The Story of Mad Sweeney

Sweeney was the King of Dál nAraide. The Dál nAraide was the name given to the Cruthin People who came originally from Scotland. Their territory of the same name was situated east of Lough Neagh in Counties Antrim and Down in Northern Ireland. They were the earliest inhabitants of Ireland and were reputed to have settled here before the Fir Bolg. They practised divination by means of the flight and cries of birds. The Battle of Mag Rath (Moira) in A.D. 637 was thought to have marked the end of their independence.

Various theories have arisen as to the reason for Sweeney's madness. One version of the tradition is that he was cursed by St. Rónán because he slew one of his clerics. The relevant saint of that name is probably St. Rónán Finn of Magheralin who is described as having cursed Sweeney in the story. Another theory is that Sweeney went mad as a result of the noise of battle in the Battle of Mag Rath as cited above and from a vision in the sky. He flew away in a frenzy from the scene of battle. In the story he grows feathers like a bird and flies from tree to tree. He is also able to jump from one mountain top to another. The Sweeney narrative is interspersed with poetry that sometimes tells of nature:

"The bellowing of the stags
throughout the wood,
the climb of the deer-pass,
the voice of the white seas"

Other verses complain about the hardships of his new life:

"Gloomy this life,
To be without a soft bed
Abode of cold frost
Roughness of wind driven snow"

After seven years of wandering, Sweeney comes to rest at the monastery of St. Moling in south County Carlow. St Moling and his community look after him there. St. Moling's cook called Muirghil, the wife of St. Moling's swineherd Mongán, leaves a vessel of milk for Sweeney each evening. Muirghil is charged by another woman with preferring Sweeney to her husband. Mongán hears about this charge and in jealousy slays Sweeney. He dies at the door of the monastery church having been anointed and reconciled with his faith and he is later buried by St. Moling.

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