Written sometime between 1200-1500 (though possibly earlier), the Madness of Suibhne, also known as Suibhne’s Frenzy, tells a fantastic tale of one Suibhne mac Colmáin, king of the Dál nAraidi, a kingdom in North East Ireland. His story starts off grounded enough, but as we’ll soon see, it ends – quite literally – in the air.
One day, the king was woken up by the sound of a bell ringing. The bell in question was attached to one Saint Rónán Finn, who was busy laying out the boundaries of the church he intended to build. The incessant ringing saw Suibhne fly into a rage. He went storming out of his castle; trying to stop him, his wife grabbed his cloak, which came completely unraveled. Naked but undaunted, Suibhne went out to confront the Christian.
There are hints here of the conflicts between the Pagan and Christian worlds, though it is never explicitly stated as such. Instead, we find the furious king taking the Saint’s Psalter (a term for a devotional book, typically containing Psalms), and tossing it into a nearby lake.
The Saint was not amused.
However, the altercation was interrupted by news of an impending battle, which Suibhne left to fight.
The next day, the Saint’s Psalter was recovered by a God-fearing otter (yes, you read that right). At this sign, the Saint was impelled to curse Suibhne: the King would wander and fly around the world naked, and die by a spear.
The next day, the Saint went to bless the troops. One of his Bishops anointed them with Holy Water, which Suibhne took as an insult. He flung a spear at the monk, killing him, and flung another at Saint Ronan. The spear his the Saint’s bell, sparing him, and prompting him to curse Suibhne again. He was doomed to fly around the world, naked, and die by a spear, just as he had killed the Bishop.
Whatever, thought Suibhne, and went into battle. However, something was wrong; as surely as the ringing of the Saint’s bell had driven him into a rage, the clamor and din of the war broke something inside of him. His hands went numb, his weapons fell from his grip, and slowly, he started levitating.
He fled the battle – or perhaps flew from the battle; either way, he was gone.
He flew to nearby Glenn, and perched on a tree, where he was spotted by one of his relatives. He flew to another wooded area, where he was confronted by his enemies from the battle; however, they spared the naked madmen, and offered him praise and gifts, neither of which he wanted. He only wanted to go home.
Where was home?
Glenn Bolcáin, the Valley of the Madmen.
He wandered through Ireland, flying from tree, now not quite as naked, as he had started to grow feathers. For seven years he wandered, but he always returned home.
His kinsmen tried to catch him, to no avail. His wife, who was being courted by another man, pled her love to the birdman, but he kindly told her it was time for her to move on. He eventually returned to the very first tree that he had perched in, where his wife attempted to capture him, but to no avail. He just kept flying on.
There was a temporary intervention; the relative who had been trying to catch him lied to him, telling him that his whole family had died, which was enough for him to come down. However, during an ill-fated contest, the sounds of a hunting party triggered his insanity, and off he flew yet again.
From Ireland he flew to Scotland; from Scotland he made his way to Britain, where he found a friend in a fellow madman of the woods; but that too came to an end within a year when his new partner met his predestined end.
Speaking of predestined ends…
Suibhne tried to return home, but there was no going back. His wife was done with him, there was bounty on his head (pertaining to the aforementioned ill-fated contest) but he persisted, though Saint Ronan did his Godliest best to hinder him. However, another Saint would take him in.
It was at Saint Molling’s house that Suibhne finally found peace, figuratively and literally.
Attending the nightly ceremonies, the priest asked his cook to give the madman after prayer meals. A parish woman, she used her foot to dig a hole in cow dung, and poured milk into said hole, which Suibhne hungrily lapped up. Unfortunately, the sight of this, coupled with local gossip, led her husband into a jealous rage.
And so, as Saint Ronan had cursed him, Suibhne met his end at spear point, the cook’s husband having flung said weapon at the naked madmen. Whatever Ronan’s disposition, Saint Moling, in contrast, gave Suibhne his sacrament, blessing the birdman, letting him ascend, so to speak, to heaven.
And the take-way?
Much like fabled Isle of Avalon, no one really knows where Glenn Bolcáin, the Valley of the Madmen, actually was.
The best educated guess: somewhere around Glenbuck, near Rasharkin, Co. Antrim, Ireland.
Who really knows?
Maybe just the birds, maybe just the birds…
Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish, Seamus Heaney.
O’Keeffe, James G. (1913), Buile Shuibhne (The Frenzy of Suibhne). Being the Adventures of Suibhne Geilt. A Middle-Irish Romance