I was an awkward kid. Only inconvenience was my terrible motion sickness. I dreaded car rides of any length. The drive to my mother’s house at Lavagh on the shores of Lough Sheelin in Cavan was particularly miserable.
But there was a moment I loved. As we rounded a bend near Crookedwood I caught a glimpse of Lough Derravaragh nestled between the hills. My heart and spirits would lift at the beautiful scene. I always thought of the mythical children of Lir singing to their father on the shore.
Then it was back to fighting the nausea, which was desperately trying to delay my siblings’ vomiting and disgust.
A few weeks ago, having happily outgrown it, I drove my mom the same way. We stopped by the lake and soaked up the antique atmosphere. But just a mile up the road my heart stopped and I had to stop again.
What magic was that? At a magnificent courtyard entrance, someone had carved the four swans and Lir’s face out of a tree. Twigs had become flying swans. It was really amazing. I had to get out and examine it in amazement.
I called longtime councilman Frank McDermott of Fore. Who did this? He introduced me to Mullingar artist Richie Clarke and farmer David Fagan, the local veterinarian, and his wife Ann Marie.
She told me the tree, an oak, was slowly dying. It was a sad process but they knew Mr Clarke’s work: he has two wonderful plays in nearby Fore. The tree was dead, but maybe they could make something beautiful out of it.
There was only ever one theme for a sculpture in a house called Teach Lir. So Mr. Clarke came with his chainsaw. Can you believe a chainsaw created this wonderful public art?
He’s in Kerry this week working on another piece and we chatted on the phone about his evolution from carpenter to sculptor. What a wonderful calling – carving myths out of nature. It’s no surprise that he has a waiting list for assignments.
But the Children of Lir tree reminded me, as if I needed it, of a mildly psychotic episode in my past. I loved the legend so much as a kid that I eagerly bought a nice copy of it Irish Myths and LegendsI was supposed to read to my oldest boy when he was about four or five years old. In my fantasies of the good mother, I would create a precious memory that he would cherish until the end of his days.
As usual, reality didn’t match the dreams. He loved the story too. The problem was that when I started reading I was overcome by the sadness of it all. A dead mother. A wicked stepmother. The curse. The heartbroken father. And there is no happy ending. The end is that they die. Everyone dies.
But the worst thing – the thing that broke me – was the description of the harsh exile on the Sea of Moyle. During a storm, Fionnuala, the eldest, wrapped her huge wings around her ailing younger brothers. There was even a poignant image of the sad scene.
I would break down every time. I know why. I was in a storm and wanted someone to take me under their wing. A case of melodramatic over-identification.
But my son loved it. Every night I asked if I could read something else, but he insisted. Eventually we escalated into hysteria. He shouted, “Read it! Read it!” I yelled, “But it makes me too sad!”
Finally, at the height of the psychodrama, I tore the page out of the book. So much for the memory of the devoted mother who gave birth to Irish myth. Instead, chapter one of his memoir: Crazy Mammy. Brilliant.
I called my friend the psychoanalyst. “It’s okay,” she said. “Glue the page back into the book and show him that broken things can be fixed.”
So I did. And I was calm and said, “I’m fine now. I can read the story.” And he said, “It’s okay, Mammy. If it makes you sad, you don’t have to read it.” So I read Deirdre of Sorrows instead of this. Everyone dies too, but for some reason I didn’t mind.
Since then I’ve felt guilty about my emotional instability. But when I got back from Cavan, I told him all about the sculpture and mentioned the scene, which was certainly burned into his brain. He had absolutely no memory of it. That was good news. If only I could repress the memories of my worst moments that easily.
The sad thing is my youngest child knows nothing about Irish myths. They are no longer read in the school where we learned them. And although the book with the glued page is still at home, he refuses all offers to read it. Maybe he knows that these are sad stories.
But they are our stories and we should know them.
David and Ann Marie Fagan have done a beautiful thing – the sculpture is a perfect subject in a perfect setting.
I’ve always loved the sculptures that dot our freeways across the country – the brilliant project that fenced off some of the street’s public art budget.
The Fagans gave us a similar gift. It was a magical moment – seeing the swans fly off a dead tree and bring it back to life – and eventually a happy ending.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/surprising-roadside-art-breathes-new-life-into-the-old-irish-myths-were-at-risk-of-losing-41878160.html Surprising roadside art breathes new life into the ancient Irish myths we are about to lose