The Children of Lir
A people remembered as the Tuatha Dé Danann once ruled Ireland. They are said to have come across the waters from the far east. Scythia and come to Ireland via Spain. A soulful people skilled in music and poetry, they also had gifts of magic and enchantment. Records describe them as being tall and fair of face like the Gaels descendants of Goidel son of Mil who conquered them.
At one time a king of the name Bov Deareg ruled the Tuatha de Danann. Another leader, Lir, was his rival to the throne. On loosing his bid for kingship, Lir went to live apart from the rest of the tuatha de Danann. To placate Lir and maintain peace, as was the tradition at the time, Bo Deareg sent one of his three children, a daughter named Aev to be a wife to Lir. Together they bore four children – three boys; Fiachra, Aodh and Conn. And a daughter named Fionnula. Sadly, Aev did not survive long after the birth of her fouth child Conn. Bo Deareg, seeing that Lir needed a mother for his children, send another daughter –Aoife to be a wife to him.
Now, Lir’s children are said to have been the most beautiful children ever seen in Ireland. They had bright red lips, snow white skin and eyes that shone green when they gazed upon the sea-blue when they looked skyward. So handsome were they that the King Bov Deareg would visit just to delight in the sight of them playing , full of the blooms of youth.
Lir was close to his children and loved them dearly – far more he loved them than ever would he care for his new wife ! This over time brought a hardness to Aoife’s heart. She grew jealous and angry. One day, she took a chariot and put her four step children into it and set out on the road towards Bov Deareg’s Palace. They stopped on the way at a lake called “Lake of the Oaks” and there she sent the children to bathe and play in the water.
There they were playing happily as usual, when she took her magic wand and chanted a spell as she touched each one;
“From now my dears, no more shall you near,
with flocks of birds you’ll fly,
and in cries of birds, no more human words,
you’ll live and never die”
And, one by one, they were transformed into majestic white swans! The children, now terrified at their trusted mother’s callous magic begged her to undo her magic. They longed to be turned once more into their own, beautiful, human forms. Aoife refused. She laughed now at their misery, her jealousy avenged. Finally, Fionnula, who was the eldest of the four children spoke: “you have played a wicked spell on us Aoife. But at least please can you put some limitations on this enchantment so that one day we may be human beings once more?”
At this, Aoife agereed; “But it would be better for you if you had not asked me! For three hundred years you will remain on this Lake of Oaks, for three hundred years after you will go to the Isle of Maoile between Ireland and Scotland; and then three hundred years more you will spend at Inis Gluaire, on the Wild north coast of Ireland. You will not take again your human forms until you hear a bell chanting in honour of God three times a day in Ireland.”
Those were Aoife’s last words to the poor children now in their sorry state – 900 years to live out their term in the form of swans.
She ordered her step-children out of her sight, but, for a moment, her heart softened as she turned to go. “Ah, but you will have one saving grace – you will retain your beautiful human voices and sing the sweet music of the fairies. And your own sense of nobility will remain with you. It will not weigh so heavily upon you to be in the shape of humble birds”.
On hearing of the fate of his only children Lir rushed to the side of the Lake of Oaks. On seeing the four swans he asked them what had happened. And so Fionnula told him of their fate: “ from this time forth, we shall remain as swans- we have not the power to live with any human being. But we have our own language, the Irish and we have the power to sing sweet music, and it is enough to satisfy any man to listen to that music. Stop here tonight. We will be making music for you”.
Lir returned that night in company with al the noble dwellers of the Palace and all weer indeed delighted with the music that they heard. Lir set off soonafter for Bov Deareg’s castle and told him what Aoife had done. The High King was furious with Aoife. Striking her with a druid wand he turned her into a Cailleach na Gaoithe, a Witch of the Air and she went from the earth in that formless shape of the wind. And she’s yet in it!
Meanwhile, each day at the lake where the Swan Children were singing, thousands of nobles gathered to listen to their wonderful music. Never before had there been such a delight in Ireland as the sweet music of the Swan Children. Every day was spent telling stories, each night they sang the music of the fairies. Anyone who heard that music would sleep soundly and whatever troubles or long sickness he may have had would be lifted by that music of the birds.
Once three hundred years had passed for the Swan Children on that Lake of the Oaks, Fionnula told her brothers “Now it is time for us to leave our home on this Lake of Oaks and go to the Isle of Maoile, far across the sea “ Alas her brothers were sad at this news. Their time at the Lake had been happily spent in its own way talking and singing with their many visitors form the Gaels and the Tuatha de Danann.
On the Isle of Maoile, their feathers would often freeze in the ice and their wings heavy from the cold sea spray. There was once a furious storm there where one of the children of Lir was almost lost to the others. What could they do? Neither swan nor human, who had they for companionship? They were swept away in the powerful waves, tossed in the foam and whipped far from one another. Fionnula, who was wisest of the four children, called out that they would meet again on the Island of Seals.
Fionnula then waited three days on that Island of Seals for her brothers. She grew sad as she feared she would perhaps never again see them. But to her joy, there was Conn returning to her, the youngest of her brothers, against the setting sun coming towards her. His head hung low, his feathers wet through , a miserable sight. Soon after him Fiachra arrived, likewise wet and perished with the cold. Spreading her wide white wings, Fionnula welcomed her brothers and held them close to her to dry them. There they lay on the seal Island. Three swan children awaiting their third brothers . He came at last, his feathers a dazzling white as he flew to them against the bright sunshine. They rejoiced to be together at last those swan children. It is a pity indeed that not a soil was there to hear their beautiful music except the seals on that cruel island. With the roar of the sea and the crashing waves off the island of Maoile it was little chance they had to tell stories to one another. Their final three hundred years were spent on Inis Gluaire.
Finally, having done the time allotted them by that cruel step-mother Aoife, the children set off to return to their own country of Lir. Flying and singing songs they soared through the air. But when they returned, having lived some nine hundred years as swans, nothing remained of the life they once knew. No one was left of those who they had known in their lifetime. The castle was empty and nothing was inside of it but green hillocks and thick nettles. Neither fire nor hearthstone was there to welcome them home. Next day they returned to Inis Gluaire and all the birds of Ireland gathered near them on Loc na n-Ean, the lake of birds. Everyday they would set out from here to the far parts of the country to feed on all the western isles of Connaught.
It was at this time in history that the Saint Patrick arrived in Ireland, with stories of the Christ and the forgiveness of sings. HE was a passionate teacher and through him many priests and missionaries sprang up across Ireland. One of these, St. Mackevig arrived on Inis Gluaire. On the island he built a small chapel. One of the mornings as he was putting on his vestments to say a mass, he heard a melodious song of the swan children coming across the water to him. “What beautiful music” he declared. “ ah, one who sings so beautifully as that could be singing hymns in my church to praise God”.
Searching around the island of inis Gluaire, the missionary discovered to his astonishment that it was four white swans, and not human beings, who were making the music. Being a kind man of God, St. Mackevig’s heart was touched indeed by the sufferings of the children of Lir who were neither Swans nor humans. He invited them to come to his church each day as he thought the mass and praises offered to God would be of some comfort to them. On their request, he made them a little chain of silver, one between Fionnula and Conn and another between Aodh and Fiachra. The Children of Lir told the priest they would come to his church.
Arriving at the small church the following morning there was some trouble about this as holy men from other islands heard about these enchanted singing birds. Local people spoke that it was not right to bring a swan into a Holy Mass or into a church. St. Mackevig, however, was a holy man close to God as well as a saint. He knew that the Almighty would certainly be very pleased to hear the beautiful music coming from the children of Lir.
It so happened that at the mass one morning, three bells rang- breaking the nine hundred year old spell the three children had be put under by their step-mother Aoife. In no time at all, they took the form of humans again. This was the prophecy of their step mother that they would once again assume human form when a bell was run in Ireland three times a day in honour of God.
Alas, what St. Mackevig saw that day was not the blooming faces of three young men and fair young girl but rather an old withered woman and three frail old men. Nine hundred years had passed since that curse had been put on them.
“A pity for you Children of Lir to find yourselves like this, human beings once more but crippled to the floor the weight of time on your shoulders”. St. Mackevig then gave them each a blessing with waters of a nearby holy well. Soon afterwards, they died. Their time on earth had been a sad one. Yet it would not be so in eternity.
Illustrations courtesy of artist Pauline Bewick
The originals are hanging Killorglin, County Kerry in the offices of FEXCO. Unfortunately, they are not open to the public but next door in Killorglin library, there is a permanent exhibition of her Seven Ages collection open to the public see link- http://www.paulinebewick.ie/kerry_collection.html Open Monday to Saturday, 10am until 5pm.