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The Legend of St Dympna

St Dympna Icon by Fr. William McNichols Kildalkey’s patron saint is St. Dympna, after whom the local Church, School, Hall and Well were all dedicated to. Her feast day is 15th May.

St. Dympna is the patroness of the nervous, emotionally disturbed and the mentally ill.

The picture on the left shows a representation of Saint Dympna by Fr. William McNichol of McNichols Icons

The Legend of St. Dympna

St. Dympna was born in the seventh century and was the daughter of an Irish King - Damon who ruled over counties Meath, Westmeath, Cavan, Longford, parts of Armagh and Dublin about twelve hundred years ago. Her mother was a very beautiful and devout Christian. Dympna was but an infant when her mother died and she was placed in the charge of a foster mother. St. Dympna was baptised by St. Gerebernus under whose guidance she advanced in learning and piety. Her beauty was the theme of praise throughout the whole country and she was sought in marriage by noble youths of royal blood. But she had already consecrated her life to the service of God. All the allurements of rank and wealth could not tempt her from her holy purpose.

A young prince wooed her but in vain, though her royal father favoured the suit. The King and the young prince formed an intrigue against her but she discovered their purpose and upon the advice of St. Gerebernus she resolved upon flight.

Other sources report that Dympna was 14 when her mother died. After his wife's death, Dympna's father Damon is said to have been so overcome with grief to the stage of mental illness. As Dympna's beauty resembled her mother, Damon conceived a passion for his daughter. The King sent forth messengers through his Kingdom to find a woman of noble birth resembling his wife who would be willing to marry him. However, none could be found and the King's evil advisors told him to marry his own daughter. Dympna fled as a result

Accompanied by the St. Gerebernus and two servants she set off in a little sailing vessel for Antwerp where they took refuge in an inn for the night. Next morning as they departed they offered a silver coin in payment. The coin was not negotiable in that country yet the innkeeper accepted it and the fugitives proceeded on their journey.

Some distance outside Antwerp they came to a village called Gheel and close by that little town in the midst of a forest they erected an altar and worshipped the Lord.

Now the king, filled with grief and rage at the disappearance of his daughter and having searched all of Erin (Ireland) for his lost child, gave up all hope of finding her. Sometime afterwards he received tidings of her departure for Antwerp. He immediately set off with an army and soon reached that city. There he prosecuted enquiries all day but no trace could he find of his daughter and as night came on he sought rest and shelter in an inn, which happened to be the very same as that where Dympna stayed on her way through the city.

As the King was leaving in the morning he tendered some coins to the innkeeper, who on taking them remarked “some short time ago a lady gave me a coin of this description as payment for lodging here”. The King asked for a description of the lady and when he heard it he suspected the wayfarer to be his daughter. He enquired as to the direction and was soon on the way towards the village of Gheel.

On arriving at Gheel the King with his army were soon concealed in a thick wood and he waited his opportunity. The night passed away and St. Gerebernus, followed by St. Dympna and two attendants, made their way to the little altar in the valley of Gheel. Gerebernus had scarcely begun the mass when he was seized by the retainers of the King and instantly beheaded.

Now the King thought he could easily persuade his daughter, whom he loved so much, to come back with him to his native land and in sweet and plausible tones he addressed her. But in vain were his blandishments, his entreaties and his threats. A second time he repeated these words “if thou wilt come back with me you shall enjoy all the happiness and comfort I can find for thee and I shall build a marble temple in honour of you and my subjects shall adore and venerate you as a goddess and if not they shall suffer punishment according to my laws. If you don’t come with me you shall suffer death like that decrepit old priest”.

Dympna, looking towards where St. Gerebernus lay stark and motionless on the ground exclaimed, “oh father, cruel father, I suffer the death, the death of my good priest and mentor rather than maledictions and your machinations”.

The King commanded his soldiers to behead her. They hesitated, thinking she might repent and take revenge upon them. But the King, seeing his commands disregarded, unsheathed his sword and put her to death. And thus did Dympna die for the faith 1,280 years ago.

The pagan King hastened from the scene of his crime and returned to Erin where the remainder of his days were filled with remorse and misery. Gerebernus and Dympna were interred by some of the people of Gheel. Beside their little altar sprung up a little well that is now called the Holy Well of Dympna. And within the town of Gheel is a holy shrine erected in memory of them and here they are venerated every year.

Dympna received the crown of martyrdom in defence of her purity about the year 620. She is patron of those suffering from nervous and mental afflictions. Today she is Belgium's patron saint of the insane and for centuries Gheel has been noted for the care and treatment of the mentally ill

Sourced from an extract of a paper on Kildalkey by the late Dr. Beryl F.E. Moore in 1977. It also features in the book Kildalkey a Parish History by Olive Falsey in 2001.

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