Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dympna

DYMPNA, Saint (9th cent.), was the daughter of a pagan king in Ireland celebrated for his wealth and warlike prowess. His wife and their daughter were remarkable for beauty. They were christians, but could not profess their faith openly for fear of the king. Dympna's mother having died, the king sent everywhere in search of a princess equally beautiful to supply her place. His messengers were unsuccessful, and on their return informed him of their failure, but they added, ‘There is your daughter Dympna, in whom the image of her mother lives again.’ The king, in compliance with their suggestion, made great efforts to induce her to renounce christianity and to become his wife. On the advice of Gerebert, a priest who ministered secretly to her and others, she resolved to fly with some companions, including Gerebert, and taking with her the court jester and his wife, in order that the whole party might seem to belong to that class. She reached Antwerp, and seeking for a secluded spot at length arrived at Gheel, where there was an oratory dedicated to St. Martin. The place was in a forest six leagues in extent. Clearing away the thorny undergrowth, they formed a small shelter for themselves hard by the church, where a holy man ministered. The spot is still shown where it stood.

The king, after a vain pursuit, at last heard of her and followed her to Antwerp. He sent out a search party, which was put upon her traces at Westerloo, where the innkeeper told them that he had money like theirs, received from a foreign lady living in a desert place near, who often sent such money to purchase provisions. The king came to her and renewed his solicitations. He offered that she should be enrolled among the goddesses of his nation and have a marble temple erected in her honour. Gerebert interfered and was immediately put to death by the king's order. Dympna still resisting, the king slew her with his own hand, and returning to his party left the bodies unburied. Some of the inhabitants buried them in a cave. The bodies were long afterwards enclosed in sarcophagi of white marble. But the fame of the miracles wrought by them moved the envy of the people of Zante, who resolved to obtain possession of them by stratagem or else by force. They therefore came to Gheel, and while the attention of the keepers was distracted they placed the precious bodies with their receptacles in a chariot and drove away. Being immediately pursued, they had to leave Dympna's body, but carried off that of Gerebert. The people of Gheel now determined to place it in a golden shrine, and opened the sarcophagus for that purpose. One of those present objecting, very naturally, that the body found might not be hers, the corpse became immovable, and remained so until prayer was made.

The life published by the Bollandists, from which this narrative is taken, is a translation into Latin made in the thirteenth century from an older life written in the ‘vulgar idiom,’ but unfortunately it has no mention of the time at which Dympna flourished. The Bollandists conjecture that it may have been in the seventh century, or, if not then, in the ninth. Saussay in his Gallic martyrology proposes the eighth century, but Dr. Lanigan prefers the year 500 or a little after. He holds that a pagan king in Ireland would only have been possible at the period he mentions, as in the middle of the sixth century all the Irish kings were christians. Such a king might have been found in Ireland in the ninth century, when the Danes were in occupation of many parts of Ireland. But then Colgan had identified Dympna with Damhnat of Tedavnet, near Slieve Beagh in the county of Monaghan, whose pedigree leads to the conclusion that she must have lived about the year 500, and thus Dr. Lanigan felt himself constrained to adopt that date, which is, however, inconsistent with the other facts of her life.

The simple explanation is, that there were two St. Damhnats in Ireland, one of Tedavnet, whose day is 13 June in the ‘Martyrology of Donegal,’ where she is termed ‘of Sliabh Betha.’ She may have lived at the early date mentioned; her crozier, which is extremely ancient and curious, is in the museum of the Royal Irish Academy, and she seems to have lived and died in Ireland. The other, of whom Dr. Lanigan knew nothing, was of Kildalkey in the county of Meath; her day is 15 May, and there is no memorial of her but her name and her well, and this is natural enough, as she seems to have been the Damhnat scéne, or ‘of the flight,’ referred to by Colgan and Lanigan, and the coincidence of her day with that of St. Dympna shows her to be identical with her. Nothing appears to be known of her parentage or date, and therefore there is no difficulty, as in the case of the other and better known St. Damhnat, with whom she appears to have been confused in popular tradition. This being so, we may accept the Bollandists' opinion that Dympna flourished in the ninth century. Her father was probably a Danish king; her mother and herself were obliged to worship in secret owing to the well-known hostility of the Danes to christianity. The inhabitants of Gheel were then christians as the narrative assumes; though this would not have been so in the year 500. Further, it does not seem to have been noticed that the coin she brought from Ireland, and which led to her discovery, was evidently minted in Ireland. This would have been possible in the ninth century, according to Dr. Petrie, but certainly not three centuries earlier. The church in which her relics are deposited is a spacious old building just outside the village of Gheel. Her emblems are the same as those of St. Margaret, who, with a long cross, pierces the dragon. Dympna stands sword in hand in presence of the devil. In the parish church of Lonsbeck in Belgium there is a carved wooden figure representing her in this attitude; she is clad in royal robes and wears a coronet; a figure of the devil painted in brown colours is represented as writhing beneath her feet. She is the patron of the insane, the disabled, or the possessed.

[Bollandists' Acta Sanct. May 15, tom. iii. p. 477, &c.; Lanigan's Eccl. Hist. ii. 473–4; Petrie's Round Towers, pp. 209–30; Petrie's Christian Inscriptions, edited by Miss Stokes, ii. 114; Annals of the Four Masters, i. 421.]

T. O.