On the afternoon of November 27th, I got a very sad phone call from Bernadette Fahy and a text from Paddy Doyle. Both Bernadette and Paddy are two amazing people who are survivors of institutional abuse from our damming legacy of cruelty and ignorance to children in 20th century Ireland. They contacted me to tell me of An Bord Planala’s decision not to go ahead with the proposed site for the memorial ‘Journey of Light’ Project besides the Garden of Remembrance site. The memorial was one of the recommendations of the Ryan Report which was published in 2009. The Ryan Report documented and validated the stories of survivors of the horrendous physical, sexual and emotional abuse of our children in state-run institutions in Ireland in the last century.
Paddy and Bernadette are two of the people on the Board mandated to devise a process for selecting a memorial and an appropriate location for the memorial. They contacted me because they know of the work I have done on the story of The Children of Lir over the past 20 years and of my interest in the proposed site for the memorial. They are very deflated and very disappointed having heard the news, after the huge commitment and dedication they and their other their other colleagues on the Board, have given to the project.
Some time ago I contacted Paddy and subsequently Bernadette and told them about the findings from my Master’s research on the story of The Fate of the Children of Lir. I have explored our Irish myths and considered their contemporary relevance for the past 20 years, mainly at the Annual Bard Summer School on Clare Island in Co. Mayo. I also worked for a number of years exploring the Myth of the Children of Lir with various focus groups around the country also exploring its contemporary relevance. Myths were one way our ancestors made sense of the world. Myths have lasted the test of time and can inform our sense of ourselves and our worldview in some deep way.
The Fate of the Children of Lir is one of the most abiding and best-loved, if also poorly understood myths from Ancient Ireland. Anytime we have worked with this story in groups, lots of people were attracted to the events. This is a story that has captured the imagination of parents and children, artists, poets, musicians, sculptors – even business entrepreneurs. Think of Oisin Kelly’s Children of Lir sculpture in the Garden of Remembrance through to Lir Chocolates, to give a couple of examples.
The story appears all sweetness and light on the surface, but underneath lies a much darker tone.
In a simmering tale of thwarted ambition, politically motivated match-making, a loveless marriage, deep resentment of the children from another relationship, and the tragic abuse of power, Aoife resolves to kill the four children of Lir. Failing in that ambition, she turns them into swans and curses them to spend 300 years each on Lake Derravarragh, the Sea of Moyle and the Western Ocean. After 900 years, they return to human form. Old and wizened, they are baptised by the monk Mochaomhog before dying and being buried on Inis Ghloire.
Working through this story with many groups over the years, I have seen their surprise at the dark interpretations arising from what they had assumed to be a gentle childhood story. Examining the myth in depth brought observations on the unequal power relations, the use and abuse of power, the lack of respect for women, and on enforced silence in the face of the terrible suffering that victimised and ‘virtually invisible’ children went through.
We know from anthropologists that the way people listen to stories is always in terms of their contemporary realities. The oral tradition is always about the here and now.
Our group analysis of the Children of Lir brought troubling associations with modern Irish History – with the treatment of women and children in Industrial schools and Magdalene Laundries; dreadful abuses of power held over women and children; and the terrible effects that can arise – or rather that have arisen and still arise when society’s checks and balances are not fit for purpose.
So when I heard of the proposal to locate the ‘Journey of Light’ Memorial beside the Garden of Remembrance and that it would be linked with the Children of Lir Sculpture, I thought was a fitting symbol to redress the terrible story of the Children of Lir with a contemporary healing image of a Journey of Light. Having both symbols together could create the possibility, the space, for something better to emerge.
However, it would seem sad, with the decision of An Board Planala, that we are not ready to move out of the influence of the powerful myth of the Children of Lir even though we have many other ancient myths about kings, sovereignty and the exercise of power, which could serve us much better. Myths which capture our ancestors’ understanding that a blend of wisdom, responsibility and accountability is needed to balance the exercise of power. By having both the Children of Lir and The Journey of Light together on one site, might have facilitated symbolically, the emergence of a new understanding and of new possibilities.
CEO, Dublin Rape Crisis Centre.
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