The Legend of Saint Dymphna

The Legend of Saint Dymphna

Legend has it that Dymphna was the daughter of the king of Oriel, a region in Northern Ireland, who lived at the end of the seventh century. When her mother died, her father was inconsolable and wanted to marry Dymphna.

She herself was brought up a devout Christian, did not want to obey her father, and therefore decided to flee together with her confessor Gerebernus, who promised to assist her. They travelled by boat over the North Sea and along the Scheldt to land in Antwerp, but went further into the forest, towards Geel.

The king sent his advisers after her; near Zammel they tracked down Dymphna. The king was informed, travelled to Geel and asked his daughter to marry him again. When she refused again, she was beheaded by her own father. Gerebernus did not survive either, and they were both buried by the inhabitants of Geel.

Dymphna was later invoked to cure diseases, but especially madness. Pilgrims came to Geel from far and wide, and eventually a hospital was built. Due to the large number of pilgrims, there was a waiting period and the pilgrims sought temporary shelter with the inhabitants of Geel, which is how home nursing came into being.

Even today, Dymphna plays an important role in the life of the people of Geel. The saint is commemorated on 15 May every year with a celebration in the Church of St Dymphna. On that day, the current host families are also honoured in the OPZ. Geel is also twinned with Tydavnet in Ireland and Xanten in Germany, both important in the Dymphna story. And, of course, there are the 5-yearly Dymphna Days, when the legend is kept alive through a procession and a theatrical spectacle.