Mad Sweeney (Buile Shuibhne) is a medieval legend of an Irish king that has inspired poets to retell or adopt including T.S. Eliot and Seamus Heaney. Patricia Monaghan tells the story of this ancient Irish king, Sweeney, who was driven mad by the din and gore of battle and flees to the trees and becomes part bird. Taking on this wildness begins the process of healing and sanity. –Michael McDermott


Dark has fallen. It grows cold. I have had no rest since
meeting my enemy. Aha, they are dead, they are dead,
they could not kill me. I rose above them and kicked
until they rolled away like rotten apples in a dying
orchard. They are dead, dead, they could not kill me.

I tear at crimson silk until I am free and naked in the red

Feathers, I say, feathers! My skin prickles in the high wind.
Now I fly, sleek and strong, high above that field. I see
the battle’s dainty pattern, retreats, advances, the
ragged lines of war. I sing my victory song.

Men tire me. I want to sit in a crabapple and eat sour fruit. I
want to perch in a twisted oak and feast on acorns.
Trees call out to me, here, stop here, come down here.
They wave their offerings of fruit and seeds. Northwest
I go, into the hills in search of an ivy-topped tree.

In Bearaigh forest I alight, wings weary from flight. I sing
softly, my victory song. But I hear noise: men, armed
men rushing into the wood. I hear them calling.

Sweeney, they say, come down to us. Slender Sweeney,
leader of hosts, comely crystal-eyed king, come down.
Lead us again into battle, red-handed Sweeney, man of
gore. Come back to us now, Sweeney, Sweeney, they

My feathers rise and spread. Sweeney? Do I know that
name? I cannot fit my thin tongue around it. Why do
they call Sweeney, Sweeney? I knew someone of that
name, once, in a place called Mag Rath. I grow curious.
I wish to meet him again.

In my heart lies a map. It shows the way to a four-gapped
glen tumbling with waterfalls, green with cress and
sorrel, black with sloe. Clean banks where I can nest,
great ivy-topped trees where I can perch. I must fly
there. I must not sleep until I find that place without
sword, without spear, without mead, without warriors,
without kings.

Glen Bolcan: Sweeney is there. In my heart is a map. The
journey is long from roost to roost. I must begin.