An Opera. Music by Noah Mosley.
Libretto by Ivo Mosley, adapted from ‘Suibhne Geilt’, tr. J.G. O’Keefe.
Suibhne – or Sweeney, in Anglicized spelling – is a character from Old Irish literature who has made a big impression on our world today, via the work of poets such as Brendan Kennelly, Seamus Heaney, T.S. Eliot and novels like At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien.
Suibhne was a young king who went mad during the battle of Mag Rath, in a war between Celtic kingdoms nearly fourteen hundred years ago. We begin our story in the thick of battle. Suibhne is challenged to combat by an old friend fighting on the other side. Suibhne kills him. He begins to lose his mind. He hallucinates: all around him, he sees victims of the battle, some of whom he has killed himself. They taunt him.
Suibhne sings ‘You I Killed Today’.
A woman appears, and is kind to Suibhne. This woman will be important to our story. Most translators call her ‘the hag’ or ‘the witch’, but she is not at all the kind of ‘hag’ or ‘witch’ we are familiar with. Like a lot of strong female characters in Celtic literature, she is no stereotype but a powerful agent in her own right.
She does, however, have magical powers. She gives Suibhne the gift of flight; he takes off into the trees. Soldiers come looking for Suibhne. The woman mocks them and scares them away. When they are gone she sings of her compassion for Suibhne, who will now be living a very different kind of life from the one he is used to.
The Witch sings ‘See if you can find him now’.
Suibhne becomes a wild man of the woods. But his madness has its compensations: he is struck with the gift of poetry. When no one else is around, his relationship with nature takes centre stage. Nature is sometimes harsh, sometimes kind, but always full of beauty and majesty. Suibhne alternates between ecstasy, discomfort and downright misery as he looks each night for a different place to lay his head.
Suibhne sings ‘A year it is, this day last night’.
Suibhne misses the human world: civilisation, friends and especially his wife. The fidelity between Suibhne and his wife Eorann is one of the strongest and most touching themes of the story. Eorann is having to resist political pressure to marry again. The kingdom needs a king, and one particular burly man has his eye on becoming king… by marrying Eorann.
Meanwhile, another woman has a go at seducing Suibhne: after all, he may be mad, but he is still a king… and a sensitive poet, to boot! She goes for water to the same well that Suibhne frequents. She knows Suibhne is watching, but HE doesn’t know that she knows! She just ‘happens’ to sing rather seductively while gathering cress… pure opera!
Woman at the Well sings ‘This night will be so cold’.
Suibhne’s madness involves him in all sorts of adventures. We’ll not tell the whole story; for now we’ll just say, we end on a note of hope. The version of the story which survives today was written four hundred years ago, a whole nine hundred years after the poem was first made, and the pagan themes have been book-ended with Christian add-ons. It begins with a monk’s curse, and ends with Suibhne being killed by the servant of another monk. We’ve done away with the add-ons. In in our story, the love between Suibhne and his queen takes centre stage.
In Celtic literature, love can cure madness. In another tale, a woman goes mad after seeing her father killed. She is restored in a very direct way – by the love of a musician, in a manner that’s far too naughty to tell in our prurient modern world!
Suibhne is also cured by love, by two strong women – witch and wife. The way we tell it, they also take responsibility for the welfare of the kingdom. This too draws on the spirit of old Celtic stories where queens like Queen Maeve of Connaught can be much bigger characters than their husbands. Suibhne finds peace in our ending and his peace has a political colouring; this is perhaps the only ingredient we have actually introduced to this ancient story.
Queen Eorann sings ‘Eorann’s Aria’.
Suibhne’s world seems far away in time, but its themes bring it close to the world today: love, trauma in war, power between men and women, the search for a better world. As for mental distress, we all need time out from this world. For soldiers, battles are even more horrific today and the carnage is even worse.
Suibhne’s wildness and poetry have in recent times made him a big character for poets. Seamus Heaney was obsessed with the wild and lonely poet: he made his own translation of the poem. Brendan Kennelly finds him an inspiration. T.S. Eliot was obsessed, but in a negative way; he found Suibhne disturbing. And now, according to Wiki, Suibhne is about to star in a new TV series called ‘American Gods’!
The conflict between wildness and civilization is ongoing but the poem, and our opera, deals with an even more important theme: our desire to make the world a better place, and how hard it is to act on that desire. That’s not an ancient or modern problem: it will be with us for as long as we humans live upon this Earth.