May 15 is the feast of the virgin and martyr Dympna, traditionally held to be the daughter of an Irish pagan ruler, who was forced to flee to Belgium to escape her incestuous father. There she was martyred, along with her holy confessor, the priest Gerebern. Although this saint is missing from the earliest Irish calendars and her various Vitae date to the later medieval period, her cult remains very much alive in her homeland. The picture on the left shows a popular holy card widely available in Ireland, which depicts her as a beautiful maiden whose Irish credentials are established by the use of the shamrock and of her green dress. Like Saint Brigid, the cult of Saint Dympna has spread worldwide and she is invoked as a patroness of those suffering from mental illness. Canon O'Hanlon has a lengthy and enthusiastic account of this virgin martyr's life in Volume 5 of his Lives of the Irish Saints from which the following has been condensed:
The existing Acts of St. Dympna, virgin and martyr, are meagre and unsatisfactory, in reference to many particulars. The life of this glorious saint was written by one Peter, a Canon Regular of St. Autbert's church, in the city of Cambray. The author informs us, in a short preface, prefixed to his narrative of her Acts, and those miracles, wrought through the intercession of our noble virgin and martyr, that he wrote this account in obedience to a request preferred by a pious layman of Gheel, and also urged by the exemplary bishop of Cambray, who is named Guido. This biographer of our saint appears to have availed himself of an earlier Life, written in the common idiom, and which Peter afterwards rendered into the Latin language. According to the Bollandist editor, the " Legenda S. Dympnae, Virginis et Martyris," had been printed about two hundred years before he wrote, or towards the close of the fifteenth century, and another edition of that legend appeared in the year 1496. Various hagiographers published compendious Acts of St. Dympna, which appear to have been compiled from a more considerable amount of matter, extant in Manuscripts. But, the Bollandists resolved on the publication of a more complete life, having procured materials for their task, by acquiring a MS. Bearing on this subject, and which belonged to the church of Gheel. The two first chapters of this Life, already in their possession, had been obtained from a MS. of Red Cross Monastery, in the forest of Soigny, near Brussels. Another abridged life of St. Dympna, taken from MSS. belonging to the church of St. Saviour, in the city of Utrecht, Holland, enabled the Bollandist editor of our saint's Acts to publish those interesting memorials of her virtues and glorious martyrdom, in that great encyclopaedia of hagiological biography — the "Acta Sanctorum."
This holy virgin, a most stainless vessel of election, is said to have been daughter to one of those petty kings, who ruled in Ireland, and that he was also an idolater. The wife of this prince was descended from a noble family and her husband became devotedly attached to his companion. It had been remarked by all, that the young and graceful Dympna bore a striking resemblance to her mother.
At a very early age, St, Dympna was left without the protecting care of a mother, and she is said to have been placed under the tutelage of certain Christian women, who were her nurses and guardians. After being prepared in a proper manner for the reception of the Sacrament of Baptism, it was conferred on the noble maiden, by an old and a venerable priest, named Gerebern. After a lapse of some time, the king resolved on alleviating his sorrows by sending messengers to find some noble lady, exactly resembling his deceased wife. Many countries were visited, but in vain; so on entering their sovereign's court, they remarked, how exceedingly like her mother Dympna appeared. Nor could her father, they declared, more perfectly revive the recollection of his past happiness and affection, than by persuading his charming daughter, to give her consent to nuptials, such as they suggested. Dympna declared her loathing and horror of this base and abominable proposition. She had long felt a growing inclination, as her years progressed, to consecrate her virginity to God. He told Dympna she must yield to his wishes, whether he succeeded in obtaining her consent, or forced her to compliance. She asked her father for a respite of forty days, to consider his proposals. At this time, the old and venerable priest, Gerebern, lived in Ireland. He advised St. Dympna, to fly from her native country to a more distant one and, as danger was now imminent, he urged her to make no delay. The small band of exiles was composed of St. Dympna, her venerable companion Gerebern, her father's court jester, and his wife. At length, after a generally favourable passage, they arrived on a coast, near the present city of Antwerp. Through one community or another, they arrived with little delay at a village, which was named Ghele, by the old inhabitants of that place. They at length found an oratory, dedicated to St. Martin [of Tours]and they retired to the desert there.
While the wicked king allowed all the worst forms of detestable passion to take possession of his heart, word was brought him, that his child had escaped from her father's house, and that she was already beyond the reach of his power. The news of her flight soon spread through the court. Orders were at once issued to his messengers, that they must return with an account, as to whether she might be found living or dead. But, the king himself felt a desire, to participate personally in that search; word was brought that those messengers despatched in quest of his daughter had returned and it was rumoured amongst his household that their young mistress had been discovered. Little time elapsed until the wicked king reached the dwelling of his virtuous daughter. All the beauty and grace of her deceased mother seemed to reappear in the child's face and figure, and to return with renewed force to the king's imagination, when he ventured to address his daughter:
"O my dearly beloved daughter, Dympna, my delight, my passion, and my desire, what wish or necessity forced you to despise the honours attending on your noble station, or to prefer, as a mendicant, unknown and foreign lands, to the country of your nativity ? What wise or foolish persuasion seduced you to forget filial duty and a royal parent, and to adopt as your father this old and decrepid priest, whose behests you obey in all matters ? Had you remained with me, you should have dwelt in a royal court, and enjoyed a kingdom after my death, instead of a miserable hut, buried in the midst of a thicket and presenting every external appearance of neglect and poverty. Wherefore, prepare to obey my orders immediately, and wisely seek that country, which you so foolishly abandoned. If you willingly assent to your father's wishes, you shall hold a first rank in his estimation, above all the noble matrons and maidens of his kingdom. Crowned with a royal diadem, I shall direct a fine temple to be constructed of marble, where you shall be venerated as a goddess, and I shall order a superb statue representing you to be erected therein, which will be ornamented with gold and precious stones. If a free person or slave of any sex or condition neglect to worship you, or offer the homage of due veneration, as my decree shall prescribe and direct, just punishment shall inevitably await such a dereliction of duty."
While the holy virgin was preparing to reply, the blessed servant of God, Gerebern, anticipated her wishes, with the spirit and virtue of another Elias:
"O most wicked king, .. I rest satisfied and convinced, that your daughter Dympna's pure and faithful mind has already despised whatever evil pleasures or promises the world might offer, through her love for God ; nor will she be terrified by threats, nor allured by blandishments or seduction. And, probably, you would be restrained from this base passion, had you dreaded the sword of Phinees, who, led by a zeal for justice, punished wicked sinners against the Divine law, who were both run through with the sword."
Those words of sage counsel had hardly been spoken, when the tyrant king gave orders to his willing adherents, that they should behead the venerable Gerebern...They rushed upon the holy and innocent priest, and laying violent hands on him, the head fell from his shoulders with a stroke of the sword. Like John the Baptist, the just man of God was now beheaded. Notwithstanding that cruel death, inflicted on the good priest, Gerebern, such cruelty did not appease the passion of Dympna's father. He then ordered the holy virgin, to be brought into his presence. Then, kindling into anger, he said : " Perverse daughter, do not wrong my patience, I beseech you, grant instantly what I demand, or you shall feel the weight of a father's indignation..." But, the holy virgin fearlessly replied : " O detestable tyrant, why have you dared to butcher the ordained priest of God, in whom no fault could be found?...exercise whatever tyranny you design against me; for the Lord's sake, I am prepared to bear with a contented mind whatever punishment you wish to inflict". Drawing a skein from his side, he furiously struck off the head of this noble daughter, while she continued imploring the divine mercy, on behalf of her immortal soul. It is generally supposed, that St. Dympna received the crown of martyrdom, in the fifteenth year of her age.
Her feast is celebrated with an Ecclesiastical Office, in the ancient Breviary of the churches of Gheel, and of Antwerp; and, to it is appended her invocation. In the Legend of St. Dympna, already mentioned, the same prayer is found, with another to St. Gerebern. From the foregoing and other sources. Bishop De Burgo compiled an office of Three Nocturns and Nine Lessons for this holy Virgin and Martyr, at the 15th of May. The Legend and Office of St. Dympna are preserved among the Manuscripts of Trinity College, Dublin. There are proper Lessons for the Office of St. Dympna, in that collection of Irish Saints' Offices, printed at Paris, in 1769. In the supplement to the Mechlin and Irish editions of the Roman Missal is found a Collect, at the 15th of May, in honour of this holy Virgin and Martyr. It can be thus rendered into English, for the Mass of her festival : "O God, the lover of purity, grant to us, entreating Thee, that as we celebrate the festival of blessed Dympna, Thy virgin and martyr, we may obtain Thy assistance, through her merits and prayers." The Roman Martyrology honours St. Dympna, on the 15th of May, by the notice of her principal feast. At the 15th of May, her feast is entered by the O'Clerys, in the Martyrology of Donegal. There is no notice of St. Dympna in the Martyrologies of Tamlacht, or Marianus Gorman, at the 15th of May.
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Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2015. All rights reserved.