The eccentricity of the Sweeney or McSweeney clan (they are the same; McSweeney simply means “the son of Sweeney”) goes back a long way. The story of Mad King Sweeney can be read as an allegory of the uneasy relationship that has existed between the Irish and the Christian Church, but it can also be seen as representing the struggle between the creative temperament and authority or orthodoxy. Sweeney has long been an inspiration for poets and other iconoclasts, including at least two Nobel Prize winners, T.S. Eliot and Seamus Heaney. My own modern take on the story sees Sweeney as representing George W. Bush, Saint Ronan Finn as the U.N., and Alan the mad Briton as Tony Blair. It remains to be seen who will emerge to fill the later roles of Saint Mullins and his servants.
The old Irish epic poem “Buile Suibhne” (or in English “The Frenzy of Sweeney”) is thought to have been composed between the years 1200 and 1500, but the earliest known written version of it is from the 1670s. It tells the story of King Sweeney, who in 637 heard the sound of Saint Ronan Finn’s bell when Ronan was marking out a church in Sweeney’s territory. Sweeney got very angry and rushed off to hunt him away. His wife tried to stop him but only succeeded in pulling his cloak from him. Off he went, stark naked, threw Ronan’s beautiful Book of Psalms into the lake and was about to do the same to Ronan himself when a servant came to summon him to fight at the Battle of Magh Rath (Moira in English). Ronan tried to make peace between the warring sides but Sweeney would have none of it, and on the day of the battle, Ronan and his psalmists arrived to sprinkle the opposing armies with holy water. Sweeney took severe umbrage at being so sprinkled, killed one of the psalmists with a cast of his spear, and hurled another spear at Ronan himself. This spear pierced the holy bell that hung from Ronan’s neck. Ronan, enraged, cursed Sweeney to fly in the air as the spear did, to exist in the trees as a birdbrain among the branches with mad spasms striking him forever and to finally die at the point of a spear. During the battle, Sweeney went insane, dropped his weapons, and began to levitate like a bird.
Sweeney wandered Ireland for seven years, living on watercress, launching himself nimbly from tree to tree and composing beautiful poetry about the places he visited and about his plight. In particular, he spent a share of time at Glen Bolcain, a pleasant valley that provided a natural asylum for the madmen of Ireland. His foster brother Lynchseachan, who was deeply concerned for him, made various attempts to track him down. He eventually did so and persuaded him to come down from a yew tree by pretending that all belonging to him were dead. He was held in shackles and visited regularly by the nobles of the province until eventually his senses came back to him, he was restored to his old self, and the shackles were taken from him. Unfortunately, an old hag, Lynchseachan’s mother-in-law, goaded him into a leaping contest. He reverted to his birdlike self and off the two of them went around Ireland, leaping from tree to tree. He finally got rid of her by coaxing her to leap off the summit of a fort, down a sheer drop, where she was smashed to pieces.
Sweeney then continued his travels around Ireland before heading for the Scottish islands. From there he flew to the land of the Britons, where he met another madman, a Briton called Alan, the Man of the Wood. Sweeney and Alan went around together for a year, looking out for one another, until a blast of wind unbalanced Alan and pitched him into a waterfall where he drowned. Alan had foretold this as indeed Sweeney had also foretold his own death, which I will describe later.
Sweeney then returned to Ireland, and after several years wandering, a glimmer of reason returned to him, but Ronan, on hearing of this, beseeched God not to relent in his vengeance. God granted the request and Sweeney was driven mad again by an apparition of five severed heads who pursued him snapping and yelping until finally he gave them the slip.
His sufferings were now even worse than before. Finally, he came to Saint Mullins’s monastery. Mullins took pity on him and adjured him to return for vespers every evening, no matter how far around Ireland he might range. He instructed his cook, Muirghil, who was married to one of his swineherds called Mongan, to leave aside some milk each day for Sweeney’s supper. She did this by sinking her heel to the ankle in a fresh cow dung every evening and filling it to the brim with milk. Sweeney would lap it up. This went on for a year until Mongan, driven mad with jealousy by stories of his wife’s alleged dalliance with the madman, pierced Sweeney through with a spear. Mullins was told of this and came and anointed Sweeney, who repented for whatever evil he had done. Mullins raised him out of his death-swoon and took him by the hand to the door of the church, where he leant against the jamb and breathed a loud sigh. His spirit rose to heaven and Mullins gave his body an honorable burial.
If you want to learn more about Sweeney, and read his poetry, I recommend Seamus Heaney’s Sweeney Astray, which was one of my primary sources for the above.