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Do Drúthaibh Ocus Meraibh Ocus Dásachtaib. Of Fools Madmen And Lunatics

The Letter, Issue 52, Spring 2013, Pages 29 - 46


Marion Deane

This paper will examine attitudes towards the mad and insane in early Irish society and explore the rationale for both their inclusion in and their exclusion from mainstream society. It will attempt to interpret a range of terms, now defunct, that indicated the characteristics of their illness. As no individual case history survives, and since the mad were seldom afforded a significant role in the early literature, the investigation of the topic has to proceed obliquely. The material for it is in two parts. The first is formed from a composite of material, notably, legal, satirical and gnomic, from an amalgam of residual or interpolated material, dating from the seventh to the ninth centuries. However, much of the evidence is more suggestive than definitive. Furthermore, in most of it, the mentally ill are regarded as members of a social category, not as distinct human subjects. However, when Irish social and kingship theories are taken in conjunction with Buile Suibhne, henceforth, The Frenzy of Sweeney,[2] the text that grounds the second part of the investigation, their alliance brings the lived experience of a human being in crisis into focus for us. In preparation for the commentary on Sweeney, most of the general material selected will have direct relevance to his life.

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