An Old Tale for the Feast of Saint Dymphna

This essay first appeared in 2005 on my old blog. A reader from the past suddenly turned up with a reminder that today is May 15th, Dymphna’s Day – I had forgotten; May has continued to clutter up with remembrances as the years fly on.

So here’s the post resurrected from its original spot and planted as is, or was, though some of the nonessential facts are no longer au courant.

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The saints’ stories were among my favorites growing up. I don’t mean the anemic virgins-and-martyrs-eaten-by-lions books, illustrated with men and women lifting their eyes heavenwards as the lions stalked them in the background, waiting for the blessing of the food before they ate it. Nor did St. Sebastian, his body full of arrows, hold my attention, other than a brief look —“yikes”— and turn the page, please.

There were lots of men and women who were canonized for more mundane reasons than dying for their faith and it was their stories which attracted me. In my house, being full as it was of expatriate Dubliners, St. Patrick had pride of place. My mother never quite got over the fact that while New York City and Savannah had large parades on his feast day, the rest of the country used it as an excuse to drink green beer. In Ireland, on St. Patrick’s Day, in serious honor to his name, the bars were all closed and the churches were open.

Alongside St. Patrick there was St. Bridgid. Early on, the Catholic Church had a rough gender equality; frequently a male saint had a companion female saint. They usually knew one another. To my mind, some of them probably got up to a little hanky-panky: the intensity of the holy can do that. One thinks of Heloise and Abelard, those star-crossed lovers who veered from the paths of holiness, dropping off into the ravines of fleshly distractions. In Spain, St. Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross were friends. He was the more mystic of the two; she was the reformer.

The thing is, the desire for union with God and the desire for union with another human being arise from the same root — the urge for transcendence, for flight from our solitary experience, for immortality. Given our differing temperaments, predilections, and experiences we can diverge in many ways from the usual paths of what the Church used to term “vocation.” The idea was not that we chose what we would do with our lives; instead we were to listen to that small inner voice in order to be given our marching orders. Within evangelical circles, I believe the term “calling” refers particularly to some kind of ministry. Back in the old pre-Vatican II days, it meant that you were supposed to have divine assistance in trying to figure out what you were going to do with this, your one and only life. Some of those choices were limited; now there are almost no limits at all and young people freeze in the quandary of too much choice and too little direction. Saint Dymphna’s situation was familiar: her “vocation” was not what she chose but rather what was forced upon her by circumstance.

But before we consider her story, let’s discuss its veracity. The oral tradition surrounding Saint Dymphna probably points to a real person, given some of the artifacts. In Roman Catholic terms, the relics of Dymphna are considered “first class” relics. But that’s hardly important here since we are talking about a mythos which likely formed around an all-too-familiar story, a situation which repeated itself through the generations in many areas of Europe (the story is too old to call these “countries” in the modern sense). There are similarly named women with comparable stories in Ireland and in Germany.

Since we can’t know for sure, and since there seem to be physical remnants of someone in a final resting place, I choose to envision Dymphna as real. For lack of a better term, call her my transitional object. But that’s my meaning: you can read her story and decide its significance for yourself. I am merely the teller of the tale. Since there are variations in the stories, I have chosen to present the dominant narrative while appropriating elements from various accounts.

Dymphna was born in the 7th century (a contemporary of Mohammed, though as far from Allah’s servant as one can be and still exist on the same planet). She was the daughter of an Irish chieftain father, Damon, and an unnamed Christian mother. At least this is how most stories present her parentage. Since Patrick knew intimately the clan system in Ireland his strategy was to convert all the chieftains first, knowing the rest would follow (a good strategy. It worked with Constantinople). Thus, it’s likely Damon was in fact a Christian, though this takes some of the luster off the shamrock. To get around the problem of his obviously murderous tendencies, he is often portrayed as a pagan rather than a Christian. Hagiography is not history.

The tragedy opens when Dymphna is an adolescent. Her mother dies, leaving behind a deeply grieving widower and his daughter. The solution for his bereavement, suggested by his councilors, is to find a replacement for dead wife. The king agrees to this advice and begins the search for a successor to his wife.

He had only two stipulations: the candidate must be nobly born and she must resemble his dead wife. Having lived among Celts all my life, I don’t find the latter requirement to be very difficult — there can be a sameness running through some of us — but it was a problem for the chieftain . After searching the kingdom — and several other clans, who knows? — no woman was presented who qualified on both counts. The king (King, Chieftain, it’s all the same. Ask an Irishman and he’ll tell you he’s “Irish all the way back to the Kings”) grew ever more melancholy until (as you guessed) his eye fell upon his daughter. She fit both requirements: she was both nobly born and she was, most unfortunately for her, the spitting image of her mother. Problem solved. Damon would marry his child.

Dymphna, let us say, demurred. Her immediate response? Probably “Yecch!” or its Gaelic equivalent. The notion of marrying one’s own father may be a genetically hard-wired disinclination; it may be that and an admixture of social conditioning about what one does or does not do with one’s elders. Whatever the reason, Dymphna declined. She declined repeatedly. When push came to shove, Dymphna did the intelligent and courageous thing: she left for parts unknown. Even though her flight failed to save her, I’ll explain later why it was a smart move, however flawed it may have been in its execution.

It was also a good strategy to take others with her. There is a safety in numbers when you are fleeing someone dangerous. This is not universally true, of course, but to this day it remains a good idea to move en tourage, especially if those around you are devoted to your safety. Dymphna took her elderly confessor, Gerebemus — and some versions claim she also fled with the court jester and his wife. This strikes me as an anachronism. Did Irish chieftains maintain court jesters in the 6th century? Given what we know about the temperament of Irish chieftains, a jester in his court would seem to be an occupation with a short shelf life. And if this couple did go along we hear nothing further of them once Ireland has been left behind.

When they come aground, Dymphna and Gerebemus are in Antwerp. They move on from there to the town of Gheel, or Geel, some twenty-five miles away. Once there, Dymphna set up some kind of hermitage for herself and for Gerebemus. A Catholic church was already in existence so Dymphna’s arrival would not have been untoward. A devout, wealthy woman could well have been a welcome addition in a small town.

In short order, Dymphna was reputed to have healing powers. Being a foreigner, this power would more likely be conferred upon her than it would have been to someone known to the inhabitants from childhood. And her resources, which enabled her to purchase the poultices and powders for healing, would have added to her reputation for curing the sick. However, it was the use of her wealth which allowed her father to track her down. Sending out his minions to trace the path of the gold coins used along her route of escape — his gold coins — it wasn’t difficult to find an errant daughter. In short order, the Irish chieftain faced his prey.

Once more Dymphna was given her choice: marriage to her father or death. Gerebemus, her old confessor, attempted to ward off the King. He was summarily executed. Dymphna was adamant: she wouldn’t marry her father and she was going to remain where she was. Her father beheaded Dymphna then and there and returned to Ireland, leaving his daughter’s body and that of Gerebemus where they lay.

One account I read a few years ago (and cannot find) said that the townspeople were so remorseful at having failed to protect Dymphna, and felt so keenly their loss, that they entombed the bodies together and built a shrine in their memory. As it goes in these stories, accounts of miraculous cures began to accumulate, enough of them over a long enough period of time that eventually a church was built in Dymphna’s honor and her remains were placed there (those of Gerebemus were by most accounts removed to Kanten, though Sonsbeck, Germany claims his relics, except for his head, which supposedly remains with Dymphna in Gheel). The church burned in 1489 and was rebuilt in 1532. It still stands.

At some point, probably in the 17th century, an asylum was established in Gheel, no doubt partly based on the fact that the shrine to Saint Dymphna was alleged to have cured people with epilepsy and emotional ailments. Like Dymphna herself, though, this hospital was no ordinary venture. When patients arrive in Gheel, they are institutionalized for observation and then gradually released into the community to live and work among the townspeople. This unique (and I use the word advisedly since I know of no other such arrangement between consensual reality and lunacy) seems to have great efficacy.

Other countries came to study the Gheel model. Whether it translates to anywhere else is questionable, however. Remember that Gheel’s original response, all those centuries ago, was one of remorse for having failed to protect a young girl from a horrible death at the hands of her father. In our “so-sorry” culture, where the rush to forgive the tyrant while the victims lie bleeding, such a transplant is probably not possible.

Dymphna was not a victim. She failed to achieve her freedom, but she never knuckled under and she refused to be cowed by a homicidally melancholic father. No, Dymphna is a victor. Her life is proof that there are worse things than dying. Her decision to leave an intolerable situation was wise. Her lack of cunning in using the gold coins which permitted her determined “lover” to find her is often repeated today when abused women run, only to be tracked down by their trail of credit card receipts.

The original appended notes are below the fold.


There are no links in this essay. Saint Dymphna’s life is available in many forms on the web. Choose your own version or cobble together pieces of the traditions available to make a story to your liking.

There are a number of icons available, including the statue I use to represent my blog nic. I don’t particularly like this statue because the depiction, besides being saccharine, is not Celtic; it’s American Catholic kitsch. Dymphna, to my mind’s eye, is a sturdy lass of medium height and build with flashing green eyes and an untidy mane of dark hair. The blond ectomorph of this statue is definitely not Celtic (at least before the Danes invaded Ireland). On the other hand, this version has Dymphna holding the sword, symbol of martyrdom, and you can see the serpent crushed under her foot — a symbol for the vanquishment of evil, and so I like to think, of emotional suffering also. Iconography has rules, and the portrayal of saints in sculpture or painting follows protocols. Virgins are shown holding lilies; Dymphna, given what we can see of her temperament, has been dubbed “The Fire Lily.”

When we are rich, I plan to commission someone to portray Dymphna as I imagine her. Fortunately, there are still iconographers out there; the art hasn’t died out completely…

Dymphna’s Feast Day is May 15th, as is her confessor’s, Saint Gerebemus. He is the patron saint for those who suffer from gout. Her flower is the Welsh poppy.

Bollandists are modern day hagiographers. They do interesting work on old texts.

Gheel, or Geel, is still there. So is the asylum, as a museum. So are, no doubt, a few of the lunatics. We’re everywhere.

Obviously, Saint Dymphna of Ireland, lately of Gheel, is one of the patron saints of abused children and of the mentally ill, of which she can be numbered among the former and her father among the latter. As I’ve said elsewhere, my diagnosis for him — though it appears in no manuals of such — is homicidal melancholia. Many abusive spouses suffer from this disorder.

Prayer to Saint Dymphna

Ah, girl, you who knew how to be still in the thin places,
To hide in trepidation, to weep scorching shame,
Please come to the aid of those who beseech the heavens
For surcease from their undeserved pain.
Stay the hand of their abusers and soften the hearts
Of those who proclaim to love them.
Grant great courage of heart to the children who call on you,
And firmness of purpose to the people who invoke your story.
With your lily, with that sword, and with the strength of your heel,
Vanquish the inner demons who haunt our days and dreams
Blocking the path to freedom.

8 thoughts on “An Old Tale for the Feast of Saint Dymphna

  1. Thank you for this lovely story. You have chosen your name wisely and well.

    I wonder if Dymphna lived at the same time as St Gall, an intrepid and opinionated Irish missionary who evangelized the bear worshippers of Switzerland, and after whom the city of Sankt Gallen is named. We chose him as the patron saint of our farm.

    • If I remember correctly she lived in the 5th or 6th century.

      St. Gall was opinionated?? That’s the Celtic character…just ask the Baron. He’s been known to say that I’m sometimes wrong but never in doubt.

      Here is someone in upstate New York who chose the same name for their farm:

      • No, that is our farm, and we’re just down the road from you in Southwest Virginia.

        • You’re right! So we must have been by your place since we go up to the Appalachian Mountains sometimes.

          I thought he said it was in upstate NY…

          As for black bears, they ate our pears last year. We didn’t get a one. Clumsy oafs break tree limbs.

  2. A fine article.

    A St. Dymphna’s pub in NYC pours a fine pint on St. Mark’s Place.

  3. “Victory in defeat, there is none higher.”

    -Robert A Heinlein, “Stranger in a Strange Land”, p297, discussing Rodin’s “Fallen Caryatid”.

  4. A commenter on the original post called Dymphna a victim. I demurred, pointing out that she’d used all the means at her disposal to escape and stay away. He countered that because she’d died she was, therefore, a victim. I came back once more with the example of soldiers who died in battle rather than surrender. He gave me that point.

    It’s not being killed that matters; it’s how you die.

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