Sweeney Astray is Seamus Heaney's version of the medieval Irish work Buile Suibne. Its hero, Mad Sweeney, undergoes a series of purgatorial adventures after he is cursed by a saint and turned into a bird at the Battle of Moira. Heaney's translation not only restores to us a work of historical and literary importance but offers the genius of one of our greatest living poets to reinforce its claims on the reader of contemporary literature.
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About the Author
Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. His poems, plays, translations, and essays include Opened Ground, Electric Light, Beowulf, The Spirit Level, District and Circle, and Finders Keepers. Robert Lowell praised Heaney as the "most important Irish poet since Yeats."
Read an Excerpt
1 We have already told how Sweeney, son of Colman Cuar and king of Dal-Arie, went astray when he flew out of the battle. This story tells the why and the wherefore of his fits and trips, why he of all men was subject to such frenzies; and it also tells what happened to him afterwards.
2 There was a certain Ronan Finn in Ireland, a holy and distinguished cleric. He was ascetic and pious, an active missionary, a real Christian soldier. He was a worthy servant of God, one who punished his body for the good of his soul, a shield against vice and the devil's attacks, a gentle, genial, busy man.
3 One time when Sweeney was king of Dal-Arie, Ronan was there marking out a church called Killaney. Sweeney was in a place where he heard the clink of Ronan's bell as he was marking out the site, so he asked his people what the sound was.
— It is Ronan Finn, son of Bearach, they said. He is marking out a church in your territory and what you hear is the ringing of his bell.
Sweeney was suddenly angered and rushed away to hunt the cleric from the church. Eorann, his wife, a daughter of Conn of Ciannacht, tried to hold him back and snatched at the fringe of his crimson cloak, but the silver cloak-fastener broke at the shoulder and sprang across the room. She got the cloak all right but Sweeney had bolted, stark naked, and soon landed with Ronan.
4 He found the cleric glorifying the King of heaven and earth, in full voice in front of his psalter, a beautiful illuminated book. Sweeney grabbed the book and flung it into the cold depths of a lake nearby, where it sank without trace. Then he took hold of Ronan and was dragging him out through the church when he heard a cry of alarm. The call came from a servant of Congal Claon's who had come with orders from Congal to summon Sweeney to battle at Moira. He gave a full report of the business and Sweeney went off directly with the servant, leaving the cleric distressed at the loss of his psalter and smarting from such contempt and abuse.
5 A day and a night passed and then an otter rose out of the lake with the psalter and brought it to Ronan, completely unharmed. Ronan gave thanks to God for that miracle, and cursed Sweeney, saying:
6 Sweeney has trespassed on me and abused me grievously and laid violent hands on me to drag me with him from Killarney.
When Sweeney heard my bell ringing he came all of a sudden hurtling in terrible rage against me to drive me off and banish me.
Outrage like that, and eviction from the first place I had chosen,
My hand was locked in Sweeney's hand until he heard the loud command to battle: Come away and join arms with Donal on Moira's plain.
So I offered thanks and praise for the merciful release,
From far off he approached the field that drove his mind and senses wild.
The psalter that he grabbed and tore from me and cast into deep water —
A day and a night in brimming waters,
This psalter that he profaned I bequeath with a malediction:
Bare to the world, here came Sweeney to harass and to harrow me:
Eorann, daughter of Conn of Ciannacht,
7 After that, Ronan came to Moira to make peace between Donal, son of Aodh, and Congal Claon, son of Scannlan, but he did not succeed. Nevertheless, the cleric's presence was taken as a seal and guarantee of the rules of the battle; they made agreements that no killing would be allowed except between those hours they had set for beginning and ending the fight each day. Sweeney, however, would continually violate every peace and truce which the cleric had ratified, slaying a man each day before the sides were engaged and slaying another each evening when the combat was finished. Then, on the day fixed for the great battle, Sweeney was in the field before everyone else.
8 He was dressed like this:
9 He marched out like that until he encountered Ronan with eight psalmists from his community. They were blessing the armies, sprinkling them with holy water, and they sprinkled Sweeney with the rest. Sweeney thought they had done it just to mock him, so he lifted one of his spears, hurled it, and killed one of Ronan's psalmists in a single cast. He made another throw with the second spear at the cleric himself, so that it pierced the bell that hung from his neck, and the shaft sprang off into the air. Ronan burst out:
10 My curse fall on Sweeney for his great offence.
cracked bell hoarding grace since the first saint rang it —
Just as the spear-shaft broke and sprang into the air may the mad spasms strike you, Sweeney, forever.
My fosterling lies slain,
Should the steadfast tribe of Owen try to oppose me,
Uradhran and Telle have visited them with decay.
My blessing on Eorann,
11 There were three great shouts as the herded armies clashed and roared out their war cries like stags. When Sweeney heard these howls and echoes assumed into the travelling clouds and amplified through the vaults of space, he looked up and he was possessed by a dark rending energy.
His brain convulsed,
12 His feet skimmed over the grasses so lightly he never unsettled a dewdrop and all that day he was a hurtling visitant of plain and field, bare mountain and bog, thicket and marshland, and there was no hill or hollow, no plantation or forest in Ireland that he did not appear in that day; until he reached Ros Bearaigh in Glen Arkin, where he hid in a yew tree in the glen.
13 Donal, son of Aodh, won the battle that day. A kinsman of Sweeney's called Aongus the Stout survived and came fleeing with a band of his people into Glen Arkin. They were wondering about Sweeney because they had not seen him alive after the fight and he had not been counted among the casualties. They were discussing this and deciding that Ronan's curse had something to do with it when Sweeney spoke out of the yew:
14 Soldiers, come here.
The life God grants me now is bare and strait;
So I am here at Ros Bearaigh.
15 When the men heard Sweeney's recitation they knew him at once and tried to persuade him to trust them. He said he never would, and as they closed round the tree, he launched himself nimbly and lightly and flew to Kilreagan in Tyrconnell, where he perched on the old tree by the church. It turned out that Donal, son of Aodh, and his army were there after the battle, and when they saw the madman lighting in the tree, a crowd of them ringed and besieged it. They began shouting out guesses about the creature in the branches; one would say it was a woman, another that it was a man, until Donal himself recognized him and said:
— It is Sweeney, the king of Dal-Arie, the man that Ronan cursed on the day of the battle. That is a good man up there, he said, and if he wanted wealth and store he would be welcome to them, if only he would trust us. I am upset that Congal's people are reduced to this, for he and I had strong ties before we faced the battle. But then, Sweeney was warned by Colmcille when he went over with Congal to ask the king of Scotland for an army to field against me. Then Donal uttered the lay:
16 Sweeney, what has happened here?
To see you flushed after a feast,
To see your handsome person go was morning after a fall of snow.
Surefooted, elegant, except you stumbled in the path of kingship,
Colmcille promised you, good son,
Truthful seer, Colmcille prophesied in this oracle:
Find the answer to his riddle at Moira on the field of battle,
17 When Sweeney heard the shouts of the soldiers and the big noise of the army, he rose out of the tree towards the dark clouds and ranged far over mountains and territories.
A long time he went faring all through Ireland,
That place is a natural asylum where all the madmen of Ireland used to assemble once their year in madness was complete.
Glen Bolcain is like this:
The madmen would beat each other for the pick of its water-cresses and for the beds on its banks.
18 Sweeney stayed a long time in that glen until one night he was cooped up in the top of a tall ivy-grown hawthorn. He could hardly endure it, for every time he twisted or turned, the thorny twigs would flail him so that he was prickled and cut and bleeding all over. He changed from that station to another one, a clump of thick briars with a single young blackthorn standing up out of the thorny bed, and he settled in the top of the blackthorn. But it was too slender. It wobbled and bent so that Sweeney fell heavily through the thicket and ended up on the ground like a man in a bloodbath. Then he gathered himself up, exhausted and beaten, and came out of the thicket, saying:
— It is hard to bear this life after the pleasant times I knew. And it has been like this a year to the night last night!
Then he spoke this poem:
19 A year until last night I have lived among trees,
with no pillow for my head,
No sweet talk with women.
No surge of royal blood,
Tell the truth: a hard lot.
No house humming full,
A great gulf yawns now between me and that retinue,
on my mad royal visit:
No skilled musicians' cunning,
Far other than to-night,
Prospering, smiled upon,
That tide has come and gone and spewed me up in Glen Bolcain,
fallen almost through death's door,
Our sorrows were multiplied that Tuesday when Congal fell.
This has been my plight.
20 He remained in that state in Glen Bolcain until at last he mustered his strength and flew to Cloonkill on the borders of Bannagh and Tyrconnell. That night he went to the edge of the well for a drink of water and a bite of watercress and after that he went into the old tree by the church. That was a very bad night for Sweeney. There was a terrible storm and he despaired, saying: — It is a pity I wasn't killed at Moira instead of having to put up with hardship like this.
Then he said this poem:
21 To-night the snow is cold.
Look at me, broken and down-at-heel,
In the grip of dread I would launch and sail beyond the known seas.
wind-scourged, stripped like a winter tree clad in black frost and frozen snow.
Hard grey branches have torn my hands,
and the pain of frostbite has put me astray,
I went raving with grief on the top of Slieve Patrick,
I waken at dawn with a fasting spittle:
I wish I lived safe and sound in Rasharkin and not here, heartbroken,
22 Sweeney kept going until he reached the church at Swim-Two-Birds on the Shannon, which is now called Cloonburren; he arrived there on a Friday, to be exact. The clerics of the church were singing nones, women were beating flax and one was giving birth to a child.
— It is unseemly, said Sweeney, for the women to violate the Lord's fast day. That woman beating the flax reminds me of our beating at Moira. Then he heard the vesper bell ringing and said:
— It would be sweeter to listen to the notes of the cuckoos on the banks of the Bann than to the whinge of this bell to-night. Then he uttered the poem:
23 I perched for rest and imagined cuckoos calling across water,
Friday is the wrong day, woman,
Do not just discount me. Listen.
From the cliff of Lough Diolar to Derry Colmcille I saw the great swans, heard their calls sweetly rebuking wars and battles.
From lonely cliff-tops, the stag bells and makes the whole glen shake and re-echo. I am ravished.
O Christ, the loving and the sinless,
24 The next day Sweeney went on to St. Derville's church, west of Erris, where he fed on watercress and drank the water that was in the church. The night was tempestuous, and he was shaken with grief at his misery and deprivation. He was also homesick for Dal-Arie and spoke these verses:
25 I pined the whole night in Derville's chapel for Dal-Arie and peopled the dark
with a thousand ghosts.
camped with my troop,
who saw me brought to heel at Moira, you crowd my head and fade away and leave me to the night.
Excerpted from "Sweeney Astray"
Copyright © 1983 Seamus Heaney.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Notes and Acknowledgements,
Books by Seamus Heaney,