Saturday 19 January 2019

First person: Stupid stuff of legend

An Irish fable led to a screaming match and wanton destruction of a book, says Sarah Carey, the culprit

Sarah Carey

I'm not saying I come out of this story very well. I'm just asking: why are Irish myths so profoundly miserable that a noble effort to read my child The Children of Lir ended in a psychodrama, with the pages hysterically torn from the book? And I was doing the ripping. I know. I know.

As usual, it began with good intentions. I bought two books of myths, Greek and Irish. The Greek tales had excellent morals and heroic deeds to admire. There's Midas, who wanted everything he touched to turn to gold, until he realised he couldn't touch his own daughter. He repents and the curse is lifted.

There's Theseus and Perseus, killing gruesome monsters and living to tell the tale. Pandora does mess things up a bit, but when she releases all the troubles of the world, at least one is left with hope. All is not lost. Unlike the Irish myths, where all is lost and everyone dies. Oisin goes to Tir na nOg. Dead. Cu Chulainn? Dead. Deirdre of the Sorrows. All dead. And the Children of Lir? That's what did me in.

I hadn't thought too much about the story since childhood. On trips to the maternal ancestral home in Cavan, we'd drive by Lough Derravaragh in Co Westmeath. Seeing the golden hills sweep down into the water, I saw the tragic, regal swans in my mind's eye and sighed wistfully. Romantic. So when it came to reading the story to my son, I was unprepared.

We start off with Fionnuala - the big sister - and her three brothers, all happy and loved. The mother dies. Sniff. They get an evil stepmother. Oh dear. She tries to kill them, but settles for turning them into swans. Then, our poor swans are banished to Lough Derravaragh for 300 years, which wasn't so bad. But the following 300-year sentences on the Sea of Moyle and the Atlantic coast are harsh. The ending (long suspected to have been altered from the original by propagandist monks) has the swans hear a Christian bell, whereupon they are transformed into 900-year-old humans, are baptised and promptly die. You can stick your Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. In Irish legend, a happy ending is finally getting to die after 900 years of misery.

What got me was the part where Fionnuala puts her large wings around her younger swan-brothers to shelter them against the savage gales of the wild Atlantic. Reading that, I burst into tears. I've thought hard about why. Is it merely my maternal feelings towards children that render me incapable of coping with any account - fact or fiction - of suffering children? Or, battered by the bitter winds of life, do I crave shelter 'neath a comforting wing? Maybe I was just premenstrual.

On the following nights, my son kept insisting on The Children of Lir. I never stopped breaking down, so I begged him to choose another. He refused. The Children of Lir or bust.

"Why do you want me to read this story when you know it makes me cry? Why do you want to hurt me?" I wailed accusingly. "What's the point in getting the book if you won't read it?" he shrieked.

The hysterics escalated, until finally I grabbed the book and ripped out the pages. He screamed. I screamed. Everybody screamed. Sigh.

The next day, I rang my friend, the psychoanalyst. She put aside my over-identification with cold, lonely swans and focused on how the conflict might be resolved. "Tape the pages back in," she instructed. "In life, sometimes we break things. That's normal. But we can fix things too. That's the lesson."

At bedtime, I produced the book and showed him the repair job I'd done with Sellotape. He approved. Then, I offered to read the story and he said it was OK. If it made me sad, I didn't have to. As with most of the rows I've had with adults, resolution required a mutual act of kindness. In life - and Irish myths - happy endings are far from guaranteed and, in the end, everyone dies.

If only we could figure out how to avoid the unnecessary suffering about stupid stuff before we get there.

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