Notes on the Children of Lir

Well, yes. I often work on two pieces at the same time, and considering it is almost the end of January, I would like to get moving on more than one piece. It is also easier, when working with eggs and dry pigment, to have a second piece to work on while one is drying.

The story of the Children of Lir is a popular one in Irish mythology. There are a surprising number of versions of the story, and I have worked with the translation by Marie Heaney (Over Nine Waves; Faber and Faber, 1995.) She approaches her translation in a literary fashion, aiming for accuracy and understanding. Heaney’s book is a good overview, though not complete. I like to use it for quick reference. Some translations are for a more targeted audience, emphasizing the pagan aspects or emphasizing the Christian aspects.

Early monks in Ireland wrote down many of the older myths and stories. The secular stories are grouped traditionally by scholars into four collections. The Mythological Cycle centers predominantly on the arrival of the Tuatha de Dannan in Ireland and their struggles against the Formorians. The Ulster Cycle tells the stories of Conor mac Nessa and the heroes of the Red Branch, (most famously, Cu Cuchulainn), taking place in and around Ulster. The Fenian Cycle follows the history of the Fianna, followers of Finn Mac Cumhaill. The Cycle of Kings retells the legends of the more historical kings of Ireland, and is mainly centered around the Hill of Tara.

The Children of Lir is a story taken from the Mythological Cycle. The characters are of the race of Tuatha de Dannan. This makes the story read a bit differently than if the characters are merely human. When the children are cursed to live 900 years as swans, they fully expect to return to their father at the end of this time.

Lir, or Lyr/Lear, is married to the daughter of King Bodb Dearg/Bov the Red. She is named Eve/Ove. They have four children; a daughter named Fionnuala, and sons named Aed, Conn and Fiacra. Eve dies when the children are young, and Lir eventually marries her younger sister, Aoife. Aoife becomes jealous of the attention paid to the children, both by the other Tuatha de Dannan, and by her husband who cannot bear to be parted from them.

She spirits the children away from her husband and tries to get the servants to kill them for her. They refuse, and she herself is forced to admit that she cannot kill them either. She curses them to live as swans, unable to set foot on dry land. When Fionnuala cries for an end to their curse, Aoife relents and states that they may walk again as humans on dry land after 900 years as swans, and after a Northern King marries a Southern queen, and after a new faith sweeps through the land of Ireland.

Aoife becomes a spirit of air, either through her own magical skill or through the anger of Lir, and to this day she flies between the clouds, wailing on the wind.

For three hundred years, the children are allowed to stay by the shores of Lough Derravaragh, near their father and grandfather. Their singing calms troubled souls. Then they are forced to spend three hundred years in the wild seas of the Straits of Moyle, between Ireland and Scotland in the North Sea. They survive the loneliness and cold through the strength of Fionnuala’s spirit and their knowledge that they will return home someday.

They are then required to spend three hundred years on the Atlantic coast near Erris, which allows them to fly near their father’s lands again. But the halls are gone, and there is nothing but nettles and dry grass growing on the once-populated Sidhe mounds. The Tuatha de Dannan have retreated behind the veil. Devastated, the children rest on Inis Gluaire, or Inish Glory, a place said to be the first stop by the Tuatha de Dannnan as they came to Ireland. It is a place made holy by St. Brendan the Navigator, and a holy saint lives there, waiting for Lir’s children.

He calms them, allowing them to share his food and small chapel. They sing prayers with him, and listen to the bells that announce a new faith sweeping through Ireland. The saint fashions silver chains for the children to ensure they will never be separated again.

A Northern king takes a Southern queen for his wife, and she requires the magical, singing swans of the holy isle as a gift from her new husband. When he tries to drag the swans from the saint’s chapel by their silver chains, they become four ancient human beings, and he flees in horror. The saint baptizes the ancient children before they die, and lays them to rest under an Ogham stone, carved with their names.


Daughter of Lir

Daughter of Lir

Daughter of Lir
walks free
walking on the wet sand
feeble feet on the shores of Inis Gluaire

Feathers brush the water’s edge
bright wings sweep the sky
silver chains glitter in the mud
under the clear, cold water

Free at last
Thrice three hundred years have flown
Free at last
Empty halls with nettles grown
Free at last

From our need to hear your story once again.

KJN 1/09


A means of support

A few years back, I was researching the techniques of Byzantine icon writing. I prepared three boards from scratch. One board was hand carved by a man who prepared icon boards for an Eastern Orthodox community in Pennsylvania. Pieced from strips of birch, it was a thick slab, with a lovely indentation at the center, providing the requisite broad border area for this sort of art.

I will go into greater detail on this process when I prepare another board from scratch, suffice to say that I began with rabbitskin glue sealing all sides, and a piece of glue-soaked muslin laid over the face of the board. Then I mixed a rabbitskin glue/chalk/whiting into a traditional gesso and applied it in 12 layers as specifically described, gradually thinning the mixture every three layers until I obtained a deep surface of it, with the smoothest and thinnest layers on top.

I let the boards cure, but shortly thereafter I obtained a job contract that left me little time for the elaborate process of icon writing. When checking back at six months, it became obvious that the birch board had warped from left to right, leaving it straight from top to bottom, like the side of a can. This is not acceptable in an icon writing support. I have since found much better results with cradled boards, or uncradled boards which are not pieced in any way. When using boards, I am more careful to seal all sides with multiple layers of rabbitskin glue before applying gesso.

I couldn’t bring myself to throw out the birch board. A lot of good energy had been invested in it, and the curve was so smooth and symmetrical. Only a single, thin crack had developed in the gesso surface, easily repaired. This meant that the surface itself had been well-prepared, with no extensive cracking during the movement of the warping board, and was unlikely to be damaged further as time went on. A light sanding was all the preparation needed.

So, in reviewing my options, seven years later, I decided to use the birch board, curve and all, in one of the Angelus pieces. Birch Interlace was a perfect fit, both physically and poetically, and considering I prepared the two at separate times, it is really amazing how it has worked out.


Planning stages

The initial work on the design for Birch Interlace began three years ago, with some inspiration from a brooch of a crescent moon in Art Nouveau style. The design sat in my stack of ‘unfinished’ layouts until fall 2008 when I began seriously planning for the Angelus project. I was reviewing all the unfinished works, when the piece brought back memories of cold walks in the icy winter woods. The written poem enabled me to work out further details and finish the design.

When I get started on a piece of artwork, I sometimes lose track of myself, and the piece. This isn’t always bad, but I like to start out by selecting three words to remind me what things are essential to the piece.

The concept of ‘interlace’ is essential to the poem and the picture. I want to keep in mind the image of the interlacing and the lacy nature of birch branches.

The image of the moon as an edge, and a sickle brings the word ’sharp’ to the piece. I need to keep things crisp as winter air, and the edges clean. Definitions should be clear. Colors well-defined as spaces.

And I also have chosen the word ’simple’ to remind me to keep the design uncomplicated. Celtic design has amazing potential to get complicated, and some of my pieces will. But not this one. Even the interlace design of the branches will be clear and simple, drawing the eye, but not holding it captive.

I want the eye to be drawn through the layers of the piece, not hesitating in the complexity of Celtic knots and spirals. The wooden panel offers me two layers intrinsic to the painting, with the cradle-frame and the central panel. A deep, shadowbox frame will create an outer layer, and an established space in the painting of the piece will be a fourth layer. This way, I hope to draw you on a path to the December sea.


Birch Interlace

Sweet with blue silence
Silver sickle edge
burns away
restless heat
of must and may
Touch the deep
Taste the snow in the wood
Birch interlace above
Netting the stars
Over a path to the December sea


Preliminary Notes

This space is currently dedicated to the Angelus Project. The completion of six pieces of artwork between January and June, 2009.

Wendy and I have selected six layouts from my collection of sketches and ideas. We selected a range of pieces, large and small, representing a variety of techniques. I work primarily in watercolor and egg tempera, when painting, but I will also be working in silverpoint on one of the selections.

The goal is to complete these six paintings by the time of the Potomac Celtic Festival. This outdoor festival is held in June, near Leesburg, Virginia. These pieces will then be displayed for sale. I’ll provide more details regarding this show and other shows as I construct a calendar of events.

As I work on the individual pieces, I will provide pictures of the progress, and details of the techniques and materials. I work with many traditional techniques and have found some very good places to purchase hard-to-find supplies. I have a background in art history and I specialize in Celtic themes and designs. I will probably not go into too much detail in construction of Celtic design on this blog, but would be happy to discuss this, or any other techniques at the Mydwynter Studios art forum.

In 2008, I focused on bringing together notes, sketches and photographs from my travels in Ireland and Wales, to create ink and pencil drawings. I tried to bring the places of pilgrimage back with me, showing a spirit, rather than a photo-realistic copy of a place. Many of my travel photographs and some images of older artwork can be seen at WebShots. My membership ID is CapallGlas on that site.

In 2009, I am focusing on the use of color and design to illustrate specific poems and prayers. Wendy says she sees an underlying theme in our six choices, but I haven’t seen it yet.

Posts regarding the six pieces of artwork will be found collected under the “Angelus Project” as I get more organized.


New Year Post

Welcome to CapallGlas Studio. As I start the new year, I have made it a priority to establish a presence on the internet. This effort is dedicated to the three women who have inspired and harrassed me to share my working process with others. This enables more people to appreciate the methods and techniques I use to create my artwork. Wendy, Mary and Virginia, I hope you enjoy the result.


Archived posts