American Gods explained: The sad history of Mad Sweeney the leprechaun


In “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney,” American Gods told the story of one of the show’s most popular characters. Here’s more of the leprechaun’s sad tale.

This week, episode 7 of American Gods got into the history of Pablo Schreiber’s leprechaun in “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney.” But that felt like just a tease, and I needed to know more. How did he go from being a king to a bird, for one thing?

The Mammoth Book of Celtic Myths and Legends

Most of the information in this piece is distilled from my reading of The Mammoth Book of Celtic Myths and Legends by Peter Berresford Ellis (Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.) It’s a wonderfully scholarly look at the Celtic myths. This book is very hard to put down. I highly recommend it if you’re in for some even deeper reading.

Gaelic, the Irish language, is closer to Sanskrit than other European languages. Sanskrit originated in India and it’s the ancestor of the Indo-European group of languages, i.e., all the languages people speak in India and Europe. I had no idea that Irish religion leads directly back to the Indian Vedas. There are remarkable similarities. Irish mythology is ancient, some of the oldest in the world. But even the Irish know little of their rich history, and how their gods and kings came to be cartoon characters.  It wasn’t always that way.

The ancient Celtic tale of Lugh Lámhfada and the Children of Danu

In the beginning was the river god Danu, and the sacred oak Bile. They made two acorns, named The Dagda and Brigid. They grew to be mother and father to the gods who lived in Ireland, the Island of Destiny. All of these gods are the Children of Danu.

Domnu was Danu’s sister, and her children were already living in Ireland. But Brigid told Danu’s Children they were meant to settle there. Lugh Lámhfada was the champion of the Children of Danu. This all-wise and all-knowledgable god lead them to defeat the Children of Domnu and settle across Ireland.

"Of the greatest of the gods, the victor of the battle on the Plain of Towers, Lugh Lámhfada, god of all knowledge, patron of all arts and crafts, his name is still known today. But as memory of the mighty warrior, the invincible god, has faded, he is known only as Lugh-chromain, little stooping Lugh of the sídhe, relegated to the role of a fairy craftsman. And, as even the language in which he was venerated has disappeared, all that is left of the supreme god of the Children of Danu is the distorted form of that name Lugh-chromain . . . leprechaun. (Ellis, 606-622)"

It came down to another of the Children of Danu, Bodb Dearg, to allocate each member of the family a hill to build their dwelling on. And so, each early ruler-god of Ireland came to have a hill. Of course, one of these belonged to Lugh Lámhfada.

Forgetting foretold

But Domnu was angry from defeat. She made a prophecy for her sister’s children: they would be forgotten.

"All life is transitory. Even your children are not immortal, my sister. The time will come when they will be defeated. The time will come when no one will want gods and goddesses to nurture them, when they will be driven into the darkness, like my children have been this day…Indeed, there came that time when the Children of Míl flooded into the Island of Destiny and when the Children of Danu were driven underground into the hills, which were called sídhe, which is pronounced shee, and in those mounds they dwelt, the once mighty gods and goddesses, deserted by the very people who they had sought to nourish. The descendants of Míl, who live in the Island of Destiny to this day, called the Children of Danu the aes sídhe, the people of the hills, and when even the religion of Míl was forgotten, when the religion of the Cross replaced that of the Circle, the people simply called the aes sídhe by the name of fairies. (Ellis, 606-622)"

All the jewels of the world

While the Children of Danu and Domnu fought, still more of their relations headed toward the battlefield. But the three sons of Tuirenn, a local chieftain, killed Lugh’s father Cian before he could get there. After the war, Lugh discovered his father’s body. Swearing revenge, he called the sons of Tuirenn before him. He ordered them to find him the following:

"three apples, the skin of a pig, a spear, two horses and a chariot, seven swine, a hound-pup, a cooking spit and three shouts to be delivered on a hill. (Ellis, 743-744)"

They agreed, thinking they were getting off easy. But his real requests were much more specific. The sons went on a quest worthy of every single Grimms’ fairy tale you ever read, and some of the works of Homer. Golden apples and all. Of course, for reasons, the final few tasks proved impossible. As all three brothers die, their father Tuirenn says:

"If all the jewels of the world were given to Lugh to ease his anger it would not be enough to save you from a gloomy grave. (Ellis, 892-894)"

Lugh acted not from greed, but from anger and sadness. However, the Church changed all that.

The mad Middle Irish king, Buile Shuibhne

So here’s how our leprechaun got his first demotion and came known as Mad Sweeney. Buile Shuibhne, or the frenzy of Shuibhne, is about a seemingly real person named Suibhne mac Colmain Gelit. He was king of an area in northeastern Ireland. Sweeney is merely an Anglicized version of Shuibhne.

Winter Mythologies and Abbots, by Pierre Michon, identifies Shuibhne as a man who loves worldly pleasures.

"He is heavy and coarse, with nasty fair hair on his head like moss on a stone, and no delicacy of mind or soul."

However, an abbot named Finn Barr follows him around, believing there’s good in him. When Shuibhne’s brother asks him to fight in a war, all Finn bar requests is that Shuibhne not kill his brother. But in the frenzy of war, he does. Afterward, Finn Barr curses him, saying his brothers will be wolves and he won’t have a soul. That night, Shuibhne runs off into the forest.

Years later, Finn Barr comes across a mound of moss and black feathers with eyes. The mound springs up, and it’s Shuibhne, completely covered in mistletoe and black feathers from the crow on his shoulder. He can only speak crow now.  But he’s happy with his life, gathering watercress and berries for him and the crows to eat.

The Adventures of Suibhne Geilt

In another version, The Adventures of Suibhne Geilt, an abbot named St. Ronan Finn wants to build a church on Shuibhne’s territory. The king tries to thwart the abbot many times. Finally, Ronan curses him “praying that he be ever wandering and flying stark-naked throughout the world.”

After many years of mad wandering and flying, Shuibhne meets a monk named St. Moling who already knew he was coming because of a prophecy. Moling also knows Suibhne is going to die there.

"He binds Suibhne that, however much he may wander during the day, he is to return each night so that Moling may record his life-story. For a year Suibhne continues visiting  Moling, who has given orders to his cook that she is to leave milk ready for him each evening. (The Adventures of Suibhne Geilt)"

The cook’s husband, Mongan, hears she likes Suibhne more than him. So he runs the mad former king through with a spear, ending the Christian-era version of Sweeney’s saga.

Fairy folk

In the end, Domnu was right. After their jealous stepmother cursed the last four offspring of the gods, the Children of Lir, they became swans for 900 years, and were stuck in a pond. When the curse ended, they flew over Ireland, discovering that their world was long gone.

"True, it was, that the descendants of the sons of Míle Easpain, the first mortals in Éireann, still lived on. But they had long ago rejected the ancient gods and goddesses, though some had vague memories of them which were greatly distorted. But gods and goddesses exist only as long as memory and respect for them remain. The mortals had driven the Ever-Living Ones underground into the hills and, eventually, those immortals dwelling in the hills, the sídhe, were relegated, in people’s minds, to mere fairy folk. (Ellis, 1169-1173)"

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And as Mad Sweeney says himself in American Gods episode 7, “General Mills did the rest.”