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By Seamus Heaney
New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984
ISBN # 374-51894-7/0770
85 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2013

Sweeney Astray is an early Medieval Irish epic poem. The “Astray” is not his last name, but the fact of his going astray from normal life after a regrettable deed he committed. The long poem is the story of his fall from greatness and the long period that follows before his death.

A difficult problem I had with the text is to what extent is Seamus Heaney translating this ancient text and to extent is he re-writing it in his own “mode.” Heaney is a marvelous poet and I have read and experienced his own poetry. In this work he is the translator, and, alas, I can’t read the Irish itself, so I just don’t know to what extent we are getting the “poetic” sense of the Irish text and to what extent are we getting a Heaney “re-write” of the text. Thus for my notes on the text I simply have to ignore that question, I have no way of knowing.

While this scholarly question – how much of this version is the Medieval poem and how much is Seamus Heaney – is one I can’t answer, the story as presented by Heaney as Sweeney’s story is powerful, moving, tragic and fascinating. It reveals a story-telling world where the wildest exaggerations and physically impossible activities are everyday parts of the story. However, it isn’t very difficult to accept that, and move along looking for the deeper levels that appear to me to be rather obvious in the story. Thus, without dealing with the problem of the original medieval poem and Heaney’s translation/retelling, I will sketch the marvelous story in store for any who read this delightful and challenging poem.

At one level there is the story of the poem as it unfolds, at another level there are forces in ancient Ireland that seem to be at play. There is Sweeney, the great warrior and independent spirit. There is Ronan, a powerful priest who seems to be the representative of the established Christian Church. There is the utopian resting place of Ireland, Glen Bolcain, which is idealized as the perfect place on earth to create a nearly perfect life.

Sweeney is indeed astray. He lets his temper and exaggerated self-image drag him into an act against the church which is too excessive for God himself, and Sweeney must suffer.

The poem opens when Sweeney, son of Colman Cuar who was a king of Ireland, sets out to destroy the churches that priest, Ronan Finn, was building. He threw Ronan’s holy books into a lake and was just about to kill him when he was interrupted by a messenger telling him that he has been called away to battle with Donal at Moira. Sweeney leaves immediately and Ronan’s life is spared.

More good luck comes to Ronan when his holy books are miraculously returned to him some three days later (seems like a reference to Jesus rising from the dead), and his life goes on.

Some days later Ronan also shows up at the battle between Sweeney and Donal and the priest lays down some rules: no one may be killed before a certain hour of the morning and no one may be killed after a certain hour of the evening. In pointed rejection of Ronan’s authority, Sweeney makes it his business to kill one of Donal’s soldiers earlier each morning that Ronan’s rules allow, and also to kill one in the evening after the killing should have been over.

Sweeney goes too far for Ronan when he attacks some of Ronan’s clerics so Ronan puts a curse on Sweeney which weakens him and Donal wins the first battle.

Sweeney nearly goes mad and retreats from battle. At one point he again encounters Donal, but Donal respects Sweeney and doesn’t want to fight him or kill him, but rather invites him to peace and unity. However, Sweeney is in no condition to agree.

For a full year Sweeney wanders like a mad man until the year of his curse ends. He realizes his ways had been misguided, but he still doesn’t know how to recovery himself. For 7 more years he wanders Ireland only finding any peace at Glen Bolcain to which he often returns. He understands himself to still be under the curse of Ronan.

Later he goes to see his former wife, Eorann, but she’s now with a new man but she tells him she loves him and would much rather be with him. However, they are interrupted by soldiers hunting Sweeney and he rushes off alone.

After some time hiding he ends up back at Rasharkin, his home area. However some weeks on he is discovered and Lynchseachen is set to see him.

He lies to Sweeney of the death of virtually everyone in his family – wife, many other relatives and even his beloved son. This all so crushes Sweeney that he comes back to his senses. However, the whole story of Lynchseachen was a plot to do exactly what it did – bring Sweeney back to his senses. His family is really still alive.

Nonetheless, within a short time he is left alone and a “hag” is left to care for him. She prods him about his occult abilities and Sweeney is off with her in pursuit, doing his wild stunts again.

All over Ireland Sweeney flees, realizing the terrible deception of Lynchseachen, but unable to escape the hag until he lures her into a trap and she crashes into rocks, but still doesn’t die.

This sends Sweeney racing off to hide from the hag and he travels all over Ireland and even to Scotland and Britain. He meets up with another madman on the run, this man from British foes. Sweeney proposes an alliance in their hiding. He and Alan had similar experiences of running into very difficult situations which made them outcasts. Alan soon goes off to his death and Sweeney moves on, trying to recover his life.

He next visits his former life, but again they reject him and he moves on. Just when it appears he is coming back to his full senses another period of his madness comes to him and it last another full year. Finally he encounters a holy and decent priest, Moling, who wants to help him back to his senses.

Sweeney seems on his way to recovery, and a local woman felt sorry for him and would leave him milk and food. However, her husband becomes jealous and kills Sweeney with a spear. The place of his death was at the well near Glen Bolcain and is called The Madman’s Well.

Bob Corbett


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