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The Madness of Suibhne

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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Historical Cycle

Pathos and revenge in The Madness of Suibhne

King Suibhne was master of the northern land of Dalriada in Ulster, and a grim and fierce king he was too, yet fair to behold like palest snow, with deep blue eyes. A mighty master at arms, he was called to war often, but latterly to the bloody battle of Moy Rath. As he readied himself he heard in the distance a church bell ringing, and no man of God himself, he was filled with a black rage. In his pagan heart was wrath, and he stormed off to see what was causing the racket.

His wife grabbed ahold of his cloak and tried to calm him down, but so infuriated was he that he ripped it off and stormed away naked as the day he was born. He came to the church of Saint Ronán Finn, son of Bearach, and taking hold of the priest's psalter he flung it away into the lake. He'd have done worse too and was dragging the priest forth from his place of holy worship, when Congai Claon, son of Scannlan turned up to tell him that battle was joined.

With an oath he hurried off to the melee, and St. Ronán didn't mourn for his psalter long as an otter returned it to him. Even so he as still filled with anger at this unjust treatment and cried out to the heavens, "Be it my will, together with the will of the mighty Lord, that even as he came stark naked to expel me, may it be thus that he will ever be, naked, wandering and flying throughout the world. May it be death from a spear-point!"

St. Ronán went to the place where battle was due to commence, and tried to make peace between the two sides, mediating to avoid strife. He didn't succeed, and further Suibhne violated the terms of his truce, killing a man daily because he could! When it became clear that a clash of weapons was inevitable, St. Ronán went between the hosts, sprinkling holy water on both.

Well when Suibhne saw this he was again enraged, and flung a spear through the chest of one of Ronán's psalmists. Thinking to finish the foul deed he then eyed the saint himself and cast his vicious many-angled iron dart. But instead of felling the saint it struck the bell at his chest, splitting it and doing no harm otherwise.

St Ronán turned then and said, "‘I pray the mighty Lord that high as went the spear-shaft into the air and among the clouds of Heaven may you go likewise even as any bird, and may the death which you have inflicted on my foster-child be that which will carry you off, to wit, death from a spear-point. And my curse on you, and my blessing on Eorann. I invoke Uradhran and Telle on my behalf against your seed and the descendants of Colman Cuar"

Shortly afterwards, hard battle was joined! And the two hosts raised three great war cries apiece. Now, when Suibhne heard these great cries together with their sounds and reverberations in the clouds of Heaven and in the vault of the firmament, he looked up, whereupon turbulence and darkness, and fury, and giddiness, and frenzy, and flight, unsteadiness, restlessness, and unquiet filled him, likewise disgust with every place in which he used to be and desire for every place which he had not reached.

Like a mad imbecile he started hopping on first one foot then the other, seized by the curse of the saint. He ran from the field of battle to the disbelief of his men, springing from grass blade to grass blade, scarce even touching the ground so swift was his flight, and he made his way through the long day to the yew tree in the Glenn of Earcain, climbing it and hiding among the leaves.

When his men found him they couldn't talk him down out of it, and in a likewise manner he skipped and hopped far from that place to Cell Riagain in Tir Conaill where he perched on the old tree of the church. There his enemies found him and laughed and wept to see his miserable state. From place to place he hopped, cracked in the head and addled with foolishness, wont to utter crazed verse from time to time, but in one of his few moments of lucidity he himself grieved that he hadn't been slain at Moy Rath.

Through storm and cold and sleeting rain for seven long years he wandered the land of Ireland, encountering many who tell tales of him to this day. Returning to the place he came from, he found his kinsman lying asleep with weariness from searching for him, and his wife living with another man. She tried to return to him but he told her to stay, he was mad, and he was right in that.

Then his kinsman at last found him, the bold Loingsechan, and coaxed him out of his tree by telling him that his whole family had died. A lie in truth but it was reckoned the lesser evil. He was slowly coming to his senses when a wicked old mill hag challenged him to a leaping match, and in so flying he returned back to his old lunacy.

Long and lonely years he wandered the earth, coming in the end to the house of Bishop Moling, who gave over his care to one of his parishioners. Her husband Mongan the swineherd was a jealous man though, and when he saw the care and attention Suibhne was getting from his wife, he took up a spear and pierced him through at the urging of his sister, fulfilling the curse at last.

And that is the sad tale of King Suibhne.

On the map below can be found where Suibhne challenged the Saint at Moy Rath.


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