THE LETTER 52 Spring 2013, pages 29-46.
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 exclu-sion from mainstream society. It will attempt to interpret a range of terms, now defunct, that indicated the characteristics of their illness. As no individ-ual case history survives, and since the mad were seldom afforded a signifcant 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, hence-forth, The Frenzy of Sweeney, 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.
In the seventh century, scholars from abroad came here to study medicine. Yet not a single record of pre-Arabic medicine remains. Fortunately, the Na-tional Library of Ireland possesses a fifteenth century manuscript composedmainly of medical treatises and preserved within it are two Old Irish law tracts from the eighth century.3 They reveal the operation of a primitive legal system regarding compensation for injury at a time when public institutions of justice or of health care were still unknown. For example, a person who had inflicted serious injury on another was obliged to pay the physician The perpetrator had also to pay a fine for the injury proportionate to its seriou-ness and proportionate to the victim’s status. His was the responsibility for