The legend of Sweeney’s frenzy or madness ( Buile Suibhne) carries a variety of messages and can be read as a parable of unresolved issues in Irish life.
If only for some impressive poetry, it has received occasional literary attention as in Flann O’Brien’s rather Joycean dense and difficult At Swim Two Birds, Sweeney finds echoes in T.S. Eliot while the late Seamus Heaney provided a modern “version”, basically a translation, Sweeney Astray. But the legend itself has never really undergone the more psychological examination it deserves. It’s only in recent years that psychiatrist, Peter O’Connor of Melbourne, (in Beyond the Mist) has given any Jungian interpretations of even standard Irish myth, never mind medieval legend…Perhaps one needs to be here at the safe distance of Australia to conduct objective inquiries into the Irish psyche?! Arguably the last word in displaced Celtic consciousness and resultant inquiry was the case of born in Australia PL Travers of Mary Poppins fame. (See https://wp.me/p2v96G-1gU).
This has been Sweeney’s year, at least in music – a Sweeney song cycle by composer Neil Martin was premiered in Dublin on St Patrick’s day and I see that in July that Clonmel Junction Arts Festival in Tipperary combined music with readings from the legend. (I gather that this year a mad Sweeney character is in a TV series American Gods but I haven’t seen this and know nothing about it, not even if the above images owe anything to it). But staging Sweeney, the original mythical character?
At the beginning of this month I had one of those moments of apparent enlightenment where everything clicks and connects and I realized things I had not seen many years ago in this story. I began to envisage its dramatic re-telling as outrageous tragi-comedy. For presentation and style it should be somewhere between Beckett’s minimalist dead pan and Denis Johnston’s more flamboyant and dream filled The Old Lady Says No, but anyway something recalling revelatory moments of Irish drama while telling us something about the current spiritual condition of the nation.
At first blush, it seemed one could hardly go wrong if I tried – I was at Swim three or four Birds. All sorts of issues and questions nicely and neatly lined up for the tragic or comic treatment on a stage I imagined riven by flashing lights and sudden intervals of darkness suggesting confusion and general destabilization of familiar thought and worlds. Sweeney’s “madness” could be a mental condition, a case of bad nerves and undiagnosed tinnitus, or part of a larger unacknowledged element of troubled spirituality within the culture. All this could be suggested in the course of extracting the true meaning from behind the layers of high fantasy and propaganda interwoven with the sources of a complex tale.
Things begin with an excitable “King” Sweeney (more like a local lord) who hates the sound of a saint’s bell and the thought a church can built on his land without permission. But that someone could be cursed by a saint to perpetual nakedness for his reactions (and later to die by spear point, a curse not able to be undone by another saint more merciful), invites questions like what really is a curse in Ireland – many have long felt Ireland has existed under one! It also raises question the significance of nudity in religious and secular terms, (I happened to have recently explored the latter theme in the unusual perspectives of Naked in Thessaloniki: Riddle and Sign https://wp.me/p4kNWg-fD). Especially near its conclusion, the Sweeney saga in its kitchen level humiliation of the king drinking milk from a bowl of cow dung, has an element of the hidden, unfamiliar, sadistic Ireland that has sometimes lurked in the shadows behind the walls of orphanages, schools and convents. Finally exposed, it has half traumatized the nation some of whose once trusted leaders had apparently been acquiescent in unacceptable conditions that have woken many from easy past loyalties,
So, here were themes like plums for the picking. Sweeney seemed an open sesame to some catharsis and national therapy session via drama. The characters were forming in my mind and making themselves heard……
Eorann: What are you doing there, putting your hands to your ears? You should be ashamed of yourself, a silly paganish man that calls himself a king but can’t stand the sight and sound of a handsome bell resting on the sacred bosom of a holy saint.
Sweeney: You know the sound grates on me something terrible.
Eorann: More like the holy man grates on your dull conscience and you don’t want to sing a psalm of praise or repentance when it’s time to do so.
The character of Saint Ronan would obviously be crucial. Behind all the hagiography about “God’s faithful servant”, he is a vindictive wretch and one who opens up questions about what may have been flawed in the practice and beliefs of some Irish religion over the centuries.
Ronan: Sweeney was in such devilish frenzies he seized hold of my painted psalter and threw it into the lake. Screaming against my bell, he said he preferred the sound of birds in the trees and the rushing waters of the glens. I stayed calm, rewarded with heaven’s blessing. An otter rescued my psalter. Brought it to the bank, not one precious painted page damaged by water. A miracle! A reason I could forgive Sweeney his unspeakable wickedness. I did so for a good example, though it’s not right or possible to pardon fully. Given heaven’s clear mandate to rid us of druids and replace their power, there must be signs of authority with impositions of penance. And my curse has the salutary grace of that. What upstart heresy was it taught grace was free and forgiveness absolute? For the good of all, Sweeney must suffer to shiver naked in the night airs as long as he lives. He can hardly complain when I have brothers singing psalms stood night long in the freezing waves of the ocean.
I was not sure if the sufferings of Job element to Sweeney’s story and his laments call for a treatment by chorus as he makes his way to the perhaps historically real Valley of the Madmen in Donegal or whether his faithful companion Loingsechan would be sufficient for the role. I envisaged the character of Loingsechan as an appearing and disappearing figure, almost a stage Irish type, a wise/naïve who sounds and acts a bit dim at the same time as he knows quite a lot. Sweeney is liable to forget who he is….
Loingsechan: Forgotten again? Well, I’m used to it. I’m Loingsechan that some say is your natural brother and some say is your foster brother. But that’s only the beginning of the confusions people have around me because they can’t agree what my name is, or should be, or if I’m under a curse like Ham that saw his father naked. Some say my real name should be the word that can’t be mentioned among Christians, whatever that is. I’m not striving to discover. I don’t draw attention to myself talking to people, even to my wife who’s disappeared off, the saints alone know where. I just keep travelling and keeping myself to myself when you’re not in one of your moods for the lively talking.
However he later complains:
Loingsechan: Aren’t I the loyal relative that’s always going around collecting peat or sticks to burn to keep your head and feet head warm against the night airs? And don’t I say to the holy prudes who keep looking or refuse to look, King Sweeney of the blond locks and the blue eyes, he doesn’t look too bad at all, now does he…? I mean, with or without clothes there’s not a man among us can have quite the fabled beauty of Naoise that Deidre loved. What do they expect?
The weird nature of the curses on Sweeney which I imagine Loingsechan asl confusing with a curse on Ham whose true meaning he will need to discover, may in the original texts have been intended to evoke memories of the more striking effects of Gaulish Celtic warfare which included spear carrying naked warriors as recounted by Posidonius.
NAMING A BLOCK OR WHAT ?
So far so good, but then after a few pages of notes, outline and sensing the voices, I suddenly stopped. It’s not advisable to do this mid flight because inspiration should be taken at the flood. It may not return at a later date. Even so I stopped, consented to it, willed it.
“Never say never” is sound popular wisdom and I don’t say it’s impossible I would resume. I just don’t sense it’s likely. It’s true that following some ghastly weather I felt suddenly tired and in my experience you need to be in top form to write even a poem – there’s something a bit athletic about the process. But that alone can’t explain my complex and conflicted mind in the matter. It was somewhere between just not wanting to finish, imagining there was no point (it’s hard to get anything to stage these days and my track record for being heard for anything in Ireland is abysmal) and that it probably wasn’t quite my fate to engage with the themes involved. These are points I return to in conclusion.
But if anyone wanted to be almost superstitious in the matter, it could be suggested that there was something else. It could be argued the Sweeney name partakes in, or itself names, a kind of curse that hampers expression, a reason it might be better to leave him to music! Consider that T.S.Eliot, beyond a couple of fragments, could never finish his Sweeney Agonistes which, despite its modernist content and non Irish setting, was influenced by awareness of the Irish material. The artist can never quite dissociate from whatever energies the archetypes represent.
The early Irish gave a high status to poets, not least because they associated them with prophets and prophecy. It’s not hard to see how they might think so. The poet wouldn’t need to be any Nostradamus; things would need only to happen around them. I have given an example in the introduction to my first poetry collection Puer Poems.(https://goo.gl/avJhm7).In it I recount how I presented a copy of the introductory poem, Puer, celebrating the archetype, to an actor who I felt exemplified the type. The poem happened to include the words, “and if he fell he’d bleed and bleed”. I managed to give this to the actor around the time he would shortly be performing in a play with blood in its title. But he would also fall badly during performance, getting rushed off to hospital having bled across the stage or the dressing room, I’m not clear on this. The matter was never fully explained to me and that could have been because a notable star of screen may have been more responsible for events surrounding this than some would care to admit. All I know is that I was disconcerted by the news.
THE SAINT, CURSES AND A BIT OF THEOLOGY
There are twelve Celtic St Ronans, one of them a venerated evangelist to Brittany, so I have no idea to which Ronan the above icon applies. The half or wholly mythic saint of Sweeney’s Frenzy was St Ronan of Finn. That St Ronan’s cursing is nonetheless as good as canonical hagiography is bizarre and raises questions. Christians, not even saints and especially not saints can pronounce a curse as opposed to stopping and binding them. Ronan curses Sweeney more than once. That an Irish saint would even be thought to do this reflects a strong identity of early medieval clerics with the earlier druids much feared for their bans and curses. It also reflects a one time liturgical over-reliance on the Psalms and chanting them, which we know the Irish did. Some communities kept a perpetual round the clock chant. The psalms are more emotional than strictly theological and do thus include a few imprecations. Any influence from this might have been more balanced out if the liturgical exercise (employed like a spell) hadn’t been almost at the expense of the rest of the Old and New Testaments and theological teaching in general.
I looked into the often ignored, rather complex esoteric field of curses and exorcisms when I wrote Temple Mysteries and Spiritual Efficiency (https://goo.gl/Xi1jv8 ). Here I”ll just say it would be possible for someone to as good as curse themselves, a point of which presently; but the nearest any Christian leader might come to pronouncing outright curse on someone would be to refuse to declare a sin forgiven, normally if it was believed it was never genuinely repented in the first place (Joh 21:23 ). More in condemnation than outright curse, the disciples can shake the dust from off their feet against those who won’t hear their message (Matt 10;14). But in Christianity everyone is deemed under a curse anyway so that without divine intervention, often the result of prayer, individuals are constantly open to forces of evil whose powers over the earth it was the purpose of Christ’s incarnation to undo (“The Son of God was revealed…to destroy the works of the devil” 1 Joh 3:8). This is a work not completed until the Second Advent when the earth is reclaimed from the end times Antichrist.
St Ronan, either as cleric or person, fails to forgive (in the first instance almost comically because he feels disrespected that an infuriated Sweeney dashes in naked after his wife tears the clothes off his back). This offence taking is so unchristian it has to represent druidism. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” ( Matt 6:14,15). Such would be the standard Christian position, though in cases of extreme offence (such as some Irish have suffered under child abuse where time is needed to heal and it’s a special virtue to forgive at all), even if and when seeking justice, the victim still needs – for their own good since hatred corrodes – to “let go”, accepting that “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Rom 12:19).
The fact that the early Irish church promoted tales like those of St Ronan, is proof positive that no matter what St Patrick may have taught more evangelically, there would be little clear notion of forgiveness in the early Irish churches. We know there wasn’t or there could never have been the perverse labour of the Irish Penitentials that would greatly influence medieval Europe through some of Ireland’s missionary monks. These imply the very opposite of any “amazing grace” but serve instead a religion of salvation by works in harmony with the British Celtic heretic monk, Pelagius, for whom Christ was a perfect example, not a redeemer. What sociologically the penitential system bolsters is clerical power modelled on the ways of the druids and the value system of the Brehon lawyers.
Quite why Ireland was so merciless to sin and committed to the most difficult possible salvation by law and works is a mystery. A contributing factor could be the “matriarchal” dimension to the culture. Women are liable to be both more and less forgiving than men. They may forgive in pity and emotion, but alternatively may feel they augment their power by withholding forgiveness or behaving like witches to apply curses.
As I pointed out in a previous article on Ireland’s perennial spiritual problems (https://wp.me/p2v96G-126), the crucial issue of the Irish and grace is anticipated by St Paul epistle to the Galatians i.e. to a basically Celtic – if by the apostle’s time fairly Romanized – Christian community. Oddly enough, however, exceptionally for the whole New Testament and almost against what I have just said above, the apostle declares to his Galatians, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let him be accursed…I repeat if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you have received, let that one be accursed” (Gal 1: 8,9)….We might interpret this as tantamount to declaring: let St Ronan and the brehon lawyers who inspire the legalistic spirit of the penitentials be accursed”!
But St Paul doesn’t direct church members to pronounce curses on legalists. As I also said above, within Christianity people can only really be self-cursed. Rather as “the wrath of God” is not like Jove throwing thunderbolts but more like what happens when a basic fund of divine protection is removed so that evil takes its full and natural course, so it is with any “curse” in the Christian context. The Hebrew style that colours much of the bible’s expression is “extraverted” and often says God does something when it plainly means God allows it. Harmonious with this, what the Jewish apostle effectively declares to the Galatians re potential self-curse, is that if certain fundamental principles of the spiritual realm are ignored, benefits are almost automatically deactivated or even go into reverse, backfiring on the individual.
Spiritually gifted though the Irish may be, arguably their Penitentials applied by a few ruthless saints (like Colmcille in permanent penance for starting a tribal war), indicate they have given away their spiritual power and rights, handing them over to bureaucrats of religion who dole out more duties than inspiring ideals. “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse” (Gal 3:10). This situation is seen as ruling out, or lessening, any claim upon divine blessing and protection, the more so if one doesn’t also reject the spirits of place, the apostle’s “elementary spirits of the earth” (Gal 4:3). He associates them with precisely Galatian practice and certainly feminist post-Christian thealogians like outspoken Irish American Mary Daly would gladly restore them. I considered this old gods matter in Ireland’s Old/New Spiritual Problems (https://wp.me/p2v96G-126 ) where I suggested the nation remains in strange psychological thrall to especially the deathly Morrigan archetype (which some ill-advised neo-pagans are attempting to contact and channel !)
SWEENEY AND THE ULSTER SHADOW
At the everyday level, I don’t wish to imply that the Irish are chronically unforgiving. They are not. If anything they are more conciliatory than the at times rather shrilly self-righteous and intransigent citizens of Ulster. Influenced by Calvinism, those north of the border are less inclined to share the view further south that everyone’s a sinner, but more prone to take the moral high ground permitting attitudes too close for comfort to siege mentality and cultural apartheid. But whether the Irish, especially historically, have quite forgiven themselves or left matters of forgiveness to God, is another matter, and confusion in that area may have had a few consequences for the spiritual life and collective destiny.
I find an odd and potent symbolism in the fact the Sweeney legend is based in the kingdom of Dalriada, a province of historic Ulster. Sweeney banished to a tree within the kingdom of both the High King and the original centre of Irish Christianity, is like a symbol for Ireland itself and even perhaps a warning of its destiny. Sweeny as Ireland is someone doomed to lose history and culture to those who take the heartland, dismissing what it represents as little more than a threat to the settlers’ indelible connection to an idolized Britain and/or King Billy, a point to which I add a few words in note (1). At this level of reading one could perceive the Irish destiny as subjection to an essentially materialistic system (which despite the Bible and Calvinism is what Ulster, supreme servant of Victoria’s empire, has always represented) and subject to this because a potential spiritual liberty was never quite accepted and claimed. Ulster and its plantation then arrives to function as a kind of psychological cum spiritual shadow to what Ireland is, could or should be. It was often remarked that Viking and Norman settlers in Ireland became “more Irish than the Irish”. With Ulstermen development seemed to be in the opposite direction, the desire to more British than the British and thus truly an opposite or shadow force.
Yet if only mythically, the centrality or supremacy of Ulster for Ireland cannot quite die. It would be Belfast born writer C.S.Lewis invented Narnia with its high king at Cair Paravel (its model Dunluce Caste in Antrim). Ulster is a strange “game of thrones” territory and one is hardly surprised that the super-successful TV series (based on novels that can’t be attributed to any Irish American author though they are as intricate in their way as The Book of Kells) should be mainly filmed in Ulster with its rather bleak landscapes in harmony with the region’s bleak and contested history.
But beyond any shadows, Ireland’s beloved emerald colour esoterically relates to transcendent, high ray spirituality and is the Venusian colour of love. The colour emerald subsuming the colours of the rainbow, surrounds God’s throne (Rev 4:3); but in a variety of myths emerald is also the colour or stone of Lucifer, Hermes et al who steal or claim to possess it. There’s no need dismiss this symbolism as entirely irrelevant to Irish destiny. I pointed out in the ” ‘Real Irish’ and Irish Reality’” feature (https://wp.me/p2v96G-17D ) the rather astonishing fact that in the chart for modern Ireland, asteroids Lucifer and Theotes (Godhead) are locked in close combative conjunction. Eire represents among other things spiritual influence and conflict
TO LAY MY BURDEN DOWN
I don’t think Sweeney means just one thing, but if it’s true he can equate with Ireland, its loss and its silencing, then I think I should dodge the bullet he might deliver me in the role of interpretive artist. Years ago the director of the film Jesus of Montreal remarked he hoped its lead actor wouldn’t perform the part too well or it might not be fortunate for him. The archetypal dimension really can impose and take over in creative, original ventures.
I have had to learn that especially in trying to convey to the world that, (enlarging on the theories of astronomers D’Occhieppo and Hughes) I have well and truly solved the mystery of Jesus’ birth astrologically down to the last asteroid, impossibly supplying data of a kind even the layperson can grasp, like the names of Jesus’ ancestors in his house of origins. But no matter the truth level involved and that the pattern still works today, when it comes to Christ truths, the principle “he was despised and rejected” (Is 53:3) is par for the course . Even as a doctor of religious studies, published author and astrologer, and even while every tin pot, half crazed theory about Jesus gets proposed and promoted, I have never in years been officially published in this area or allowed so much as an author’s op-ed in the press of Australia, UK or Ireland on this vital theme, in its way like some Dead Sea Scrolls Discovery. (the relevant Op-ed is included in “The Magi at Era’s End” https://wp.me/p2v96G-ip
In the one exceptional case of major Jesus-related material, one must just be resigned and leave a blind and secular world to its devices – “make the hearts of the people dull…..lest they understand with their hearts…” (Is 6:10). But otherwise I’m not prepared to hurt myself going around with begging bowls to literary and artistic elites for Irish and Sweeney material. As it is, my treatment by what Kevin Kiely would call Ireland’s more or less West Briton set prominent in relevant elites where I’m concerned, already beggars description. It could put in the shade what James Joyce suffered in Ireland around publishing the single word “bloody”. My part in Sweeney madness was for even a day or two to imagine composing anything in the line that might register somewhere.
The hugely conflicted but where Ireland is concerned at times unconsciously hilarious Louis MacNeice, exclaims (in Autumn Journal) “Why should I want to go back/To you, Ireland, my Ireland? The blots on the page are so black/That they cannot be covered with shamrock…” A bit extreme, but even so I might need to remember, and people should perhaps be more aware (although I know there’s wisdom in the old saw “never complain never explain), that:
- I have never had a single poem published or broadcast in Ireland. This is odd given a poetic Celtic drama of mine managed to get performed here in Australia and other poetry would have been broadcast the national broadcaster told me had it been published first. Also, through Toronto, I have a whole mini epic “Coming to Syracuse” recorded and nicely presented with visuals that has never obtained any Irish mention or support. https://wp.me/p2v96G-sG despite its pretty high standard. Fortunately I forget which literary or culture critic of The Irish Times it was (possibly Fintan O’Toole) who never even acknowledged receipt of a book, handed them by a would-be helpful fellow journalist, that contained the relevant play with some of my poetry. I do remember I had to ask a Dublin friend to go and collect it.[This in the same now “Globalist” Ireland where like Gregory Betts you can be declared honorary Irish poet without passport or ancestors to support the identity. Re Globalism see my Irish Changes poem https://wp.me/p2v96G-1kp ]
- Last year the RTE national broadcaster refused to showcase anything poetic of mine because legally it has already been published, even if only on the Net or Indi – the exact opposite situation to the mentioned Australian one where not being published was the problem! They required I offer something virgin. When I did so, rather efficiently and quickly on return to Australia, I never received acknowledgement.
- I have never got a smidgen of real interest out of Poetry Ireland whether visiting in person or contacting by email with material. When I last visited their centre and spoke to a polite enough couple of the team, I left behind for their publication manager a copy of my Raphael and Lucifer and other Visionary Poems https://goo.gl/DWsnZH with its updated Miltonics. I explained it had been described by one of the few UK houses to accept metaphysical verse, as poetry to the highest standards. It had been recently refused solely because of promotion problems. It was deemed unhelpful that I neither live in Europe nor am already known as a performance poet. Promised a reply from Poetry Ireland, which might have tried to help as I am an Irish not UK citizen, I would no more hear further than from the RTE.
- The Irish Times has never given me a voice for anything whatsoever, its religion editor, uninterested back in 2016 even to allow me space to comment on, or be interviewed topically about, the same sex marriage referendum. This is despite my published doctorate on the varieties of gay spirituality marking a world first from any religious studies department.( https://goo.gl/1Pr94i ) so that I could well be considered an expert voice. Other subjects I proposed like the Christ material were simply ignored.
- I have never got material into the Irish press of a more tabloid kind like Is the Patrick Prophecy for Ireland Encoded? (https://wp.me/p2v96G-MR) . “We don’t do anything like that” was the brief response from The Irish Examiner to which I had been recommended to apply. With regard to the potentially popular astrological Christ theme, after being left waiting to see Jerome O’Reilly at The Irish Independent, this journalist took time to glance at only the title of the page, handed him and declared “We wouldn’t do anything like that”. In which case just what would he/they do or even take the time to considering to do? The title was “Proving an Historic Discovery and Answering Pope Benedict’s Question“. I’m not a Catholic, but let none say the Irish Press doesn’t do news and features on Popes! Pope Benedict had openly wondered what we should think about the eminently plausible D’Occhieppo/ Hughes thesis on Christ’s birth. I alone have the sensational answer and proofs.
This by no means exhausts the list of complaints, it merely lists some ironic highlights that I remember and that are relevant here. Nobody needs this and I’m finally at an age (my Sweeney inspiration came hard upon my 71st), I am not prepared to trouble myself with needless, abrupt dismissals or to waste time promoting myself night and day on the Net to obtain some gone viral status that protests an unjust treatment.
The ironies are nonetheless exquisite. If it weren’t that boasting has been an allowed part of Irish culture, I wouldn’t say here (what’s nonetheless a truth it might by now be embarrassing for some to admit), that I am closest, at least thematically and sometimes more, to the tradition of Yeats. Also that the standard at which I sometimes write can reach to better than much that gets published and called “Irish poetry” today. If, following Seamus Heaney’s decease, Brendan Kennelly is supposed to be Ireland’s leading poet, then I can write to and above that standard as should be apparent from even just my Judas stopped at Dublin ( https://wp.me/p2v96G-Bm ) which is satirical of Kennelly’s distasteful and super-profane Judas cycle of poems. I consider the limitations of modern Irish poetry in Why Ireland Needs Yeats 2015 and more (https://wp.me/p2v96G-xA).
Enough said! As the Taoist sages would have it, “to retire is best” and I can’t disagree. Nunc dimittis! Why burden myself further? I’ll not start quoting the gospels on such as casting pearls, but where Ireland is concerned it’s tempting to conclude with Yeats’ words over the Synge controversy: “You have disgraced yourself again”. And, as I would see it, by not living up to full potential….. I only regret that Ireland has never helped me, starting long ago when in the late ’80s I first offered some poetry, to live up to my own full potential.