Sweeney: Suivi Suibhne

Sweeney’s Bothy, AF, 2012

Sweeney’s Bothy is reclusive – how could it not be– but its original inspiration is not a pastoral poet-hermit. Suibhne is a warrior become outlaw; a madman, dislocated from those who might care for him. If his glen, Glen Bolcain, has rugged beauty, it is also ‘a cave of pain’. 

The figure of Sweeney, as he is portrayed in the surviving cycle of poems, is hearsay, tinted with Christian moralism & Celtic mist. And yet Sweeney remains, recognisably, a soldier, suffering from a familiar malaise; one which now goes by the name P.T.S.D. 

Susan Hiller, ‘Homage to Yves Klein: Levitation Man’, 2011

One of Sweeney's contemporary allies, the poet Trevor Joyce, offers one clue for the portrayal of Sweeney’s madness, quoting a Norse text of the 13th century, Speculum Regale, The King’s Mirror, which includes a description of the symptoms of his madness, suggesting they extend beyond the poet, to encompass other 'gelts':

‘There is still another matter, that about the men who are called "gelts," which must seem wonderful. Men appear to become gelts in this way: when hostile forces meet and are drawn up in two lines and both set up a terrifying battle-cry, it happens that timid and youthful men who have never been in the host before are sometimes seized with such fear and terror that they lose their wits and run away from the rest into the forest, where they seek food like beasts and shun the meeting of men like wild animals. It is also told that if these people live in the woods for twenty winters in this way, feathers will grow upon their bodies as on birds; these serve to protect them from frost and cold, but they have no large feathers to use in flight as birds have. But so great is their fleetness said to be that it is not possible for other men or even for greyhounds to come near them; for those men can dash up into a tree almost as swiftly as apes or squirrels.’

(trans. from the Old Norwegian by Laurence Marcellus Larson)

Buile Shuibhne, ‘Sweeny Peregrine’, as Joyce names him, is avian, a bird-man. He grasps hold of this state of otherness, as it allows him to muster all the sense of belonging he can hope for. To return to the world of men would be to re-enter the traumatic battleground of memory.

The same myth, of birds, madness, and war, is played out in William Wharton’s novel, Birdy – now better known in the sentimental film of the same name, directed by Alan Parker, which updates the action from the Second World War to Vietnam.

Choosing Sweeney as our inspiration for the bothy set us a test: our hut in the wilds must find a way to transform the thorns of war, and madness, translating the warrior poet into one of the visiting artists who, guided by the hut, enjoy a brief stint on a hillside, 'embedded' within an island community.

For this post I have invited the critic and poet Heather Yeung to reflect on Suibhne, bringing her awareness of the contemporary poetry of war to bear on this tale of post-battle exile. Here she considers why we might choose to follow Sweeney’s path – despite his being cursed to madness, wandering in discomfort through wild places until his death on the point of a spear.

(Alec Finlay)

‘for every time he twisted or turned the thorny twigs would flail him so that he was prickled and cut and bleeding all over. He hanged from that station to another one, a clump of thick briars with a single young blackthorn standing up out of the thorny bed, and he settled on the top of the blackthorn. But it was too slender. It wobbled and bent so that Sweeney fell heavily through the thicket and ended up on the ground like a man in a bloodbath’

   Seamus Heaney, Sweeney Astray

The Cath Muighe Rath gives an account of the onset of Sweeney’s madness. Buile Shuibne gives an account of the wild aftermath of the Battle of Magh Rath, following Sweeney as he takes flight from battle. 

Sweeney is geilt, which is doubly translatable, as terror, fear, dread, cowardice, frenzy, and skittishness, and as denoting one who dwells in the woods or deserts, a wild man or woman, an untameable animal.  

Sweeney’s madness and flight from Magh Rath recalls the shell-shock of veterans of World Wars I & II and the PTSD of Vietnam veterans – their fragmented or distorted experiences of the world, contemptus mundi, and withdrawal into landscapes separated from civilization.

Sweeney, Hanna Tuulikki, 2013

The ‘geilt’ wild-man of woods and desert places connects Sweeney with contemporary wars. Whether ancient or modern, this form of ‘madness’ is marked by returns to ‘sanity’, the distress is punctuated by momentary respite, and the wilderness landscapes relieved by periodic, but all too brief, recoveries of the comfort and company of home. 

Underlying these oscillations, or perhaps because of them, there is also a strong impulse towards creativity. The descriptions of Sweeney’s discomfort in Buile Shuibhne are punctuated by lyric outbursts. Sweeney’s landscape, his poetry, calls to us.

Flight of the wind, flights of the mind: madness and poetic creation are linked to, and generated by, the violence of warfare, and the destruction of what is familiar. They connect also to the exilic imagination, and an indubitable sense of loss.

In the wilderness, Sweeney sings:

I have lived among dark trees
between flood and ebb-tide,
going cold and naked

with no pillow for my head,
no human company
and, so help me God,
no spear and no sword!

No sweet talk with women
No surge of royal blood
camped here in solitude;
no glory flames the wood,
no friends, no music.

Tell the truth: a hard lot.
And no shirking this fate;
no sleep, no respite,
no hope for a long time.

No house…

(Seamus Heaney, Sweeney Astray)

This song is born out of a sense of nostalgia, as well as being a reaction to the horrors of battle. Sweeney’s madness is a leap that carries him far from home, far from the norms of (courtly) society, into spaces foreign to him; heimlichkeit becomes unheimlichkeit, and the unfamiliar nature of his situation, his nostalgia, lead to his story, his song.

In this respect, the medieval Sweeney has Classical precedents. The Iliad and the Odyssey reflect the mentality of warrior kings embattled abroad; they too are stories of displacement. 

Both martial epics hinge as much on non-involvement and avoidance of war as they do involvement in battle. But where Achilles, after hesitation, opts for kleos (glory in battle) over nostos, and menis (battle-rage) over self-preservation, Odysseus’s engagement in warfare leads to a wily (metis) self-preservation and, in turn, this leads to the inevitable prolonged and difficult journey home. We are required to recognise that without warfare, nostos (homecoming) is impossible. But the wars make a stranger of the warrior and, after the siege is ended, there must, inevitably, come a period of journeying.

One sense of embattlement (kleos) is replaced with another (nostalgia). Sweeney’s mad flight, his geilt, is punctuated by homecoming attempts that are never fully realised. Both the Odyssey and Buile Shuibne are poems of the after-battle, poems of consequence.

Who could put a terrible madness on the head of Sweeny
to make him live in tree-tops
but a story-teller?

(Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds

Why follow Sweeney? Another reason, his story. It is always tempting to opt for the story – the difficulties, foreignness, and exile of the story – over the comfort and order of home.

A soldier writes from Nad-e-Ali (Afghanistan) in 2010: ‘It’s frustrating, whilst I am desperate to come home (and see you) a huge part of me is gagging to stay here. My boys are here and my work is not yet done. My locals have just started to trust me […]. It takes lots of time and effort to foster this and it is so frustrating to know that I am finally there after all this heartache and now I have to leave!’.

Odysseus accepts from Hermes the drug moly precisely because he knows he must not tarry too long away from home. There is a danger in being too long the exile, for this state of struggle, wandering, and unheimlich may become permanent. The danger of an impossible nostalgia.

The ghosts of American soldiers
wander the streets of Balad by night
unsure of their way home, exhausted,
the desert wind blowing trash
down the narrow alleys as a voice
sounds from the minaret, a soulful call
reminding them how alone they are,
how lost. And the Iraqi dead,
they watch in silence from the rooftops
as date palms line the shore in silhouette
leaning toward mecca when dawn blows.

(Brian Turner, ‘Ashbah’, Here Bullet)

Photograph Thomas Coker, 2012

Does the world of white jasmine remember us?

I heard the gate scrape shut behind me,
the gate of language shutting the poetry
I move my lips but no words come in Arabic

Nizar, Madr, Nazek
Samih, Baland, Abduluahhab, Jabra,
Adonis, Etel, Ghada,
we are out here beyond
the last bus stop of your exile
Write to us sometime.


If you’ve never smelled clover or cardamom
would you know the difference
between the well of a village and a wound in the breast?
between a Free Trade Zone and a genocidal siege?
between the Fijeh Spring waters
and the effect for generations to come
of radioactive Gulf War weapons
on children born in Iraq?

The flakes of jasmine snowfall
gather softly in the fields, gather on iron balconies
of the Lower East Side

(Mojha Khaf, from ‘Jasmine Snowfall’, Emails from Scheherazad)

Photograph Thomas Coker, 2012

Faced with battle, there is always, it seems, a loss of the possibility of complete return.

War effects a shift in perspective, a re-arranging of the self, that cannot be completely erased, even if a way to the place of home is found. Traces of the geilt, of war remain.

I want to return
repeated the parrot
in the room where
her owner had left her
to repeat:

(Dunya Mikhail, ‘A Voice’, The War Works Hard Trans. Elisabeth Winslow)

Photograph Thomas Coker, 2012

In order to return, to play storyteller and give voice to the difficult experiences of battle and of exile, there is no room for heroic acts. 

Having survived, it is through metis, an ancient and specific self-preserving poiesis, that the journey away from war may take place. And yet this retreat, this attempted nostalgia, is never simple.

Fussell: it can’t happen to me. It can happen to me. It is
going to happen to me. Nothing
is going to prevent it.

Webster (to his parents): I am living on borrowed time –
I do not think I shall live through the next jump.
If I don’t come back, try not to take it too hard.

I wish I could persuade you to regard death
as casually as we do over here. In the heat of it
you expect it, you are expecting it, you are not surprised

by anything any more, not surprised when your friend
is machine-gunned in the face. It’s not like your life, at home,
where death is so unexpected. (and to mother),

would you prefer someone else’s son to die in the mud?
And there is no way out short of the end of war or the loss
of limb. Any other wound is patched up and you’re sent back

to the front. This wound almost killed him
healed up as well and he went back.
He never volunteered. One cannot volunteer.

If death comes, friend, let it come quick.
And don’t play the hero, there is no past or future. Don’t play
the hero. Ok. Let’s go. Move out. Say goodbye.

(Jorie Graham, from ‘Spoken from the Hedgerows’, Overlord)

I stirred wet sand and gathered myself
to climb the steep-flanked mound,
my head like a ball of wet twine
dense with soakage, but beginning
to unwind.
                            Another smell
was blowing off the river, bitter
as night airs in a scutch mill.
The old trees were nowhere,
the hedges thin as penwork,
and the whole enclosure lost
under hard paths and sharp-ridged houses.

And there I was, incredible to myself,
among people far too eager to believe me
and my story, even if it happened to be true.

(Seamus Heaney, ‘Sweeney Revidivus’)

And poetry (or song), formal breaking and innovation, can be made out of the strange sounds and situations experienced in war’s extremities, from the unheimlichkeit and embattlement of exile.

From traumatic embattlement, exile, and journeying, an impulse towards poiesis is born. Sweeney’s wilderness is a bed in the blackthorn. The same offers itself as a walking stick, a crutch. There are two sides to any war, to any exile.

The cities dissolve, and the earth is a cart loaded with dust
Only poetry knows how to pair itself to this space.

No road to this house, a siege,
and his house is graveyard.
              From a distance, above his house
              a perplexed moon dangles
              from threads of dust.

I said: this is the way home, he said: No
              you can’t pass, and aimed his bullet at me.
Very well then, friends and their homes
              in all of Beirut’s are my companions.

Road for blood now—
              Blood about which a boy talked
              whispered to his friends:
                            nothing remains in the sky now
                            except holes called ‘stars’.


A page in a book
              bombs mirror themselves inside of it
              prophecies and dust-proverbs mirror themselves inside of it 
              cloisters mirror themselves inside of it, a carpet made of the alphabet
                            disentangles thread by thread
falls on the face of the city, slipping out of the needles of memory.
A murderer in the city’s air, swimming through its wound—
its wound is a fall
that trembled to its name—to the hemorrhage of its name
and all that surrounds us—
houses left their walls behind
                                          and I am no longer I.

(Adonis, from ‘Desert’, trans. Khaled Mattawa)

The poem (like the bothy) provides a temporary contemplative space in the midst of thorny wilderness. The bothy (like Sweeney) is supported by thorns, open to the assault of the elements, and allows for all aspects of ‘Geilt’ and geilt’s resultant creations; isolated, it is detached from what is known, allowing for the idea of a nostalgia to emerge, but without the pressure for this nostalgia to be a successful one.

For poetry’s sake, therefore, suivi Sweeney.

(Heather Yeung)

Bothan Shuibhne | Sweeney’s Bothy 

Alec Finlay & The Bothy Project
commissioned as part of Creative Scotland’s ‘Year of Natural Scotland 2013’

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