letter D
Letter D by Leo Reynolds via Flickr

File this one under obscure saints.

Thanks to Lindsay for suggesting Dymphna as our Baby Name of the Day.

Back in the 600s, Damhnait was born in Ireland, a minor princess. Mom was a Christian; Dad, not so much. When her mother passed away, legend has it, her father decided that the only possible solution was to marry his daughter. Damhnait fled, but her father tracked her down and decapitated her.

Tales of virtuous young women choosing death over dishonor aren’t uncommon; and just like many of those stories, it is tough to verify the facts. Damhnait’s ordeal was first written down in the 1300s, and doubtless some things changed over the centuries.

One of the things that changed was her name. Damhnait comes from the Gaelic damh – stag; adding the -ait ending makes it “little stag” or fawn. The name’s pronunciation is DAV nat. The village of Tydavnet, not far from her birthplace, was named in her honor.

But between the 600s and today, we came to know her as Dympna or Dymphna. It may be that there are two separate figures. Or the story of Damhnait’s flight might be accurate. Some say she made it all the way to Belgium before dad tracked her down. In Belgium, there’s a town called Geel, and one of the smaller villages that make up Geel was originally called Sint-Dimpna.

The saint’s relics remain in a church in Geel, and the tiny town became known for as a center for healing. But get this – it’s not the conventional miracle served up here. Instead, Dymphna is said to cure mental disorders and nervous conditions. For centuries, patients have come to Geel, so many that an annex was built onto the church to lodge the afflicted. But the lodge was soon bursting, and thus began a remarkably forward-thinking tradition: in Geel, patients seeking treatment live with local families. It is still considered a model program.

While there are some missing links, the end result is this: Damhnait became Latinized as Dymphna, possibly via the Dutch, and an Irish princess became the patron saint of the mentally ill. Forget the “v” sound; this name is now said DIMF nah.

Should you be near Ohio, you can visit the National Shrine of St. Dymphna, the first church in the U.S. dedicated to the saint.

There are just a few uses outside of the church:

  • Australian writer Dymphna Cusack;
  • Australian politician Dympna Beard;
  • Anthony Burgess gave the name to a minor character in his 1962 dystopian novel The Wanting Seed.

The name has never appeared in the US Top 1000, and fewer than five were born in the US in 2009. While obscure saints’ names are popular with parents for lots of reasons, Dymphna’s sound is a little awkward. It’s no wonder she hasn’t caught on.

And yet, the more I hear Dymphna, the more I wonder if it isn’t a mistake to count her out. It’s an intriguing tale, and an interesting sound. Like any D name, the nicknames Dee and Didi are possible. For the truly daring who don’t mind wearing their faith on their sleeve, Dymphna could be an option.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. My two cents worth, Fanny, would make an excellent nickname for Dymphna. Other possible choices are Pia, Dyna (Dina) and Dimples . Dimple is adorable whether one had them or not. Dimple usually seen as a sign of mirth and youthfulness, and those are not bad associations. I also like the fact that Dymphna honor mothers out their with the English name Fawn. Fawn is my middle name and I have a brother who quadriplegic CP. So for me, I see many reasons as to why one could use Dymphna. Also, there was a famous actress and model named Fawn back in the 1960’s, so it wouldn’t be too much of stretch to say that it could be seen fashionable.

  2. Now that I think of it, I don’t know why I didn’t choose this as my Confirmation name! I chose Ann to honor my grandmother, but we’re Irish and *her* Confirmation name is Dymphna! Oh well, I do suppose Olivia Catherine Ann flows better than Olivia Catherine Dymphnal. Anyway it is a beautiful and interesting name that is very usable in the middle spot, especially if you have a tie to it like this one.

  3. This was my confirmation name. I used it because I loved the history and legend behind the saint, but when I picked it, I really like the name itself. I now have grown to love it. I do use it as my initials from time to time.

  4. My name is Dymphna. It has always been a good conversation piece..I have never met another one throughout school, work or in my community. I did shorten it to Dee aged 10yrs, however, as I have become more grown up I prefer to use my full name. I Love my name now. I pronounce it Dim’f’nar.
    ps: Loads of history steaped in my name..Beautiful Irish princess 600ad!

    1. My birth name is Dymphna. I was named after a Sister of Charity, Sister Dymphna, who helped with my delivery at St Mary’s Hospital in Galveston, Texas. My mother decided to “Americanize” the name and I’ve always been called Detna (what’s American about that name?)!

  5. Dymphna’s a favorite of mine. I was caught off gaurd by it at first, but then slowly fell in love with it. She’s also the patron saint of princesses. Plus it sounds like “dimples,” which can’t be bad, right?

    I should point out that while her “official” story is interesting, it has an eerie similarity to Donkey-skins, a French fairy tale. I don’t know which came first.