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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.[1] 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.

Literary style

The poetry in the story of Sweeney is rich 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.

Literary influence

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 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".[2]


See also

External links

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