Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Tale of the Children of Lir

I wonder how Peg is getting on over in Nova Scotia? She's there for a reunion with old friends, but more importantly, she's trying to get into the Fleece Artist/Handmaiden factory just to see all that glory. Can't wait to hear how she got on - and I should be able to do it face to face, since I'll be on her home ground of Vancouver Island in late September!

Meanwhile I'm keeping up the lil' house on the prairie ambience, trying to make dpns out of wooden meat skewers .

I'd found these in the lean-to greenhouse a year ago and tossed them on one side thinking, 'why would anyone want those, I should really throw them out.' Then, after that adventure with cutting up metal straights, I remembered these and went hunting for them. They were even damper and mouldier than I'd remembered so they had to be laid out on newspaper in the sun to dry...

and then I selected four of the least injured and dipped them in a bottle of walnut dye which happened to be hanging around in the workshop just waiting for the opportunity to upend itself over some nice white washing or something...

More on this little exercise later, when I work out how to use my new rotary tool (thanks Rachel for that tip, but why don't these things come with nice pictures of what each bit is for and how they fit? Will have to haul in DH for advice).

The bright little Cherry Tree Hill Glitz socks are so much fun to knit! The yarn isn't painted in longer lengths like the Interlacements but in short bursts, so every inch brings a new gleam of colour and you get little pools of purple or red or orange. I'm mad about them! Haven't got very far yet, mind, but enjoying every second I spend on them.

I'm really into these bright, bright colourways for socks. When I look at the more usual ones, in pale pastels, they seem rather dreary. We should be surging into winter, letting our feet sing songs of radiant red and glimmering green and blossoming blue and explosive orange all the way, not drooping in dulls!

(That might sound like I'm contradicting what I said a few days ago about coming back to the quiet natural colours but it isn't really. I'm going to make a Shetland-type shawl in fawns and browns and greys and creams soon, when I get three seconds together to find a pattern, but when it comes to socks I'm definitely thinking bright. Think of the thrill when people get a glimpse of that in the street!)

Rita, I do spin. I love spinning! (Unfortunately I love lots of other things too, which is why spinning hasn't been mentioned here lately, but check back in the archives to see my little Orkney Haldane and my cute French wheel and of course the saga of Daniel P. Buckley and the Cork fleeces!) Really must get back to the wheel now that we're getting into the cooler months. It's the most soothing thing I know, and you have yarn at the end to show for it! I take Anne as my guiding star on spinning, since she makes the most incredible things on that wheel of hers. I really really want to spin my own sock yarn but have to learn how to make it thin and smooth and NOT LUMPY first. Perhaps if I didn't try to get things done in a rush...?

Actually, Anne was asking what I knew about hap shawls. Anne, I have to admit that although I would love to lay claim to these, they really don't seem to have been part of Irish wear at all. The earliest photographs I can find, and illustrations before that, show the same simple check woven shawls, not knitted. I think the hap shawls were peculiar to the Scottish islands, especially the Shetlands, where the finer wool produced by the sheep made a soft fine yarn feasible and hence the distinctive lacy shawls. Native Irish wool on the other hand was always a bit coarser and less suited to fine yarns (we have a lot more breeds now of course but back then it was just the mountain blackface).

However, we did have our own traditional shawls, albeit woven, right up into recent times. Women would sometimes wear a larger version of the old woven blanket shawl instead of the hooded cloak, and then in
the early 20th century the government issued these woven woollen shawls (usually black but sometimes brown check) to poorer people. When I was growing up in Cork, the old women who still wore them were
affectionately called 'shawlies.'

They were still wearing them in the 1940s, which is about when this picture was taken.

Now of course they are collectors' items and you'd be lucky to find one. One or two of the ladies who run stalls on Cork's Coal Quay as their mothers and grandmothers did before them (a really matriarchal society, that Coal Quay market) have shawls handed down, and will wear them on special occasions.

Now listen, so many of you have asked for the legend of the Children of Lir that I'm going to post it here, right now. It saves emailing it out in all directions and besides the text often gets corrupted that way. I don't want to hear one whinge out of the copyright brigade - this is a traditional legend which every Irish child can recite from the age of two upwards, and the one I give here is in entirely my own words. In fact I've rewritten the ending to reflect Irish tradition more accurately, rather than that of the over-enthusiastic Christian monks who first wrote it down from the spoken word. If, therefore, you believe implicitly that anything written by religieux must be infallible and cannot be questioned, don't read on.

Are you sitting comfortably? Knitting in hand? (No, not the lacework - garter stitch, I think, for this one. ) Now - snuggle down and imagine you are back in ancient Ireland...

The Children of Lir.

This is one of the most ancient of Irish legends, passed down from generation to generation by the traditional shanachies or storytellers. Indeed, it is one of the famed Three Sorrows of Storytelling, which had to be mastered to perfection by the would-be shanachie before he or she could be accepted fully into this most demanding of skills (the others being The Quest of the Sons of Turenn and the Fate of the Sons of Usna).
However, since such legends were always recounted in the spoken word, they were only written down at a comparatively late stage in our history, after Christianity came to Ireland; and this has meant a very definite Christian input wherever possible, to render the ancient tales more appropriate for the new order. In the case of The Children of Lir, this means that the original ending has been dramatically changed, and the one you will read in books is not the true one. In the version you will read here, I have indicated where the Christian version comes in, and then given you what I believe must be the traditional ending as originally told in so many great halls by the blazing log fire as the winds howled and the rains fell outside, and the audience crowded closer to hear every word. Listen then, as they will have listened.

Lir was a great king in the ancient time of the Tuatha de Danaan, second only to the High King himself, Bodb Dearg. And it so happened that Bodb Dearg, in recognition of Lir’s great strength and fidelity, offered his friend one of his two beautiful daughters in marriage. Lir fell straight away in love with Aobh, the eldest, and took her to wife; but it is said by those who were there that the second daughter, Aoife, had fallen in love with this splendid fair-haired warrior herself and was deeply jealous in her heart that her sister had won him.
Time passed, and Aobh and Lir were happy indeed. First she bore to him twin children, a girl and a boy, whom they named Fionnuala and Aodh, and then two more twins, both boys, Fiachra and Conn. But then grief came upon the house of Lir for Aobh sickened and died within three days for all that they could do for her. Lir for many days and nights would talk to no-one; until Bodb Dearg sent word to offer his second daughter, Aoife as his wife. Although at first Lir would not think of it, at last good sense prevailed for he thought she would be a second mother to his children. And so he married Aoife who was joyful that at last she had achieved her heart’s desire.

But as is so often the case with those who get their heart’s desire, it is not enough; and soon Aoife became jealous of Lir’s love for his four children. And she resolved to do away with them. And so it happened that one fine summer’s morning she invited them to join her in a chariot ride to the shores of Loch Derravaragh to hear the birds sing and see the flowers growing; and there she struck them with her wand and turned them into four beautiful white swans. ‘Live now,’ she cried triumphantly, ‘three hundred years on Loch Derravaragh, three hundred years on the Sea of Moyle, and three hundred years off Inis Gloire before you may spend one night on dry land again.’ And then she left them and returned to the palace.

Can you imagine the terror and bewilderment of these four young royal children, hitherto accustomed to a happy carefree life among those who loved them? Now turned into swans, condemned to suffer for nine hundred years on cold unfriendly waters? At first they wept, and then Fionnuala put her wings around her brothers, Aodh, Fiachra and Conn, and vowed that she would hold them together and they would all survive to the end of this dreadful enchantment.

In the meantime, Lir asked where his children were. She said they had run away because they did not love him. But he suspected her in his heart and went instead to her chariot driver to learn where they had been that day. The charioteer took him to Loch Derravaragh where he saw the four beautiful swans floating and singing in piercingly sweet voices while they did so. He spoke with them and learned of the treachery of Aoife and his heart was sick indeed, for he knew he could not undo what had been done. ‘If you may not come on to dry land,’ he then said, ‘we shall come and make our court here by the lake, that you may not be without company.’ And that was what they did.

In the meantime, what of the wicked queen Aoife? Well, Lir went to her with fair words and loving gestures and while they were happily thus occupied he whispered to her, as if in jest, ‘What now, Aoife, would be the thing that you would most fear and loathe in the whole world, I wonder?’ And she, suspecting nothing, replied, ‘For sure the Morrigan.’

[The Morrigan is a very ancient creature of Irish myth indeed, and not remotely like the leprechauns and fairies with which we are familiar today. It may owe something to the harpies and demons of Greek myth, perhaps even something to pterodactyls and other prehistoric creatures. It is a demonic witch of the air, condemned to fly forever in torment while trying to torment others.]

And upon hearing this, Lir took out his own wand and struck Aoife with it. ‘Go now,’ he cried, ‘and be a Morrigan for all time.’ And with that, Aoife was transformed into a hideous black screaming creature that soared up into the air and through the chimney and so out into the wide world where she is in it yet, and will be to the end of life and time.

The children of Lir spent a happy enough three hundred years on Loch Derravaragh with Lir and his court on the shore to keep them company; but then, with much weeping they were forced to fly to the cruel sea of Moyle which rages between Ireland and Scotland. Here they suffered many hardships in winter snow and ice, when their feet and wings were frozen to the bare rocks on which they clung together for safety. And only that the birds of the air and the fish of the sea helped them with food and encouragement (for all had heard of the wickedness of Aoife), it would have gone hard with them. And after that they flew to the west coast of Ireland, off Inis Gloire, where the sea was a brighter blue and the waves not so dreadful, but for all that they yearned for their father and the happy scenes of their childhood. And in the end the last of the three hundred years was complete and Fionnuala said to her brothers, ‘Come, let us return home and rejoice with those we love’ And they rose into the air and flew with a mighty beating of wings to where the court of Lir lay.

But when they landed on the green earth of Ireland once more, there were no fine walls, no mighty ramparts to be seen - only mossy hillocks and stunted trees. Nine hundred years had passed, and the Tuatha de Danaan had left the living world to new peoples. Stunned and confused the four swans stood amid the ruins of what had been their happy home.

[Now this is where the Christian pen is felt forcibly. The printed versions tell of a monk who comes to see this wonder and immediately baptises the four swans. They instantly turn into ancient ancient people and die, thanking God for the gift of Christianity as they do, and being buried reverently in consecrated ground by the monk and pious obedient local people. No disrespect to the church, but that is no way for an Irish legend to finish. From my knowledge of both legend and Irish character, this is probably the true way of it:]

‘Now since things have passed and our people have gone,’ said Fionnuala, ‘the only thing for us to do is to sing once more, to sing the praises of those that have been here and the greatness of the things they did.’ And so Fionnuala, Aedh, Fiachra and Conn stood in a circle with their wings outspread and they sang gloriously of the Tuatha de Danaan and the deeds they had done and the goodness of their golden world.
And people came from all around to stare and wonder at this great beauty. And as they stared, they began to hear singing coming from every side, from the hills and the mountains and the skies themselves. Then a great brightness overspread their vision so that they could barely see - but many afterwards claimed that they thought they saw, dimly, as if in a dream, the hillsides open and a fair bright people come forth with their arms outstretched; and the swans, changed now into beautiful young children, go to greet them; and so the Children of Lir were welcomed back by their own people and taken to Tir na n’Og, the Land of Youth, where the Tuatha de Danaan now live, waiting for the day when Ireland shall have need of them once more.


Anonymous said...

Oh so lovely, Jo. What a delight, enchanting. A knitter, a spinner, a writer and a fine shanachie she is!
Now I have to giggle about those meat skewers!

Lene said...

Thank you Jo!

Anonymous said...

I'm still sitting comfortably - may we have the other two stories now please? You've done such a lovely job with this one I can't resist asking.

Anonymous said...

After you mentioned it the other day, I got out my book and read the edited Christian version. I like yours better; it's much more moving.

Anonymous said...

I love your telling of the Children of Lir. If you ever feel like telling another one, please consider Oisin and Niamh Golden Hair in Tir na nOg. That's one of my favorites.

Vicki in So. Cal.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sparing us the Christian end (what a way to spoil a legend).
And what Rachel said: can we have the other two stories, please? Yes?

Anonymous said...

I love those shawls ,sadly they remind me of ladies waiting at the coal-face for news during a disaster ( seen too many films) or fishermen's wives ...have you ever seen "The Mousehole Cat" ? They are such a useful garment ,they can be spread on a bed,babies carried in them.

Fiberjoy said...

Ha, ha. Like mind think alike. At the grocery store just Saturday I picked up a packet of meat skewers thinking that very thought. As I bounced the weight in my hand envisioning lots of DP needles, reality struck. LOTS of DPN. Not like I need a bunch all of the same size. Still...

The Kerrigan edition of Children of Lir is printed out, waiting for that quiet time when work is finished (sure) and I can drift far away without interruptions. mmm, can hardly wait.

Kit said...

That's a lovely story and I'm sorry that it was changed for the sake of a ruling class. But your ending does sound much more proper. Thank you for sharing it.

Charity said...

Thanks so much, Jo, for sharing such a beautiful story! I waited all morning to have a chance to sit in a bit of peace and read it on my own, with no small one pounding on the keyboard. It was well worth the wait! :0)

Tan said...

Hey, nice story; even if you are already being unfaithful to grey. It's OK.

Shelley L. MacKenzie said...

Speaking as a Christian, I must say that I totally do not like or agree with what was made up as the "Christian" ending. That totally does not envelop Christian beliefs.

Christianity does not believe that animals can be changed into human beings. Christianity also does not envelop the baptism of animals.

So, whomever made that ending up - the "Christians" of that time - apparently didn't have a good grasp of their own beliefs.

Anyway, I'm not trying to preach here or anything. Thanks for sharing that story. As well, I hope your home made dpn's turn out well. I've been thinking of trying my hand at some home made needles out of dowels, but that is just in the thought process right now as to doing it or not.

Dez Crawford said...

Thank you Jo for the lovely tale. I've read other versions, and grew up hearing a slightly different version told to children, which ended with how the swans came out of their spell to be normal people again, and to live happily together forever.

Your story is by far the best. A knittin' shanachie? How grand!

Anonymous said...

What an amazing tale! I hadn't heard it before, but am fascinated by the thinking behind it. Can you recommend some books about Irish tales that I could possibly look for?
Your skills in knitting and spinning both types of yarns make your site a pleasure to visit, Jo.

Anonymous said...

Only a monk would think his version better.

Can't wait to see how those skewers make out as dpn's. I think I've got a whole silverware section filled with them.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jo, thank you for sharing the story! I sent you an e-mail through Knitter's review forum through the link you left - I hope you have received it?

Anonymous said...

i am saving the reading of the children of lir for later, but wnted to thank you now for the shawl story!
i did see a gorgeous hap shawl pattern online by hazel carter that you might like for your "naturals" shawl

LornaJay said...

Thank you. The "official" ending always seemed a bit flat to me. This is far more satisfying to me.

Abby said...

Ooh, I finally read the Children of Lir. The ending made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Very nicely done.