Buile Shuibhne

Buile Shuibhne or Buile Suibhne[lower-alpha 1] (Irish pronunciation: [ˈbˠɪlʲə ˈhɪvʲnʲə], The Madness of Suibhne or Suibhne's Frenzy) is an old Irish tale about the Suibhne mac Colmain, king of the Dál nAraidi, driven insane by St. Ronan's curse. The insanity makes Suibhne leave the Battle of Mag Rath, enter a life of wandering (which earns him the nickname Suibne Geilt or "Mad Sweeney"), until he dies under the refuge of St. Moling.

The tale is the final installment of a three-text cycle in medieval Irish literature, continuing on from Fled Dúin na nGéd (The Feast of Dun na nGéd) and Cath Maige Rátha (The Battle of Mag Rath).

Suibhne's name appears as early as the ninth century in a law tract (Book of Aicill), but Buile Suibhne did not take its current form until the twelfth century.[1]

Suibhne's identity

The identity of Suibhne is a very convoluted matter as several texts mention different Suibhnes in regards with the Battle of Mag Rath.[1] Buile Suibhne specifies Suibhne as the son of Colman Cuar and as the pagan king of Dál nAraidi in Ulster in Ireland (in particular in the areas of present-day county Down and county Antrim).[1] This particular Suibhne son of Colman's name can also be found in the Annals of Tigernach and the Book of Lismore.[1] The Annals of Tigernach state Suibhne, son of Colman, died in the Battle of Mag Rath, making Buile seem a fanciful imagining of dead warrior. Historical records of Dál nAraidi do exist. It was a historical kingdom inhabited by a Pictish people.[2] However the king lists of Dál nAraidi in the Book of Leinster fail to mention any Suibhne son of Colman Cuar as king, and identifies Congal Claen as king of Dál nAraidi during this time. James G. O’Keeffe has hypothesized a possible scenario where Suibhne might have been elected by the Pictish people to act as regent in the midst of King Congal's exile.[3]


There are three manuscripts, B (Royal Irish Academy, B iv i), 1671–4; K (Royal Irish Academy, 23 K 44), 1721–2; and L (Brussels, 3410), 1629, a condensed version in the hand of Michael O'Clery. The text can be dated to broadly from 1200–1500 on linguistic grounds, but John O'Donovan asserted the writer must have lived before 1197 when the last chieftain of Tir Connail died who was descended from Domnall mac Áedo, since the work is intended to flatter this monarchic dynasty.[4]


The saint's curse

In the legend, while St. Ronan was marking boundaries for a new church, the sound of his bell reached Suibhne's ear. Suibhne, upon learning that this was church-making activity on his grounds, rushed out to expel St. Ronan from his territory. His wife Eorann tried to detain him by grabbing his cloak, which unraveled, leaving Suibhne to exit the house stark naked. Suibhne grabbed Ronan's Psalter and threw it into the lake, seized the Saint by the hand and started to drag him away. But Suibhne was interrupted by a messenger from Congal Claen requesting aid in the Battle of Mag Rath (near modern Moira, 637 A.D.).

The next day, the Psalter was returned unharmed by an otter that fetched it from the lake. The saint laid a curse upon Suibhne, condemning him to wander and fly around the world naked, and to meet his death by spear-point. In the ongoing war, St. Ronan had mediated a truce to last from each evening until morning, but Suibhne habitually broke this by killing during the hours when combat was not permitted.

One day, Bishop Ronan and his psalmists were on their round blessing the troops. Suibhne too received the sprinkling of holy water, but taking this as a taunt, he killed one of the bishop's psalmists with a spear, and cast another at Ronan himself. The weapon pierced a hole in Ronan's bell (hanging on his breast), and the broken-off shaft hurled in the air. At this, Ronan repeated the same curse: that Suibhne will wander like a bird, much as the spear-shaft, perch on tree branches at the sound of the bell, and die by the spear just as he had killed the monk. When battle resumed, the tremendous noise of the armies clashing drove Suibhne insane. His hands were numbed, his weapons fell, and he began to tread ever so lightly as a bird levitating in the air.[5][6] (It is revealed much later on that like a bird, feathers had grown on him.[7])

The madness and wandering

The deranged Suibhne then left the battlefield behind, reaching a forest called Ros Bearaigh, in Glenn Earcain[lower-alpha 2] and perched on a yew tree. He was discovered by his kinsman Aongus the Fat, who was making his retreat from battle. Suibhne fled to Cell Riagain[lower-alpha 3] in Tir Conaill, alighting on another tree. There he was surrounded by the forces of Domnall mac Áedo, which was the side Suibhne and his Dál nAraidi kinsmen were warring against. The victorious Domnall nevertheless praised and pitied Suibhne and offered him gifts, but the madman would not comply.[8]

Suibhne went to his home territory of Glenn Bolcain,[lower-alpha 4] wandered seven years throughout Ireland, and returned to Glenn Bolcain, which was where his fortress and dwelling stood, and a celebrated valley of madmen.[9][10] Suibhne's movement was now being tracked by his kinsman Loingsechan, who had successfully taken the madman into custody thrice before. Loingsechan in his millhouse had a chance to capture Suibhne, but the attempt failed, and he must await another chance. Suibhne then paid visit to his wife, who was living with another man, a contender for Suibhne's kingship. Eorann maintained she would rather be with Suibhne, but he told her to remain with her new husband. An army stormed in, but Suibhne eluded capture.[11]

Suibhne then returned to the yew tree at Ros Bearaigh, the same tree he went to when he first developed his madness, but when Eorann came to deceive and capture him, he moved away to another tree in Ros Ercain).[lower-alpha 2] But his whereabouts was discovered, and Loingsechan coaxed him out of the tree, tricking him with the false news that his entire family had perished. Loingsechan brought Suibhne back to normal life and restored his sanity, but while recuperating, the mill hag taunted him into a contest of leaping. As they leapt, the noise of a hunting party returned Suibhne to madness. The mill hag eventually fell from her leap and was dashed to pieces. And since she was Loingsechan's mother-in-law, it meant Suibhne's could not return to Dál nAraidi without facing vengeance.[12][13]

Subhne subsequently wandered various parts of Ireland, into Scotland and Western England. He went from Roscommon to Slieve Aughty, Slieve Mis, Slieve Bloom mountain ranges;[lower-alpha 5] Inismurray island; the Cave of St. Donnan of Eigg, an island in the Scottish Inner Hebrides;[15] then tarried for a month and a half in "Carrick Alastair" (Ailsa Craig off Scotland.[16] He reached Britain and befriended a Fer Caille (Man of the Wood), who was another madman, spending an entire year together. The Briton giant met his predestined death by drowning in a waterfall.[17]

Death according to prophecy

"Fly through the air like the shaft of his spear and that he might die of a spear cast like the cleric whom he had slain."

Suibhne then returned to Ireland, to his home dominion of Glen Bocain. He visited his wife Eorann again but refused to go in the house for fear of confinement. Eorann then told him to leave, never to return, because the sight of him was an embarrassment to all.[18] But after a while, Suibhne regained his lucidity and made his resolve to go back to Dál nAraidi, whatever judgment may befall him. St. Ronan learned of this and prayed to God to hinder Suibhne. Suibhne is haunted by headless cadavers and detached heads at Sliabh Fuaid.[18]

Eventually Suibhne arrived at "The House of St. Moling", i.e. Teach Moling (St Mullin's in Co. Carlow[14]), and Moling harbored him after hearing the madman's story. It might be noted that earlier, Suibhne had sung a stave predicting this place to be the place where he would meet his demise,[19] and likewise, the Saint also knew this to be the madman's resting place.[20] As Suibhne attended Moling's vespers, the priest intstructed a parish woman employed as his cook to provide the madman with a meal (collation), in the form of daily milk. She did so by emptying milk into a hole she made with her foot in the cowdung. However, her husband (Moling's herder) believed malicious hearsay about the two having a tryst, and in a fit of jealousy, thrust a spear into Suibhne while he was drinking from the hole. Thus Suibhne died in the manner prescribed by Ronan, but received his sacrament from Moling, "as eric".[21][22]

Literary style

The poetry in the story of Suibhne 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, Suibhne 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 Sweeneymost notably T. S. Eliot and Seamus Heaney. Heaney published a translation of the work into English, which he entitled Sweeney Astray. Eliot made Sweeney the central figure in his verse drama Sweeney Agonistes. The author Flann O'Brien incorporated much of the story of Buile Shuibhne into his comic novel At Swim-Two-Birds, whose title is the English translation of the place name "Snamh da en" in the tale.[23] Another version from the Irish text, titled The Poems of Sweeny, Peregrine, was published by the Irish poet Trevor Joyce.[24]

Sweeney also appears as a character in Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods, and is portrayed by Pablo Schreiber in its forthcoming TV adaptation.[25] A contemporary version of the legend by poet Patricia Monaghan explores Sweeney as an archetype of the warrior suffering from "Soldier's Heart".[26]

W. D. Snodgrass introduces his poem Heart's Needle[27] with a reference to The Madness of Suibhne.

Irish poet and playwright Paula Meehan loosely based her 1997 drama Mrs Sweeney on the Sweeney legend. Set in an inner-city Dublin flat complex called The Maria Goretti Mansions (a metaphor for the notorious Fatima Mansions Flats in Dublin), the play examines what life must have been like for Sweeney's wife; as Meehan states 'I wondered what it must have been like to be his woman.'.[28] The play charts the trials and tribulations of Lil Sweeney's life in the Maria Goretti flats as she deals with crime, poverty, unemployment, drug abuse, and tries to come to terms with the pre-mature death of her daughter Chrisse, a heroin addict who died a year before the action starts from an AIDS related illness. Lil's husband, Sweeney, is a pigeon fancier who, upon discovering that all his pigeons have been killed, retreats into a bird-like state.

See also


Explanatory notes
  1. Alternate spellings are also: Shuibni, Suibne.
  2. 1 2 Ros Bearaigh may be another forest in the vicinity of Ros Earcain (Rasharkin, Co. Antrim), which occurs as a separte location in this tale, O'Keeffe 1913, notes, p. 162 (to §12, p. 15), 164 (to §17, p. 23), 167 (to §35, p. 51)
  3. Kilrean, O'Keeffe 1913, notes, p. 162
  4. Possibly Glenbuck, near Rasharkin, Mackillop 1998, "Bolcáin, Glenn", p. 47, citing Gearóid Mac Eoin (1962), "Gleann Bolcáin agus Gleann na nGealt" in Béaloideas 30; O'Keeffe could not pinpoint it but also believed it to be somewhere in N. Antrim, O'Keeffe 1913, p. 164.
  5. Names of mountain ranges in Munster, except O'Keeffe believes Slieve Mish is not meant here, but rather Slemish in Ulster.[14]
  1. 1 2 3 4 Sailor, Susan Shaw (1998). "Suibne Geilt: Puzzles, Problems, and Paradoxes". The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies. 24.1.
  2. MacNeill, Eoin. Phases of Irish History. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1919.
  3. O'Keeffe (1913), p. xxxi.
  4. O'Keeffe (1913), p. xiii–xix.
  5. O'Keeffe (1913), pp. 3–15.
  6. Dillon, Myles (1948), "Buile Shuibni", Early Irish Literature, Chicago: University of Chicago
  7. O'Keeffe (1913), p. 119.
  8. O'Keeffe (1913), pp. 15–23.
  9. O'Keeffe (1913), p. x.
  10. Mackillop (1998), "Bolcáin, Glenn", p. 47.
  11. O'Keeffe (1913), pp. 23–39, 41, 45–46.
  12. Frykenberg (2006), p. 1797.
  13. O'Keeffe (1913), pp. 49–83.
  14. 1 2 O'Keeffe (1913), Index of Places and Tribes, pp. 194–7.
  15. O'Keeffe (1913), Index of Places and Tribes, p. 195.
  16. Smyth, Daragh (1996), A Guide to Irish Mythology, Irish Academic Press, p. 160
  17. O'Keeffe (1913), pp. 83–105.
  18. 1 2 O'Keeffe (1913), pp. 105–111.
  19. O'Keeffe (1913), p. 81.
  20. O'Keeffe (1913), p. 143.
  21. O'Keeffe (1913), pp. 143–147.
  22. Dillon 1948, pp. 98–100
  23. Mackillop (1998), "Buile Shuibhne", p. 63–4.
  24. Trevor Joyce. "The Poems of Sweeny, Peregrine". Retrieved 17 November 2011.
  25. Andreeva, Nellie (May 11, 2016). "Pablo Schreiber To Play Mad Sweeney In 'American Gods' Starz Series, Joins Indie 'Thumper'". Deadline. Retrieved May 12, 2016.
  26. Mad Sweeney Archived January 9, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
  27. Heart's Needle
  28. Meehan, Paula, Author's Note for 'Mrs Sweeny', in "Rough Magic: First Plays", Dublin: New Island Books, 1998, p. 463

External links

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