In the morning I travel across Killarney’s Lough Leane, named Lake of Learning for the Irish monks who drew people from the far reaches of Europe to study on the Isle of Innisfallen. As our launch crosses the living lake, the waters toss and swell and smooth under the wind, swirling in grey mist, absorbing the splashing rain with the same receptive spirit that drinks in the sunlight minutes later. All the while the oak trees, roots deep in the green hills, hold the lake like a cup offered to the thirsty heart.
We come ashore on Innisfallen, and for the next three hours, I walk in the sixth century, circling the small island, stopping to gaze through gaps in the trees when the lake becomes suddenly visible, or when a shaft of sunlight turns the woods into sacred space. I find a smooth place beneath an oak tree. As clouds, like old magicians, obscure, then release, the sun, I open Croker to read what Thomas Moore wrote about this island:
How fair thou art,
let others tell,
while but to feel how fair
On the shoreline, I pick up a blackened stone that looks to have two small monks carved on its side. I make my way back to the ruins of the earliest monastery, and stand looking under the lintel into the open doorway and wonder how it felt to enter and become a student here. In the remains of the early chapel, I see a Celtic cross of red sandstone, found in the Lake, its age unknown.
Later I will discover words Seamus Heaney wrote about visiting this ancient chapel:
Inside, in the dark of the stone, it feels as if you are sustaining a great pressure, bowing down like the generations of monks who must have bowed down in meditation and reparation on the floor…But coming out of the cold heart of the stone into the sunlight and dazzle of grass and sea, I felt a lift in my heart, a surge towards happiness that must have been experienced by those monks as they crossed that same threshold centuries ago. (Seamus Heaney Preoccupations London, 1980; in Lost in Wonder p.99, Esther de Waal, Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2003)
I am at peace on this island, and find, as Moore says, that it matters not whether the sun surprises or the rain showers dampen. It’s hard to leave when the motor launch returns.
Three nights later, in the west of Ireland, in Tralee, I find my way to the newly-built fieldstone playhouse, home to the Siamsa Tire, Ireland’s National Folk Theatre. Tonight they are to perform “The Children of Lir”.
The magic begins before the curtain rises. I feel a tingling anticipation, the promise of something more, the promise of what I sought on Tara Hill.
The story is sung entirely in Irish by a young man whose voice floats on swans’ wings over the theatre while the actors dance and mime the tale with exquisite grace and beauty. I understand no word of the language of my foremothers and forefathers. I have to rely on programme notes for the storyline.
The tale of the Children of Lir is like the fairy tales that we heard when we were young. A beloved mother dies. A beloved father remarries. A wicked stepmother pretends love for the children but secretly plots their destruction. In this old Irish tale, Aifa (eefa) takes them to Lake Derravaragh (Derryvar’agh) where, using the magic staff of her husband, Lir, King of the Sea, she transforms them into swans.
The spell will last for three times three hundred years. The swans will have to live in three different places until the dawn of the New Age sets them free. The woman must have had a small light in her dark heart, for she allows the swans to keep their human voices. She returns to the castle, telling Lir that his four beloved children, Fionnuala (fee-un-oo’la), Aedh (aid), Fiachra (fee’ach-ra) and Conn are dead. (music ends)
As the children try to adapt to their swan bodies, they comfort themselves by singing. Word begins to spread throughout the kingdom that the music of the swans can soothe away grief. The King goes to the lake, seeking comfort, and his swan children tell him what has transpired.
Lir uses his magic staff to transform his Queen into a demon of the air. He himself moves to an encampment near the lake to be near his children. They have many happy years together until the spell unfolds the moment when the swans must go to another place.
They arrive at the Sea of Moyle which is cold and lonely. A fierce storm arises to scatter and nearly destroy them. Fionnuala arrives safely at the Rock of the Seals, but she fears her brothers are dead. She mourns for them. She sings her song of grief. Yet one by one, they return. The four are again together. A long time passes and the third of their destinations calls to them. They fly over their home, but see no sign of their father. On the deserted western shore, the swans settle into their third resting place, resigned to their fate, singing to console their hearts. Their music draws birds from all over Ireland.
Time passes. The Kairos moment arrives, the opening in the weaving of time to allow something new to happen. A holy hermit hears their song and responds with music of his own.
The children sing with him in harmony as a pale golden light rises on the stage, appearing behind the two standing stones, carved with spirals and with the Ogham letters of the Irish alphabet. The bell of the New Age sounds even as a third stone drops to form an arch with the other two. The swan skins fall away, revealing four very old people. The hermit baptizes them, releasing them into freedom. Together they walk into the golden light. Transformation.
Though it ends in death, the Children of Lir is a birthing story. I know that I am watching a mythic tale of the beginnings of Christianity in Ireland. My soul recognizes its deep truth though it tells me nothing that might pass for history. The coming of Christianity was a promise fulfilled, a dawning whose power released from old binding spells.
That night in Tralee I fall in love once more with the promise. My quest has altered, subtly, importantly. Within me, as Yeats says, “a terrible beauty (is) born”. I know now that what I seek is not, as I had thought, to find a pure religion that existed here before Christianity, but rather to recover the beauty and passion and love that was at the heart of the early Christian faith in Ireland. I need to reclaim my own heritage.