Arts Listings

‘The Children of Lir’ Plays Well to All Ages at Gaia Arts Center

By Ken Bullock
Tuesday November 20, 2007

“Appropriate for children—enchanting for adults”: It’s rare that such a formula pans out for both parties. But Wilde Irish’s staging of The Children of Lir, going into its second and final weekend this Friday through Sunday at the Gaia Arts Center, off Shattuck on Allston, fulfills that pledge on the cover of their program, the proof being the presence of so many kids, as rapt as the adults at last Sunday’s matinee.  

The Children of Lir is an old Irish story, told by bards and shanachies, then canonized in writing when much of the rest of Europe was undergoing the Dark Ages.  

It’s one of “The Sorrows” of Irish storytelling, and as it deals with the aftermath of one people being conquered by another and the bondage through transformation of the heirs of the older folk, it’s been used as an allegory of Ireland under “the rule of the Saxon.”  

Projected at the rear of the Gaia stage and pictured on the program is the sculpture in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin of a quartet of swans in flight upwards, and four human forms emerging, as if crawling, beneath them. 

The Children of Lir has many of the fabulous, yet matter-of-fact qualities of fairytale and folk stories, those popular reactions to oligarchic myth, which preserve the story, yet often play with, even reverse mythic meaning. There’s a king deprived of what he believes is his rightful ascendancy over his peers and his children, whose birth by a bride offered in atonement assuages him, and the transformation of the four children into swans by a jealous step- 


The swans, who sing and cry out “in better Irish” than the folk who adore them, are condemned to their shape for 900 years, equal to the length of English rule of Ireland. They stick together, for “to lose each other is worse than losing human shape,” and are rescued by an Irish saint in this Christianized version (old Celtic tales were preserved in manuscript by monasteries)—but the old people and places and ways are gone with passing time. 

Wilde Irish stages the tale a little like a mummer’s play, with Ian Boyle, Siobhan Doherty, Amanda Prendergast, Martin Waldron and Ken Slattery in costume, facing the audience, and alternately telling the story and speaking in character.  

There’s music and song by the performers, and stepdancing at the climax, all beautifully integrated. Breda Courtney, a founder of Wilde Irish, has adapted the old narrative, shoehorning in a little of the story of St. Patrick and his use of the shamrock to explain the Trinity, in away that strikes a bargain between archaic and modern, old and young.  

It’s crystal clear, as was the original, in text and delivery, each player bringing a different mood to it, all blending together.  

A version of the tale may be found in a Dover reprint—and online—from Joseph Jacobs’ More Celtic Fairytales. Lir corresponds to the Welsh Llyr, seagod and unisputed king, whose children are heroes of The Mabinogion. Shakespeare’s tragic King Lear is thought by some to be a namesake of Lir/Llyr. 

There’s a convivial, holiday tone to the piece, which runs just an hour, perfect for the end of autumn and start of winter. Wilde Irish’s own holiday show, A Joycean Christmas, premieres Dec. 15 at Gaia Arts, which the company refers to as their new home. There’ll be more of Myths and Sagas, too, they promise—maybe “Deirdre of the Sorrows” or “Sweeney Astray”?  

In any case, it’s good to have this Berkeley institution in residence once more.