Geoffrey Fox

Reflections & Inquiries

Living on watercress


Sweeney AstraySweeney Astray by Seamus Heaney
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sweeney (Suibhne in Irish) was a ferocious war chieftain or ¨king”, perhaps in the 9th century A.D. (the songs about him are at least that old), raging in battle and disregarding all the rules of war until the day he defied the holy cleric Ronan Finn, throwing Ronan’s sacred psalter into the lake and nearly killing him with his spear. For that, and his dishonoring the Christian deity (which must have been pagan Sweeney’s intention), Ronan cursed him, making him bird-like (or maybe even turning him into a bird — there’s mention of feathers), and from then on mad Sweeney perched naked in the tree tops, living mainly on watercress and bounding great distances from one part of Ireland to another, even over the sea to the land of the Britons, where he met another madman, Alan, with whom he continued his bird-like ravings until Alan’s death. Sweeney was later brought back to sanity by trickery, dropping to the ground when his relative told him that his parents, his wife and son had died (all lies), and thus allowing himself to be shackled until he recovered his senses; but a treacherous hag reminded him of his madness and tempted him to take great leaps again, and off he went again into madness. Finally he was slain by a jealous husband while slurping milk left for him in a cow’s stool by his killer’s wife. The story as it has reached us, in the first written version (in Irish) in the 17th century, is the product of hundreds of retellings, very probably involving several Sweeneys (the name Suibhne appears in other medieval tales), at some point connected with another legend about the mad Briton Alan, and probably retold as an allegory of madness and the danger of defying God. Or maybe just because people liked the sounds of the verses, which are necessarily lost in this English translation. It is a very curious archeology, suggestive of medieval and later attitudes (women are either loving caretakers, slave girls or vicious hags; watercress is a supreme delicacy; honored men are terribly violent, etc.). But the English version is not something to enjoy for its musicality.

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