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Buile Shuibhne

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Title: Buile Shuibhne  
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Buile Shuibhne

Buile Shuibhne (Irish pronunciation: , The Madness of Suibhne or Suibhne's Frenzy; alternate spellings: Shuibni, Suibne) is the final installment of a three-text cycle in medieval Irish literature: Fled Dúin na nGéd [The Feast of Dun na nGéd], Cath Maige Rátha [The Battle of Mag Rath] and Buile Suibhne.

The first text details the events leading up to the Battle of Mag Rath, the second describes the carnage of the battle, and the third chronicles the life of Suibhne (Mad Sweeney) from the end of the war until his death.[1] Suibhne’s name appears as early as the ninth century in a law tract, but Buile Suibhne did not take its current form until the twelfth century.[2]


  • Suibhne's identity 1
  • Plot 2
    • The sound of a bell 2.1
    • The effect of the curse 2.2
    • Suibhne meets his fate 2.3
  • Literary style 3
  • Literary influence 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • External links 7

Suibhne's identity

The identity of Suibhne is a very convoluted matter as several texts mention different Suibnes in regards with the Battle of Mag Rath.[3] 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).[4] This particular Suibhne son of Colman’s name can also be found in the Annals of Tighenach and The Book of Lismore.[5] The Annals of Tighenach 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.[6] However the king lists of Dál nAraidi in the Book of Leinster fail to mention any Suibne son of Colman Cuar as king. J. G. O’Keefe 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 Claen of Dál Araidi’s exile.


The sound of a bell

In the legend, while St. Ronan marks the boundaries for a church, Suibhne hears the sound of his bell. When Suibhne learns that there will be a church established on his grounds, he is immediately angry and wishes to let St. Ronan know and expel him from the territory. His wife Eorann tries to keep him from leaving and grabs his cloak. He keeps on pulling, leaving his wife with the cloak and leaving himself to exit the house naked. When Suibhne arrives, St. Ronan is chanting the Office. This angers him enough to grab Ronan’s Psalter and throw it into the lake. As he drags the Saint, a messenger arrives to inform him of the Battle of Mag Rath (near modern Moira, 637 A.D.). Suibhne leaves with the messenger, leaving St. Ronan behind. The very next day, the Psalter is returned to the Saint unharmed, thanks to an otter from the Lake. The prior events lead the Saint to curse Suibhne to walk the world naked as he had the previous day.[7] Prior to the battle, Bishop Ronan blesses the troops. Suibhne takes the sprinkling of holy water as a taunt and kills one of the bishop's psalmists with a spear and throws another spear at Ronan himself. The spear strikes Ronan's bell and breaks it. At this, Ronan curses Suibhne with madness. His curse is: 1) that as the sound of the bell had been broken, so now would any sharp sound send Suibhne into madness, 2) as Suibhne had killed one of Ronan's monks, so would Suibhne die at spear point. When the battle begins, Suibhne goes insane. His weapons drop, and he begins to levitate like a bird.[8]

The effect of the curse

After being cursed, Suibhne is terrified by the battle and he drops his weapons with much fear inside. He flees in the way that a bird would, with his feet rarely touching the ground. He settles on a spot in a yew tree that is far from the battlefield. There he was discovered by his kinsman Aongus the Fat, who was fleeing from the battle. Then Suibhne fled to Tir Canaill where he was perched on a tree near a church. Then he fled through Ireland to Glenn Bolcain, wandered seven years, and then returned to Glenn Bolcain. There Suibhne saw his kinsman, Loingsechan, who fell asleep while searching for Suibhne. Suibhne then returned to his wife who was living with another man. Eorann said she would rather be with Suibhne, but he tells her to stay with the man. Suibhne then settles in a yew tree at Ros Ercain. Loingsechan eventually finds Suibhne here and coaxes him out of the tree only after lying to him and saying that his entire family had died. Loingsechan tries to recuperate Suibhne but, while recuperating, a mill hag taunted him into a contest of leaping. As Suibhne leapt along after the hag, he again took flight and returned to madness. Suibhne visits Eorann again but refuses to go in the house for fear of confinement. Eorann then tells him to leave and never return. Eventually, after travels throughout Ireland and Western England, Suibhne was harboured 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 Suibhne with a spear. On his death, Suibhne received the sacrament and died in reconciliation.

Suibhne meets his fate

“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.”

The final stage of the curse acts itself out when Suibhne comes across a monastery that is run by St. Mo Ling. The Saint hears the mad man's story and has his cook feed Suibhne by creating a hole in the ground and filling it with milk. The cook's husband grows jealous of all the attention towards the madman and while Suihbne's drinks from the hole, he takes a spear and thrusts it into Suibhne, thus dying as St. Rónán had declared.[9]

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 Sweeney—most 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. Another version from the Irish text, titled The Poems of Sweeny, Peregrine, was published by the Irish poet Trevor Joyce.[10] 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".[11]

Joseph Heller references the story in his novel Catch-22, where he portrays Yossarian perching naked in a tree during, or after, Nately's burial.

W. D. Snodgrass introduces his poem Heart's Needle[12] 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.'.[13] 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


  1. ^ Sailor, Susan Shaw. “Suibne Geilt: Puzzles, Problems, and Paradoxes” The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies. 24.1 (1998). ;
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Sailor, Susan Shaw. “Suibne Geilt: Puzzles, Problems, and Paradoxes” The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies. 24.1 (1998). ;
  5. ^ Sailor, Susan Shaw. “Suibne Geilt: Puzzles, Problems, and Paradoxes” The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies. 24.1 (1998).
  6. ^ MacNeill, Eoin. Phases of Irish History. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1919.
  7. ^ Dillon, Myles. "Buile Shuibni." Early Irish Literature. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1948
  8. ^
  9. ^ Dillon, Myles. Early Irish Literature. pp. 98–100. 
  10. ^ Trevor Joyce. "The Poems of Sweeny, Peregrine". Retrieved 17 November 2011. 
  11. ^ Mad Sweeney
  12. ^ Heart's Needle
  13. ^ Meehan, Paula, Author's Note for 'Mrs Sweeny', in "Rough Magic: First Plays", Dublin: New Island Books, 1998, p. 463

External links

  • Buile Shuibhne - the original Irish text
  • Buile Shuibhne - English translation
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