You know how it is: you’re so keyed-in into your subject that you surf it, leaping forward into new and unexplored ideas. And then you discover that what you were surfing on was, well, foam basically, wind-filled froth. Well…
Earlier I wrote I would not expect to find ring-structured texts in older Irish literature. My argument being that ring-structures are mnemonic devices for the oral story-teller, and that Ireland had literacy, albeit in the monasteries, from an early date. That written literature tended more towards the linear structure.
Well I was wrong. I was wrong in that most monastic transcriptions of oral work tended to copy as closely as possible, the source material. And I was subsequently wrong about some later Irish literature.
My wife just happened to be talking about mad Sweeney the other day. I thought ( ‘Does she mean me?’): ‘I have Seamus Heaney’s copy of the tale! I must read that again!’ I remember when I first read it being a little nonplussed by the tale; I couldn’t grasp the tale’s dynamic. As we now know, that is a sure sign of a ring-structure.
Seamus Heaney has made an excellent version of the tale of Buile Suibne in ‘Sweeney Astray’ (Faber, 1993). The tale was written sometime between 1672 and 1674, but the composition is thought to be as old as 1200 to 1500 AD. The O’Keefe version is available online, but with this work where prose is heightened by poetry at the crucial points, Seamus Heaney has all the skill, the ear, and technique for an excellent version of the text.
The storyline is basically:
King Sweeney of Dal-Arie in Antrim heard that Ronan Finn was building a church on his lands. Sweeney dashed out and confronted him, threw his psalter in the lake, and was just dragging him bodily out of the church when a messenger arrived: he was needed at the Battle of Moira.
Sweeney was keen on this battle, dressed in his finest silks, and entered the field. Then Ronan Finn turned up with several acolytes, they attempted to forestall the fight or at least set rules. Sweeney was incensed, threw a spear and killed one of the acolytes, then threw another at Ronan but hit and cracked his priests’ bell.
Ronan cursed him then: he was to have the nature of a bird, to be skittish, fearful and afraid. He would only find release from the curse on the end of a spear.
As the battle commenced the noise drove Sweeney mad and he leapt from tree to tree away. Eventually he arrived at Glen Arkin, perched in a churchyard tree. Then survivors of the battle arrived. He was seen, they conversed but he fled again.
He arrived at Kilreagan, again survivors arrived. And he fled.
Eventually he arrived at Glen Bolcain, a place where mad people hid out.
For seven years he wandered like this, he grew feathers, lived as a mad bird-man in the woods, and latterly the mountain areas.
His half brother Lynchseachan was searching for him, tracking him. Several times he nearly caught him.
Sweeney’s abandoned wife, Eorann, arrived with a hunting party. They had a long and tender but unfruitful conversation.
Shortly after this Lynchseachan lured him down to the ground telling him how all his family had perished. In his grief he comes down and is captured. Lychseachan shackled him, and after a while reason returned. Lynchseachan revealed it was all a trick to capture him, no one was dead.
Sweeney was left in the care of an old woman. This was the mill-hag, and she tricked him into recalling his madness again, challenging him to run and leap again. And his madness returned, and he escaped. Except this time she chased him leap by leap. The only way he could shake her was by tricking her into a leap she could not achieve. She died, and he escaped.
He realised then he could never return because Lynchseachan would avenge her death.
He met another woman, and they wrangled over food: watercress; Sweeney claimed it was his to eat. She responded that it was up to God to pass judgement on all of man’s doings. His reply was to hope the Vikings got her. He fled to the mountains, islands, and ended up on Eigg, off Scotland, then Ailsa Craigg, off Scotland.
He travelled through Britain, until hearing the howling of a madman in the woods. He sought him out, and they became close friends. The madman’s curse was for forcing all in a battle to wear silks and fine clothes, much as Sweeney wore at Moira.
They stayed together for a year, after which the madman revealed it was his time to die, and how it was to happen.
Sweeney returned to Ireland afterwards. He met a madwomen but they fled from each other.
He met Eorann again, but he was no better, she said, and she had to move on.
He travelled through mountains and glens. His reason returned again. Ronan heard of this and renewed his curse: Sweeney was visited by five bloody heads who pursued him. He eventually lost them but his life became worse.
Once again he got into an altercation with a cleric over stealing watercress.
He met a holy community at Alternon, Tiree. He found a kind of contentment there.
He came across the church of St Mullins where the priest (bishop?) Molin allowed him sanctuary.
Although he ranged wide over the country, every evening he came back. The Swineherd’s wife was instructed to leave milk out for him each night. This was misinterpreted by her husband as an assignation: he rushed out with a spear, and killed Sweeney.
Several recurring events and episodes, in various forms, can be spotted straight away. And each is an important part of the tale.
Take a seemingly small one like the altercations over watercress, which to Sweeney was the choicest and most essential of foods: the first in stanza 42 is with a woman from the house of an erenach (cleric). The import of their wrangling is that his lack of humanity is keeping him from home and life. This episode follows closely upon the first conversation with his wife Eorann after his cursing. The next episode connected with watercress, stanza 70, is with a cleric in person who says something like, ‘Look at you, living in contentment with no worries or concerns, doing what you like!’ It is shortly after this Sweeney finds contentment, of a sort, but with the holy community at Alternon. And it was previous to this altercation that the curse was renewed, and his life became much harder, worse.
One of the most important parallels in the tale is where the conversations with his wife, Eorann occur. The first, stanza 31/2, is very tender, and although at this point in the tale, Sweeney is steadily shying away from all human contact, she says she would gladly go with him just to be with him. He cannot take even her closeness and flees once again. In the second parallel episode she finds him no better than before, although by this point he is desiring human company more and more. She, in effect, leaves him this time.
Another important parallel in the tale is with the episodes of pursuit. The first, stanzas 48 to 50, is where the mill-hag chases him leap for leap so he cannot shake her off. The next, stanzas 64 to 6, is where the five heads pursue him. Each episode marks a change in tone in the tale. The mill-hag episode continues the theme of trickery begun by Lynchseachan, and ending with Sweeney himself, when he gets her to leap, at Dunseverick, and she ends up dashed on the rocks. From this point on he is cut off even further from ever returning home. The five heads episode is to do with the effect of the renewal of the curse. In each case the purpose is to renew his madness, which had broken previous to these events.
So where is the main turn of the tale, and how is it indicated? As with earlier ring literature the main turn in framed by events. I would place the turn with the meeting with the madman in the woods: Ealladhan, or as Seamus Heaney names him Alan. It is here that for the first time Sweeney seeks out friendship, closeness, kinship. They stay and wander together for a whole year. This is a major turn in the story. Up to this point we see Sweeney become increasingly estranged from society and human company; after this his responses to meetings are far more considered, conciliatory. After the meeting with the mad woman on his return to Ireland he realises that enmity is the cause of most troubles: ‘Whoever stirs up enmity/should never have been born;/may every bitter man and woman/be barred at the gate of heaven.’ This reflective tone, and inner awareness, continue through the latter part of the tale, and inform all of his responses.
The ‘turn’ is framed I would suggest, by the parallel of the mill-hag, and the five heads, each as I have said marks a renewal of his madness. Following from the episode with the madman of the woods Sweeney becomes more and more human again, even despite the bad setback.
The ending parallels the beginning very closely: the enmity with which Sweeney rushes out, spear in hand, to confront Ronan Finn is clearly seen in the wrath of Mongal the swineherd as he dashes out, spear in hand. The death-by-spear to pay for the death of Ronan’s acolyte is also clearly drawn.
It is also necessary to point out that whereas Sweeney broke Ronan’s priest’s bell with his spear at the Battle of Moira before the curse, it was to Molin’s bell for vespers he returned every evening at St Mullins, before he died.
The mill-hag episode has a precursor, in stanza 28. Here Lynchseachan’s mother-in-law, ‘Lonnog, daughter of Dubh Dithrib’ was acting as caretaker at his mill when Sweeney turned up. Lynchseachan disguised himself in her clothes and nearly captured him, but he escaped just in time ‘through the skylight’; this is the same way he escapes from/with the mill-hag.
There are also three runs of three. One, again the watercress episodes, which have a precursor in stanza 17, where in Glen Bolcain, ‘The madmen would beat each other for the pick of its watercresses and for the beds on its banks.’ The theme behind the watercress episodes would seem to be one of gradual re-humanising, of the efficacy of civility, the humanising effects of the church’s emphasis on humility and grace, as with the last watercress episode, stanza 70, we see Sweeney be accused of sloth and shirking responsibilities, his facing up to the accusation, and thereby his accession to a measure of contentment in the community of Alternon.
Another run of three can be seen indicated by the use of the term ‘six weeks’ for durations of time ‘in extremis’. We first encounter this when Sweeney is discovered at Rasharkin, stanza 35. He has spent six weeks here before discovery; he is then lured down by Lynchseachan’s trickery. After he is captured, stanzas 35 to 7, he is shackled for six weeks. By then his reason has begun to return. In stanza 44, he spends six weeks each on the isles of Eigg and then Ailsa Craig, off the Scottish coast. The last event is a single six weeks: in stanza 66, Ronan Finn, on hearing of Sweeneys’ next return to reason renews his curse, Sweeney is pursued by the five severed heads, then falls into a fit, lasting six weeks. Whether this is a seizure as we now know it, or an attack of madness, that is, mad leaping, we cannot properly ascertain.
The other run of three concerns the locale of Glen Bolcain. In the tale it is explained that Bolcain is where mad people tend to gather ‘once their year in madness was complete.’ Sweeney first arrived here in stanza 17 during his initial spell of madness and found it a sanctuary of sorts from the worst of exposure to the elements. He next resorts there in stanza 26, and this is where Lynchseachan tracks him. This marks the beginning of his capture episode. This is also where he was camped when he met his wife Eorann for the first time since his madness. His last main resort to Bolcain is in stanza 53, upon his return to Ireland. It is here he meets a mad woman but they flee from each other in turn. It is then he realises that enmity is the cause of many of man’s, and his own, woes. Bolcain, in conclusion is the centre of three of his Sweeney’s more important episodes.
There are three episodes of trickery, two by Lynchseachan, and the last, as has been noted, by Sweeney in luring the mill-hag to her death. And, of course, three periods of madness.
These are all standard mnemonic devices for helping the story-teller to pace the story, to remember the salient episodes, and to engage the listener’s attention.
Modern analytical sensibility places the ‘turn’ of the tale with the meeting of the madman-in-the-woods; it is worth considering if this would have been where contemporaries would have placed it. I had originally considered the turn to have been one of the long poetic interludes at the centre of the tale. As these are the heightened, intensified focal points in the tale, their effect on the listener would have been more impactful, if not crucial. I have in mind the long poem Sweeney recites whilst on Ailsa Craig. Here he recounts his life of madness and realises a longing for a return to Ireland. It could be argued that all his reaffirmation of humanity and civility stem from this, that his meeting with Alan is a direct consequence of this reawakening of longing for known places, things. This is framed by the previous episode of the encounter with the woman he accuses of stealing watercress. Sweeney accuses her of theft, she replies: ‘Judge not and you won’t be judged./Sweeney, be kind, learn the lesson/that vengeance belongs to the Lord/and mercy multiplies our blessings.’ His response is summed up as ‘…may you be snatched/by the foraging, blue-coated Norse.’ When, however, he encounters the madman, which follows immediately his sojourn on Ailsa Craig, he has learned his lessons; it is Sweeney does all the running after and persuading, who offers his trust and friendship first.
This long poem on Ailsa Craig has a precursor in a long poem from Sweeney whilst being pursued by the mill-hag. This poem begins ‘Suddenly this bleating/and belling in the glen!/The little timorous stag/like a scared musician//startles my heartstrings/with high, homesick refrains -…’. Love of one’s country, however, as we have seen with the following episode of the wrangling over watercress, does not extend to love of one’s country man or woman. That comes with the following year-long interlude with the madman Alan.
So far I have established a number of patterns exist in the tale. For this to be a ring structure it must needs be chiasmic in character. Do any of these parallel patterns fall into chiasmic pattern?
There are four main blocks of episodes in the tale. These blocks fall into two either side of the ‘turn’, no matter where it is located. Firstly we have the episodes of Lynchseachan’s pursuit of Sweeney. Thus occurs in stanzas 26 to 37, and ends with his capture and shackling. The next block of episodes follow directly from this, and are concerned with the mill-hag and Sweeney, in particular her pursuit, ‘leap by leap’ of him.
The following two blocks are remarkably different in character. The first, Stanzas 46 to 51, centre on Sweeney and the madman. Here Sweeney actively seeks out the company of the madman, making strong bonds with him, establishing friendship, and trust. The last block, stanzas 74 to 85, are centred on Sweeney’s relationship with Molin at St Mullins. In this block we once again see Sweeney seek out the community of his fellow men, return every night from his far ranging, to the vespers bell, and to accept sustenance left out for him.
These four blocks do indeed form a chiasmus: the two episodes of pursuit and escape from all human contact resolve themselves into episodes where he actively seeks out human contact and community.
Seamus Heaney, in his Introduction, would seem to have been very astute when he noted that the madman-in-the-woods episode is a key episode, that is has reverberations outside the tale of Sweeney. In his version the madman is to die at a waterfall at Doovey. In O’Keefe’s version this is Eas Dubhthaigh. First of all Doovey got me wondering: is that Dovey, in Wales, now Aberdovey? In Welsh tradition it is connected with chief bard Taliesen. But Taliesin had no history of madness, or wandering. But maybe this was not Wales-Wales, but old Wales, the Wales that covered northwest England, Cumbria and Southern Scotland as far as Edinburgh. The madman in the woods tradition has it that this was Merlin (Myrddin Wyllt) in the Caledonian forests. This would make sense – for Sweeney to return to Ireland, specifically Antrim, would mean a crossing from Stranraer in the present day, or a place along the Strathclyde or Argyle coast. Sweeney ‘passed their royal stronghold on his right…’ and indeed he could have done so travelling from Strathclyde, passing Dunbarton, on his way to Argyle (named after its Gaelic cultural ties with Ireland). The Myrddin story connects with this; he ran from the wrath of king Rhydderch Haed after the Battle of Arfderydd, 573 AD. Rhydderch Haed was based at Dunbarton. Seamus Heaney suggests that the legend of the madman-in-the-woods may be older than the tale of Suibne – and therefore Suibne partly written around it? Probably appropriated for the tale.
The orthography of the name Eas Dubhthaigh would seem to suggest a place associated with a dark/black quality. That would rule out Aberdovey. I am more inclined to a place in Argyle. Eas Dubhthaigh – the dark waterfall… but that ‘thaigh’ eludes me.
Another source concerns Sweeney’s kingdom of Dal-Arie. In this source it is claimed that Dal nAriaide was the name of the Cruithin people of Ireland, one of the earliest settlers, and originally from Scotland. This strengthens the Scottish connection. They also, the source claims, practised divination by observing bird flight and calls. The Battle of Moira (Mag Rath), in 637 AD, was reputedly a fight for independence of the Dal nAriade.
I wonder how much of this is back-arguing, justifying the tale, rather than independent research.
There was also reputedly a well at St Mullins known as the Madman’s Well. Whether the Sweeney story appropriated this along with several already extant traditions is hard to tell. This, however, was a common practice.
The extended poems towards the heart of the tale, where Sweeney praises the Irish landscape, are as good as anything in the whole of Irish poetry. This may be Seamus Heaney’s skill, but the clarity and exultation are conveyed with great economy of language that it not however stinting in expression. There is very little in the whole of Gaelic literature to match these, whether in the wonderful evocations of Ben Dorain and its flora and fauna by Duncan ban Macintyre, or Alexander Macdonald, both in 18th century Scottish Gaelic.
Maybe this is not so fanciful as it seems; there do seem to be strong connections between this tale and the magnificent Scottish Gaelic waulking song, ‘Seathan, Son of the King of Ireland’. In this song Seathan wanders all over the known world: the Gaeltacht of Ireland and Scotland, and each place is named, and commemorated by his presence, as in the tale of Sweeney. It is sung, in part, as though Seathan’s wife wanders with him. One can only wonder about Eorann and Sweeney after that first encounter when she says she would travel with him. The boundaries between tales can blur in the haar: do we hear part of Deirdre’s lament here also? As well as the lament of every exile from his/her homeland. This is what makes the tale timeless.
I would dearly love to pursue these connections further but lack the resources, and access to resources.