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Welcome to Unreal, a podcast about Irish history, stories and tradition.
What happens when a king goes mad? When he leaves his home, his wife and lands, and goes wandering in the woods and the wild? Such a strange frenzy came on Sweeney, an Irish king long ago. The life he came to live was a harsh and a wild one – but, as the story shows, still one where breathtaking beauty could be found.
I’m Ruth Atkins, and this is unreal.
The story of Sweeney Gelt, sometimes called the madness or frenzy of Sweeney, or sometimes the wanderings of Sweeney, is a medieval tale of magic and madness, dating from at least the 12th century. Not chosen to be one of the three sorrows of storytelling, it nonetheless has quite a bit in common with these tales – the story of king cursed to wander the land, in wildness and sorrow, spending the rest of his years until his death in nature instead of the world of men. The story has become a favourite of poets, because of the beautifully evocative poems and lays recited throughout it. These are definitely at their best in the original Irish version, but I have tried to keep some of them translated by J G O’Keeffe in my retelling here.
The tale of how Sweeney came to be mad begins quite strangely – almost like a comedy instead of the story of beauty the tale soon grows into. Sweeney was king over an area called Dál Araide, now modern-day Antrim. One day, as he surveyed his lands Sweeney heard the sound of a bell, and he asked his people what the noise was.
“It is the holy man, Ronan Finn,” they answered. “He is marking out a church on your land.”
Sweeney was furious to hear of someone building on his land without permission, and set off at once to drive Ronan away from the area. Sweeney’s wife, Eorann, tried to stop him from going, and grabbed the arm of his cloak, pulling him back. But the shoulder fastening broke, and the cloak came away into her hands. Leaving his cloak with his queen, Sweeney set out stark-naked, until he reached the place where Ronan’s church was being built.
Now Ronan was busy praying and chanting the psalms to bless the area, and with his psalm book or psalter in front of him and his head bent in prayer perhaps he didn’t notice the naked king approaching until it was too late. Sweeney grabbed onto the psalm book and threw it into the depths of the cold lake nearby. Then he grabbed Ronan and dragged him through the church, presumably intending to punish him severely. They were interrupted however, by the cry of a messenger, who had come to ask for help in stopping a great battle that was about to take place at Magh Rath.
Ronan and Sweeney hurried to Magh Rath, where the holy man attempted to make peace between the warring factions. He did not succeed, but he made both sides promise that nobody would be killed at night, from the time the fighting stopped for the day, to when it began again the following morning. King Sweeney, however, joined the fighting, and quickly showed his contempt for Ronan’s deal. Each morning, he would kill a man before the battle began, and another each evening when the fighting was supposed to cease. Then, on the day fixed for the great battle, Sweeney came across Ronan in person again.
Ronan and his psalmists were blessing the warriors, sprinkling them with holy water. But when they threw water on Sweeney, he thought they were mocking him. He hurled his spear, killing one of Ronan’s psalmists, and taking his dart he threw it at Ronan, so that it pierced the sacred bell by his chest.
Now it was Ronan’s turn to grow angry.
He placed a curse on Sweeney.
“That bell which you have wounded
will send you among branches
so that you shall be one with the birds
He will roam through Erin as a stark madman
And it shall be by a spear-point he will die.”
Ignoring Ronan, Sweeney left and went to take his place with the others in the great battle. But when he got there, the roar of the battle was loud, like a herd of stags, reverberating against the clouds of heaven. And when the noise and shouts reached Sweeney’s ears, a sudden transformation came over him. His fingers and feet shook, his heart beat rapidly, his weapons fell from his hands. A great darkness and frenzy filled him, and Sweeney became at once disgusted with every place that he had ever been, and filled with desire for every place he had never yet reached.
Sweeney was under a madness, a wildness. He would never again be the powerful king and ruler that he had been until now. And from here, the story grows much more poetic, as Sweeney goes wandering Ulster and Ireland – leaping from place to place like a bird of the air, and leaving no field, bog, forest nor mountain untravelled.
The story of Sweeney’s madness has much in common with other tales of Wild Men, which have been told throughout the world for thousands of years, from biblical times and earlier, right up to our fascination with tales of feral children and wild people today. But one of the closest parallel’s to Sweeney’s story comes in the tales of Merlin, the strange figure of Arthurian legends in Britain and France, who is often depicted as having gone mad or wild, and having a connection and mastery over the beasts of the forests as well as his magical talents. The early figure on whom Merlin was based was Myrddin Wylt, or Myrddin the Wild, a Welsh bard who was said to have insane after watching a battle slaughter, fleeing into the forest to live among animals, and receiving the gift of prophecy, before he was cured from his insanity by a saint called Mungo.
I’m not sure how much the tales of Sweeney and of Myrddin came to influence and inspire each other, though they were around at similar times. What is clear though, is that Ireland had a reputation for being a place where Wild Men thrived. A 13th Century Norse text called the King’s Mirror spoke about a number of Wild Men marvels that had been seen in Ireland:
“It once happened in that country (and this seems indeed strange) that a living creature was caught in the forest as to which no one could say definitely whether it was a man or some other animal … it had the human shape, … but the entire body was covered with hair as the beasts are, and down the back it had a long coarse mane like that of a horse, which fell to both sides and trailed along the ground when the creature stooped in walking.”
The Norse text also described a class of wild men in Ireland called the Gelts, which seemed likely based on the legend of Sweeney’s madness.
“it happens that timid and youthful men who have never been in the [battle] before are sometimes seized with such fear and terror that they lose their wits and run away from the rest into the forest, where they seek food like beasts and shun the meeting of men like wild animals. It is also told that if these people live in the woods for twenty winters in this way, feathers will grow upon their bodies as on birds … to protect them from frost and cold … they have no large feathers to use in flight …But so great is their fleetness said to be that it is not possible for other men or even for greyhounds to come near them; for those men can dash up into a tree almost as swiftly as apes or squirrels.”
Ronan’s curse did not just make Sweeney mad. He also became fast, and light footed, so that when he ran his feet barely shook the dew from the grass with his step. In the tale, he often thinks of himself as a bird, with talons and feathers, and behaves with the lightness and speed that birds have. The curse gave Sweeney a hatred and distrust of other people, and he could never stay long in their company without wishing to flee.
So he ran without stopping through field, mountain, bog and marsh, through the hard rocky clefts and the bushy branches of tall trees, from estuary to estuary and wood to wood, until he reached Glen Bolcain. This, the tale says, is where the madmen or gelts of Ireland would go when their year in madness was complete, for there it was a beautiful place, sheltered from the wind, with clean wells and cool springs, and watercress to feast on.
Now, Sweeney had a brother, a man called Loingseachán, who came looking for him in Glen Bolcain. Three times Loingseachan tried to capture Sweeney, but three times Sweeney escaped him, fleeing away.
Nearby, Loingseachán owned a mill, that was watched over by Lonnog, his wife’s mother. One day, Sweeney passed the house, and Lonnog gave him some scraps, and so Sweeney returned there often for the food she would pass his way.
One day, Loingseachán spotted Sweeney by the mill-stream, and went to speak to Lonnog.
Did Sweeney come to the mill, woman? Asked Loingseachan.
“He was here last night,” Lonnog answered. So Loingseachán disguised himself, putting on his mother-in-law’s dress, and hid in the mill in her place, hoping to take Sweeney by surprise. That night, Sweeney came as usual to the mill, and approached what he thought was Lonnog. But when he looked into the person’s eyes, he recognized Loingseachán, and sprang away at once, out through the skylight of the house.
“Pitiful is your pursuit of me, Loingseachan, chasing me from my place – Ronan does not let me trust you, so I must leave you now. I will go on, to where my wife Eorann is.”
In the years that had passed since Sweeney’s madness, Eorann, Sweeney’s former wife had moved on to find a new lover, and was now living with Guaire son of Congal, the man next in line for the chieftainship that Sweeney had abandoned.
While Guaire was out hunting, Sweeney came to the camp, and approached the hut where Eorann was resting. He perched himself on the lintel, and he called out to her.
At ease you are, bright Eorann
at the bedside with your lover
– not so with me here.
Once you did say, Eorann,
that you would not survive
parted one day from Sweeney
But today, you think little of your old friend;
warm are you on the down of a pleasant bed
cold am I, abroad till morning
Sweeney’s words were harsh and full of judgement for his wife’s betrayal. But just because Eorann had moved on to a new partner, did not mean that she didn’t mourn the loss of Sweeney. She loved him deeply still, though she could not follow him into his madness. And so, her response to him is really interesting because of this – as well as being beautifully poetic.
Though at ease I may be, my body is wasted
since the day I heard of your ruin.
I would rather sleep in a tree’s narrow hollow
beside thee, my husband, could I do so.
If my choice were given me
of the men of Erin and Alba,
I would rather bide sinless with thee
on water and watercress
I wish that we were together,
and that feathers might grow on our bodies
in light and darkness I would wander
with you each day and night
On hearing this, Sweeney forgave Eorann. But no sooner had they finished speaking than Guaire’s army returned from their hunting, swarming into the camp from all sides. Sweeney fled once more.
Hiding in a yew tree for several weeks, Sweeney was eventually found by the nobles of Dal Araidhe, and they sent Loingseachán once again to try and capture him. Loingseachán approached until he could see Sweeney in the branches above him, and he called out to him.
“Sad it is Sweeney,” he said, “that your plight should be thus – you who once wore silk and satin.”
“Have you tidings of my people?” Sweeney responded.
“I have,” said Loingseachán.
“There is life for none in your land after thee
It is to tell of it that I have come
Dead is your renowned brother there
Dead your father and your mother
There is another calamity there
bewailed by the men of Erin
… dead is thy fair wife of grief for thee
Calves are not let to cows
amongst us in cold Araidhe
since your gentle daughter who loved you died
and likewise your sister’s son
There is another story
loth am I to tell it
meetly are the men of Arada
bewailing your only son”
When Sweeney heard the news of these tragedies, and the death of his only son, he fell from the branches of the yew tree in grief. As soon as he was on the ground, Loingseachán grabbed him, and put him in manacles.
“All your people live, Sweeney” he told him. It had been a trick. Sweeney was brought in fetters and chains to Dal Araide, and locked in Loingseachán’s quarters. There, trapped inside, his senses began to return to him. But Lonnog, the old woman of the mill, was there too, and she began to cajole him to tell her some of the adventures while he was mad.
“A curse on your mouth,” said Sweeney “ill is what you say, and God will not suffer me to go mad again.”
“For God’s sake” said Lonnog. “leap for me now one of the leaps you used to leap when you were mad.”
Sweeney did so, leaping from the bed rail to the end of the bench.
“I could leap that myself,” said Lonnog, doing so. Then Sweeney made another leap, out through the skylight of the room.
“I could leap that too,” said the old woman, and she followed him again. They continued their contest outside, until they heard the loud clamour of a hunting call in the woods, and at the sound, Sweeney’s wildness returned to him. And it’s fascinating in the story that as his madness returns, so too does his poetry, his ability to recite long lays to the woods trees and animals that surrounded him.
“Longing for my little home
has come on my senses –
the flocks in the plain
the deer on the mountain
I love not the merry prattle
that men and women make
sweeter to me is the warbling
of the blackbirds in the quarter
I love not the trumpeting
I hear at early morn
sweeter to me the squeal
of the badgers in Benna Broc”
For Sweeney, madness and wildness drove him out of normal life, and gave him a cold lonely bed of little comfort. But it also sharpened his senses, and his ability to express himself. Becoming mad again was like waking up.
“Do you not deem my arts better,” crowed Lonnog, “Noble, slender madman, that I should be following you from the tops of the mountains?”
She continued to follow Sweeney in his leapings and wanderings, until he reached a sheer cliff edge. There, the nimble Sweeney leaped from the fort down in front of Lonnog. She leaped after him, but fell, dropping from the cliff of Dun Sobairce, and dashing against the rocks at the sea edge, where she met her death. Sweeney knew then that he would never return to Dal Araidhe, for Loingseachán would seek vengeance against him.
He left Ireland, and went to Britain, and came upon a great wood where he heard a great moaning and wailing coming from the trees, and saw a strange man wandering.
“Who are you, my man?” asked Sweeney.
“I am a madman,” the strange man said. “Fer Caille is my name.”
“If you are a madman,” Sweeney said, “let us be friends, for I am a madman too.”
Fer Caille, whose name was once Ealladhan, explained how he came to be wild. He had placed a spell on his enemies going to battle, so that they came clothed in bright silk and were easy to see. They in anger gave three shouts against him, and the curse sent him wandering and fleeing, much as Sweeney had done too.
The two madmen passed a year together, watching over each other and warning when trouble came near. And at the end of the year, Ealladhan turned to Sweeney and said “It is time we must part, for the end of my life has come. I must go to the place where it is destined I will die. I go now to Eas Dubhthaigh, where a blast of wind will cast me into the waterfall, so that I shall be drowned. I shall be buried in a churchyard of a saint, and reach heaven, and that is the end of my life. Oh Sweeney, tell me what your fate will be.”
“At the holy Moling’s house” said Sweeney, “it’s there my eternal rest will be. I shall fall by a spear-point.”
So they parted ways – Ealladhan to his death, and Sweeney back to Ireland. And after much more wandering, Sweeney made it to the house of St Moling.
The saint greeted him.“Welcome in sooth is your coming, Sweeney. It was destined you would end your life here, to leave here your history and adventures, and be buried in a churchyard of righteous folk. I bind you,” he said, “that however much of Ireland you may travel each day, you will come to me each evening so that I may write your history.”
And so it was – by day, Sweeney would travel Ireland, to Eas Ruaidh, Sliabh Mis, or Benn Boirche, but no matter where he was in the day, he would return each night to Teach Moling, and tell the saint his story.
Moling had his cook give leave milk out for Sweeney. She would toss it in the dung of the milking yard, and Sweeney came cautiously and carefully out to drink, when no one was around.
Now the cook was married to a swineherd, and one day, the swineherd’s sister spied her going to leave milk for Sweeney by the hedge. At once, the herd’s sister ran to her brother, and said “you cowardly creature, your wife is in the hedge with another man.” On hearing this, the swineherd rose, and grabbed his spear from the rack. He ran to where Sweeney was lying on the ground, lapping up milk from the dirt. The swineheard thrust his spear at Sweeney, so that it lodged in his breast.
When St Moling heard what had happened, he rushed to the hedge, and angrily berated the swineherd. “Christ’s curse on you!” He said. “Evil is the deed you have done, short be your span of life, and hell beyond.”
But Sweeney called the saint back. “That brings no relief to me Moling,” said Sweeney, “for the wound has already been dealt me.”
“Then you shall get an eric for it,” said Moling. “You will be in Heaven as long as I, by the will of the great lord.”
With his dying breaths, Sweeney began to sing again, the songs of a madman and his love for the woods and the wild.
“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 voice of a beautiful woman
to hear at dawn
the cry of the mountain-grouse
Though goodly you deem in taverns
your ale-feasts with honour
I had rather drink water in theft
from the palm of my hand from a well
Though goodly each bed without guile
I have made throughout Erin
I had rather the couch above the wood
I have made in Glen Bolcain”
“dear to me too, out of love for him,” said Moling
“each place where the holy madman used to be.
Dear to me is fair Glen Bolcain
Because of perfect Sweeney’s love of it
Dear each cool stream
wherein the green-topped watercress grew,
each well of bright water too,
because Sweeney used to visit it.”
Moling took Sweeney by the hand and brought him to the church door, where Sweeney placed his shoulders against the post, and his spirit fled its last flight – upwards to Heaven – and he was buried honourably by Moling.
The Madness of Sweeney is a Christian story, written down by monks in a medieval manuscript, so it makes sense that the story ends this way – with Sweeney going from callously rejecting the work of the holy man Ronan, to embracing the Christian help of St Moling. But I think the story has some deeper levels than this. For though Sweeney’s life is hard, and lonely from the moment his curse begins, it is also filled with a beauty and poetry that he would never have accessed otherwise. Amid the trees and glens, feasting on water and watercress, the king who once wore silk and satin finds the importance of life’s simple, natural pleasures. And as much as the tale ends with Sweeney embracing faith, it also ends with the holy man embracing the wild places where his friend used to roam, and the purity of the natural world. There is perhaps something to be learned from madness and wanderings, the tale tells us. And so, though Sweeney’s curse was a hard one to live with – it was not entirely tragic. Perhaps, at least to some extent, Ronan meant it as a gift. It brought a beauty, that still strikes writers and artists and inspires poetry right up until this day.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Unreal. You can find links to the sources, script and music from today’s episode on my website Unrealpodcast.com. If you enjoyed the show, please tell a friend, follow or subscribe, or leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. I’ll be back soon with another story, and until then, go néirí an bóthar leat.