Irish title of a 12th-century narrative of the Cycle of Kings known in English as The Frenzy of Suibne, The Madness of Sweeney, etc. It is the third and best known of a trilogy about a 7th-century Ulster petty king, Suibne Geilt [Irish, mad Suibne or Sweeney], who lost his reason at the Battle of Mag Rath (or Moira) in 637. The first story, Fled Dúin na nGéd [The Feast of Dún na nGéd], deals with events before the battle, which itself is described in the second story, Cath Maige Rátha [The Battle of Mag Rath]. Many modern readers have found Suibne's wanderings across Ireland, from treetop to treetop, among the most affecting in early Irish literature. Although Suibne first resists and later accepts Christianity, his story contains many elements of pre-Christian mystery.
Suibne son of Colmán is a king of Dál-nAraide in the former (until 1974) counties Antrim and Down of eastern Northern Ireland.
He seeks to expel the evangelizing St Rónán from his kingdom, but his
wife Eórann dissuades him. Angry at the sound of Rónán's bell, Suibne
rushes from his castle, but Eórann grabs his cloak so that he goes
through the door naked. The pagan king throws Rónán's psalter into a
lake and is about to do violence to the saint when he is called to the
Battle of Mag Rath. Rónán gives thanks to God for being spared but
curses the king, asking that he may wander through the world naked, as
he has come naked into his presence.
Rónán tries to make peace
between the contending armies at Mag Rath without success. When he
tries to bless the warriors, including Suibne, the king throws his
spear at the saint; a second spear breaks against Rónán's bell, its
shaft flying in the air. Rónán curses Suibne a second time, wishing
that he may fly through the air like the shaft of his spear and that he
may die of a cast spear. When Suibne tries to rejoin the battle he is
seized with trembling and flees in frenzy like a wild bird. His feet
barely touch the ground, and land at last on a yew tree. After Suibne's withdrawal, his opponents are victorious. When a kinsman
is unable to bring Suibne back among his people, the mad king flies to
different parts of Ireland, settling for long intervals in the glen of
madmen known as Glenn Bolcáin.
one faithful friend during this torment is Loingsechán, who may be a
uterine brother or a foster-brother. Loingsechán rescues Suibne three
times and keeps him informed about his family. Eórann, who has gone to
live with Guaire,
remains faithful to Suibne, even though he visits her and tells her she
would be better off without him. On several occasions Suibne regains
his reason, and once he seeks to return to his people, but Rónán prays
that the king should not be allowed to come back and resume his
persecution of the Church. The narrative is interspersed with a number
of poems, some of them in Suibne's voice. Two of the most memorable,
coming late in the narrative, are in praise of nature and of trees.
ends his wandering at the monastery of St Moling, Co. Carlow, whose
monks fed and sheltered him and ask that his history be written. One
night when Suibne is eating, Moling's cook's husband is jealous of the
attention given the visitor. The husband's spear goes through Suibne's
body, but not before he has accepted the faith. Many commentators see a
link between the madness of Suibne and that of Myrddin or Merlin, who also begins a frenzied wandering after a battle; See WILD MAN OF THE WOOD.
Among the modern writers attracted to Suibne's story are W. B. Yeats,
whose ‘Madness of King Goll’ (1887) credits the madness to another
king, and Flann O'Brien, whose title At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) translates a place-name in the original text. See also Seamus Heaney, Sweeney Astray (New York, 1984).
The standard modern edition is in the Irish Text Society, 12, ed. J. G. O'Keeffe (London, 1912). Fled Dúin na nGéd and Cath Maige Ráth were first edited by John O'Donovan (Dublin, 1848). Carl Marstrander re-edited Fled Dúin na nGéd in the Norwegian journal Videnskabs-Selkabets Skrifter, 2(6) (1909), and Cath Maige Ráth in Ériu, 5 (1911), 226–47.
The Buile Shuibhne (translates as "The Madness of Sweeney," or "Sweeney's Frenzy") is the tale of Sweeney (or Suibhne), a legendary king of Dál nAraidi in Ulster in Ireland. The story is told in mixture of poetry and prose and exists in manuscripts dating from 1671–1674
but which was almost surely written and circulated in its modern form
sometime in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. It is likely, from
references in works going back to the tenth century, that some form of
the tale of the mad king goes back to the first millennium.
The sound of a bell
In the legend, the king was annoyed by the sound of a bell. When he
learned that the sound came from Bishop Ronan Finn as he set up a
church, the pagan king stormed naked to the church, pulled the bishop
forth, and threw his psalter into a lake. He would have killed the
bishop were he not called at that moment to fight in the Battle of Mag
Rath (near modern Moira, 637 A.D.). Prior to the battle, Bishop Ronan blessed the troops. Sweeney took the sprinkling of holy water
as a taunt and killed one of the bishop's psalmists with a spear and
threw another spear at Ronan himself. The spear struck Ronan's bell and
broke it. At this, Ronan cursed Sweeney with madness. His curse was: 1)
that as the sound of the bell had been broken, so now would any sharp
sound send Sweeney into madness, 2) as Sweeney had killed one of
Ronan's monks, so would Sweeney die at spear point. When the battle
began, Sweeney went insane. His weapons dropped, and he began to
levitate like a bird.
The effect of the curse
From that point on, Sweeney leapt from spot to spot, like a bird.
Also like a bird, he could never trust humans. His kinsmen and subjects
sent him mad with fear, and he could only flee from place to place,
living naked and hungry. After seven years in the wild, Sweeney's
reason was briefly restored by his kinsmen, who very gently coaxed him
back to earth, but, while recuperating, a mill hag taunted him into a
contest of leaping. As Sweeney leapt along after the hag, he again took
flight and returned to madness. Eventually, after travels throughout
Ireland and Western England, Sweeney was harbored by Bishop Moling.
He lived, broken and old, with the bishop, and the bishop entrusted his
care to a parish woman. Unfortunately, that woman's husband, a herder,
grew jealous and killed Sweeney with a spear. On his death, Sweeney
received the sacrament and died in reconciliation.
The poetry in the story of Sweeney is deep and accomplished, and the
story itself of the mad and exiled king who composes verse as he
travels has held the imagination of poets through to the twentieth
century. At every stop in his flight, Sweeney pauses to give a poem on
the location and his plight, and his descriptions of the countryside
and nature, as well as his pathos, are central to the development of the text.
Many poets have invoked Sweeney—most notably T. S. Eliot and Seamus Heaney. Heaney published a translation of the work into English, which he entitled Sweeney Astray. The author Flann O'Brien incorporated much of the story of Buile Suibhne into his comic novel At Swim-Two-Birds. Another version from the Irish text, titled The Poems of Sweeny, Peregrine by the Irish poet Trevor Joyce, is online at http://www.soundeye.org/trevorjoyce. Sweeney also appears as a character in Neil Gaiman's novel, American Gods.
A contemporary version of the legend by poet Patricia Monaghan explores
Sweeney as an archetype of the warrior suffering from "Soldier's Heart".
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