|Ramon’s Voyage to Purgatory|
Life and career
lord of Perillos, Ramon de Perillos, has gone down into history as the author
of his “Voyage to St Patrick’s Purgatory”, a pilgrimage
he undertook to the Irish sacred site. Ramon was a diplomat and a soldier,
though also a man of literature, who would have greatly appreciated that
he was remembered not for his political career (distinguished as it was),
but for a great literary contribution.
Though his estates were in Southern France, Ramon himself spent little time in his home regions. He was brought up at the French court, and was a page of Charles V (1364-1380). Charles V, born in 1338, was the eldest son of John II the Good, who reigned from 1350 to 1364. He remained at the French court until the death of the king in 1380, when he returned to his home region and entered the service of Peter the Ceremonious (King of Aragon from 1336 to 1387), and his son, John (Juan) I.
Arts and crafts
We know that in 1374, Ramon was taken prisoner in the Moorish kingdom of Granada, and had to be ransomed by Peter the Ceremonious. Upon his return, Ramon’s friendship with John blossomed, both sharing a deep interest in the arts and literature.
Pedro de Luna
As Ramon was still working for the French correspondence, his relationship
with the future king of Aragon was mostly by mail. In 1378, John wrote to
Ramon, at that time in Cyprus, to ask for a book called “On the marvels
of the Holy Land” (De Mirabilibus Terrae Sanctae). A letter from 1379
has also survived, the king once again writing to Ramon, after a visit to
the latter’s house in Perpignan, telling him that he had found there
a copy of the romance of Lancelot, which was so beautiful that he decided
to take it. That same year, when Ramon was in Avignon, John sent him a letter,
dated August 12, requesting seven singers from Avignon to be sent. These
apparently arrived on October 3. One of these singers appears to have been
Jean de Watignies, formerly of the chapel choir of Pedro de Luna at Avignon,
who still appears to have been in John's service on May 5, 1384 and who
returned to Avignon sometime between that date and his subsequent employment
in the service of the Duke of Burgundy in 1391.
On August 13, 1386, John wrote to Ramon, who at the time was in Paris, to ask him to send a copy of the knight who had entered St Patrick’s Purgatory. It was this book, the account of Henry of Saltrey, which would be incorporated into Ramon’s ow account of his voyage.
Assistant to the king
John I ascended to the throne in 1387 and chose Ramon de Perellos as his chamberlain. As he was used to (noting how a few letters point out Ramon was in Cyprus, Avignon, Paris, etc.), Ramon was often sent abroad on a number of foreign missions. It is felt that King John I (1350-1396) was a man of letters, more than worldly power and neglected his state and even sold strategically important border castles to raise funds for life at court. Music, literature, hunting and astrology were among the king’s passions; passions which he shared with Ramon, judging from the amount and type of books Ramon is known to have acquired.
Ramon became governor of Roussillon (1390) and would continue to be the most trusted employee of the king. In 1390, he was in France as ambassador from the court of Aragon. In 1394, he was sent to Cyprus to arrange a marriage between the sister of John I and the son of the king of Cyprus. In May 1396, Ramon was sent to Avignon to confer with Pope Benedict XIII (Pedro de Luna), an Aragonese who supported John and Ramon de Perellos. Ramon’s task was to try and divert French troops that were poised to invade Catalonia, and redirect them towards Italy.
disaster struck: on May 19, 1396, John I was dead, aged 46, allegedly “frightened
to death by the sight of an enormous she-wolf when he was out hunting alone”.
When the news of John’s death reached Ramon, he ceased all negotiations
and returned to Aragon.
The immediate outcome of the death of the king was confusion; several people around the king were arrested and put on trial. Ramon de Perellos himself was called to account for himself, and accused of having made potentially treasonable contacts with the Count of Foix. No charges were ever pressed and Ramon was never seriously out of favour. Still, he decided to go on a voyage to Ireland, to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory. Some believe it may have been a public act to show his innocence… though perhaps he had a more personal, possibly political, agenda as well?
Convinced that he should visit the Purgatory, Ramon returned to Avignon, to seek papal approval for his voyage. The pope was still Pedro de Luna, his trusted friend. After his return from Ireland, Ramon returned to Avignon, working for the pope. In 1403, Ramon would be made Captain-General of Avignon. The last mention of him is as a deputy in the Generalitat de Catalunya in the period 1416-1419.
St Patrick's Purgatory
today, Lough Derg is for Irish Catholics still the most sacred lake in Ireland.
Between the 13th and 15th century, St Patrick’s Purgatory and Ireland
were often synonymous. When St Patrick came to preach in Ireland, it is
stated he stayed at this island as a test to the others of the truthfulness
of his faith. Praying to God, God offered the saint a nocturnal trip to
Heaven and Hell in the form of a dream, much like Jacob’s dream in
the Old Testament. But modern scholars say St Patrick never referred to
Lough Derg in any of his writings, never visited the lake, and was wholly
unconnected to the island until several centuries after his death. Today,
the start of the pilgrimage is the crossing of the lake to Station Island,
a few hundred yards off-shore. The basilica is said to mark the place where
St Patrick descended into Purgatory. But, unfortunately, this does not seem
to be the truth. From the 12th till the 16th century, the site of Purgatory
was on a different island in the lake, Saints Island.
Station Island was settled in the 7th or 8th century by Celtic anchorites (hermits). In the 12th century, St Malachy of Armagh encouraged canons of St Augustine to found a priory on Saints Island. Copying the pattern of their Celtic neighbours, who had a cave associated with their founder Saint Daveoc, the Anglo-Normans located a cave on Saints Island, claiming St Patrick had been led to this newly dug cave by Christ, having his vision of Purgatory. The Celtic Church was outperformed and some time later, the community was disbanded.
Station Island is reserved for pilgrims and 20,000 still arrive each summer.
Tourists are not welcome and cameras are actually forbidden on the island.
All pilgrims can arrive at any day of the season until August 13, must be
over 14 years old and free from disability. “The nature of the penances
excludes anyone under doctor’s care and the very old”, the sign
In medieval times, it seems that the operation of the site – or at least certain sections of it – was far more exclusive. It also seems that, like those who visited the oracles of ancient Greece, pilgrims were prodded not to discuss too many details of the experience.
One of the earliest surviving accounts dates from 1186. Giraldus Cambrensis wrote in Topography of Ireland that Saints Island was visited both by good spirits and evil spirits. Each were present on one part of the island. He described the evil part of the island as covered with rugged crags. It contained nine pits and those who stayed over night in one of them, were tormented. This North-western part was called Kernagh, meaning “Island of Clamour”. Here, they stated in 1411, was the residence of Satan and his satellites, including one “Cornu”, who was like a heron without wings or feathers, who “uttered a cry like a blowing of a trumpet, which presaged the death of some pilgrims”. The wall defining this part of the island still stands. A plot of 35 by 4 metres in the south-west of the islet was dedicated to the angels and called “Regles”. “It abounds in oak, yew and other agreeable trees.” When the pilgrimage transferred to Station Island in the 16th century, the same subdivision was created there. As a side-note, Saints Island was closed as the result of a Dutch monk complaining he had not received any vision there, and the Pope therefore closed the island, in 1497. The locals therefore re-occupied Station Island, rather than completely surrendering their source of income and importance. But it seems that with the closure of Saints Island, a vary specific “rite” came to an end and little more than “a pilgrimage” is now all that remains of what was once a powerful initiatory experience, on par with the oracles of the dead in ancient Greece – they too allowing the pilgrims to pierce through the veil of the Otherworld and see the souls of the dead in Purgatory.
is Purgatory? It is defined as a state or place in the “next world”
where souls of those who died in grace but not free from all imperfection,
make expiation for unforgiven venial sins, and thus are purified before
entering heaven. At Lough Derg, access to Purgatory could be gained by the
living through incarceration in the island cave, where visions of Heaven
and Hell, like St Patrick, occurred to some. Medieval pilgrims found an
Oratory on the spot that enclosed this cave, and it was stated that the
Oratory itself had been built by St Patrick himself – which, as mentioned,
is unlikely, though it is more than likely that it dated from his time,
if not older.
Lough Derg received international fame as of the end of the 12th century. Was it a clever marketing technique? According to Michael Dames, it was not. “It is founded on the principle of mythic repetition, running in an unbroken sequence from the Son of God, through St Patrick, to the individual.” He continues: “It was Christ’s supernatural journey after Calvary that underlay the pilgrimage. ‘He descended into Hell, and on the third day he rose again from the dead; before ascending into Heaven.’” And it is this possibility, open to all pilgrims, that has attracted pilgrims to this site throughout the ages, including one Ramon de Perellos, at the close of the 14th century.
some scholars have argued Ramon never made the voyage, the consensus is
that he did make the voyage. However, it is accepted by all that his description
of what occurred in the Purgatory itself is almost literally copied from
That is the first recorded reference to St Patrick’s Purgatory, the Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii, The Treatise on St Patrick’s Purgatory, written in 1184-1186 by an unnamed Cistercian Anglo-Norman monk in the abbey of Saltry, Huntingdonshire, England. The monk’s name has been given as Henry of Saltrey. The account contains the story of the Knight Owein and his entrance into the Otherworld at the Purgatory. The story is a second hand account, told for the first time to the writer between 1148 and 1153. The island on which the Purgatory was located was settled by Augustinian Canons who were certainly responsible for the creation of the pilgrimage. The Canons were introduced into Ireland in 1140 by the famous bishop St Malachy.
As mentioned, Ramon went to Avignon and informed the Pope of his decision to partake in a pilgrimage, about which he had definitely read. De Luna tried to dissuade Ramon. Ramon then spoke to “Tarascona”, who was of the Galniello family (believed to be Fernando Perez Calvillo), and Jofre de Sancta Lena. Ramon’s brother, Pons de Perillos, was also present. He had been majordomo to John I and chamberlain to John’s wife Violante.
left Avignon on September 8, 1397. Ramon was accompanied by some members
of his family:
- His sister’s son, Bernat de Sentelhas, who was a doctor and a clerk and a sacristan of the church of Mallorca. He was the son of Brunissenda, Ramon’s sister, and Eimeric III, Baron of Centelles.
- His two sons: the elder Loys, the younger Ramon. The elder died in 1437, the younger in 1441/44.
Avignon, the party headed to Paris and the court of the king. There, he
received letters of commendation from the king and his uncles, the duke
of Berry and the duke of Burgundy, to use with the king of England. He then
set off to Calais, to cross the Channel. He left on All Saint’s Day
(November 1) to London, passing by the church of St Thomas of Canterbury.
In London, he was told that the king was in “Got” (Woodstock
Manor), some 8 miles from Oxford, Estanefort, to which the company travelled
and where he was received by the king.
After several days at the court, he left for Sextrexier (i.e. Chester), where a ship was chartered for the crossing of the Irish Sea. The ship kept along the Welsh coast, until Holyhead, where it crossed to the Isle of Man, and a few days later he landed in Dublin. In Dublin, he met Roger Mortimer, the Earl of March, who was a first cousin of King Richard of England (1374-98). The Earl gave Ramon two squires, one called John Devry, the other John Talbot, to aide him with the remainder of his voyage.
It was now time to visit the archbishop of Armagh, in the town of Durdan (Drogheda). He visited the man a second time, shortly afterwards, in Dondale (Dundalk), when he sent a message to the Court of Niall O’Neill, the Irish king, who was in Armagh.
was now in place to knock on the door of Purgatory, which he did. As noted,
the account of his visions in Purgatory were taken from the Tractatus, making
it impossible to note whether he had no visions, or whether he did not wish
to share those with the rest of the world. Still, some personal details
of his “vision quest” are known. In Purgatory, he claimed to
have seen some deceased friends and relatives:
- Brother Franciscan del Pueh, a Franciscan from a convent in Gerona, closely connected to Ramon.
- Na Aldolsa de Quaralt, a niece of Ramon. Two of his sisters married members of the Quaralt family, lords of Santa Coloma.
the visit, he went back to the Irish king, where he spent Christmas. He
then spent New Year’s Day with the countess of March in one of her
castles. He then returned by the same route he had come, to meet the English
king in Liquefiel (Lichfield), then went onto Dover, to Calais, and to the
court of the king in Paris. He stayed there for four months, by order of
the Pope. When the king returned from Rheims, Ramon left to Avignon, where
he was received by the Pope and entered his services, it seems, until the
end of his days.
At some point, no doubt around the time that he was in Avignon, Ramon reflected that what he had experienced in Ireland had provided him with an insight. He now understand that somewhere on his territory, there was a “doorway to another world”. Had he somehow come to the realisation that the lands of Perellos too contained a “Purgatory”? An oracle of the dead?
In 1997, a group from Catalonia made a pilgrimage to celebrate the 600th anniversary of Ramon’s voyage. A group of Irish pilgrims made the “return journey”, to Perillos, where a plaque of their visit can still be seen in the wall next to the church. One of the members of this group was Mary Reid, who would reminisce later: “As a personal tribute in 1997, I followed in Ramon’s footsteps to the Purgatory at Lough Derg. The visions of hell have gone and been replaced with interminable rounds of mind numbing paters and aves. As I reflected that, at least, the desolation of the surrounding mountains had changed little since Ramon’s time, I overheard an old woman say that people only experience the benefit of Lough Derg on their return home. I returned home cold, wet, hungry and exhausted from the bare footed, sleepless vigil. I fell into the deep sleep so well deserved by pilgrims. In my sleep, I heard a voice calling me to Catalonia. It was only two days later, when a confirmation fax arrived, that I realised the voice actually belonged to the organiser of an event to celebrate Ramon’s departure for Ireland. In my slumber, I had agreed to attend! Thus I made my first pilgrimage to Perillos. To borrow Ramon’s words, spoken on his descent into the cave of Purgatory, ‘if it pleases God, I will return’.”