Bertha could easily afford it and the cost wouldn’t be so much if Bertha went out to the island. Surely God wouldn’t be offended, even if the woman might put away a chicken sandwich to get her over the hump. She hadn’t been fasting anyway. Eileen was keeping the fast, but growing weak with all the activity. It was one thing to fast at Lough Derg where food wasn’t all around and others were fasting, too, but here and now, fasting was much more difficult.             Nevertheless, it was decided Bertha would accompany Eileen on her pilgrimage to Lough Derg.

They arrived in Donegal that evening. The boat operator was puzzled as to why anyone would wish to go out at that hour, for surely the Prior out there wouldn’t permit a landing. But when Eileen waved a couple of twenty quid notes in front of his nose, he took them out just the same. He would leave it to the priests to figure out for themselves what to do with the stragglers. It wasn’t his place to make such decisions. He did feel there was a strong possibility the fathers would send them back, so he decided he’d better hang around for a few minutes just in case.

Lough Derg is a tiny place, a spit of land in a large lake. Eileen didn’t know its history and couldn’t answer the many questions Bertha threw in her direction. It was evident that Bertha had been expecting a much larger place, and she began to wonder what she was getting herself into. Eileen had tried to prepare her, but that wasn’t an easy task for someone unaccustomed to listening. Bertha heard what she wanted and tuned out the rest.

On the short boat ride she said only, “I guess I’m really doing it.” Eileen didn’t reply to this obvious statement, thinking instead about what it meant to bring someone with her who had not been fasting, and was not even Catholic. Perhaps even a total non-believer! If Bertha had not offered to pay for the car to Donegal and the boat ride, she never would have allowed this situation to develop. Bertha had put the pressure on, that’s for sure; but there was more to it. To Eileen, it was as if this weekend was meant to unfold as it was unfolding. God’s hand was in all of this. It was meant to be difficult and confusing, just as it had been so far. God wanted this annoying American woman to accompany her on the pilgrimage, and she’d just as well accept it.

Upon their arrival at Lough Derg, the Prior, the Rev. Robert Moynihan, was reluctant to allow them on the island so late, and he questioned why they were coming at all, so long after the main body. Eileen tried to explain, but it did little good. She had warned Bertha that this might happen, and Bertha’s reply was, “Balls! I haven’t come this far not to be admitted. We’ll pay him off.” And she waved a stack of 50 pound notes, drawing the attention of the boatman.

“It won’t be that simple, Bertha,” Eileen warned. But it was that simple. Bertha made a contribution of 200 pounds to the church coffers, and they were allowed in. This astonished Eileen, for she knew the previous Prior, a stern cleric, would never have done so. But this new young cleric must have been more worldly, for he accepted the generous contribution with alacrity.

Eileen wondered what had happened to the former Prior. Had he died? Where would a Prior go after Lough Derg, other than to Heaven? She struggled to remember his name and then it came to her. Father Kehoe. She blessed his soul.

For a Prior, Father Moynihan was a bit too jolly. It was hard for him to be serious in a place where talk was discouraged and what there was was done in hushed tones. So he had to express himself mostly with a generous smile. Moynihan was thick of build, with dark hair combed back severely, without a part. His deep blue eyes were merry, perhaps even mischievous. His late beloved mother used to tell him that such eyes would draw the girls, and he’d better be prepared for that.

And what did this new Prior think of Bertha, dressed as she was, not in modest dress like the Irish women, but in a lavender polyester pantsuit favored by older American women? He warned them that the pilgrimage would be strenuous, both spiritually and physically, and it was quite likely they would not, as Eileen hoped, be able to catch up with the rest as far as the discipline and many prayers.

As they walked toward the women’s hostel, Eileen tried to explain (quietly, of course) what was ahead of them. “The chief penitential exercise is the vigil, in which we must stay awake for twenty-four hours,” she began. “You’ll see.” Bertha had never heard of such a thing. Not to eat, nor sleep either? “The toughest part of what we must do is remain awake, from 10 p.m. tonight to 10 p.m. tomorrow night.”

Was that a groan coming from Bertha, and then a murmur “My God!”

After settling in their Spartan rooms, the two made their way to St. Patrick’s Basilica. At the entrance, they removed their footwear. They could hear people praying in concert, but being late, they began with Station I. The stations were supposed to be completed by 9:30 and it was already past 8. They were hopelessly behind the others, yet in a strange way, Eileen was enjoying herself. I must not have fun, she told herself, feeling immediately guilty.

The floor of the Basilica (which was quite small) was paved with sharp stones, which immediately got Bertha’s attention. “Oh, the rocks certainly are sharp, aren’t they? They could do something about them, it seems to me. A little cement would do wonders. After all, we are barefoot.” She was not speaking quietly, and Eileen had to hush her up, all the while trying not to laugh. Was the woman serious? Didn’t she understand that this was all deliberate?

The other pilgrims had finished the set of stations, and the two stragglers were quite alone, at least they thought so, until they spotted Father Moynihan standing nearby within earshot. It almost looked as if he too were enjoying himself watching the women.

Eileen hadn’t asked Bertha what her religion was, but the fact that she had no relatives in Ireland must mean she was something other than Catholic. She could even be Jewish. So she voiced the question that had been gnawing at her. “You are Catholic, Bertha?”

“Oh my goodness me! My Raymond could never tolerate Catholics. He didn’t like Episcopals either, because they were too Catholic. I was raised Presbyterian, but Ray was Baptist, Southern Baptist, and so I became a Southern Baptist.” Eileen wondered what that was all about. But this was dangerous talk in the present milieu, and she had to shut her up.

“I told you, Bertha, we can’t keep talking.”

“Oh, I forgot, honey.”

That “honey” was a first for Eileen. Oh, these foreigners! What in the world was this woman doing with her? And why had she decided to invite her? For Bertha, it was loneliness, she guessed, but what was Eileen’s excuse? Maybe she was lonely, too. But what company she had selected! Or did it pick her? She really didn’t know.

Bertha was catching on now. If she couldn’t say all the prayers, at least she could move her lips and pretend, so nobody knew for certain. But only the Prior was watching, anyway.

“Not bad for a Southern Baptist,” Bertha whispered to Eileen, who nodded, not really knowing what that was except that it was some Protestant sect. She had never really known a Protestant in her entire life.

After all the walking and kneeling on the sharp stones, Bertha stopped to rub her knees and check out one foot which was bleeding slightly. “You need not go on,” Eileen said gently. “They will take you back to the hostel.”

“Not without you, honey. I’m staying. Did I do it right?”

“You did well,” Eileen said softly. She pitied her after a fashion. She pitied herself as much. Now she was pleased that Bertha was with her. Bertha the Baptist. God forgive her her mistakes, she thought. He must have meant it to be this way or it wouldn’t be happening. He wouldn’t have put her in her path in the quirky way that he did.

It was curious, but Bertha was more suitably dressed for the vigil than was Eileen. Eileen wore a pair of jeans because her slacks had been soiled. These jeans, God help her, had a seam running down the front, which made the trek over sharp stones even more unpleasant. Bertha’s polyester had some give and wore like iron, and so she suffered less—or so it appeared— but due to her age and generally poor condition, it could not be reasonably said that she was having anything approaching a good time. She wasn’t. She was uncomfortable and very tired, but she didn’t complain, though she continued to talk too much. There was nothing much Eileen could do about that.

Meanwhile, Eileen’s knees were especially sore from that seam, that terrible, terrible seam. Discomfort, tiredness, and hunger were one thing, but this punishment from the seam was almost too much to deal with. Yet she plodded on, saying nothing to Bertha. And Bertha was certainly doing all right, considering everything. She was a real trouper. God bless her.

The two rushed a bit through the rest of the required stops, but by morning, they were with the others. They had caught up. They made the 6:30 a.m. mass and morning prayers, and it was shortly after this that they were permitted to take one of their Lough Derg meals (so-called). It consisted of black coffee (no sugar) and burnt dry toast. Bertha had already been forewarned about that. The meal was eaten in silence, though Bertha dared to ask if there were any dessert, knowing very well there would be none this day or any day of the pilgrimage.

After the meal, Eileen reminded her again that she could stop any time she wished, but she knew Bertha would go on, so she decided to say no more about it.

“I know, I know,” Bertha reassured her. “I will stop if I have to, but not yet. How are your knees, honey?”

“Not so great,” Eileen replied. “See this seam—did you ever see jeans with a seam in the middle of the leg?” Bertha smiled, thinking she knew nothing about jeans, never having worn them. “I don’t know if I can stand it,” Eileen complained, which was unusual for her. “But I promised God I would come. He did something for me, so I come to honor his mother.”

Somehow the unlikely pair got through the day and remaining required stations before bed at 10 p.m. Bertha was nearly asleep on her feet and Eileen had to almost prop her up. But she wouldn’t quit. By bedtime, Eileen collapsed, her knees torn painfully by the seams. Bertha looked even more exhausted, but Eileen barely noticed. She took off the wretched jeans, fell into bed, and was soon fast asleep. But Bertha felt called upon to do a little sewing for her injured friend. She took out of her handbag scissors, needle and thread, and in the dim light of the room, cut out those objectionable seams, then cut strips from the matching lavender coat she wore as part of her pantsuit and replaced the cruel seam with a soft patch of sorts. It took her a long time to do this, for her eyesight was poor in the low light, but she prevailed.

No one was aware of what Bertha was engaged in, except for Prior Moynihan, who saw her through the doorway. He hadn’t expected her to last until bedtime, and here she was, up hours beyond that time sewing, of all things. When Bertha finished her work, it was only a very few hours before time to rise again. But she was satisfied she had done a good turn for her friend, and was awake before the appointed time.

When Eileen got up and saw the lavender strip where the seam had once been, she was nearly overcome, but didn’t know what to say, except for a sincere Thank You. Together they went in silence for the closing mass and ninth and final station, and then it was 10 a.m. and time for the boat to leave. To Eileen’s dismay, Bertha had disappeared. She began to worry that she had finally collapsed somewhere of exhaustion, but the Prior came up to speak to her.

“She’s fine. She fell asleep. She will be along soon. A quite remarkable lady, your American friend,” he said with a grin. “By the way, I like your jeans. Might they even be called ‘designer jeans?'” He was jesting.

“I guess they might be,” Eileen said. “They certainly fit like none I’ve ever worn before.” Eileen was about to explain how the jeans came to have a lavender stripe up the front, but the Prior simply put up his hand. “No need to explain at all,” he said. “I understand fully how the change came about. Here your friend comes now.” Bertha hobbled toward them, looking tired as well she might, but smiling too.

“Have a safe journey home, and God bless both of you!”

There is a saying at Lough Derg, Eileen had said on the boat ride in, that if you look back at the island even once as you proceed toward the mainland, it is a sign you will return someday. Eileen had never been able to leave and not look back, and she doubted that many of the pilgrims could forego the temptation.

But Bertha, on the other hand, said “Never, never, never again,” and she didn’t look back, not so much as out of the corner of her eye. She was taking no chances.


Raymond Abbott is a social worker in Louisville, Kentucky, having served in VISTA on a South Dakota Indian reservation. He has received a Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kentucky Arts Council.

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