AMERICAN GODS History Primer: Mad Sweeney

The Old Gods in American Gods have roots in the past and in mythology. While we might know the ins and outs of the New Gods, like Media and Technical Boy, there’s probably a lot we can still learn about their predecessors. For those of you hoping to get a better understanding of these characters before you continue on with American Gods, we have you covered. Get to know the history that inspires the characters in our American Gods History Primer series.


Mad Sweeney, a.k.a. Buile Suibhne

In the Series

Oh, Mad Sweeney. When we met him the first episode of American Gods, he seemed like a boisterous drunk. The description is accurate, but he’s much more. As ever, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Mad showed off his skills at pulling gold coins out of the air; he’s a leprechaun, you see. He mistakenly gave Shadow Moon his magical coin, and Mad’s luck started taking a turn for the worst.

And then the weird got weirder (it’s a thing that happens in this show). When he learned Shadow threw the coin into Laura’s grave, he pursued the trail. The path led him to a dead Laura Moon. He’s not able to pluck the coin back; she has to return it to him. Since Laura has a mission, she refused–handing over the coin would mean her dying for real. So, Mad and Laura form an unlikely alliance because of the coin.

Mad Sweeney wasn’t always the rowdy ne’er-do-well we know him as now. The recent episode showed how he came to America, and we saw a kinder, more grateful leprechaun. Since there likely aren’t many Essie MacGowans leaving sustenance on their window sills for him anymore, he’s become more jaded, a little bitter, and weary–which I bet all too many of us can relate to.

In Mythology

We know Mad Sweeney is a leprechaun, but is being a mythical being enough to put him on the same level as the Old Gods? He seems to have more status than that–but only marginally, because it feels like Mr. Wednesday treats him like an errand boy of sorts. Anyway. Components of Mad Sweeney are pulled from leprechaun lore; there’s the association with gold coins and a mischievous and trickster nature. But he seems to be connected to another Irish folk legend: Buile Suibhne, or The Frenzy of Sweeney, or The Madness of Sweeney.

Buile Suibhne was an Irish king and star of a sad tale. Suibhne got territorial about St. Ronan visiting his lands with the intent of noting area to construct a church. He got overly aggressive about it (that certainly sounds like Mad). Rather than saying, “Hey, St. Ronan, could you please take your arse out of my neighborhood,” Suibhne threw Ronan’s psalter (a devotional book) in the lake and tried to drag him away. Ronan was understandably angry, and he lashed out at Suibhne.

Ronan’s form of retribution was to curse Suibhne to wander the world naked. I can appreciate satisfying revenge as much as the next person, but the naked part of the curse seems especially cruel. As Suibhne roamed Ireland, Scotland, and England without a home, he went mad and became known as Mad Sweeney.

Another version of the tale says Suibhne lost his grip because of the noise of a battle, and he fled away from the scene in a frenzy.

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I prefer the curse version of Sweeney’s story because it shows a man at odd with social changes; it fits into the Old Gods vs. New Gods themes in American Gods. Suibhne wanted to stick to the old beliefs and ways, not changing to be part of a church. In American Gods, the Old Gods are faced with different times where people worship the New Gods instead of them. People who follow the old ways are looked down upon–just imagine what your reaction would be to a friend telling you they left a saucer of milk out every night for the leprechauns. Times are changing, and Mad Sweeney is part of the group that’s resisting.

Images: Starz, Tumblr/ Starz

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