10 April 2015

Mad Monarchs - Mad Sweeney, Irish: Suibhne Geilt

By J.S. Dunn

Madness has a long and proud history in Ireland, at least as long as Eire's occupation and pillaging by foreigners since prehistory. Jonathan Swift endowed the first mental institution for the Irish in Dublin, and cheerfully observed that his bequest “shewed by one satyric touch / No nation wanted it so much.” Swift does not directly reference Mad Sweeney in his works, but our man Sweeney first pops up in medieval texts and then leaps, irrepressible and disheveled, from James Joyce to Flann O'Brien and on to Seamus Heaney and even Neil Gaiman.

Sweeney's frenzy allegedly began from attacking a clergyman who is sounding a bell to mark out the boundaries for a church and who curses Sweeney for the attack. Said curse results in Sweeney's madness and a series of episodes, seven years of wandering the island naked and eating watercress, which tints his face green. A variant is that he goes mad hearing the din from a great battle, and morphs into a great bird that leaps from tree to tree and mountain to mountain. That version includes much older elements of birds acting as sacred totems.

He is ultimately murdered by a jealous husband in roughly the 7th century AD. In the Christianized version of the ancient bird-man story, Sweeney has been reconciled with the new faith by one Saint Molling at a monastic settlement. Those ruins still exist at St. Mullins on the River Barrow in Ireland.

Like the Arthurian Merlin figure, the solitary and wandering Mad Sweeney is at odds with social changes including the early church. He longs for better (prior) days, and laments his wild, crazed state that has him pitted against the elements. He has a magic touch at times, and Sweeney waxes poetic about nature despite hunger and lack of clothing.

Birds, specifically the black-winged sea eagle, featured in Orkney's prehistoric religion and sea eagle talons were interred with prominent cremations. Another early Gaelic myth, Destruction of Derg's Hostel, has a wild bird-man warn Connery, young warrior-lord at Tara, of things he must not do so that his reign will be a success.

For a look at Mad Sweeney's original tale Buile Suibhne in an English translation, see the website:  http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/T302018.html .  Seamus Heaney's poetic version called Sweeney Astray is particularly fine.

About The Author

J.S. Dunn lived in Ireland during the past decade, on 12 lovely acres fronting a salmon river. The author continues to research and travel the Atlantic coasts and is helping to shift the old paradigm of “Celts” with a second novel set at 1600 BCE.