Life & Soul

Saint of the week: St Dymphna (May 15)

Born to a pagan king

St Dymphna is the patron saint of victims of incest and those struggling with mental illness.

She was born in 7th century Ireland to a Christian mother and a pagan father, King Damon. At the age of 14 she consecrated herself to Christ and made a vow of chastity.

Soon after her vow, Dymphna’s mother died, which led to her father suffering a mental breakdown. He was so unstable that he was advised to remarry someone who looked just like his wife – so he sent messengers throughout the land to find a beautiful woman of noble birth who was eligible for marriage.

After no suitable woman could be found, his advisers suggested that he marry his own daughter, and Damon in his deranged state agreed.

When Dymphna heard of this plan, she fled her home on the advice of her confessor, Fr Gerebran. The priest, along with two servants, accompanied her to Belgium and they hid in the town of Geel.

Pursued by her father 

Unfortunately, thanks to Dymphna’s good works in the town caring for the sick, she was easily traced by her father. When Damon arrived in Geel he ordered Fr Gerebran to be decapitated and insisted that Dymphna marry him.

At her refusal, Damon became enraged, drew his sword and beheaded his daughter. She was 15 when she died.

After he left, the remains of Dymphna and Gerebran were collected by local residents and laid to rest in a cave.

Dymphna was recognised as a martyr for purity in the year 620 and became known as “the Lily of Éire”.

In 1349 a church was built in her honour and many pilgrims, including those struggling with mental illness, visited it.

In the 15th century, the original church in Geel burned to the ground. It was later rebuilt and the Church of St Dymphna was consecrated in 1532. It still stands at the site where Dymphna’s body was originally buried.