Christian Ireland's Gates of Hell

Nov 02, 2013, 09:22 AM, Ballymacavany, Donegal, Ireland

In Dante’s Inferno, our hero passes through the Gates of Hell, which bear an inscription, the final line of which is the famous phrase "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate", or "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." No such ominous eloquence greets the visitor to Ireland’s Gates of Hell, two sites that have acquired legendary reputations for being entrances to the underworld. One has been shut by papal order since 1625 and the other is a fetid mud hole associated with cats. One is firmly Christian and the other purely pagan. One is now chiefly regarded as an ancient seat of royalty, the other an ancient site of strict pilgrimage.

In this piece, we shall look at the Christian Gates of Hell, a site that was known throughout the whole of Europe for centuries as being a place where the unbeliever could expect to end up in if they did not find the light, the truth and the way.

Spitting out hot molten lava with the ensuing devastating consequences, one can appreciate why volcanos have long since been associated as possible Earthly locations for the Gates of Hell. Into the medieval period, Mount Etna in Sicily was considered to be an entryway to Hell. During this period Icelanders also believed their own Mount Hekla was a gateway to Hell. Helka’s neighbouring volcano though, Eyjafjallajökull, if not quite bagging the dubious title of the Gates of Hell was regarded by many as creating Hell on Earth in the Spring of 2010 when it erupted thus shutting down European airspace due to dense dust clouds. It even briefly came back in 2011 and had President Obama rearranging his flight schedule from Ireland lest he suffer from its evil dust cloud. The most powerful man on Earth indeed.

However, by far the most famous of medieval gateways was St. Patrick's Purgatory in Lough Derg, County Donegal, Ireland. According to legend, the site dates from the fifth century, when Christ showed Saint Patrick a cave, sometimes referred to as a pit or a well, on Station Island that was an entrance to Hell. Legend maintains that St. Patrick had grown discouraged by the doubts of his potential converts, who told him they would not believe his teachings until they had substantial proof. St. Patrick prayed that God would help him relate the Word of God and convert the Irish people, and in return, God revealed to him a pit in the ground, which he called Purgatory; by showing this place to the people, they would believe all that he said. By witnessing Purgatory, the people would finally know the reality of the joys of Heaven and the torments of Hell. Fair enough, but let’s dig a little deeper here.

Charles Baudelaire famously stated that “the greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world that he did not exist.” This sentiment was used with great effect in the denouement of 1995’s modern classic, The Usual Suspects. Besides the blarney and bluff of our perceptions of St. Patrick, the greatest trick he ever played was convincing pagan Ireland that the devil did in fact exist and to look lively or else they’d be getting to know him for eternity. St. Patrick remains a phenomenon in Ireland – revered by all as the quintessential Irishman, yet in truth a Welsh shepherd; remembered with a holy feast day every March that has notoriously become the world’s greatest excuse to get pissed. There are four iconic sites of St. Patrick on the island of Ireland: St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Donegal, Croagh Patrick in Mayo, the hill of Tara in Meath and the Rock of Cashel in Tipperary. Interspersed with these four are plenty of holy wells and other sites from Slemish to Downpatrick that peripatetic Paddy is believed to have been.

Each of these locations serves a purpose in the phenomenon of the saint’s mission to convert pagan Ireland to Christianity. On Croagh Patrick mountain in Mayo, he spent the forty days of Lent where he was harassed by demons in the form of blackbirds, clustered so densely that the sky was black, but he continued to pray, ...