‘AND ANCIENT IRELAND KNEW IT ALL’:
With the line ‘And ancient Ireland knew it all’ W.B. Yeats in his well-known poem ‘Under Ben Bulben’ (1938) captures the cord of connectivity that binds Ireland’s mythic past to the evolving present. Yeats’s poetry is permeated with references to the mythical, and mystical, past. He recognised well the intersection between myth and history, which was particularly evident in the later nineteenth- and early twentieth century, and as we shall see that intersection continues into the twenty-first century, albeit in a somewhat different manner.
In his discussion of the importance of myth in shaping and informing national consciousness, Irish philosopher, Richard Kearney, warns that:
if revered as ideological dogma, and divorced from the summons of reality, myth becomes another kind of conformism, another kind of death. That is why we must never cease to keep mythological images in dialogue with history. And that is why each society, each community, each nation needs to go on telling stories, inventing and reinventing its mythic imaginary, until it brings history home to itself (Kearney 1997: 121).
This follows a discussion about the appropriation of Irish myths by the terrorist organization, the IRA (Irish Republican Army). In particular Kearney refers to members of the IRA engaged in a hunger strike in Northern Ireland in the 1980s whose identification with a mythology of Irish martyrdom served both as a corollary to, and a justification of their own activities.
The hunger strikers perceived themselves in a role etched out by Padraic Pearse, one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of Irish Independence from Great Britain. Pearse promulgated blood sacrifice as a means of national redemption. In doing so, he constructed a sacrificial mythology based on the legends of the Fianna and other heroic figures from Ireland’s distant past. This employment of ‘old’ mythologies thus provided a frame within which a new mythology was enacted, centred around the activities of organizations intent on ridding Ireland of a British presence. Frequently, the codes and symbols of legendary fighting men were overtly adopted by the more extreme republican groups. Their youth movement was called ‘na Fianna’ after the band of soldiers formed by legendary hero, Finn Mac Cumhaill. Ironically, aspects of the organization of the Fianna scouts may also be attributed to Baden-Powell’s Boy Scout movement, popular in Britain and a source of fighting men for the British army.
This appropriation of the past happened at a period when there were divisions within the republican movement. There is evidence that parliament in Britain was close to granting Ireland independence; there was a degree of sympathy for the British and allied side in the Great War, and many Irish men had enlisted in the British Army to fight in that war. Some felt it would be best to wait, confident that independence would be granted without bloodshed, sure that ‘... England may keep faith/ for all that is done and said.’ These lines are from William Butler Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’, a poem that has sealed forever the 1916 Rising and its protagonists as catalysts in the fight for Irish independence, and in doing so gave them mythic status of their own. And Yeats, in a poem which expresses his ambivalence towards the blood sacrifice of the insurgents, did not exaggerate when he said that the rebel fighters, and by association, Ireland:
The rebellion did take place, driven by those who doubted England’s ability to keep faith, and who saw an opportunity to establish an independent Irish state while Britain’s attention was focused on the World War. And it was not only the insurgents who were changed, but also the balance of public opinion, which was horrified by the summary executions by the British army of the signatories to the Proclamation of Independence.
This article focuses on the adoption and adaptation of traditional myths and legends to suit evolving circumstances in the modernisation, and post-modernisation, of Ireland which, well within a century, was transformed from a backward, insignificant country subject to a strong colonial power to the fourth richest country on the planet. There are heroic figures aplenty to inspire that intent on combat, in the past and in the present. The mythological past of Ireland is rich in stories of invasions and struggles to repel invaders, of fights to hold territory and property. Even those not particularly familiar with Ireland’s past may recognise the names of Cuchulain and the Red Branch Knights, Finn MacCumhaill and the Fainna, and Tír na nÓg, the land of everlasting youth. As well tales of wars and battles, there are also stores of love won and love lost, of family loyalty and family strife, stories rooted in a realistic landscape and stories in which mages, demons, fairies all exercise their powers. Many of these stories and their characters have become emblematic of particular times and incidents in Ireland’s history and cultural development.
Like other countries, Ireland has a rich store of myths and legends, many of which are believed to have their origins in very early times. Initially, these stories survived by word of mouth, in retellings by storytellers and by bards, who were venerated in early Celtic society. It is believed that stories began to be written down during the 6th century but most of the earliest surviving manuscripts date from the 11th and 12th centuries and were compiled by monks during the monastic period. These stories remained popular throughout the middle ages and later, and were probably embellished by stories told by traders visiting Ireland from Europe and Asia, and by returning Irish men who had travelled abroad as soldiers, pilgrims and teachers. But it was in the 19th century that Ireland’s myths and legends began to reach a wider audience and to gain a new significance. This was in part inspired by the Romantic movement across Europe and by efforts to gather up and record traditional stories. It coincided too with a resurgence of nationalistic spirit in Ireland following the Rebellion of 1798 against English rule in Ireland.
These ur stories chimed with the rise of nationalism in the 1800s and confirmed aspirations for a national identity separate from that of the neighbouring island of Britain. In 1867 A.M. Sullivan, a journalist and owner of a nationalist newspaper, The Nation, wrote and published The Story of Ireland. This retelling of Ireland’s past began in pre-historic times with the coming of the Milesians, some of the earliest people supposed to have inhabited Ireland. It was aimed at young readers and it had a considerable influence on the teaching of Irish history; inspiring a prouder and more nationalistic approach to the interpretation of Ireland’s past. Sullivan’s publication was followed by others like it, and stories from Ireland’s mythology and history appeared in many Irish school-reading books in the 19th century. This is particularly evident in the books published by the Christian Brothers, a religious order founded at the end of the 18th century with the intention of educating Roman Catholic boys from poor backgrounds. There was little publishing for children in Ireland at that period, and in particular little aimed at the less well-off in society, so stories read in school textbooks frequently gained a lasting significance in the minds of their readers. Irish historians and educationalists are united in stating the education provided by Christian Brothers, both in their schools and through their publications which were sold to a wider audience, played a major role in putting a Roman Catholic and nationalist stamp on social and political events in Ireland over the next hundred and fifty years or so.
Standish James O’Grady was the son of a Church of Ireland (that is, Protestant) clergyman and an upholder of the union with Britain, and therefore was an unlikely popularizer of Irish mythological tales. But his attempt to recreate the heroic past in a number of publications won almost instant recognition from William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge, Lady Augusta Gregory and other involved with the revival of Irish literature and culture taking place at the end of the 19th century, and influenced others such as Ella Young who published a number of collections of Irish myths and legends in the early twentieth century. It should be noted, however, that O’Grady did not in any respect intend to encourage nationalistic sentiments through his publications, and was horrified when he discovered that he had done so.
Declan Kiberd points up O’Grady’s version of the Cuchulain legends in providing ‘a symbol of masculinity for Celts, who had been written off as feminine by their masters’. Cuchulain, the legendary Ulster hero and leader of the Red Branch Knights was famous for his prowess as a warrior. As a boy he was very skilful at the traditional game of hurling, and corresponding with the lat 19th century Irish literary revival, sports, particularly hurling and Gaelic football, were encouraged within the nationalist community. Kiberd suggests that, as well as proving the masculinity of Irish men, this emphasis on sport and physical prowess was intended to challenge Britain’s famous claim to have won her Empire on the playing fields of Eton (Kiberd 1995: 25).
Thus, it was as a rallying point and as a redefinition of what it was to be Irish that Ireland’s mythological past - ‘rediscovered’ in the early 19th century - grew in influence and potency in the defining years of the early and mid-20th century. For example, a statue of Cuchulain marks the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin’s General Post Office, the most famous site of the battles fought in the 1916 rebellion against the British occupation of Ireland.
The rising of 1916, although not successful in itself, and the events, which followed it, was highly symbolic, and became a powerful catalyst in the eventual formation of an independent Ireland. The occupation of the Post Office has itself gained legendary significance. The selection of Cuchulain to commemorate this defining event in the history of the nationalist movement is strongly indicative of the importance accredited to the mythological past and to the place accorded to a legendary hero. Historian Roy Foster talks of Pearse’s evocation of Cuchulain as an unseen member of staff at St Enda’s, the boys’ school set up by Pearse, and Pearse’s later employment of the mythical hero as ‘a sort of invisible brigade commander’ in the Rising (Foster 1998: 348).
Just up the street from the General Post Office there is another statue commemorating Irish men and women who died in war and in particular those who died in the struggle for independence. This statue is of the Children of Lir. Here we see sculptor Oisín Kelly’s magnificent bronze swans transformed and ascending phoenix-like, signifying the transformation of Ireland and its fallen heroes.
The story of the Children of Lir is known as one of the ‘Three Sorrows of Irish Storytelling’. It is a tragic and powerful story, and one that seems to pervade the popular imagination in Ireland. The story is originally located in the Mythological Cycle, the oldest of the cycles of Irish traditional stories. However, there is no verifiable version of it dating from earlier than the 14th century and some commentators put its origins as later than that. Folklorist Daithí Óh Ogain suggests that the story ‘is based on a migratory legend known as “The Knight of the Swan”, which reached Ireland from either Britain or France at the end of the Middle Ages’. It has been suggested too that King Lir is the King Lear of Shakespeare’s play (Oh Ogain 1990: 272). Whatever its origins, the story of ‘The Children of Lir’ resonanates with stories from many other cultures.
Set in the time of the Tuatha de Dannan, the people of the god Danu, who were some of the earliest pre-historical inhabitants of Ireland, it tells of the enchantment of the daughter and three sons of a king called Lir. Lir’s beloved wife died, leaving him to bring up four children, one girl, Fionnula, and three boys: Aed, Conn and Fiacra. To provide a mother for his children Lir married his sister-in-law - a beautiful woman called Aoife. Aoife became jealous of the time that Lir spent with his children and decided to do away with them. She brought them to the shore of Lake Derravarragh in County Westmeath. There she put a spell on them, changing them into four swans. Under the terms of the spell they were compelled to spend three hundred years on Lake Derryvaragh, three hundred years on the tempestuous Sea of Moyle between Ireland and Scotland, and three hundred years off the Errislannan Peninsula on the west coast of Ireland, near the island of Inis Glora. After this, they would regain human form when they hear the sound of a bell, signifying the passing of the old order to the new. Taking some pity on them, Aoife allowed the swan children to retain human speech and gave them the gift of beautiful singing voices.
When Aoife returned to Lir’s fort without the children the king was enraged and turned her into a demon of the air. He then went, with his courtiers, to the shores of the lake where he was comforted by talking to the children and listening to their singing.
Eventually the time came for the swan children to fly to the Sea of Moyle. Here they endured 300 years of great hardship on a cold and cruel sea. It is from here that a famous image comes: Fionnula (who in most retellings is the spokeswoman for the four) sheltered her brothers - one under each wing and one under her breast feathers.
At last the time came for them to fly to Errislanann for the final part of their enchantment. Then, on the island of Inis Glora, off the Erris coast, they heard a bell, fulfilling the final part of Aoife’s curse. The bell is rung by a man, variously described in retellings as a monk, a saint or a hermit, and in some versions is named as Saint Kemoc or Saint Mochamhog and occasionally as Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. He befriended the swans, and again depending on which retelling you read, put silver chains around their necks and blessed them or baptized them. Eventually the children became old and were metamorphosed into human shape again, whereupon they died. The hermit/saint buried them, in a scene frequently described or visualized, with Fionnula again sheltering her brothers upon each side of her and at her breast.
This is the bone of the tale, and it may be read in more detail in retellings.
You will see similarities to many other tales in this one, and there are various embellishments, which are omitted here. If it is a very old story from pre-Christian times, one can see how it was refigured to incorporate a Christian ending.
In nineteenth and twentieth century school books the Children of Lir gained currency as a trope for Roman Catholic nationalism. Thomas Moore, a very popular composer and singer of Irish ballads in the genteel drawing rooms of nineteenth century London could with impunity sing the words of his ballad in which the story of the swan children is an allegory for Ireland’s subjugation by Britain:
The ballad concludes with sentiments, which would be highly seditious if they had been expressed in plain speech:
As well as continuing to appear in school text books, in recent times, the story of the Children of Lir constantly features in collections of Irish traditional tales for children, published in Ireland, Britain and the United States. In some cases these retellings are abridged somewhat and in some the Christian ending is removed and instead the children are blessed rather than baptized by a hermit instead of a monk or a saint.
American writer Susan McGill-Callahan and illustrator Gennady Spirin published a picturebook called The Children of Lir in 1993. In it, Lir’s family consists of two sons, Cormac and Fionn and two daughters, Liban and Maeve. There are many embellishments, including the introduction of a whale called Jasconius whose presence does not seem to be based on any of the earlier versions of the story. We can conclude that the gender balance - or rebalancing - of two boys and two girls in McGill-Callahan’s version of the story is there to appease a desire for political correctness in the American market. It is also noticeable that it is now one of the sons, Cormac, who acts as spokesperson for the children, instead of Fionnula who traditionally speaks for them and acts as a surrogate mother to the sons. In fact, Fionnula is usually presented as a far more defined character than her brothers but she has been written out by McGill-Callahan. At the conclusion of this version of the story the children are reunited with Lir and ‘lived long and happy lives’. Spirin’s illustrations are glorious but are far more middle-European than Celtic Irish in influence, unlike some other illustrated versions where the artist has provided a setting in keeping with the accepted background to the story.
McGill-Callahan’s retelling does, however, open up a debate about whose story this is to retell, and the fact that, rather than a very ancient Irish myth; it may be a hybrid concoction of the middle-ages, perhaps devised with the aim of promoting the Christian message.
Whatever its origins, the story of the Children of Lir has taken a strong hold in popular imagination, and is a myth with which all Irish people are familiar. But as well as commemorating Ireland’s war dead in the Garden of Remembrance, the story has a more material hold on post-modern Ireland. ‘Lir’ is the name of a popular brand of chocolates, there are a number of ranges of jewellery depicting the swan children, they are commemorated in music including composer Patrick Cassidy’s orchestral suite ‘the Children of Lir’, multimedia cartoon versions of the story are available, and a television campaign promoting a brand of mineral water was based around their story - surely the ultimate acknowledgement of the universal recognition of this ‘sorrow of Irish storytelling’.
There is a signpost and stone in a remote part of west cork near Allihies village, claiming it as the place where the Children of Lir heard the ringing of the saint’s bell. Unfortunately for Allihies, there are no records or even popular mythologies connecting the place with the story, but it is seen as a tourist attraction and therefore imported into the area. And, with at least some greater geographical accuracy, a golf course on the west of Ireland has called some of the holes after the four swan children.
In the constrained and isolationist years of the new Irish state in the mid-twentieth century Irish legends and myths were associated with a stringent Catholic nationalism, and often their location in schoolbooks was with the intention of inculcating that ideology. However, a new primary school curriculum with a changed emphasis on myths and legends in the history curriculum and social, cultural, economic and religious changes in Ireland has removed any present-day suggestion of ghettoisation of these stories. Now, myths and legends are viewed as part of Ireland’s national heritage rather than as the means of indoctrination. They have become part of the ‘theme park’ made of Irish history about which Roy Foster so tellingly writes (Foster 2001: 28-31).
Sometimes they occur as a basis for stories - often fantasy - by modern Irish authors such as Michael Scott and Cormac MacRaois, and in several novels the activities of present-day children call up heroes or gods from former times, such as Grace Wells’s Gyrfalcon in which Finn MacCumhaill, in the role of surrogate father, comes to the aid of a boy troubled by tension between his parents, in a story set at the end of the twentieth century.
It is also interesting to note that many myths and legends have significance for the Northern Irish unionist community (those who still espouse the political link with Britain). In particular some members of the unionist paramilitary groups see themselves almost as reincarnations of Cuchulain and the Red Branch Knights.
This gives reason to consider in the Irish context, Levi-Strauss’s proposition that myth is concerned ‘with the fantasy production of a society seeking passionately to give symbolic expression to the institutions it might have had in reality’ (Kearney, Levi-Strauss, 1968). In the absence of a sense of self-determination on the part of the Irish people in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Children of Lir, the heroic tales of Cuchulain and other myths and legends were projected on to the unfolding backdrop of the struggle for independence and subsequent definition as a nation in newly independent Ireland.
We may reflect too on the possible inscription of Christian values on an early legend concerning the changing of children to swans, and in more recent times the dilution of the Christian element as Ireland becomes a pluralistic society. It is not too fanciful to suggest that the metamorphosis of the Children of Lir from humans to swans and back to humans is analogous with the appropriation and adaptation of Irish mythology to suit events in the evolution of modern Ireland.
Foster 1998: Foster, Roy. The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making it Up in Ireland. London: Allen Lane, 1998.
Foster 2001: Foster, Roy. Modern Ireland 1600-1972. London: Allen Lane, 2001.
Kiberd 1995: Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland: the Literature of the Modern Nation. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995.
Levi-Strauss 1968: Levi-Strauss, Calude. Structural Anthropology. New York, Penguin, 1968.
McGill-Callahan 1993: McGill-Callahan, Susan & Spirin, Gennady. The Children of Lir. Hants, Andover, Ragged Bears, 1993.
Oh Ogain 1990: Oh Ogain, Daithi. Myth, Legend and Romance: Encyclopedia of Irish Folk Traditions. London: Ryan Publishing, 1990.
Wells 2002: Wells, Grace. Gyrfalcon. Dublin: O’Brien Press, 2002.
Yeats 1950: Yeats, W.B. Collected Poems. 2nd edition. London: Macmillan, 1950.
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© Valerie Coghlan