The Tain may be the greatest work of classical Irish literature, but The Frenzy of Suibne is the most beautiful. According to legend, Sweeney (Suibne) was a pagan king of Dal Araidhe in present-day County Down, who attacked a Christian cleric, was cursed by him, and then went mad at the Battle of Mag Rath (A.D. 637). He spent most of the rest of his life thinking he was a bird and flying from tree to tree across the face of Ireland. Although The Frenzy, written in the twelfth century, contains glimpses of battle and ends with Sweeney’s conversion to Christianity, its intent seems to be neither historic nor didactic but poetic. As such, it has appealed to many modern writers who have made use of Sweeney’s madness, sometimes comically. Among them have been James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, W. D. Snodgrass, Joseph O’Connor, and Flann O’Brien, whose novel At Swim-Two-Birds (named for one of Sweeney’s resting places) was, to quote Dylan Thomas, “just the book to give your sister if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.”

Whether or not Sweeney was actually a historic figure, the Battle of Mag Rath (Magh Rath or Moira),—a clash between the high king Donnall (Domnall) and Congal Claen, who had the support of a Scottish clan settled in northeast Ireland—is mentioned in a number of chronicles. Sweeney is described in one of them, Cath Maige Ratha:

The standard of Suibne, a yellow banner,
the renowned king of Dal Araidhe,
yellow satin over that wild man of hosts,
the white fingered stripling himself in the middle of them.

AS TO SUIBNE, SON OF Colman Cuar and king of Dal Araidhe, we have already told how he went wandering and flying out of battle. Here are set forth the cause and occasion whereby these symptoms and fits of frenzy and flightiness came upon him beyond all others, likewise what befell him thereafter.

There was a certain noble, distinguished holy patron in Ireland, Ronan Finn, son of Bearach, son of Criodhan, son of Earclugh, son of Ernainne, son of Urene, son of Seachnusach, son of Colum Cúile, son of Mureadhach, son of Laoghaire, son of Niall; a man who fulfilled God’s command and bore the yoke of piety, and endured persecutions for the Lord’s sake. He was God’s own worthy servant, for it was his wont to crucify his body for love of God and to win a reward for his soul. A sheltering shield against evil attacks of the devil and against vices was that gentle, friendly, active man.

A holy bell once thought to have been St. Patrick’s.

On one occasion he was marking out a church named Cell Luinne [Killaney] in Dal Araidhe. (At that time Suibne, son of Colman, of whom we have spoken, was king of Dal Araidhe.) Now, in the place where he was, Suibne heard the sound of Ronan’s bell as he was marking out the church, and he asked his people what it was they heard. “It is Ronan Finn, son of Bearach,” said they, “who is marking out a church in your territory and land, and it is the sound of his bell you now hear.” Suibne was greatly angered and enraged, and he set out with the utmost haste to drive the cleric from the church. His wife Eorann, daughter of Conn of Ciannacht, in order to hold him, seized the wing of the fringed, crimson cloak which was around him. Therewith, leaving his cloak with the queen, he set out stark-naked in his swift career to expel the cleric from the church, until he reached the place where Ronan was.

He found the cleric at the time glorifying the King of heaven and earth by blithely chanting his psalms with his lined, right-beautiful psalter in front of him. Suibne took up the psalter and cast it into the depths of the cold-water lake which was near him, so that it was drowned therein. Then he seized Ronan’s hand and dragged him out through the church after him, nor did he let go the cleric’s hand until he heard a cry of alarm. It was a serving-man of Congal Claon, son of Scannlan, who uttered that cry; he had come from Congal himself to Suibne in order that he (Suibne) might engage in battle at Magh Rath. When the serving-man reached the place of parley with Suibne, he related the news to him from beginning to end. Suibne then went with the serving-man and left the cleric sad and sorrowful over the loss of his psalter and the contempt and dishonour which had been inflicted on him.

Thereafter, at the end of a day and a night, an otter that was in the lake came to Ronan with the psalter, and neither line nor letter of it was injured. Ronan gave thanks to God for that miracle, and then cursed Suibne, saying: “Be it my will, together with the will of the mighty Lord, that even as he came stark-naked to expel me, may it be thus that he will ever be, naked, wandering and flying throughout the world; may it be death from a spear-point that will carry him off. My curse once more on Suibne, and my blessing on Eorann who strove to hold him; and furthermore, I bequeath to the race of Colman that destruction and extinction may be their lot the day they shall behold this psalter which was cast into the water by Suibne”; and he uttered this lay:

“Suibne, son of Colman, has outraged me,
he has dragged me with him by the hand,
to leave Cell Luinne with him,
that I should be for a time absent from it.

He came to me in his swift course
on hearing my bell;
he brought with him vast, awful wrath
to drive me out, to banish me ….

He let not my hand out of his
until he heard the loud cry
which said to him: ‘Come to the battle,
Domnall has reached famous Magh Rath.’

Good has come to me therefrom,
not to him did I give thanks for it
when tidings of the battle came
for him to join the high prince.

From afar he approached the battle
whereby were deranged his sense and reason,
he will roam through Erin as a stark madman,
and it shall be by a spear-point he will die.

He seized my psalter in his hand,
he cast it into the full lake,
Christ brought it to me without a blemish,
so that no worse was the psalter.

A day and a night in the full lake,
nor was the speckled-white [book] the worse;
through the will of God’s Son
an otter gave it to me again.

As for the psalter that he seized in his hand,
I bequeath to the race of Colman
that it will be bad for the race of fair Colman
the day they shall behold the psalter.

Stark-naked he has come here
to wring my heart, to chase me;
on that account God will cause
that Suibne shall ever naked be.

Eorann, daughter of Conn of Ciannacht,
strove to hold him by his cloak;
my blessing on Eorann therefor,
and my curse on Suibne.”

Thereupon Ronan came to Magh Rath to make peace between Domnall son of Aodh, and Congal Claon son of Scannlan, but he did not succeed. Howbeit, the cleric used to be taken each day as a guarantee between them that nobody would be slain from the time the fighting was stopped [for the day] until it would be again permitted. Suibne, however, used to violate the cleric’s guarantee of protection inasmuch as every peace and truce which Ronan would make Suibne would break, for he used to slay a man before the hour fixed for combat each day, and another each evening when the combat ceased. Then on the day fixed for the great battle Suibne came to battle before the rest.

In this wise did he appear. A filmy shirt of silk was next his white skin, around him was a girdle of royal satin, likewise the tunic which Congal had given him the day he slew Oilill Cedach, king of the Ui Faolain, at Magh Rath; a crimson tunic of one colour was it with a close, well-woven border of beautiful, refined gold set with rows of fair gems of carbuncle from one end to the other of the border, having in it silken loops over beautiful, shining buttons for fastening and opening it, with variegation of pure white silver each way and each path he would go; there was a slender-threaded hard fringe to that tunic. In his hands were two spears very long and (shod) with broad iron, a yellow-speckled, horny shield was on his back, a gold-hilted sword at his left side.

He marched on thus until he encountered Ronan with eight psalmists of his community sprinkling holy water on the hosts, and they sprinkled it on Suibne as they did on the others. Thinking it was to mock him that the water was sprinkled on him, he placed his finger on the string of the riveted spear that was in his hand, and hurling it at one of Ronan’s psalmists slew him with that single cast. He made another cast with the edged, sharp-angled dart at the cleric himself, so that it pierced the bell which was on his breast and the shaft sprang off it up in the air, whereupon the cleric said: …

“My curse on Suibne!
great is his guilt against me,
his smooth, vigorous dart
he thrust through my holy bell.

That bell which thou hast wounded
will send thee among branches,
so that thou shalt be one with the birds—
the bell of saints before saints.

Even as in an instant went
the spear-shaft on high,
mayst thou go, O Suibne,
in madness, without respite!

Thou hast slain my foster-child,
thou hast reddened thy spear in him,
thou shalt have in return for it
that with a spear-point thou shalt die ….

My blessing on Eorann!
Eorann fair without decay:
through suffering without stint
my curse on Suibne!”

Thereafter, when both battle-hosts had met, the vast army on both sides roared in the manner of a herd of stags so that they raised on high three mighty shouts. Now, when Suibne heard these great cries together with their sounds and reverberations in the clouds of Heaven and in the vault of the firmament, he looked up, whereupon turbulence (?), and darkness, and fury, and giddiness, and frenzy, and flight, unsteadiness, restlessness, and unquiet filled him, likewise disgust with every place in which he used to be and desire for every place which he had not reached. His fingers were palsied, his feet trembled, his heart beat quick, his senses were overcome, his sight was distorted, his weapons fell naked from his hands, so that through Ronan’s curse he went, like any bird of the air, in madness and imbecility.

Now, however, when he arrived out of the battle, it was seldom that his feet would touch the ground because of the swiftness of his course, and when he did touch it he would not shake the dew from the top of the grass for the lightness and the nimbleness of his step. He halted not from that headlong course until he left neither plain, nor field, nor bare mountain, nor bog, nor thicket, nor marsh, nor hill, nor hollow, nor dense-sheltering wood in Ireland that he did not travel that day, until he reached Ros Bearaigh, in Glenn Ear Cain [in County Antrim], where he went into the yew-tree that was in the glen.

Domnall, son of Aedh, won the battle that day. Suibne had a kinsman in the battle, to wit, Aongus the Stout, son of Ardgal, son of Macnia, son of Ninnidh, of the tribes of Ui Ninnedha of Dal Araidhe; he came in flight with a number of his people out of the battle, and the route he took was through Glenn Ear Cain. Now he and his people were conversing about Suibne (saying) how strange it was that they had not seen him alive or dead after the battle-hosts had met. Howbeit, they felt certain it was because of Ronan’s curse that there were no tidings of his fate. Suibne in the yew-tree above them heard what they spoke, and he said:

“O warriors, come hither,
O men of Dal Araidhe,
you will find in the tree in which he is
the man whom you seek.

God has vouchsafed me here
life very bare, very narrow,
without music and without restful sleep,
without womenfolk, without a woman-tryst.

Here at Ros Bearaigh am I,
Ronan has put me under disgrace,
God has severed me from my form,
know me no more, O warriors.”

When the men heard Suibne reciting the verses, they recognized him, and urged him to trust them. He said that he would never do so. Then, as they were closing round the tree, Suibne rose out of it very lightly and nimbly (and went) to Cell Riagain [Kilrean] in Tir Conaill where he perched on the old tree of the church. It chanced that it was at that tree Domnall, son of Aedh, and his army were after the battle, and when they saw the madman going into the tree, a portion of the army came and closed in all round it. Thereupon they began describing aloud the madman; one man would say that it was a woman, another that it was a man, until Domnall himself recognized him, whereupon he said: “It is Suibne, king of Dal Araidhe, whom Ronan cursed the day the battle was fought. Good in sooth is the man who is there,” said he, “and if he wished for treasures and wealth he would obtain them from us if only he would trust us. Sad is it to me,” said he, “that the remnant of Congal’s people are thus, for both good and great were the ties that bound me to Congal …. Whereupon Domnall uttered the lay:

“How is that, O slender Suibne?
thou wert leader of many hosts;
the day the iniquitous battle was fought
at Magh Rath thou wert most comely.

Like crimson or like beautiful gold
was thy noble countenance after feasting,
like down or like shavings
was the faultless hair of thy head.

Like cold snow of a single night
was the aspect of thy body ever;
blue-hued was thine eye, like crystal,
like smooth, beautiful ice.

Delightful the shape of thy feet,
not powerful methinks was thy chieftainship;
thy fortunate weapons—they could draw blood—
were swift in wounding ….

Thy body will be a feast for birds of prey,
ravens will be on thy heavy silence,
a fierce, black spear shall wound thee,
and thou shalt be laid on thy back, destitute ….”

Now when Suibne heard the shout of the multitude and the tumult of the great army, he ascended from the tree towards the rain-clouds of the firmament, over the summits of every place and over the ridge-pole of every land. For a long time thereafter he was (faring) throughout Ireland, visiting and searching in hard, rocky clefts and in bushy branches of tall ivy-trees, in narrow cavities of stones, from estuary to estuary, from peak to peak, and from glen to glen, till he reached ever-delightful Glen Bolcain [in Antrim]. It is there the madmen of Ireland used to go when their year in madness was complete, that glen being ever a place of great delight for madmen. For it is thus Glen Bolcain is: it has four gaps to the wind, likewise a wood very beautiful, very pleasant, and clean-banked wells and cool springs, and sandy, clear-water streams, and green-topped watercress and brooklime bent and long on their surface. Many likewise are its sorrels, its wood-sorrels, its lus-bian and its biorragan, its berries, and its wild garlic, itsmelle and itsmiodhbhun, its black sloes and its brown acorns. The madmen moreover used to smite each other for the pick of watercress of that glen and for the choice of its couches.

Suibne also remained for a long time in that glen until he happened one night to be on the top of a tall ivy-clad hawthorn tree which was in the glen. It was hard for him to endure that bed, for at every twist and turn he would give, a shower of thorns off the hawthorn would stick in him, so that they were piercing and rending his side and wounding his skin. Suibne thereupon changed from that bed to another place, where there was a dense thicket of great briars with fine thorns and a single protruding branch of blackthorn growing alone up through the thicket. Suibne settled on the top of that tree, but so slender was it that it bowed and bent under him, so that he fell heavily through the thicket to the ground, and there was not as much as an inch from his sole to the crown of his head that was not wounded and reddened. He then rose up, strengthless and feeble, and came out through the thicket, whereupon he said: “My conscience!” said he, “it is hard to endure this life after a pleasant one, and a year to last night I have been leading this life,” whereupon he uttered the lay:

“A year to last night
have I been among the gloom of branches,
between flood and ebb,
without covering around me.

Without a pillow beneath my head,
among the fair children of men;
there is peril to us, O God,
without sword, without spear.

Without the company of women;
save brooklime of warrior-bands—
a pure fresh meal—
watercress is our desire.

Without a foray with a king,
I am alone in my home,
without glorious reavings,
without friends, without music.

Without sleep, alas!
let the truth be told,
without aid for a long time,
hard is my lot.
Without a house right full,
without the converse of generous men,
without the title of king,
without drink, without food.

Alas that I have been parted here
from my mighty, armed host,
a bitter madman in the glen,
bereft of sense and reason.

Without being on a kingly circuit,
but rushing along every path;
that is the great madness,
O King of Heaven of saints.

Without accomplished musicians,
without the converse of women,
without bestowing treasures;
it has caused my death, O revered Christ.

Though I be as I am to-night,
there was a time
when my strength was not feeble
over a land that was not bad.

On splendid steeds,
in life without sorrow,
in my auspicious kingship
I was a good, great king.

After that, to be as I am
through selling Thee, O revered Christ!
a poor wretch am I, without power,
in the Glen of bright Bolcan.

The hawthorn that is not soft-topped
has subdued me, has pierced me;
the brown thorn-bush
has nigh caused my death.

The battle of Congal with fame,
to us it was doubly piteous;
on Tuesday was the rout;
more numerous were our dead than our living.

A-wandering in truth,
though I was noble and gentle,
I have been sad and wretched
a year to last night.”

[After years of random flying around Ireland, Sweeney settles at the monastery of St. Moling in County Carlow, where the monks see that he is fed and cared for. Then, as the curse of St. Ronan foretold, he is killed by a spear, the killer being the cook’s husband, who was jealous of the attention the madman was getting. As he converts to Christianity and dies, Sweeney thinks back over his life.]

“There was a time when I deemed more melodious
than the quiet converse of people,
the cooing of the turtle-dove
flitting about a pool.

There was a time when I deemed more melodious
than the sound of a little bell beside me
the warbling of the blackbird to the mountain
and the belling of the stag in a storm.

There was a time when I deemed more melodious
than the voice of a beautiful woman beside me,
to hear at dawn
the cry of the mountain-grouse.

There was a time when I deemed more melodious
the yelping of the wolves
than the voice of a cleric within
a-baaing and a-bleating.”

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