earthweal weekly challenge: BEN BOLCAIN


Hello all, hope you are all having a reflective, safe and healthy holiday break.

In the 12th century tale of Buile Suibhne or Mad Sweeney, a brutal pagan king is cursed by St. Ronan after he kills one of his priests with a spear-toss. The precipitating event is the historic Battle of Moira in which he is driven mad:

His brain convulsed,
his mind split open.
Vertigo, hysteria, lurchings
and launching came over him,
he staggered and flapped desperately,
he was revolted by the thought of known places
and dreamed strange migration.
His fingers stiffened,
his feet scuffled and flurried,
his heart was startled,
his senses were mesmerized,
his sight was bent,
the weapons fell from his hands
and he levitated in a frantic cumbersome motion
like a bird of the air.

(Sweeney Astray, A Version from the Irish, Seamus Heaney)

Mad Sweeney flits about all of Ireland, leaping like a bird from tree to tree. Refusing the company and comforts of human society, he sleeps in treetops, eating watercress and drinking from springs and wells. Sweeney sings a nature poetry rich in both suffering at the cruelties of outdoor life as well its glories:

A starry frost will come
dropping on pools
and I’ll be astray here
on unsheltered heights:

herons calling
in cold Glenelly
flocks of birds quickLy
coming and going.

I prefer the elusive
rhapsody of blackbirds
to the garrulous blather
of men and women.

Sweeny comes at last to a glade named Ben Bolcain, a glen where all the madmen and women repair “once their year in madness was complete.” It is an embracing place:

Glen Bolcain is like this:
it has four gaps to the wind,
pleasant woods, clean-banked wells,
cold springs and clear sandy streams
where green-topped watercress and languid brooklime
philander over the surface.
It is nature’s pantry with its wood-sorrels,
its berries, its wild garlic,
its black sloes and brown acorns.

It is a next for the geilt, those both mad and wild, bird-like creatures who suffer the pangs of freezing breezes while praising the flowing music of the wood.

For seven years Sweeney wanders in his madness, to Ben Bolcain to rest with the other madmen, then takes off for Britain where he joins with a fellow madman and man of the wood for a year. He returns again to Ireland and Ben Bolcain where he eventually regains his lucidity and goes to meet his fate.

Ben Bolcain is Sweeney’s moulting-ground, serving both as wilderness retreat and home. Elsewhere he calls it

my winter harbour, my haven,
my refuge from the bare heath,
my royal fort, my king’s rath.

Tom Herron and Anna Pilz comment in “Enchanted by the Woods: Sweeney Astray”:

In this liminal environment, Sweeney is exposed to severe conditions of wind, coldness, blizzards, and the piercing thorns of bushes and trees. However, the woods of Glen Bolcain also offer consolations in the form of shelter, food, and companionship, all of which ensure his survival.

There is, furthermore, an etymological felicity whereby the roots of the noun “madness” can be found in the Old English word, “woodness.” The Oxford English Dictionary refers to an early use of the noun “woodness” as denoting a) “Mental derangement, insanity, mania, frenzy, lunacy, craziness”; b) “Extravagant folly or recklessness; vehemence of passion or desire; wildness, infatuation”; c) “Violent anger, wrath, fury, rage; extreme fierceness, ferocity, savageness, cruelty”. All three definitions aptly describe Sweeney’s character. The adjective “wood” insinuates “out of one’s mind, insane” and, intriguingly, there is a further connection between the adjective “wood” meaning “mad” and the Old Irish word for poet, fáith.

Sweeney undergoes a transformation in the wood; he suffers greatly in his wandering, yet as a result the king slowly learns to sing a clear-eyed vision of the bigger, older word. He becomes a poet. Herron and Pilz again:

Sweeney becomes something other during his time in the woods. While he never entirely relinquishes his sense of himself as king, he nonetheless changes shape, repeats endlessly his losses, suffers hallucinations, is exposed to the elements, and experiences pristine visions of the Irish landscape, flora and fauna. He slowly transforms his view of the woods from a purgatory to a place in which he finds sanctuary and a degree of peace. From secular obscurity as a minor king, Sweeney ascends into indigenous sainthood and is celebrated for the poetry that both records his travails and provides a means of endurance. As a king and a “blooded swordsman”, he inflicted needless suffering on those he considered his enemies. But as a bird-man and a penitent he enters into a form of perpetual suffering balanced with the enchantment of his poetic understanding of changed circumstances. Sweeney’s nature poems articulate, to adapt Heaney’s words about Patrick Kavanagh, a lonely but resilient “inner freedom”: they attest to “a way of re-establishing the authenticity of personal experience and surviving as a credible thing.”

I like to think of our earth-poems are bird-song: mad, wooded and wild, a conscious walk in surrender to the wider energies of the world.

The Glen of the Temple, Columcille (PA)


At the megalithic park my father named Columcille, there is a nook called the Glen of the Temple, and swath of land in the forest that sweeps up from the St Columba chapel to the Thor’s Gate trilithon. It is a gentle climb lined on either side by standing stones. (There’s one  called The Poet’s Stone where I’ve done readings.). The Glen is patterned somewhat on the mythological turf of the island of Iona off the southwest coast of Scotland, with its Road of Souls leading up to Dun Mananann and the ruins of an Iron Age temple. Long ago the island was ringed with 360 standing stones (pushed into the sea by Christians of the Reformation), and my father spoke of guardian energies he had met at Iona whom he said were honored by the stones of his Glen.

On my daily walks now from my house to the lake and back, I come to a three-block stretch that climbs in similar fashion to the Glen of the Temple though instead of stones it is lined with majestic oaks, sycamores, elm and pine. I like to call it my Ben Bolcain. My previous day’s madness comes to rest there and is fed by its beauty. It is the home outside my home.

This is the last week of 2021 before the turning of the new year. Let’s call it our Ben Bolcain, put our year of madness to rest and find what deep peace there is in the world. For this week’s earthweal challenge, share what you can find in Ben Bolcain.

Peace to all!




6 thoughts on “earthweal weekly challenge: BEN BOLCAIN

  1. Ah, this is a lovely essay, Brendan, and a fine way to bid adieu to the year, and welcome the new. It is in nature always that i find blessings, peace and beauty.


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