Skip to Content
Search Icon

Arts and Letters

Immovable Bones

Saint Dymphna: the Tragedy of an Irish Princess

National Gallery of Ireland 

January 28 – May 28


In recent years, the Irish state, once criticized as excessively deferential to the Church, has run in the opposite direction. Now it undercuts all remaining Catholic institutions, values, and traditions. National celebrations are the most prominent battlegrounds. Saint Patrick’s Day, which used to be celebrated as a real feast day, has been hollowed out into a secular Mardi Gras, an orgy of dressing up and drinking to celebrate the Irish Diaspora. For ninety years, Irish pubs closed on Good Friday. Since 2018, they remain open. This, we’re assured, by the same worthies who imposed price controls last year to curb binge drinking, is progress.

While Saint Brigid’s Day was made a national holiday in Ireland this year, it was only because of a weak appeal to gender balance. Indeed, Herstory, the organization which has been campaigning for the holiday since 2019, has some dubious notions about Saint Brigid. She is, according to Laura Murphy, Herstory’s Poet in Residence, a “Celtic goddess, Christian saint, and a symbol of feminine power and compassion, who transcends religion or spirituality, making her inclusive and appealing for all faiths and none.” Of course, this inclusiveness rigorously excludes traditional Catholic values: “Ireland’s matron saint,” the organization claims, “is our first recorded abortionist, compassionately ‘restoring a nun’s chastity,’ as recorded by early Christian monks in The Annals. She was also a lesbian, ‘sharing her bed with a woman.’” Admittedly, sources on the early Irish church are patchy and largely hagiographic, but this is bunk. Saint Brigid is being recast as a champion for liberal values. This kind of clumsy pandering has become pervasive in Ireland.

That’s why an exhibition devoted to an Irish saint without a revisionist agenda in a prominent Irish institution is so unusual. What passes for our intelligentsia has appropriated Victorian Britain’s condescending caricature of the Irish—ignorant peasants oppressed by tyrannical priests—and elaborated it into a self-loathing dogma. To sustain this narrative it is necessary to forget that faith lent color and drama to our predecessors’ hard lives, and that the crowded liturgical calendar that once punctuated the seasons was not a burden but a joy collectively experienced.

The exhibition, on view at the National Gallery of Ireland, features an altarpiece depicting the life of Saint Dymphna, a lesser star of the Catholic pantheon, but one whose tragic tale was once well known in Ireland. And beyond Ireland too: the restoration, which so well fits in the magnificently lofty Grand Gallery, was undertaken in Antwerp by the Phoebus Foundation. And that restoration is flawless. It demands showing off. It’s the art itself that falls a little flat. If we ignore the racy subject matter for a moment, we find that the paintings—though carefully drawn and richly colored—are rather dull. Goossen van der Weyden was a painter of the Antwerp school. Competent no doubt, but let’s be honest, a plodder. He was born in 1455, nearly twenty years before the German prodigy Albrecht Dürer, and died some twenty years afterward, which just goes to show that longevity isn’t everything. While Dürer’s talent burned furiously, van der Weyden seems to belong to a more sedate era, when painting was a trade—like barrel making or killing hogs. His more talented grandfather, Rogier, established the family name. His son then passed the brush to Goosen and Goosen would in time hand it over to his son, another Rogier. The family history resembles a bottle of strong pigment gradually diluted until only an anemic drop of oil remains.

Thank goodness then that we haven’t come for Goossen. We’ve come for Dymphna. It’s a name rarely heard now in Ireland. It’s what a lazy writer might reach for when he has to name an elderly nun who’s only a divil when she gets at the altar wine. Before she became a saint, Dymphna was the only daughter of the king of Oriel—a petty kingdom in the north of Ireland more than a thousand years ago. As tends to be the case in fairy tales, the teenage princess was as beautiful as she was chaste. It was to preserve that chastity that she ran away—to escape the lust of a rich and powerful old man.

So far so unremarkable, but there’s a dark twist to the tale: the man she ran from was her father. Beauty is ordinarily a blessing, but Dymphna’s remarkable resemblance to her mother was a curse. After Dymphna’s mother died, the king went mad. Today we might phrase it differently, but fairy tales have no time for circumlocutions. The grief-addled king vowed never to remarry unless he found a bride as lovely as his late wife. The young princess got help escaping from Gerebernus, the priest who baptized her (that’s another name you don’t hear anymore). Together Dymphna and Gerebernus fled Ireland, ending up in Geel, a small town in Antwerp. In due course they set up a hospice in Geel. They took in the sick and poor but became known for treating the insane. Dymphna’s past gave her a special sympathy for these troubled souls.

It would be pleasant if we could end the story there. But Dymphna’s father’s men still hunted her. Eventually, thanks to a few Gaelic coins indiscreetly spent, they found her. The king himself arrived in Geel to claim his bride. Only after his soldiers struck down Gerebernus did the king see just how much he repulsed Dymphna. And so he beheaded her. With prurient relish, the altarpiece tells this bizarre tale like a comic book. The National Gallery has separated the panels into rows that you can walk through. And, as you’ll see when you visit, decapitation was the making of Dymphna. This is where the story goes a little crazy too.

No sooner had Dymphna and Gerebernus been martyred than angels appeared and buried them where they fell. Naturally their graves soon became a shrine. Competition in the medieval market was cutthroat, however, and one dark night some enterprising German grave robbers dug up the pious pair. This was poor form, certainly, but not quite as sacrilegious as it sounds. (A saint’s bones can only be stolen if the saint agrees with the theft.) Somewhere along the journey, Saint Dymphna evidently changed her mind about relocating: not far from Geel her bones became immovable. The thieves abandoned them and carried Gerebernus’s remains on to Westphalia, where they repose today.

Dymphna’s bones were returned to Geel, where a church was built in her honor in 1349. This, you’ll recall, was the year the Black Death cut through Europe—the locals presumably needed all the help they could get. Under Dymphna’s aegis, Geel prospered. By the end of the Middle Ages, pilgrims from every corner of Europe were visiting her church. They sought not only absolution but what we would call psychiatric care. When the church was full, townspeople took in the pilgrims, treating them as family members. Some stayed briefly. Some never left.

We use “medieval” today as a synonym for “barbaric.” If this medieval charity does not persuade you that that’s a mistake, maybe the fairy tale’s next chapter will. By the 1930s, four thousand “boarders” lived with the people of Geel, but in 1940, Belgium was invaded by the Nazis. Their ideas were briskly modern. They had little time for charity, medieval or otherwise, and certainly no patience for quaint stories of magic martyr bones. Their campaign of euthanasia against the “incurably sick” in the asylums was called Aktion T4. In Germany alone, from 1939 to 1945, nearly two hundred thousand psychiatric patients received what was euphemistically called a “mercy death.”

Back here in Ireland, there was never any policy so barbaric, but neither were we as enlightened as the people of Geel. Dozens of asylums—grand edifices, built to last—popped up around Ireland in the nineteenth century. Behind those high walls, says Brendan Kelly, historian of Irish psychiatry, over twenty thousand souls were interned by the 1950s. We know now that many of those inmates were not insane but simply inconvenient to their family members. Irish asylums were where Irish problems disappeared.

As those institutions were phased out in recent decades, the pharmaceutical industry flooded the market with antidepressants and antipsychotics. These are powerful tools, but whether they always treat the problem or simply conceal it like the asylum’s high walls remains controversial. What is not debatable is that psychiatric medicine is as subject to fashion as academia. Whether the approved treatment of the day is shock therapy, lobotomies, or pills, only the certainty with which they are applied remains constant. We would perhaps do better to forget certainty and euphemism and emulate the charity of Geel—by treating the mentally ill as people, not problems. Saint Dymphna is the patron saint of these poor souls, and her altarpiece forces us to contemplate their plight, something we vainly flatter ourselves that we understand better and treat more humanely than generations before us.

To continue reading, subscribe to The Lamp.

Get unlimited access to our complete archive when you subscribe.

Already a Subscriber?

Aidan Harte is a writer and sculptor who lives in Ireland.