Sophia in Ireland: Eight

Deep within the well on the Hill of Tara, the Storyteller continues her tale:

At the end of the seven years Fuamnach had begun her search for the purple fly, and when she found the sun bower, and discovered the honour and the love that the Mac Og bestowed upon Etain, her hatred deepened, and with cunning, she went to Midir. “Let Angus come and visit you for a while,” she said,” for the love between you is deep.”

And Midir, in his loneliness, welcomed the thought, and sent messengers to bid the Mac Og come to Bri Leith.

Angus left the Brugh and the sun bower with a heavy heart, and as soon as he had come to the Fair Mound of Bri Leith, and he and his foster-father were closeted together, Fuamnach, by devious and secret ways came to his House, and entering into the sun bower, she raised the same dread fury of wind and swept Etain with violence through the window and away from the Brugh, to be driven and buffeted, hither and yon, for seven more years, over the length and breadth of Ireland.

When Angus returned to the Brugh and found the crystal sun bower empty, he followed Fuamnach’s tracks, and he came up with her at the House of the wizard Bresal, and he shore off her head.

Etain, seven years to the day of the second great wind of Fuamnach, tired and spent, small and pale, lit upon the roof of Etar’s House. Etar was an Ulster warrior.

There were feasting and celebration within, and as the wife of Etar was about to drink, Etain, exhausted, dropped from the roof and fell into the golden beaker, and the woman swallowed the purple fly with the wine that was in the goblet. And Etain was conceived in the womb of Etar’s wife, and afterwards became her daughter.

When she was born, she became Etain, daughter of Etar, and it was one thousand and twelve years from the time of her first begetting by the Fairy King, Aylill until her conception in the womb of the wife of Etar.

Here the first part of the tale of “Wooing of Etain” ends. Before the Storyteller continues, let’s pause to look at our own life-journeys. When have we, like Etain, found ourselves reduced to a “pool of water”, then discovered a new way of being that blessed us and others? Have we known times of being buffeted by winds, unable to find a place of rest? Have we, like Etain, been swallowed, returned to a womb-like state, where we must wait and wait until our transformed self might finally emerge newborn?

These patterns of life/death/life repeat through our lives in different ways, and yet with wisdom, we come to know that darkness yields to light, night to dawn, dying to old ways leads us to rebirth of new life and joy.

How would you tell the tale of your transformations?

Now the Storyteller continues her tale:

Eochaid (pronounced yeo’hee), King of Ireland, in the year after his succession, commanded that the great Feast of Tara be held in order to assess the tribute and the taxes. But the people assembled and talked together, and they refused to pay tribute to a King who had no Queen, and they would not hold Festival at that time. So it was that Eochaid, without delay, sent envoys to the North and to the South, to the East and to the West, to seek the fairest maiden in Ireland to be his bride.

As the months passed and, one by one, the messengers returned to Tara, each had audience with the King. He listened to them and conferred with his men of wisdom, and his poets, but his heart did not leap within him until, late on an evening, he was alone on the terrace of Tara and a young envoy asked leave to speak with him.

The King bade him draw near, and eagerly, the messenger spoke:

“Fifty beautiful maidens there were, O King, bathing in the estuary near to the house of Etar, in Ulster, and one more beautiful than all the others, at the edge of a spring, with a bright silver comb ornamented with gold, washing her hair in a silver bowl with four golden birds on it, and little flashing jewels of purple carbuncle on the rims of the bowl… There were two golden yellow tresses on her head; each one was braided of four plaits, with a bead at the end of each plait. The colour of her hair seemed … like the flower of the water-flag in summer, or red gold that has been polished.

john-william-waterhouse-sketch-for-a-mermaid

 

“She was loosening her hair to wash it… her wrists were as white as the snow of one night and they were soft and straight; and her clear and lovely cheeks were red as the foxglove of the moor. Her eyebrows were as black as a beetle’s wing… Her eyes were blue as the bugloss; her lips red as vermilion; her shoulders were high and smooth and soft and white as the foam on the wave… The bright blush of the moon was on her noble face… She was the fairest and loveliest and most perfect of the women of the world that the eyes of men have ever seen… She is Etain, daughter of Etar, and there is pride on her brow and radiance in her eyes, and it is said, ‘All are fair till compared with Etain.’ I thought her to be out of a Fairy Mound.”

(to be continued)

Sophia in Ireland : Seven

Deep within the well on the Hill of Tara, the Storyteller continues her tale:

Etain and Midir stayed together in the Brugh with Angus for a year and a day, sporting and playing chess for precious stones, drinking the choice wines and listening to the music of Angus’ three half-brothers, the sons of Boann, his mother, who were called “the Fair and Melodious Three”. Their names were Goltraiges, Gentraiges and Suantraiges, and the harps on which they played were of gold, and silver, and white bronze, with figures of serpents and birds and hounds wrought upon them. When Goltraiges played the Music of Weeping, twelve warriors of the household died of sadness, but when Gentraiges played the Music of Smiling, the Brugh was full of gladness and laughter, and when Suantraiges played the Music of Sleeping, there were gentleness and peace in the House, and in all Ireland the women whose time was upon them gave easy birth, and no animal was fierce in all the land. And so the days and the nights of the year passed, and sweet was the intimacy of Midir and Etain, and fond their espousal.

When the time came for them to return to Bri Leith, Angus, embracing them, said to Midir: “Take care, Midir, of Etain, for your wife awaits you at Bri Leith, and Fuamnach is a dreadful and a cunning woman.”

The warning of Angus was timely, for when the lovers returned, Fuamnach came out to meet them. With cleverness, she put them at their ease. She talked to Midir of his House and household, of his lands and herds, and of his people, but later, when Etain was in her chamber alone, combing her hair and waiting for Midir, Fuamnach came to her and struck her, as she sat, with a rod of scarlet quicken-tree. Etain, on the instant, became a shining pool of water in the centre of the room.

In triumph, Fuamnach went to Midir and told him what she had done, and moreover, swore that she would harm Etain for as long as she lived, and in whatever form she might be. Then she left Bri Leith and returned to the House of her foster-father, the wizard Bresal. Midir, without solace, and lonely, left his House to wander over the far lands.

Meanwhile the crystal pool that was Etain dried, rolled itself together and became a small worm, and because Etain was lovely and full of joy, the worm turned into a beautiful purple fly, of wondrous size.

 

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(S)weeter than pipes and horns was the sound of her voice, and the hum of her wings. Her eyes would shine like precious stones in the darkness, and the fragrance and bloom of her would turn away hunger and thirst from anyone around whom she would go, and the spray that fell from her wings would cure all sickness.

She longed for Midir, and when she had tried her wings and gathered strength, she flew to the far reaches of Bri Leith, and when she came to him, Midir knew that the lovely purple fly was Etain. Everywhere he went, she attended him, and while she was there he took no other woman, and the sight of her nourished him, and the sweet sound of her humming would send him to sleep, and Midir would neither eat nor drink, nor dance, nor play the chess game, nor hear any other music, if he could not hear the music of her voice, and the sound of her wings, and he could not see her and smell the fragrance of her.

But soon Fuamnach discovered the happiness of Midir and Etain, and forthwith she came to where they were. Midir tried to protect his love, but the witch-power of Fuamnach prevailed, and straightway she began to chant a powerful incantation, and they could not see each other, and she raised and stirred up a great evil wind of assault,  strong and irresistible so that in spite of their love, and of all the arts of Midir, Etain was taken up and swept away from the fair familiar mound of Bri Leith.

Fuamnach put upon her further that she should not light on any hill or tree or bush in the whole of Ireland for seven years, but only on the sea rocks, and upon the waves themselves. Whenever Etain, faint and exhausted tried to settle on a shrub or a land rock, the evil blast blew her upwards and away, and she had no respite and no rest until, seven years to the day, she alighted on the golden fringe of Angus Mac Og’s tunic as he stood on the Mound of the Brugh. 

 “Welcome,” he said. “Welcome, Etain, weary and careworn, who has suffered great dangers through the evil of Fuamnach.” And the Mac Og gathered the tired purple fly into the warm fleece of his cloak, and to his heart, and he brought her into his House. And Angus made a sun bower for Etain, with bright windows for passing in and out, and he filled it with flowers of every hue, and wondrous healing herbs, and the purple fly throve on the fragrance and the bloom of those goodly, precious plants. Angus slept in the sun bower with Etain, and comforted her, until gladness and colour came to her again, and wherever he went, he took the sun bower with him.

Sophia in Ireland : Six

The Storyteller in Tara’s ancient well begins her tale of “The Wooing of Etain” while we sit rapt in silence within the red rock cavern beneath the well on Tara’s Hill.

In the early days when the children of the Goddess Danu, the Fairy gods, were defeated by the Sons of Mil, they agreed to make their vast and beautiful dwelling places inside the mountains and under the rivers and lakes of Ireland. The High King of the Fairy gods was the Dagda. He played upon his wooden harp to make the seasons to follow one another. He commanded the winds and the rains and the crops. His people called him “the good god”.

According to ancient custom, the Dagda sent his son Angus Mac Og to be fostered by Midir, the proud Fairy King of Bri Leith.

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Angus’ companions were thrice-fifty of the noblest youths in Ireland and thrice-fifty of the loveliest maidens, and for all their great number, they all lived in one House. Their beds had columns and posts adorned with wrought gold that gleamed in the light of a precious stone of great size, brilliant in the roof at the centre of the House. Angus was leader of them all, for the beauty of his form and face and for his gentleness. His days were spent in the Playing field, in feasting and tale-telling, in harping and minstrelsy, and the reciting of poetry, and every youth was a chess player in the House of Midir of Bri Leith.

Angus stayed with his foster father for nine years, then he returned to his own sid, Brugh on the Boyne.

One year to the very day of Angus’ departure, Midir, lonely for his foster son, decided to visit him. He put on his white silk, gold-embroidered tunic and his shoes of purple leather with silver-embroidered tips. He fastened his purple cloak of good fleece with the golden gem-encrusted brooch of Bri Leith, that reached from shoulder to shoulder, in splendour, across his breast, and on the Eve of the autumn Feast of Samhain, he came to the Sid of Angus Mac Og, at Brugh on the Boyne.

The Mac Og was standing on the Mound of the Brugh, watching two companies of his youths at play before him. The first company rode horses of purple-brown colour, and their bridles were of white bronze, decorated with gold, and the horses of the second company were blue as the summer sky at early morn, and they had bridles of silver. The battle sport was joyful, and the air was filled with the clash of arms, the clean ring of metal against metal and the lusty, clear-voiced challenging cries. Angus embraced his foster-father with delight, and they watched the play together, until, inadvertently, Midir was hurt in the eye by one of the youths. Though he was cured by the Dagda’s Physician, he was angered, and demanded satisfaction. Angus readily agreed.

If it is in my power,” he said, “it is yours. What is your desire?”

“The hand of Etain who is the gentlest and loveliest in all Ireland.”

“And where is she to be found?” Angus asked.

“In Mag Inish, in the North East. She is daughter of the Fairy King Aylill .”

“Then it shall be so,” the Mac Og said, and at the end of the feasting he set out over the soft, cloud-bright fields of our many-hued Land, and came to Mag Inish, in the North East.

Aylill the King demanded a high bride-price. “I will not give my daughter to you except that you clear for me twelve plains in a single night,” he said, “and furthermore, that you draw up out of this land twelve great rivers to water those plains.”

Angus, knowing he could not himself accomplish these feats, went to his father, the Dagda, who, of his great power, caused twelve plains to be cleared in the Land of Aylill, and he caused twelve rivers to course towards the sea, and all in a single night. On the morrow, Angus Mac Og came to Etain’s father to claim her for Midir.

“You shall not have her till you purchase her,” Aylill said.

“What do you require now?” Angus asked.

“I require the maiden’s weight in gold and silver,” Aylill answered and the Mac Og said: “It shall be done.” And forthwith he placed the maiden in the centre of her father’s House, measured the weight of her in gold and silver, and leaving the wealth piled up there on the floor, he returned to Brugh on the Boyne with Etain, and the ancient manuscript says, “Midir made that company welcome.”

Etain looked into Midir’s eyes, and that night she became his bride.

We have time to reflect on this story while we wait to hear how it continues. The Storyteller promised a tale of desire and longing. Did you notice that when Midir was asked what he desired in compensation for an injury, he knew at once the deepest longing of his heart was to wed Etain….

What of us? If you were offered your heart’s deepest desire would you know at once what to request? Think about this and write in your journal about the desires of your heart. Our desires and longings lead us to the true path for our life.

 

Sophia in Ireland : Five

Come now along the dirt path winding upwards towards Tara’s height. Push open the wooden gate, built to keep the sheep inside. Like the ancient circular ditch, gouged four metres deep into solid rock, surrounded by great wooden palisades, the protective fencing of Tara is meant to hold the good spirits within as much as to prevent the bad spirits from entering.

 

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aerial view of Tara Hill, County Meath, Ireland

 

Inside the gate, we choose a direction that is south and east, turning to the left.
Just beyond that hedge, on the eastern slope, is one of Tara’s wells, so old that when it was documented in the Tenth Century AD, it was already ancient in oral tradition. Over the millennia, it has borne many names. At one time, it was called the Healer, later the Dark Eye. One of its names, Well of the White Cow, associated it with the Fertility Goddess. More recently, it has been known as Cormac’s Well and Saint Patrick’s Well.

This is the well we enter now.

There is a ritual to follow. First, we remove our shoes. This is a sign of respect for the sacred presence we are approaching. It is also a practical consideration. Shoes are heavy and can make our return to the surface more difficult. We’ll also need the agility of our toes for the downward climb and the ascent afterwards. The mouth of the well is encircled by stones, each laid in its place with such care that they seem always to have been together, like a community of friends, melded into a solid surround.

 

Now, get a good grasp on the stones at the top of the well. Feel for finger-holds until your hands are securely rooted, then let your body drop into the well so that, still hanging by your hands, you are immersed waist deep in the clear dark water. Next, scrabble with your toes along the stones nearest your feet until their grip feels secure.
Don’t be afraid. I’m right here beside you, both of us clinging frog-like to the inner wall of the well.

Now breathe deeply. Fill your lungs.

The plunge will be sudden and deep.

Let go. Fingers. Toes. Anxiety. Fear. Even, and especially, expectation. Drop down.

Darkness enfolds us. Silence, deeper that any we have ever known. Water holds us as it did before our birth. We are safe.

The descent is slower now, our body’s weight balanced by the weight of the water. No longer plunging, we are now drifting downwards. Down. Down. Still further down.
Our hands brush against the stone walls of the well. Suddenly, the stones on one side vanish and we flow with the water into an open channel, a birth canal. With a rush, we are carried forward, dropped into a pool. Just beyond the pool, we see a dusty red rock cavern, lit by the faintest sliver of light from somewhere high on the walls.

Swim across the pool. Pull yourself up and out onto the rocky ledge. Notice that we are both immediately dry; neither skin, nor clothing, nor hair show signs of our watery descent. We feel refreshed, as though we’ve just wakened from a sweet afternoon nap.
And we are not alone. The Storyteller will have questions to ask you. She will want to know what you are seeking. Be clear. She does not like vagueness, as I have learned to my cost. Nor will she spare you any of her time if you lack passion. Only a deep desire will win you her attention and her assistance.

If you are blessed (as I was) she will offer you her companionship, her love, her support and her guidance for all the days of your life. If that is your deep desire. But do not bother to ask her name, who she is. She will not tell you.

She is already here, resting against a large, smooth rock. She is wrapped in a cloak of Irish wool in dark purple tones. The cloak’s hood partially hides her face, giving a sense of a shadowy, not-quite-real presence. She appears to be tall, slender, neither young nor old. Strength, compassion, wisdom emanate from her, glow from her eyes.

She gestures towards a place in the darkness, signing that we are to sit, but from this moment on, hers will be the only voice we hear.

Storyteller: You are welcome. I’ve been expecting you. I see that you have not
come alone. These must be the friends you have spoken about, the ones you wished me to meet. You want me to tell a story of the Irish people, the ancient Celts? Who they were, how they understood the earth, their lives, and the otherworld. Ahhhhh…

She pauses, gazing at each of us, as though to read our hearts.

Then it must be a love story, a story of desire and longing, for haven’t I taught you that it all begins with desire and longing? It must be a story with music and poetry, with laughter and beauty, with loss and suffering and … transformation.

This is the ancient Irish tale of “The Wooing of Etain”. Are you ready for the gift it brings ?john-william-waterhouse-sketch-for-a-mermaid

Sophia in Ireland: Four

I am once more in Ireland, in Mayo, where my father’s people come from. Grey-black weathered stones still shape walls and openings for windows, but the small church on Achill Island, just off the west coast of Ireland, has long since lost its roof. The June morning is cool, ruffled by soft winds, as we twelve women gather under the slate-grey sky around the stone altar.

roofless church with Mary statue on Achill IslandWe have come here seeking an ancient holy well, dedicated to the early Christian Saint Dymphna, (Dimp / Nah) credited with healings. Dymphna was fleeing from her father, a pagan Irish king, her pathway marked by sacred wells, remnants of a tradition that predates Celtic Christianity. People sought healing at such wells, believed to be the openings of the body of our Mother Earth.
Around that altar, we are standing where women have been, in recent centuries, forbidden to stand. With that awareness, a power moves within us, along with a joy that has no words. One of the women in our group reads a poem by Denise Levertov:
Don’t say, don’t say there is no water
to solace the dryness at our hearts.
I have seen
The fountain springing out of the rock wall
and you drinking there. And I too
before your eyes
found footholds and climbed
to drink the cool water.
The woman of that place, shading her eyes,
frowned as she watched—but not because
she grudged the water,
only because she was waiting
to see we drank our fill and were
refreshed.
Don’t say, don’t say there is no water.
That fountain is there among its scalloped
green and gray stones,
it is still there and always there
with its quiet song and strange power
to spring in us,
up and out through the rock.

With these words still echoing, we walk outdoors, make our way through the old graveyard where in past centuries people from all across the island brought their dead for burial. We find the well of Dymphna on a piece of low ground just metres from the edge of the sea, its small opening protected by a circle of stones. We stand here, ourselves a circle, praying silently for those in need of healing.

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Holy Well of Dymphna

One of the women, kneeling to take a photo, discovers a heart-shaped rock, one side deeply carved and creased with lines of breakage, now healed; another picks up a stone with the clear shape of a mother and child. For both these women, the stones hold a reflection of their lives. I walk a little way past the well and see a small silver stream of running water. Without knowing why I feel drawn to do so, I kneel, scoop up water, place it on my forehead, on my heart.

Later that day, I realize with a shiver of wonder that it is the anniversary of my baptism.

This moment marks a sacred beginning. My life becomes interwoven with a presence of love for whom I have no name. My searching will take me back to the ancient days of Ireland, before the Celts arrived there, forward to the spirituality glimpsed by Teilhard de Chardin, to the newly unfolding mysteries of the universe in whose life and powers we share intimately… for these next parts of the story I shall take you back to the Hill of Tara. There is someone there whom you must meet.

Tonight, I follow the thread of the story that began twice seven years ago. Once more I climb Tara’s hill. I feel the same needle pricks of mist against my face, see again the grey shroud of fog that conceals everything except what lies before me: this stone, this sheep, this tussock, this tree. Each arises, disappears, as on that night, the night when I called out to the Old Ones, and no one answered. Now I know the One I seek. I have found the hidden well where she awaits me, and this knowing has transformed my desert into an oasis. This time, I shall call out and be heard. I shall be answered.

Come with me. It is time for us to begin. The one whom we seek allures us with a flow of energy, but to meet her we must first come to stillness. A strong desire for the encounter is our best assurance of being met by the One we seek. She responds to our longing. I cannot tell you her name. I am not certain she has a name. I know her as the Storyteller.

It is through their stories that we will find how the Celts related to the Sacred Presence of Love at the Heart of the Universe. For this storytelling we need someone whose wisdom is as ancient as the lakes and rivers, the rocks and hills of Ireland.

Sophia in Ireland: Three

My experience watching Siamsa Tire (The National Folk Theatre of Ireland) perform “The Children of Lir” shows me that it is within the stories of the ancient Celts that their deepest truths are woven, a silver thread we can learn to see, to follow, to trust.

The Ceile de, or Spouses of God, a monastic order formed in the early centuries of Christianity in Ireland, and rebirthed in our time, tell this story: A remarkable change happened among the Druids, the priests of the ancient Celtic religion, somewhere around the time of the birth of Christ. A group arose who became known as the Strangers. They spoke out against the ostentations, the warlike behaviour that had characterized the Celts for centuries. They dressed simply in linen, wandered through Ireland, seeking hospitality wherever they were, teaching a new consciousness.

They told stories of a Holy One who would be born of a Virgin, One who would initiate a new time of peace and love. Though the fifth century saint, Patrick, has long been honoured as the first to bring Christianity to Ireland, it now seems that the new faith may have arrived as early as the first century. And when these first Christian travellers spoke of a Holy One, born of a Virgin, preaching love, the Celts recognised the tale told by the Strangers. This is why the coming of Christianity to Ireland was without bloodshed, with “nary a martyr” as the old tales say. All it took was a dawn and a song and the ringing of a bell.

Pre-Christian mythology among the Celts told of an invisible god who becomes visible in the feminine, able to be touched with the senses. In one myth a god who wanted to know itself divided into invisible and visible: spirit and matter/ Mater (universe, earth, body). So the Christian story of an invisible Father and a visible mother (Mary) birthing the Christ made sense to the Celts. For them, Christ, born of a heavenly Father and an earthly Mother, represents perfect balance.

Julian of Norwich, in her Celtic Heart, understood that as truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.

Celtic Christianity was woven into the hearts and souls of a people drawn to mystery rather than to rigidity of belief, rooted in the earth, in story, in music, in laughter. The Celts were naturally drawn to the mysticism of the Gospel of John. They embraced and understood a suffering Messiah, for they needed someone who knew pain as well as ecstasy, who could weep as well as sing, dance and rejoice. The Celts loved Jesus so much that re-imagined him as one of their own. That strange depiction on my wall that I thought was a woman crucified was copied from an 8th century image of Jesus with Celtic features, clothed in a long Celtic robe decorated with spirals…. CrucifixLfrom an 8th c. bronze plaque, St. John’s Rinnagan, County Roscommon, Ireland

 

What happened to this indigenous expression of Christianity? How could such a vibrant, rooted, faith wither? Be subsumed into the more rigid forms of Roman Catholic Christianity? The answer is not one of organic development but rather of a deliberate, sustained and determined crushing of roots, uprooting of plants, replanting with other expressions of Christianity by a Church whose increasingly centralized authority in Rome could not abide differences of expression, and valued conformity of belief and practice over a lived and living indigenous faith.

It took centuries for the Celtic expression of Christianity to be supplanted by the Roman expression, but from the moment in the late fourth century when Pelagius, a Celtic monk, debated with the great Augustine of Hippo that goodness, not sin, is at the heart of life, the death knell was already sounding for Celtic Christianity. Augustine won the debate and became a saint of the Roman Church. Pelagius lost and became a heretic. The doctrine of Original Sin took its place in the Christian story.

When the Normans arrived in Ireland in the 12th century, they replaced Irish monastic life with the large European orders of Augustinians and Benedictines, completing the transmutations in line with the Roman Model of Christianity.

What I’ve learned of Celtic Christianity shows me a weaving, still open for the Kairos moment, still loose enough to receive the shuttle cock carrying the weft thread of our new knowing that we are intimately part of, in fact we are holograms of, an interconnected universe. The weaving of Celtic Christianity has honoured the gifts of women, so denigrated, and the spiritual needs of women, so ignored, by the Roman Church. It has honoured the earth with her sacred cycles of night and day, her active summer days of the bright masculine sun-energy, her contemplative winter days of the dark feminine moon-energy, her birthings and dyings and risings.

One night, during these twice seven years of searching, I had a dream. A huge stone Church soars into the sky, obscuring the light. It is heavy, forbidding, much too burdened with all the laws inscribed upon its stones. It suddenly shakes, then topples backwards. As it falls, its perfect reflection in the lake that lies at its base rises. It is lighter, freer, still magical in openness and colour, with spaces where one might breathe freely, even underwater. It rises slowly even as the stone Church falls backwards. It takes its place in the clean and emptied air.

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(to be continued)

Sophia in Ireland: Two

In the morning I travel across Killarney’s Lough Leane, named Lake of Learning for the Irish monks who drew people from the far reaches of Europe to study on the Isle of Innisfallen. As our launch crosses the living lake, the waters toss and swell and smooth under the wind, swirling in grey mist, absorbing the splashing rain with the same receptive spirit that drinks in the sunlight minutes later. All the while the oak trees, roots deep in the green hills, hold the lake like a cup offered to the thirsty heart.

We come ashore on Innisfallen, and for the next three hours, I walk in the sixth century, circling the small island, stopping to gaze through gaps in the trees when the lake becomes suddenly visible, or when a shaft of sunlight turns the woods into sacred space. I find a smooth place beneath an oak tree. As clouds, like old magicians, obscure, then release, the sun, I open Croker to read what Thomas Moore wrote about this island:

How fair thou art,

let others tell,

while but to feel how fair

is mine.

On the shoreline, I pick up a blackened stone that looks to have two small monks carved on its side. I make my way back to the ruins of the earliest monastery, and stand looking under the lintel into the open doorway and wonder how it felt to enter and become a student here. In the remains of the early chapel, I see a Celtic cross of red sandstone, found in the Lake, its age unknown.

Later I will discover words Seamus Heaney wrote about visiting this ancient chapel:

Inside, in the dark of the stone, it feels as if you are sustaining a great pressure, bowing down like the generations of monks who must have bowed down in meditation and reparation on the floor…But coming out of the cold heart of the stone into the sunlight and dazzle of grass and sea, I felt a lift in my heart, a surge towards happiness that must have been experienced by those monks as they crossed that same threshold centuries ago. (Seamus Heaney Preoccupations London, 1980; in Lost in Wonder p.99, Esther de Waal, Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2003)

I am at peace on this island, and find, as Moore says, that it matters not whether the sun surprises or the rain showers dampen. It’s hard to leave when the motor launch returns.

Three nights later, in the west of Ireland, in Tralee, I find my way to the newly-built fieldstone playhouse, home to the Siamsa Tire, Ireland’s National Folk Theatre. Tonight they are to perform “The Children of Lir”.

The magic begins before the curtain rises. I feel a tingling anticipation, the promise of something more, the promise of what I sought on Tara Hill.
The story is sung entirely in Irish by a young man whose voice floats on swans’ wings over the theatre while the actors dance and mime the tale with exquisite grace and beauty. I understand no word of the language of my foremothers and forefathers. I have to rely on programme notes for the storyline.

The tale of the Children of Lir is like the fairy tales that we heard when we were young. A beloved mother dies. A beloved father remarries. A wicked stepmother pretends love for the children but secretly plots their destruction. In this old Irish tale, Aifa (eefa) takes them to Lake Derravaragh (Derryvar’agh) where, using the magic staff of her husband, Lir, King of the Sea, she transforms them into swans.

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The spell will last for three times three hundred years. The swans will have to live in three different places until the dawn of the New Age sets them free. The woman must have had a small light in her dark heart, for she allows the swans to keep their human voices. She returns to the castle, telling Lir that his four beloved children, Fionnuala (fee-un-oo’la), Aedh (aid), Fiachra (fee’ach-ra) and Conn are dead. (music ends)

As the children try to adapt to their swan bodies, they comfort themselves by singing. Word begins to spread throughout the kingdom that the music of the swans can soothe away grief. The King goes to the lake, seeking comfort, and his swan children tell him what has transpired.

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Lir uses his magic staff to transform his Queen into a demon of the air. He himself moves to an encampment near the lake to be near his children. They have many happy years together until the spell unfolds the moment when the swans must go to another place.

They arrive at the Sea of Moyle which is cold and lonely. A fierce storm arises to scatter and nearly destroy them. Fionnuala arrives safely at the Rock of the Seals, but she fears her brothers are dead. She mourns for them. She sings her song of grief. Yet one by one, they return. The four are again together. A long time passes and the third of their destinations calls to them. They fly over their home, but see no sign of their father. On the deserted western shore, the swans settle into their third resting place, resigned to their fate, singing to console their hearts. Their music draws birds from all over Ireland.

Time passes. The Kairos moment arrives, the opening in the weaving of time to allow something new to happen. A holy hermit hears their song and responds with music of his own.

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The children sing with him in harmony as a pale golden light rises on the stage, appearing behind the two standing stones, carved with spirals and with the Ogham letters of the Irish alphabet. The bell of the New Age sounds even as a third stone drops to form an arch with the other two. The swan skins fall away, revealing four very old people. The hermit baptizes them, releasing them into freedom. Together they walk into the golden light. Transformation.

Though it ends in death, the Children of Lir is a birthing story. I know that I am watching a mythic tale of the beginnings of Christianity in Ireland. My soul recognizes its deep truth though it tells me nothing that might pass for history. The coming of Christianity was a promise fulfilled, a dawning whose power released from old binding spells.

That night in Tralee I fall in love once more with the promise. My quest has altered, subtly, importantly. Within me, as Yeats says, “a terrible beauty (is) born”. I know now that what I seek is not, as I had thought, to find a pure religion that existed here before Christianity, but rather to recover the beauty and passion and love that was at the heart of the early Christian faith in Ireland. I need to reclaim my own heritage.

awakening the sacred feminine presence in our lives