BELFAST, June 24,2000--Between now and the middle of August an estimated 20,000 people will be making their way to a tiny island on the Fermanagh/Donegal border - in a bid to get closer to God.

In medieval times, Lough Derg was thought to be the earthly entrance to purgatory - that other world between Heaven and Hell where the souls of the dead were cleansed through untold suffering before passing on to eternal salvation.

Pilgrims from all over Europe made their way to the island to make their peace with their maker.

Lough Derg still commands an almost inexplicable importance in the Irish Catholic psyche - not as a place of fear and suffering-- but as a revered place of pilgrimage where every year tens of thousands of people seek peace and wisdom and closeness to God.

For non-Catholics the spectacle must seem bizarre: hundreds of people of all ages, walking barefoot, climbing over rocky beds - the remnants of ancient penitential cells - clutching their rosaries, mumbling their prayers.

Others are kneeling on flat stones on the edge of the shore, oblivious to the brown bog water lapping around them, while others still are walking around the basilica, also immersed in prayer, stopping at St Brigid's Cross to stand arms outstretched, like Jesus on the cross, renouncing the world, the flesh and the Devil.

And so it goes on relentlessly, almost interminably, for three long days, with the only sustenance two meagre meals: water and a choice of either dry toast or oatmeal bread.

Some of the hardier veterans insist on eating nothing during their three days on the island.

"Some of the girls at work think we're mad," says Catherine Keenaghan, who travelled up from Dublin with her friend.

As it happened, they missed the bus and had to fork out over £200 for a taxi - a small price, they joked. But, having made the journey for the past 15 years it has become a part of her life.

"I look forward to it. The going is tough, mentally and physically, but I see it as a break."Seamus Gallagher, from Castlederg, now living in England where he lives and works as the managing director of a telecommunications equipment firm, faithfully makes the long pilgrimage to Lough Derg every summer.

"I have been coming here for about ten years now and I suppose part of it is habit. But the other thing is the feeling you get when you leave the island. You feel cleansed, at peace, almost elated," he says.

Monsignor Richard Mohan, the prior at Lough Derg, seems way too cheerful to be in charge of such a se rious station.

"It's a lot more civilised now. We're not saying that suffering has not value, but we prefer to talk in terms of growth. It's strange, because we seem to be dictating what people do here, but yet we are trying to offer people the opportunity and the freedom to grow.

"In many ways this place is the very centre of my life. It is a very special place. It's when people are shattered, hungry, tired and cold that they are at their very best, when they are most honest.

"It's very humbling. I feel very privileged to be a part of it, to be part of a channel, a bridge between the divine and the human," he says.

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