• Ali Isaac

the legend of saint dympna

Updated: Mar 19

Today I visited the shrine of Saint Dympna in a tiny little place called Lavey in Co. Cavan. Although Dympma is quite a well-known seventh-century saint in Ireland, her association with Lavey is a relatively unknown local tradition.

Dympna is one of Ireland’s tragic heroines. According to legend, she was just fifteen years old when she came to her untimely end at the hands of her very own father. Her life may have been short, but she inspired the birth of something wonderful which still goes on to this day.

Back in Lavey this afternoon, I came to where I thought the shrine was located, but which appeared to be a farm-house and dead end. I knocked on the door, and explained that I was looking for Dympna’s shrine, and the man who answered said, “I’ll just get my coat and take you down there. Have you a bottle for the holy water?”

When I gaped at him blankly, he went inside and fetched a small, bright orange, plastic Ribena bottle, surely the most humble receptacle that has ever collected holy water. Ever.

Incredible Irish Women | Saint Dympna, Tragic Irish Heroine
Incredible Irish Women | Saint Dympna, Tragic Irish Heroine

Across the lane from his house was a rusty old gate where a path threaded between clumps of emerging snowdrops and fell down the side of a steep bank, across a bridge and over a river to the mossy ruins of a tiny ancient church. The path skirted the church walls, then twisted back on itself through woodland down to the river, on the opposite bank of which stood a memorial to Saint Dympna.

The water was fast-flowing and icy. My companion stepped precariously into the rushing water. “See that stone there,” he said, pointing into the depths. I could just make out a large boulder beneath the surface. “There’s a horse shoe shaped depression in it. That’s the holy well. You have to collect the water from there.” Surely the oddest location for a holy well. Ever.

He plunged the bottle into the holy well, then handed it to me when it was full, and joined me back on the muddy bank, where he proceeded to tell me some local lore about Dympna.

Apparently, she stayed in Lavey for four days when her horse broke its leg attempting to cross the river. It planted its foot on the rock, creating the depression, but I imagine the boulder must have rocked beneath its weight, and it tumbled off into the water. Certainly the rock was very unstable when my companion stood on it. He told me that his grandfather told him that there is a seam of red clay which runs from that spot, up the bank and beneath his house, which marks the trail the poor bleeding animal took after its injury.

I just love talking to local people! What a great story. Then he left me in peace, but  not before reminding me to take a piece of moss from the tabernacle of the old church as I was leaving. Apparently, people suffering with mental health problems benefit from sleeping with the holy moss under their pillow.

He said he brought a woman to the shrine once who was half crazy with stress and depression. He met her a few years later whilst out shopping in Dunnes, and she told him her visit to the shrine had completely healed her. Such is the power of faith.

In case you were wondering, Dympna is the patron saint of mental illness, such as stress, depression, anxiety, epilepsy, and emotional distress. Before I left, I lit candles  in the tabernacle (the only place sheltered from the wind) for two young people who I know have had mental health issues recently. I hope she heard, and works her miracles (she did.).

So, who was Saint Dympna?

Well, she was the daughter of a pagan Irish chieftain and a devout Christian noblewoman. Her father was Damon, a minor king of Oriel, or Airgíalla in Irish, which consisted of a confederation of nine independent kingdoms subordinate to an over-king. Oriel covered parts of what we know today as Counties Armagh, Monaghan, Louth, Fermanagh, Tyrone and Derry.

Dymphna’s mother is not named, as is so typical in Irish history and legend; women were not considered important enough to be remembered by name, but only as ‘wife of’, or ‘daughter of’. I came across one reference to her as Odilla, although this does not sound very Irish to me. In fact, it is a variation of the Hebrew Odelia, and supposedly means ‘praise God’, a very suitable name for a good, pious woman, methinks. In any case, as I prefer her to have a name, I will use Odilla.

Odilla named her little daughter Dymphna, (Damnat in Irish) from the Irish damh, meaning ‘stag’, and ait, meaning ‘little’, which probably translates into English better as ‘fawn’. Dymphna lived in the town of Clogher, and grew up to be as devout, and as beautiful, as her mother.

Unfortunately, life began to spiral out of control when the young princess turned fourteen, for her mother died. Damon was consumed with grief, which in turn began to affect his reasoning. When his advisors told him he should remarry, presumably because a male heir was required, Damon refused in a fit of rage. When he looked at his daughter, he saw only Odilla, and he insisted she was the only woman he would marry. Creepy.

There seems to be a bit of an ‘evil pagan, good Christian’ thing going on in this story. Damon’s advisors did not flinch at his incestuous proposal, but actively encouraged it. Dymphna however, was horrified at the thought of marrying her own father. She fled, taking with her her priest, Father Gerebran, and two faithful servants of her mother’s.

Dymphna’s little group travelled on horseback over Slieve Beagh to Drumfurrer, where she begged for a cup of water, but the local inhabitants were so afraid of her father’s wrath, they refused to help her. Furious (perhaps a touch of her father’s temper?), she cursed their water supply, and it instantly dried up.

A little further on, she came across a spring in Cooldavnet, where the party stopped to drink. Local lore claims that ever after, people with mental health issues would be soothed and calmed if they drank from the well, and so it was named after her.

She then moved on to Tydavnet, where she rested for a night, and cured a sick woman on her deathbed by laying hands upon her head. They travelled further, stopping in Lavey for four days when her horse was wounded, before heading to Cill Damhnait on Achill Island, where they stopped to rest for a while.

Meanwhile, when Damon discovered he had been jilted, he flew into a rage, and with his entourage, set out in hot pursuit of his daughter.

Fearing capture, Dymphna was persuaded to take a boat across the sea to Antwerp in Belgium, finally reaching Gheel. Here, Dymphna felt safe and beyond her father’s reach. She stayed in a little inn beside St Martin’s chapel, and began to use her healing powers on the community’s sick and injured.

Eventually, Damon managed to follow her trail to Gheel, guided by the Irish gold coins with which his daughter had paid for food and lodging along her journey. When he caught up with her, he tried gentle persuasion, but Dymphna resolutely refused to return to Ireland with him, and he quickly became violently angry.

As Father Gerebran stepped between the young girl and her father in order to protect her, Damon swung his sword and struck off the priest’s head. Still Dymphna refused him, so Damon swung his sword once more, and beheaded his own daughter. She was only fifteen.

The people of Gheel were overcome with grief. They gathered up the two bodies and buried them together in a cave. At the time of her death, Dymphna had been tending to some mentally ill patients. As she died, they were were instantly cured, and claimed that even in the moment of her death, she had worked a miracle.

You might be thinking by now that this is very sad and all, but what’s so incredible about Dymphna? Well, just read on a little further to see why I have included Dymphna in my list of Ireland’s most incredible women.

People began to flock to Dymphna’s graveside in Gheel from far and wide, seeking cures for mental illness. The hospital was overwhelmed, and overflowed with more patients than it could hold, and this continued into the Middle Ages. This is when the really wonderful thing I mentioned at the beginning of the post began to take place.

The kind and compassionate people of Gheel opened up their homes to these people and took them in, and apparently, it’s still going on today. They receive treatment in the hospital, board in peoples’ houses, and carry out simple work in the community. Recovery rates are said to be excellent. All inspired by the tragic life of a little Irish girl.

At some point, Dymphna’s remains were removed from the cave and brought to a church in Gheel named after her, although it burned down in the fifteenth century, and a new one built in its place. It is said that when her tomb was uncovered, another explosion of miraculous curings of illnesses such as epilepsy, mental illness, and even possession, occurred. It’s hardly any wonder then that Dymphna became known as the patron saint of the mentally ill and emotionally disturbed.

Dymphna is most often depicted with a crown and a sword, symbolising her royal heritage and her martyrdom. However, she was also glorified as the ‘Lily of Eire’ for her chasteness and purity.

She is said to have possessed a crozier, known as the Bachall Damhnait. It was left in the guardianship of the O’Luain family in Tydavnet. The crozier was said to have special powers; it was used for swearing on, and could detect if someone was lying, in which case it would cause a facial disfigurement by twisting the liar’s mouth upward to meet the ear. Hmmm… that could be useful.

Now, though, it’s safely lodged behind glass in the National Museum, where it has been dated to the ninth or tenth century, long after Dymphna had died.

Finola of the Roaringwater Journal has written a fabulous piece on Dymphna and several other female saints, whose lives are all depicted by Harry Clarke in the most exquisite stained glass windows in Catholic churches around Ireland.

Finola has illustrated her post with her own brilliantly clear and sharp photos of these windows. They really are stunning, and you can see them here: Rejecting Those Earthly Dignities: Irish Women Saints by Harry Clarke.

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