music sample: Scene One
the relevant passage is highlighted in red in the text below
The Children of Lyr was originally written as a libretto for Julian Hodgson, who was looking for the subject of a children’s opera in 1971. However he never used the text, and in the early 1980s I took it up myself as a work for soloists, chorus and chamber orchestra. The First Act was written at that time (although the orchestration was not fully completed) but the Second Act was only just begun when the score was abandoned. In the 1990s the First Act was published in isolation as a work in three scenes only, but then in the late 1990s I turned back to the incomplete Second Act and the original libretto and brought the whole work to a conclusion. The writing of the complete score, then, took nearly thirty years.




Scene One

The Curtain, if there is one, rises. The stage is in total darkness. At the front appears the Bard, as though seen in a vision

The BARD   The King of Erin, Lyr, had three beautiful children. There were three boys, Aodh, Conn and Ficne; and one girl, Finuidhla, who was the apple of her father’s eye. But on a sad day their mother died, and her father the Bobh Dearg gave his second daughter Aoife to Lyr as wife. At first, Aoife was happy in her marriage, and gave to Lyr her whole love; but she was grieved to see that he cared but little for her, and thought only for her sister’s children.

Slowly the light begins to grow behind the Bard, who gradually vanishes

And then came that day when Aoife took her terrible revenge upon the innocent children. On one bright morning of the early summer she set out to visit her father, the Bobh Dearg, and took the children with her…

The scene now disclosed represents the shore of Lough Lein. The lakeside is thickly overgrown right down to the water; above to the left it is to be supposed that a road runs. It is early morning, but the sun has already risen and birds are singing in the trees. The lake sparkles in the spring sunshine, and it is obviously going to be a fine hot day. There is a distant sound of children’s laughter, which then fades away. From above there come the voices of children

FINUIDHLA and CONN  Come down here! Come down here! Here it is cool!

AODH   It is early yet. We can rest here for a while, and go on to see our grandfather in the evening.

FICNE   Come on, mother!

They come into sight, with Aoife, a tall woman of great beauty, struggling along in their wake. Unlike the children, she is not laughing. Indeed, were it not for the fact that she is following them, it would seem that she were angry; her face is not of the kind that is made for laughter. The children sit down and dabble their feet in the waters of the lake with great merriment; Aoife sits down nearby, but further along the lake shore


                O how cool is the lake to our feet,

                                O how cool!

                The lake sparkles in the sun,

                the lake the spring rains have formed.

                Our journey already has been long,

                and now we are near to its end.

O how cool is the lake to our feet,

                                O how cool!

AOIFE   Children…

FINUIDHLA   Yes, mother?

She detaches herself, and joins her mother while the other children continue their song

AOIFE   Did your father say anything to you before we set out today?

FINUIDHLA   No, mother.

AOIFE [slightly surprised] Nothing, girl?

FINUIDHLA   He wished us goodbye, mother, and…

AOIFE   Yes?

FINUIDHLA   He bade us take care on the way.

AOIFE [sharply] Take care? Take care? Why is there a need to take care when I am with you?

FINUIDHLA [simply] I don’t know, mother.

AOIFE [almost to herself] Ah! your father…Does he think only… [recalling herself] But wait, child. Did your father say anything else?

FINUIDHLA   No mother, but…

AOIFE   But?

FINUIDHLA [simply and innocently] He looked sad, mother. I think it was because we were going away.

AOIFE [rather bitterly] I am sure it was not because I was going away.

FINUIDHLA   Why do you say that, mother?

   The boys gradually return along the lake shore

AOIFE   Ah! ah! your father!

FINUIDHLA   What, mother?

AOIFE   You, more than me…

FINUIDHLA   What do you mean, mother? I do not understand you.

AOIFE   But I am prepared…

FINUIDHLA   What, mother?

Aoife remains deep in thought. Finuidhla returns to the other children


                O how cool is the lake to our feet,

                                O how cool!

AOIFE [rises abruptly] Come, children, we must be going.

CONN   But mother, the lake is so cool and the day is so hot!

CHILDREN   The lake is so cool and refreshing!

AOIFE   Come with me, children!

CHILDREN   But the lake is so cool!

AOIFE   Cool? Cool? Then, children, I will go on alone…

CHILDREN   No, mother, wait for us!

AOIFE [at the top of the bank] Cool? No, wait! Why, why? Let me no more delay?

As the children push up through the undergrowth, Aoife draws out from beneath her cloak a druidical wand. It grows rapidly dark as she sweeps it over their heads. When the lights slowly steal back, the children have vanished; in their place, four swans float gracefully on the water. Aoife looks on with grim satisfaction

AOIFE [raising her arms]

                Depart from me, you graceful swans,

                   and make your home in the water cool;

                build your nest on the reedy shore

                   and lie for sleep in the dank pool.

Depart from me, unhappy swans,

                   and make your music sad and sweet

                for all the years

                   before you your destiny meet.


                You, whom we thought loved us always,

                   now have turned us into swans.

                And yet we have our tongues and minds,

                   and our song will ever be the same:


                No hand may stay your agony

                   before one thousand years are past;

                and all that you have you shall find lost

                   before you regain your shapes at last.

CHILDREN   Ah, mother! Ah, mother!

AOIFE   You, however, may not threaten me again. I shall go on my way to my father’s court; and Lyr will not live long when he sees what has become of his beloved children. And you, you are cool for ever, and I have won!

   She sweeps rapidly away and disappears up the bank


The light rapidly fades. The voices of the swans are heard behind the curtain


Scene Two

The lights rise. The scene now disclosed is the great grange of the Bobh Dearg at Brugh na Bóinne; spiral hangings  cover  the  walls.  Courtiers  in  long  white cloaks line the sides of the stage; the Bobh Dearg is seated at the centre


      We are the children of the Tuatha de Danaan that never change or die.

      We are the wind and waves on the sea.

      We are the eagles on the rocks.

      We are the rays of the sun.

      We are the children of the Tuatha de Danaan that never change or die.

      We are the most beautiful of plants.

      We are the lakes in the plain.

      We are the word of knowledge.

      We are the head of the spear in battle.

      Who spreads light on the gathering of the hills?

      Who can tell the ages of the moon?

      Who can tell the places where the sun rests?

   Aoife enters

BOBH DEARG [cheerfully] Aoife, my daughter! be welcome to my grange.

AOIFE [coolly] I thank thee, noble father.

BOBH DEARG   But the children…where are they?

AOIFE   The children…the children…but Lyr would not let them come.

BOBH DEARG   I wonder at that, for those children are dearer to me than my own children.

AOIFE   Those children are dearer to everyone than I!

BOBH DEARG   What is this, Aoife?

AOIFE   Nothing, father, nothing…

BOBH DEARG   Aoife! tell me the truth!

AOIFE   I have told you the truth, father!


AOIFE   I have not lied!

BOBH DEARG   Tell me the truth!

AOIFE   Ah!...It was not Lyr who prevented the children from coming to you, father Bobh Dearg, it was I, your daughter, your own daughter… [her defiance breaks; she hesitates] and their foster-mother.

                There are four swans that swim

                on the Lake of Birds,

                singing the sweet music of the Sidhe:

                and they are the children of Lyr!

BOBH DEARG and COURTIERS   Aoife! Aoife!― Ah! how dreadful!

AOIFE   But I repent me of what I have done, father, and I beg of you mercy.

BOBH DEARG   Aoife, how long will this dread enchantment last?

AOIFE   For one thousand years, until all who now live shall be dead.

BOBH DEARG   Then, Aoife, since you have condemned these children to life for one thousand years, you yourself shall not escape their fate. A black crow will you become, croaking harshly, and you will fly the length of the earth, until you have found wisdom; and in that same hour that they shall at last find their salvation, shall you also be released from your penance.

   He draws forth a druid wand; Aoife recoils in horror

AOIFE   Ah!...

The scene is suddenly shrouded in total darkness. The voice of Lyr is heard, very distantly, behind the scene


Scene Three

The lights again rise to disclose the shore of Lough Lein, as in the first scene; the swans swim on the waters, which are illuminated by the rays of the slowly setting sun


            Our hearts break for our sad father

searching for us through all the world;

leaping at shadows and phantoms and clues

everywhere that he may.

But we, four swans,

drift here on the foam of the lake,

and must swim on the waves

for one thousand years of long torment.


                But cease! for riding down from the hills

                our father’s warriors make their way to the shore;

                they make their way slowly, with hearts sore.


                Their hearts are as dull as their shields, for their way has been long;

                for the de Danaan host have searched for us many years through,

                and now they have found us  and lost us too.

The followers of Lyr march slowly down to the lake shore, with Lyr at their head. He stops as he hears the swans singing

LYR   O swans, tell me! How come you to have human voices?

FINUIDHLA   I will tell you that, father.

LYR   Father?

FINUIDHLA   Yes, father. For we are your own children, turned into the shape of swans by the evil power of Aoife our mother.

ALL   Ah!...Ah!...

LYR   Ah! children!

From the other direction there enter with slow steps the Bobh Dearg and his courtiers

BOBH DEARG   Lyr, and you O beautiful swan-children, grieve no more. For Aoife has confessed to me her deed, and I have placed a penance on her, that she may undo some of the wrong that she has done. But there can be no end to your enchantment until one thousand years have passed, and the word of the One who will rise from death has come into Erin. That word alone will cleanse you from Aoife’s curse.

LYR   That word alone will cleanse them from Aoife’s curse.

CHILDREN   That word alone will cleanse us from Aoife’s curse.


      I shall never move from this place, my children,

      and here I shall build my castle anew,

      and on these lakes will I live my life

      until I must die.


      It is time when I must go from hence.

      But never will I close my eyes in peace,

      for to part with the song of these children

      breaks my heart in twain.


      Tears and wailing rise within our hearts

      and our breasts heave as the waves of the lake

      when the wind sweeps across its troubled surface,

      until the hand of time shall pass.


      O comely Conn, O Aodh, O Ficne, and my dear Finuidhla,

      I shall never forsake you,

      nor shall I ever leave this lake shore

      where the birds sing.


      I should never have borne a daughter to such wrong,

      and should never have given Aoife to Lyr as wife.

      And so, with heavy heart and heavy step,

      I return to my grange.


      Far down the tangle forest of time

      our paths are mapped beyond redemption,

      until the word of the One who shall rise from death

      shall remove our grief.

The stage has become almost totally dark as the sunset has covered the land. The Bobh Dearg and his followers slowly depart, and the followers of Lyr also slowly withdraw. Lyr and his children alone remain in the gathering dusk


                Farewell, O father, for we may

                never more joy in your company;

                the night falls, and with it falls the curtain

                on our hopes and happiness.

LYR       My children! My children!


                Farewell, O father, the wind bears us away,

                and we must bear it company,

                and never shall we have our rest again

                until His word is heard in Erin’s land.

The words of the swans slowly dissolve into the sad but sweet music of the Sidhe. And Lyr alone remains visible on the lake shore, in the deepening shadows of the coming night




Scene One

Once more the curtain, if any, arises in total darkness. Slowly the sun rises. On the far left stands the ruin of an ancient monastery, its walls now much broken down. The rest of the stage discloses the lake shore, but the fringe of vegetation along its length is now gone, and the foreshore is barren. And although the lake still glitters in the morning sunlight, there is no sound of birds to sing welcome to the morn: the whole land is now desolate and empty. A bell within the ruined monastery begins to peal a slow tocsin; then within is heard the sound of a monkish voice chanting

EVOGH   Kyrie, eleison! Christe, eleison!

The voice is now joined by the distant voices of the four swans, which occasionally overwhelm it and are then drowned in their turn

Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.


                Our clothing is without a stain,

                our bodies are clad in white feathers;

                although once we were clad in purple,

                drinking wine and not water.


Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth.

The tocsin of the bell peals out again; and the voices of the swans draw nearer


                Our food and our drink are only the white sand

                and the bitter water of the lake,

                when once we drank mead of hazel nuts

                from round four-lipped cups.


Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Benedicamus Deo. Deo gratias.


                And our beds are now hard ones,

                rocks standing out from the water,

                where once we spread out upon beds

                of the feathers of birds.

Slowly the four swans have come into sight, swimming across the waters of the lake. The bell rings again to toll the close of the service. During the following passage Evogh comes slowly out of the monastery, marvelling at the song

                We remember our dead companions:

                our grandfather who never deceived us,

                the sweet kisses of Lyr our father

                when he walked with us along the ridges.

EVOGH   I hear the voices of swans singing the music of the Sidhe, at once sad and sweet, beautiful and sleepy.

CHILDREN   We are the children of Lyr.

EVOGH   Then blessed be the name of the Lord, who hath led me to you. For many years I have sought you, until I discovered this ruined castle. What is this castle, that you treasure it so?

FINUIDHLA   It is our father’s house.

EVOGH   Your father’s house?


                Gone are the noble halls,

                crumbled the pillars and walls;

                weeds, bent by the wind,

                cover the ground. All is passed.

                Silence fills the air;

                but the wind sighs still,

                and our memories rise

                from the ground. All is passed.

                No warriors remain here,

                no victories or alarms;

                all, our father and his warriors,

                lie in the ground. All is passed.

EVOGH   O blessed children, come unto me. For I shall tell you of the living Lord, and teach you the meaning of his death.

The children leave the water and follow Evogh into the ruins of the castle

CHILDREN                         The bell rings.

AODH   It tolls the end of our mother’s wrong.

CHILDREN                         The bell rings.


                We greet it with our faery song.

CHILDREN                         The bell rings.


                The Lord who was dead has risen again.

CHILDREN                         The bell rings.

They have passed within the walls; the bell rings its monotonous tocsin. The stage darkens very slowly


Scene Two

When the lights rise we are again in the grange as in Act One Scene Two, but the old spiral hangings are gone. Now the barren walls are hung with a few purple tapestries and a great cross decorates one wall. The King is seated upon his throne; by his side is seated his new Queen. His courtiers line the walls; to one side stands the court bard Daire

KING   Come now, the time is ripe for revelry. Daire, sing your songs for us.

COURTIERS   Daire, sing your songs for us.

KING   Come, sing.

DAIRE   Of what shall I sing, O King?

KING   Sing to us a beautiful tale, that my new bride may be pleased.

DAIRE   Then, my lord, I will sing to you of the children of Lyr.

He comes forward with a harp in his hand. The King looks lovingly at the Queen and smiles

                On the Lake of Birds they float and sing

                the sweet gentle music of the Sidhe.

                Into swans were turned the children of Lyr

                                one thousand years ago.

                Their mother envied their father their love

                and wrought this wrong upon them.

                Into swans were turned the children of Lyr

                                one thousand years ago.

                And still they float and sing and swim

                on the Lake of Birds by the ruined castle.


                Into swans were turned the children of Lyr

                                one thousand years ago.

QUEEN [abruptly, to herself] Ah!...the children of Lyr!

KING [concerned] What is it, my sweet bride?

QUEEN   A crow came today to my window; I had paid no heed to it till this moment, but it croaked Remember the children of Lyr and once strange thoughts filled my mind. And, by that mind, I have a great desire to see those children of Lyr.

DAIRE [continuing]

                The swans may not leave the Lake of Birds

                until the curse be lifted from them.


                Into swans were turned the children of Lyr

                                one thousand years ago.

QUEEN   My lord, bring to me those children of Lyr!

KING   My dearest, I may not.

QUEEN   Bring the children to me!

KING   My dearest, I cannot.

QUEEN   Bring to me the children of Lyr!

KING   My dearest, I will not.

QUEEN   By my mind, my lord, I shall never remain in

this castle for one night unless you do my will in this matter!

KING   My dearest!...

QUEEN   Unless you do my will!

She rises from the throne and moves quickly out of the hall. The King remains in an agony of doubt


                By good Evogh they are now tended

                Who tells them of the living Lord.


                Into swans were turned the children of Lyr

                                one thousand years ago.

KING   Then, by that Lord who was dead and now lives, the children of Lyr I will have!

He rises with sudden resolution and storms out after the Queen. The light rapidly fades


Scene Three

   Voices are heard in the darkness

EVOGH   Sanctus.

CHILDREN   Sanctus, Sanctus.

EVOGH   Dominus Deus Sabaoth.

CHILDREN   Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloriae tuae!

EVOGH and CHILREN   Hosanna in excelsis!

EVOGH   Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.

EVOGH and CHILREN   Hosanna in excelsis!

The lights rise once again; and the scene is once again on the lake shore, as in the first scene. Dark clouds cover the sky. The swans once more swim in the water; on the shore stands Evogh

EVOGH   Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,

                                miserere nobis.

CHILDREN   Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,

                                miserere nobis.

EVOGH   Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,

CHILDREN         miserere nobis.

KING [offstage]  Halt!

CHILDREN   What is it?

EVOGH   ’Tis the King! Hush now, my children!

KING [arrives breathlessly with his followers] Most holy man, my wife desires a boon.

EVOGH   My noble liege, I am at your service.

KING   My wife wishes to see the children of Lyr.

EVOGH   She may come to see them most willingly.

KING [rather hesitantly] She does not wish that. She wishes to see these children and honour them at court.

EVOGH [startled]  But  the  swans  may  not  be  taken from the lake.

KING [seeing a way out of the problem] Shall we not ask the children themselves? What do the swans say?

CONN   My lord, we will stay with his holy man, who has at last taught us the meaning of death.

KING [his control giving way] Rebellious children!

EVOGH [averting a threat] Stay, my lord! Lay no hand upon them!

KING [foiled momentarily] Children, will you follow me?

AODH   My lord, we may not come.

KING [furiously] Then I have means to compel your obedience, whether you will or no!

He beckons to one of his followers, who comes forward and proffers to the King four long silver chains

EVOGH   No, my lord, you must not!

CHILDREN   Ah!...Ah!...

KING   You will follow!

He places the chains around the necks of the swans. At once there is a violent peal of thunder and darkness descends. When the light steals slowly back, the swans have vanished; in their place stand four wrinkled old people, one woman and three men—the children of Lyr restored to their human form, but one thousand years old. The King with a violent cry covers his eyes and stumbles away with his followers. Evogh stands aghast, and then slowly moves towards the transformed children


                Come, father, shrieve us now;

                                our lives are over.

                Dig our graves beneath the bell

                                and cover us over.

                Lay us upright in our tombs

                                in the cold earth,

                and there we will sleep until there comes

                                our second birth.

EVOGH   Ah, my children!

With great stillness the withered children crumple to the ground and die. The dark thunderclouds slowly descend to cover the scene

Proficiscere, anima Christiana,

de hoc mundo!

Miserere mei, Domine!

Once more the scene is shrouded in total darkness. The curtain, if any, falls very slowly