May 15 is the feast of Saint Dymphna of Gheel, a saint whose cult continues to flourish. According to the traditional account she was an Irish princess who fled to continental Europe to escape the incestuous attentions of her widowed father and was there martyred by his agents. She has become associated with the patronage of the mentally ill, a role in which her popularity is undimmed today. From the point of view of modern scholarship, there are a number of problems with the Dymphna story as it has come down to us. First, she does not appear on the Irish calendars of the saints. Now it is true that the Martyrology of Donegal ( a 17th-century compilation) does record at May 15 'Dymphna, Virgin and Martyr', but this entry is not based on an earlier native source. Her name is not to be found in the 8th/9th-century calendars of Oengus or Tallaght, nor does it occur in the 12th-century Martyrology of Gorman. There is a good reason for this: the cult of Saint Dymphna was only established in the 13th century when a Flemish hagiographer composed her Life. Secondly, the relationship between the saint of Gheel commemorated on May 15 and a native holy woman, Damhnat of Slieve Beagh, commemorated nearly a month later on June 13, is a complex one. It seems that the great 17th-century hagiologist, John Colgan, thought he had found proof positive in manuscript sources for the Dymphna legend in a reference to a Damnoda or Dymna schene, 'the fugitive' whom he tied into the royal line of the kingdom of Oirgialla, the territory of Saint Damhnat. Later writers like our old friend Canon O'Hanlon, whose account I published at the blog here, were happy to accept Colgan's view uncritically, even though when he came to write about Saint Damhnat in his June volume, the same Canon O'Hanlon expressed his scepticism that she and Dymphna of Gheel were one and the same individual! Below is a paper on Saint Dymphna from one of Canon O'Hanlon's contemporaries, Father J. F. Hogan (1858-1918). Father Hogan had the chance to study on the continent and was a prolific contributor to the religious press of his day. He acted as a specialist in the study of Irish saints in Europe for the Irish Ecclesiastical Record and this 1893 article on Saint Dymphna was one of a series on such saints. In it he presents the traditional story, including the identification of the Belgian fugitive princess with the Ulster holy woman, but does seem uncomfortable at times with aspects of it. Writers of this period were convinced that the Irish were inherently a holy people so the fact of Dymphna's father taking an unholy interest in his own daughter created a major difficulty. This is overcome by the author first suggesting that this Irish king was a pagan (despite Christianity having been established in Ireland in the fifth century) and then by somewhat more desperately trying to blame the 'eastern' influence of the earliest races to inhabit Ireland, especially the Milesians! Rather more likely for modern scholars is the scenario that thirteenth-century Gheel wanted to associate itself with Ireland, the insula sanctorum, and thus a legend was born.
ST. DYMPNA OF GHEEL.
There are certain features in the life of St. Dympna which not only distinguish her from all the other saints of her native land, but which, in some respects, have scarcely their parallel in the annals of the universal Church. The number of virgin-martyrs on the roll of the early Irish calendar is comparatively small, owing, no doubt, to the peaceful manner in which the conversion of the country was effected. The Irish virgins who secured the crown of martyrdom received it in foreign lands, and amongst them St. Dympna undoubtedly holds the most prominent place. Well worthy, indeed, she seems, to be enumerated amongst the frail but heroic witnesses to divine faith, whose firmness in the midst of persecution constitutes one of the most miraculous elements in the establishment of Christianity. The physical pain which she endured was not comparable, of course, in intensity or barbarity, to that which was inflicted on the virgin-martyrs of an earlier period. One has only to cast a glance at the history of the persecutions under Nero or Diocletian to realize the difference. The mind absolutely recoils from contemplating the tortures inflicted on such helpless victims as St. Euphemia of Chalcedon, St. Theodosia of Persepolis, St. Febronia of Nisibe, St. Philomena of Ancyra, St. Eulalia of Merida, not to speak of the great Roman virgin-martyrs — Felicitas, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Anastasia, Cecilia, Agnes, whose names the Church has taken into the Canon of the Mass, and whose memory will there be honoured as long as the sacrifice of expiation is offered up in any part of the world.
The constancy of St. Dympna was, in its special circumstances, not less admirable than that of these noble victims. Physically speaking, indeed, it was not put to so severe a test; but it was made to endure the strain of a moral ordeal which did not accompany the sufferings of these or of any other martyr with whose history we are acquainted. Saints there were, no doubt, in the early days of the Church who were sacrificed by those who should have been their natural protectors. Flavia Domitilla, the niece of Titus and Domitian, was not spared on account of her kinship with the persecutors; and, later on, the eldest son of Leovigild, king of the Visigoths of Spain, was put to death by the orders of his own father in one of the dungeons of Seville because he would not renounce the orthodox faith, and conform, like his brother Reccaredo, to the Arian creed. But in these cases the fatal deed was perpetrated by strangers and by servants, whereas the martyrdom of St. Dympna presents all the features of a domestic tragedy. The blow was struck by her own father, whose passion had blinded him to such a degree that he was in the end bereft of the commonest instincts of nature and of all human sense. The loss of life was in itself, we imagine, but a small thing to St. Dympna. The weight of her affliction came rather from the circumstances by which it was surrounded, and the flower of her martyrdom is to be found in the patience, the fortitude, the stainless purity with which she maintained her peace, and bore the heavy cross by which her fidelity was tried. No wonder, therefore, that she should be called, in the old Flemish tongue " Een Lilie onder de Doornen " — a lily amongst thorns — and be honoured as such in the Latin verses: —
"O Castitatis lilium!
Virgo decus regium!
Dei martyr gloriosa!
Christo regi gratiosa!"
The oldest life of St. Dympna now in existence was written by Pierre de Cambrai, in the thirteenth century. But this work would seem to he merely a translation of an older life written in Flemish at a much earlier date. In addition to the authors of the Acta Sanctorum, Molanus, Colgan, Miraeus, Baillet, a large number of historians have dealt with the life and martyrdom of St. Dympna. Special lives of the saint were written by Ludolphusvan Craywinckel, canon of the Norbertine Abbey of Tongerloo, in 1652; by Felix Bogaerts of Antwerp, in 1840; and Peter Dominick Kuyl, curate of Antwerp Cathedral, in 1863.
These writers all, with the exception of Henschenius, the Bollandist, admit, without reserve, the Irish nationality of St. Dympna, following in this the example of her oldest biographer. Nor is Ireland's claim positively denied by Henschenius. He admits that his theory of her English origin is a mere conjecture, and the difficulties which he puts forward have already been satisfactorily answered by Lanigan and other historians.
According, then, to the best authorities, St. Dympna was the daughter of one of the petty kings or princes who ruled this country about the beginning of the sixth century. Although Ireland was at that time practically converted to Christianity, a few princes seem to have still clung to pagan ideas and practices. Dympna's father was, undoubtedly, a pagan. He is said to have ruled over that part of Ulster which was called Oirghialla, or Orgiel, and which embraced the territory of the modern counties of Louth, Armagh, and Monaghan. Her mother, who was as remarkable for her goodness as for her beauty, died at an early age, and Dympna's education fell to the lot of some Christian attendants, who had her baptized and instructed in the true faith. The young princess entered thoroughly into the spirit of Christian life. She despised the dancing and light songs which were indulged in by the maidens of her age, and secretly vowed herself body and soul to the service of Christ.
The King who was greatly afflicted by the death of his wife, soon commissioned his counsellors to seek a spouse for him, who should resemble in every respect the lady he had lost. They were not successful in their undertaking, but when all else failed them, they directed the attention of the King to his daughter Dympna, who became each day more and more the image of her mother. Infatuated with this idea, the King now began the importunities which his daughter so firmly and so consistently repudiated from the first, and which, after years of annoyance, were to end in her destruction.
"Matre defuncta, filie rex concupivit speciem,
Cerneus illius faciem, sponsae vultus effigiem."
This strange proposal will appear somewhat less astonishing, perhaps, when we remember that the King was an absolute pagan and that unions of the kind were not unfrequent amongst the heathen peoples of ancient times. They were condemned, no doubt, by the more civilized pagans of Greece and Rome, and we may recall with what dramatic power Sophocles has disposed of such relations. It is impossible for anyone who has read the drama of Oedipus, to forget the woe and despair of the unhappy King who, without his knowledge or his fault, had contracted an incestuous marriage. "When the mystery of his life is unravelled, his grief knows no bounds. He believes himself unworthy of the light of day, and puts out his eyes with his own hands. He foresees the cruel destiny of his sons, Polynices and Eteocles, and of his beloved daughter Antigone, and goes to his fate with an overwhelming consciousness of wrong.
In many parts of the East, however, no such strong feeling existed. In Persia, in particular, from the earliest times, the law of consanguinity was violated. Even amongst the chosen people, the angels of heaven had not long rescued Lot and his family from the doom of the cities of the plain, when they gave to the world an example of the dissolute manners that prevailed around their former domicile; and we know that Thamar pined away in the house of Absalom her brother, not so much on account of the wrong inflicted upon her by her elder brother Amnon, as because the consent of their father, David, had not been asked to regulate the intercourse. At a later period also we learn from the Epistles of St. Paul, that in Greece itself, and particularly in the corrupt city of Corinth, instances of this same vice had to be deplored. Some of the earliest races that inhabited Ireland — the Milesians, in particular — are believed to have come more or less directly from the East, and it is no wonder that they should have brought with them customs that were prevalent in the territory of their origin.
However this may be, the relentless monarch pursued his purpose without any respite. Entreaties, threats, promises, were all employed in turn, but with not the slightest effect, except to fill with sadness and affliction the soul of the pure virgin to whom they were addressed. When driven thus to the extreme limits of distress, Dympna was inspired, like Judith of old, to ask for a term of forty days, in order that she might consider maturely the proposals that had been made to her. This request having been readily granted, the King rejoiced when he saw his daughter occupied at the preparation of the ornaments of dress suitable to the nuptials of a person in her state. Such outward appearances were, however, only intended to cover the design which she had conceived, to fly from the peril.
In all her troubles, Dympna found a wise and trustworthy guide in the person of the aged priest Gerebernus, who had secretly converted her mother to the Christian faith, and who had watched over her own education and spiritual interests with the most paternal care. At the crisis which had now arrived, this faithful counsellor saw that flight alone could save Dympna from the most miserable fate, and to this expedient the princess readily consented. Gerebernus himself was prevailed upon to accompany her to a place of safety, whilst her father's court-jester and his wife, who were both Christians, and whose devotion could be relied upon, were taken into the secret, and agreed to follow her as attendants.
The small company of fugitives made their way to the sea-side, and took shipping to some foreign coast. It is not stated whether they passed through England on their journey outward; but in due course they landed at the port of Antwerp, in Belgium. Here they remained for a short time; but, anxious for greater solitude, they resolved to seek a quiet retreat in the country, and they proceeded inland as far as Gheel. Close to this town, in a quiet and secluded spot, then surrounded by dense woods and thickets, they built themselves a house, in which, as their biographer tells us, they led an angelic life. They went regularly to the neighbouring church of St. Martin at Gheel, where Gerebernus celebrated Mass, and on their return the day was spent in prayer and other religious exercises. About the middle of July, 1892, we passed by this sacred spot, in company with the Abbe de Vel, the good "pastoor" of St. Dympna's parish. A handsome little oratory now marks the spot in which the Irish virgin lived. Statues of the two saints are erected there on either side of the altar. At noon of the summer's day, the country all around was peaceful and still. The peasants were all occupied in the fields, and there was scarcely a sound to be heard on any side. We could imagine what it must have been when Dympna and her companions selected it for their abode, and when the woods and thickets cut it off from the noise of the outer world.
The anger of the father, when he heard of Dympna's departure, was utterly uncontrollable. He ordered the country to be searched high and low, in order to discover her hiding-place; and when he had found that she had already fled from the country, he fitted out a fleet to pursue her. With a number of followers he traced her by different stages, till at last he landed at Antwerp, having evidently been informed of the course she had taken. From Antwerp he sent envoys through the surrounding country in the hope of finding some trace of her whereabouts. Some of these messengers, when paying for their food in Irish coin at the village of Westerloo, were informed that money of a similar stamp had recently been received from a young Irish lady, who, with an aged priest and two servants, was living in seclusion in the woods close by. This was the first clue which the pursuers had found, and it naturally led to almost immediate discovery.
The anger of the king, when brought face to face with the fugitives, fell chiefly on the venerable priest Gerebernus. When the courageous old man warned Dympna, in the presence of her father, to be faithful to the spouse whom she had chosen, and to yield neither to the threats nor to the entreaties of the tyrant, he was ordered by the King to be seized at once, taken away, and beheaded. These commands were instantly obeyed, and the foul deed was aggravated by almost every expression of hatred and contumely which furious passions could excite. The aged priest received with joy his glorious crown of martyrdom, and sealed with his blood the love of chastity and truth which distinguished him during life.
The infatuated monarch next employed all his powers of persuasion in endeavouring to induce his daughter to return with him to Ireland to share his kingdom, to be the pride of his people, and to have her statue placed amongst those of the goddesses that were still worshipped in his temples. But to all such inducements the answer of Dympna was prompt and firm. "With all my soul I despise thy kingly delights. I repudiate the honours thou desirest to confer upon me. It is useless to persist in thy entreaties." Enraged at her steadfastness, the King had now recourse to threats of violence. "Do at once what I wish, or thou shalt incur thy father's anger, like that malignant priest, Gerebernus, who has lost his head for his treachery. Spare thy own youth. Submit to thy father's wishes. Sacrifice to our gods, or thou shalt die, and be an example to all who dare oppose our will." Dympna replied: "O cruel tyrant! Didst thou kill the venerable priest of God, who was guilty of no crime? Know now that thou shalt not escape the judgment of the Almighty. Thy gods and goddesses I abhor and detest, and commit myself altogether to my Lord Jesus Christ, who is my spouse, my glory, my salvation, my hope, my desire. Whatever pain thou canst inflict, I shall bear with joy in fidelity to Him."
Whilst listening to this uncompromising declaration, the King was overcome with passion. He saw that his plans were frustrated, that his labour had been spent in vain, that he should return to Ireland baffled and defeated in his project. In his frenzy nothing short of the death of his own daughter would satisfy him. To the miscreants who had already killed the faithful Gerebernus he issued the fatal order. But even they had too much regard for the youth and beauty and purity of the princess to obey him. They feared, moreover, that in calmer moments he would repent of his harshness, and that whosoever should dare to do injury to his daughter would become the victims of his altered mood. Seeing their unwillingness to act, the unhappy father drew his own sword from its scabbard, and wielding it high in the air, delivered the inhuman blow which deprived him for ever of his daughter, and added one more to the heavenly train that follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth. It was thus that the blood of the Irish virgin was shed on the land of Gheel, and in presence of the crime we have only to repeat the words, in which, in after ages the inhabitants recorded their gratitude at the event:
" 0 felix patria quam sacrat sanguine Dympna."
We have before us a long list of the miracles by which, in the course of history, God showed His appreciation of the fidelity of His servants Dympna and Gerebernus. Through them the divine life of the Church was manifested by graces of a special kind. It poured its compassion upon a class of human creatures who are, perhaps, more to be pitied than any other afflicted mortals in the world; namely, on those who, like the father of the virgin-martyr herself, had been deprived of the guiding light of reason. Even to this day a colony of poor demented creatures find refuge at Gheel, lender the benign protection of the angelic virgin. At the foot of her altar they seem to yield to the influence of her memory, and to submit with unusual patience to the lot which Providence has designed for them. "Whoever contrasts their treatment with that to which their fellow-sufferers are subjected in other lands, must admit that the ways of Catholic charity are wonderful indeed. For although it is a pitiable sight to see them going about the streets with "the noble mind o'erthrown " —" Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh."
Yet it is surely consoling to think that they are not altogether cut away from the society of their fellow-creatures, and that a ray, however faint, of earthly happiness may still shine, at intervals, on their existence.
But the blessings obtained through the influence of St. Dympna were not confined to any class or section of the people. She is the patron saint of the whole district, known as the Campine; and in the year 1682 the bishop of the neighbouring diocese of Hertogensbosh in Holland, in a letter in which he exhorts his spiritual subjects to have constant recourse to the powerful protection of St. Dympna, bears testimony to the innumerable favours, both spiritual and temporal, which the whole country had received through the influence of its virgin patron. And what is still more important, several Popes, including John XXII., John XXIII., and Eugene IV., testified to her miracles in Apostolic letters.
The bodies of the two saints were religiously preserved together at Gheel for many centuries. So great was the veneration of the people for these relics, and so widespread the fame of their miracles, that when a great pilgrimage came from the distant town of Xanten, in Germany, in the Middle Ages, the men in their enthusiasm carried away the bodies of the two saints which they wished to have in their church. They were pursued, however, by the people of Gheel, and the contentions which followed resulted in a compromise by which the relics of St. Dympna were restored to their owners, whilst those of Gerebernus were transferred to Xanten or Sonsbeck. The "pious robbers of Xanten " have since then a very bad reputation for honesty amongst the peasants of the "Campine." These, however, have not forgotten St. Gerebernus, and on the feast of St. Dympna, his name is invariably associated with that of the Virgin.
The remains of St. Dympna are preserved in a beautiful silver shrine designed in Gothic shape and exquisitely ornamented. There are many other memorials of the virgin-martyr at Gheel and in the surrounding country. The principal church in the town is dedicated to St. Dympna. It is a handsome Gothic structure, with a nave and two aisles. The high altar is relieved by a reredos, showing in curious figures scenes from the life of the saint. At the back of this reredos is a large Gothic shrine containing the tombs in which SS. Dympna and Gerebernus were first interred. The inscription indicates what is there: —
"Quod jacet hic intus dum transis pronus honora."
"Tumbae sanctorum Dympnae sunt et Gereberni."
In the choir there is an interesting mausoleum of the family of the Counts de Merode-Westerloo. In it are buried John III., Baron of Merode, and his eldest daughter, Anna van Ghistelle, who founded the Chapter in St. Dympna's church, in 1552. Over the choir there is a beautiful stained-glass window presented by the present Countess de Merode. Beneath it, under the shield of her family, the Princes of Arenberg, is inscribed the motto, "Plus d’honneur que d'honneurs." Honours, however, have been no obstacle to honour in the family of Merode. Through many vicissitudes and revolutions they have preserved the faith of their fathers, firm and strong, under the shadow of St. Dympna. Whenever the interests of the Church required faithful, discreet, and trustworthy ser-vice, they could always be relied upon, and at the end of a long line of statesmen and soldiers the present Count holds the honourable position of Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Conservative and Catholic government of his country. From his castle at the little village of Westerloo, a long avenue, shaded by two splendid rows of lime trees, leads to the old historic monastery of Westerloo, where the sons of St. Norbert have always kept alive the memory of St. Dympna. Nor is there any sign of this general devotion falling off. It is rather the other way. Several memorials of the martyrdom of St. Dympna have recently been erected, and at the foot of one of these we noticed a Latin inscription the date of which speaks for itself.
In Ireland there are several memorials of St. Dympna. In the days of Colgan she was regarded as the patroness of the whole country of Orghialla or Orgiel in Ulster and Louth. The parish of Tydavnet, in the Co. Monaghan, is said to have been originally consecrated to her; and there is a spot in the townland of Curraghwillan, in Cavan, which also seems to be associated with her name. Another church called Kill-Alga or Killdalkey, between Trim and Athboy, in the Co. Meath, was placed under the protection ofSt. Dympna. Dr. Petrie, in his work on the Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland, says that he had in his possession the staff of the "Virgin and Martyr, Damhnad Ochene, or Dympna the Fugitive." It is to this “baculus " or staff that Colgan alludes when he speaks of the honour in which St. Dympna was held by the gentry and people of Orgiel. In later times the name of Dympna has become more popular than it had been as a Christian name in Ireland. We are happy to contribute a word to the fame of the virgin-martyr who bore it, and to join in the honour which is paid her in Belgium and Holland.
J. F. HOGAN.
Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2017. All rights reserved.