Lir is known to many as the father of the boys and girls turned into swans by their wicked step mother Aoife in "The Children of Lir." This is the story I only tell on very rare occasions, and when I do so I simply call it: "Aoife’s Tale."
To summarise the story as it is best known: When Aobh the mother of the four children dies, her husband Lir marries her sister Aoife. Aoife is jealous of Lir’s love for the children so turns them into swans, in which form, they are blown around the waters between Ireland and Scotland for nine hundred years. Finally they are turned back into human form, but now they are ancient and dying. Fortunately, in the preceding nine hundred years, Ireland has become Christian so they are baptised and then are given a Christian burial.
There is much in this story to move and entertain an audience, but what troubles me is that the simplicity of some versions diminishes the true horror of the story. For me, this is a story of terrible dislocation and the choices forced on people by warfare and the threat of annihilation. The Tuatha Dé Danaan may be magical, but they are not immune to suffering. In their arrogance they had killed the first human to visit Ireland. In the wake of this one act of bloodshed, Ireland is invaded, and the Tuatha Dé Danaan, suffer defeat and massacre. The survivors, still stumbling to understand what has befallen them, try to rally around a new king, but their reduced ranks are weakened and split by rumours and conspiracies. One of the most powerful faction leaders is Lir. To avert civil war, the reigning king Bodb Dearg proposes a solution: If Lir accepts him as king, then Bodb Dearg will allow him to marry one of his three foster daughters. Lir married Aobh, who bore him four children, after which she died. Fearing that Lir’s grief will open up dangerous divisions in the Tuatha Dé Danaan, Bodb Dearg offered Aoife as her replacement. For me this is the crux of the story; the lives and deaths of women being used as bargaining chips in the game of power and politics.
In my version, Aoife and Lir fall in passionately in love, and Aoife loves her step children as much as Lir. But she is not satisfied with this. Having been originally overlooked in favour of Aobh, she now seeks to create a love that is bigger and more dazzling. This is understandable, even commendable, but it is also a fatal compulsion; in order to enhance the love around her she must have a child of her own. When she fails to conceive, horror follows.
Aoife has much in common with Medea, the mythological Greek princess. Where Aoife bound herself to Lir to prevent civil war, Medea bound herself to Jason the Argonaut in order that he succeed in his quest. Having committed treason against her family and nation, Medea fled to Corinth with Jason, where they married. Unlike Aoife, Medea does have children and her life seems complete. Yet when the king of Corinth asks Jason to marry his daughter, Jason agrees to put Medea aside. In a patriarchal world, both Medea and Aoife have very limited control over their lives. With Medea, this realisation transforms her love into a terrible hatred; her beloved children provide the means by which she takes her gruesome and awful revenge against Jason and his would be bride. Aoife also seeks revenge and an awful empowerment by attacking her step-children. Unlike Medea though, Aoife allows the children of Lir to live (though perhaps death would have been preferable to spending centuries imprisoned in an alien form.)
If "The City beneath the Waves" is a story that illustrates the danger and the beauty of our daily lives, "The Children of Lir"/ "Aoife’s Tale" is a never fading condemnation of war and violent patriarchy. Aoife may be a purely mythical figure but there are powerful truths in this story: The repercussions of war and violent trauma do not end after peace comes; the ramifications of violence echo and boom down through the peace. This is a contemporary as well as historical truth.
Stay tuned for Rab’s final blog: Never-Ending Stories