ON Nov 27 I got a very sad phonecall from Bernadette Fahy and a text from Paddy Doyle.Both Bernadette and Paddy are amazing people who are survivors of institutional abuse.
They contacted me to tell me of An Bord Pleanála’s decision not to go ahead with the proposed site for the memorial Journey of Light beside the Garden of Remembrance.
The memorial was one of the recommendations of 2009’s Ryan Report into child sex abuse. It 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. 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.
They are very deflated and disappointed at the news, because of the huge commitment and dedication they and their 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 degree research on the story of The Fate of the Children of Lir. I have explored 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 and its contemporary relevance with various focus groups. 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 world view 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. This is a story that has captured the imagination of parents and children, artists, poets, musicians, sculptors — even business entrepreneurs. Think of Oisín Kelly’s Children of Lir sculpture in the Garden of Remembrance for example, or Lir Chocolates.
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, 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 memorial beside the Garden of Remembrance and that it would be linked with The Children of Lir sculpture, I thought it 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 sadly, with the decision of An Bord Pleanála, 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 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. Having The Children of Lir and the Journey of Light together on one site, might have facilitated symbolically, the emergence of a new understanding.
* Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop is CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. 1800 77 88 88 — national 24-hour helpline for victims of sexual violence
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