Do you ever go somewhere in your mind? I’ve been to so many magical, sacred places, but some stand out more than others. I often go to Kildownet Church on Achill Island in County Mayo, Ireland.
There is an old altar, covered with stones inside this roofless 12th-century church on Achill Island. It’s known as Kildownet – meaning the little church of St. Dymphna who was a 7th century Christian, now known as the patron saint of those who are depressed, grieving, filled with anxiety, or suffering from nervous disorders.
Dymphna’s father, Damon was a Celtic pagan, and king of a small community in Northern Ireland, thus making Dymphna a princess. After the death of Dymphna’s mother, Damon made sexual advances toward his daughter. Dymphna fled her home to escape his abuse and landed in County Mayo on the southeastern side of Achill Island. Once there, she formed a Christian community and built a small church. The locals believe that the current 12-century church with the stone-covered altar is built on the same site as St. Dymphna’s original church.
That little ruined church is surrounded by the graves of Achill islanders going back to the Great Hunger. Many of the famine graves are unmarked or marked only by single stones that are now half-buried. Other headstones have shells inserted making designs or names that are carved by hand.
The Youngsters of Achill Island – R.I.P.
On the north side of the church, Achill youngsters who left the island for summer work are buried. Some of them perished when the fire broke out at night in a Scotland bothy, and locked doors prevented their escape. The others, who were on their way to jobs abroad drowned when their boat capsized in Clew Bay. They all rest together in a fenced-in plot with each of their names inscribed on a single marker.
The remnants of sorrow are still felt in this graveyard dedicated to the saint who watches over the living who are lost in sadness, worry, and depression. The church and graveyard overlook Kildownet Castle, and the pristine, deep blue Achill Sound. Down at the shoreline below the graveyard is a holy well dedicated to St. Dymphna.
St. Dymphna Flees to Belgium
Once she escaped her home in Northern Ireland and found peace on Achill Island, St. Dymphna’s father continued to pursue her. With the help of spies, he chased her all the way to Belgium. It was in the little village of Gheel just a few miles from Antwerp that he eventually caught up with her. When she refused to return with him, he murdered her. She was buried in that village, and her legacy inspired many local people to ask for her intercession for intentions and many miracles occurred – miracles of being healed from mental trauma and illness after praying at her burial site, which is now marked by a Medieval church in the village square housing her remains.
Kildownet Church – a Pilgrim Destination
At the little ruined church in Kildownet on Achill Island, pilgrims both local and from far away place stones on the altar as a sign of devotion – a reminder of the intention they placed before St. Dymphna. When I traveled there years ago, there were only a handful of stones. More recently, the stones covered the altar and were also piled on the church floor around the base.
When I’m feeling worried or sorrowful, I meditate. And in my mind, I take myself to this little church on Achill Sound. I pray … I think … I listen, and then I mentally pick up a stone place it on that altar. Then I take myself down to the water’s edge and visit St. Dymphna’s holy well. I’ll stand for a while in this thin place and let the grace wash over me. Once I come out of the meditation, I’m always just a little changed… maybe a little more peaceful, a little less worried. It’s a healing practice … this mental travel.