CHILDREN OF LIR COLLECTION
The Children of Lir
A Traditional Irish Tale Edited and Retold
© Copyright 1998 by Aisling Willow Grey
Every good Irish story begins, "Fado, fado," which means "Long, long ago..." And this story is no exception...
There was a king of Banba named Lir. Lir ruled on land, and his castle was known throughout the kingdom as the White Fort. But, Lir was also Lord of the Sea - for Lir was of the Tuatha De Danann. Lir had a queen whom he lovedvery much, the fair and beautiful Eva, daughter of Bobh the Red, and two fine children. His daughter, Fionnuala, was the eldest, and then came his son, Aedan.
Lir loved Eva and his children beyond words and worlds. One day while Eva was in the last days of her latest pregnancy, Lir sat in his throne room awaiting news of the birth.
The midwife came into the hall carrying two small bundles, her tentative footsteps echoing hollowly on the stones. Lir looked up at the clever woman, saw what she was carrying...and held out his arms to greet his new twin sons. His joy was unbounded, until he chanced to look up at the midwife's face...
"And...my wife, the Queen?" he questioned her.
"My Lord, the Queen has borne you two strong, healthy male children," she began. "But the birth was not an easy one," and here the woman began to sob," and the Queen, she was so delicate..."
Lir nodded slowly, staring off into the middle distance. Eva's death was a reminder to him that, although the De Danann were godlike, still the Dark Lord could claim them.
The King turned to the midwife then, and said with a heavy heart, "We shall name the larger child Fiachra, and the smaller one Conn. They were the names chosen by Eva, who, with her great gift of the Sight, foresaw that she would bear twin boys."
Without Eva, the White Fort seemed cold and deserted. Lir ruled, and his daughter Fionnuala, who was already growing to be a beautiful young woman showing the elfin features of her people, cared for the three boys as best as she could.
Lir wandered the drafty and lonely corridors of the castle, seeing Eva in every corner, smelling her scent and spice in his bedchamber, mourning, ever mourning, and unable to live again. Lir decided to take his court away from the White Fort for a time, and planned to take the children and his servants to the palace of Eva's father, Bobh the Red, on the warm and forgiving banks of the Sinann.
Time passed in Bobh's castle, and Lir found himself loathe to return to the White Fort. Life was so pleasant there, and there were no memories of Eva.
And then, there was Aoife.
Aoife was Eva's half sister (Bobh fathered them both, but the mystery of Aoife's mother was never revealed), and Aoife's beauty was as dark as Eva's was fair. Eva was a creature of light, and the sun...while Aoife was at one with the night. Lir first met her while out hunting with Bobh...she had come flitting through the dark wood like one of the Sidhe, her long dark hair loose and flying behind her, and a bloody hunting spear in her hand. Her
servants carried the slain boar behind her.
Her wild and dark beauty attracted Lir, as did her easy laughter and her strength and skill with weapons. He paid no heed to the talk amongst the servants of her power to attract the great wolves to her, or the rumors that she shapeshifted into creatures no man could name.
As the months passed, Lir fell more and more under Aoife's spell, and finally, they were wed on Beltane Eve, when the first of the watchfires burned across the hills.
Lir took Aoife, the children, and his servants back to the White Fort. It seemed that Eva's ghost no longer haunted it, and Aoife brought life, and laughter, back to the castle and to Lir and his family. Aoife was more than a mother to her foster children, and treated them as though they were her own.
But the years passed, and Aoife remained childless. Some whispered that she had trafficked with daemons in her youth, and that they had rendered her barren. She took counsel with the Druids, consulted with her spirit guides and the God and the Goddess, but still, there were no children. Except, of course, for the children of Eva.
Aoife took to...watching...her husband when he was with the children. The great...love...he showed for them began to rankle her like a festering sore. She imagined he loved them more than he loved her; her jealousy turned to fear...and her fear turned to an all...consuming...hatred.
One morning, Lir rode out to hunt, after kissing his wife and children goodbye.
"Father, must you go?" asked Fionnuala. Being of the De Danann, and her mother's daughter, she had the gift of the Sight, and she had foreseen that she and her father would never look upon each other again in their present forms. But as with all magic, the Sight often speaks in riddles...
Aoife waved until her husband was out of sight, and all the while she was forming a plan...
The Queen tiptoed quietly into Lir's chamber, reached into a box carved from solid silver...and pulled out a fine oaken wand, given to Lir by the Druids. The wand carried powerful magic, and it was usually not out of Lir's sight. But, he had grown less vigilant over the long, easy years with Aoife and the children, and didn't think he would need any draÌochta, any of the Druid's magic, on this particular hunt.
Aoife took the wand and concealed it in the folds of her gown.
"Children," she called. "Fionnuala, Aedan, Fiachra, Conn!" The Queen mustered all of the warmth her voice could carry, and she said, "It is such a beautiful day. Come let us ride north and break our fast by Lake Derravaragh." She looked at their faces expectantly. After just a moment of deliberation, the boys all cried out joyfully, "Yes, Mother, a ride, a ride, let us go now!" And Fionnuala just nodded her head, and held her worry in her heart.
The boys saddled their roans, and Daire, a young knight, readied the Queen's chariot for Aoife and Fionnuala.
Breads and sweets and meads and wines were packed, and the unsuspecting children rode off with Aoife as a merry band, to the shores of Lake Derravaragh.
Up hills, through forests, down the glens they traveled, ever northward, until they finally came, tired and hungry, to the shores of the great Lake. Daire laid down the blankets and started to put out the food, and the children gathered around their Mother, anxious to have something in their bellies after the long, hard ride.
"Mother," said Conn, the youngest, "may we break our fast right away?" Aoife gazed evenly at the boy and said, "But Conn, you are all briars and twigs, filthy and disheveled. You cannot come to table like that, even if table is but a blanket in a field. Come, into the lake with you...with all of you." Aoife led the children to the shore, and only Fionnuala hesitated.
"Child?" said Aoife. And Fionnuala, having no reason to stay behind save a...feeling, joined her brothers at the shore of the lake.
The children removed their outer clothing and gingerly accepted the embrace of the cold, cold water. The boys splashed around, but Fionnuala held her warmth close to herself, and looked up at her foster mother questioningly. Aoife gazed down triumphantly at Fionnuala, and then, with a gleam in her eye, she pulled the wand out from the folds of her robe. All of the children
looked at her now, the idea that she might mean them malice beginning to dawn on them.
The children recognized their father's wand of power - it was a short length of silvered oakwood, with runes incised along its length, angular, gold-filled lines set with tiny stones. Thin tendrils of foxfire writhed along the wand as it began to thrum with the combined power of its own magic, and Aoife's dark tricks.
Aoife raised the wand, and began to chant in the old tongue:
"Ar mo draíocht, d'iompaighfaidh sibh na healaí!"
A mist fell down onto the lake then, making the children invisible to Aoife and to each other. Conn, the youngest, cried out in surprise, and the brothers and their sister tried vainly to find each other by touch in the thick blanket of magic.
There was moaning, crying, singing, howling, and all of it came from the Otherworld, through the opening that Aoife was creating with her spell. A cacophony of noise, a maelstrom of sounds and fury surrounded the lake, and above it all, the voice of Aoife chanted in the old tongue, dark, hideous, bestial shapes gathering behind her to bear witness to the spell.
With a final flourish, Aoife completed her incantation:
"And Earth shall not hold thee, Fire shall ye fear, Water be thy element, And that of Air."
And, as the binding took hold and the spell completed, the sounds, the shapes, the fog...all began to quiet, to fade...to return from whence it came. The lake was calm again. All was as it had been...except...the children were nowhere to be seen. In their place were four snow white swans!
"This is your punishment!" screamed Aoife. "For the great love of Lir which you have, and which should by all rights be mine!"
Aoife strode triumphantly back and forth along the bank, and recited to them their geis: they would spend thrice three hundred years in the form of swans. The first three hundred would be spent upon Lake Derravaragh; the second three hundred in the Straits of Moyle; and the third three hundred in the wild seas about Inish Glora, in the western ocean. There would be no escape for them until that day after the bell of Christendom had rung in the land, signifying the end of the old worship...and until the man from the north shall take in marriage the woman from the south.
Aoife told the swans, "Your father will never know your true fate, for I will tell him that you were swimming in the lake, and drowned."
Aoife, near mad now with her excitement and her power, hurried away from the shore, jumped into her chariot, and, taking the reins herself, sped off toward the south and the White Fort.
As the last wisps of mist burned off in the sunlight, the young knight Daire, who had been forgotten by Aoife in her frenzy, came out from the woods bordering the lake.
He moved slowly toward the lake, looking about him for signs of any of the daemons called up by Aoife, and spoke, astonished: "May the gods preserve me - what magic hath that bitter woman wrought?" He looked around, in complete consternation, not understanding where the children had gone. Then, Fionnuala spoke:
"Her power was not so great as she thought."
At this, Daire leapt around in surprise.
"It is me, Daire. Fionnuala. Do not fear."
"Oh..." said Daire. "But...can it be...?"
Fionnuala assured him that it was true: she and her brothers had been turned into swans by their foster mother. And that her magic was not powerful enough to change their voices, or their spirits; only their physical forms. "But Daire, you must tell our father what has happened to us. He will never believe Aoife that we have drowned; after all, we are the children of Lir,
the Sea God, and of the Tuatha De Danann." Daire agreed to ride back to the castle on Aedan's roan, the fastest horse in the kingdom, and to alert Lir to Aoife's treachery. Fionnuala and her brothers waited upon Lake Derravaragh, sad, and lonely. She gathered the boys to her, one under each wing, and little Conn beneath her feathered breast.
Daire reached the castle, and told Lir the whole tale of his betrayal by Aoife, and of the foul sorcery that had taken his children from him. Lir was beset by pain, which quickly turned to rage. So that, when Aoife returned home and plied her lies upon her husband, he was ready for her. Aoife's mistake was to blame the young knight Daire for pushing the children into
the lake - Aoife claimed to have run off before Daire could catch and kill her, too. Lir, feigning grief, told Aoife that it was too much for him to bear. "My children, and my most faithful knight!" he moaned. "But I owe Daire as much as this, good wife..." said Lir. And he asked Aoife to tell the story again, but with her hand upon Lir's rune-inscribed sword. She
would not be able to lie but the sword would know.
Aoife nervously put her hand on the sharp, bright blade...began to speak...and instantly, a crimson stain spread down the shining silver length of the sword, until its radiance was lost beneath a blood-red covering!
Lir sighed, and shook his head sadly. "You have betrayed me, Aoife," he said, "and you are nothing to me now. The High Law will only permit one sentence." At this, Aoife cried out, "But you cannot slay me! I am of the De Danann!" Lir nodded. And he turned to his wife, and touched her with the tip of his sword, and said to her, "You are oath-bound; what form would you fear most, what form would you deem fitting punishment for yourself?"
Aoife clasped her hands across her mouth, trying to prevent her voice from betraying her, but her throat worked, and the answer was torn from her mouth. "A daemon of the air!" "So mote it be," said Lir, and, raising the wand which his knight, Daire, had removed from the treacherous queen, he passed it over her head. The hushed court felt the eerie trickle of power from the wand. And suddenly, with a blaze of blue light and the power of the Old Gods...it was done. And where once a beautiful, fey young woman had stood...now crouched a hideous winged serpent, which clawed the earth with its hooked talons! But its eyes...its eyes were those of Aoife. With a terrifying screech, the daemon took to the air and disappeared south in a rush of leathery wings, and was never seen, nor heard from, again.
Lir moved his entire court to the shores of Lake Derravaragh to be close to his children, and the years passed, slowly. Lir invited Druids and great mages from all parts of the known world to come and try to reverse the spell, but every attempt failed, and at last Lir grew resigned to his children's fate. He had bards and minstrels, sages and teachers from the
length and breadth of Banba brought to teach the four swans, and the new court established itself as a center of learning and culture. All the people of the land, even the other De Danann lords and ladies, came to the lakeside to hear the children of Lir sing. In the evenings, as the sun dipped behind the far distant mountains and shed its last light across the dark waters of
the lake, the children would sing. Their music was not of this world - it was hauntingly eldritch. The crowded lakeside would grow silent, listening to the ancient lays and ballads of the De Danann, or the softer, sadder verses composed by the four:
(sung) Four beautiful swans are we, Trapped in these bodies through sorcery, Doomed to spend thrice three hundred years, Our father, lonely, weeps bitter tears Betrayed...by a faithless, cruel wife.
And the years passed.
One morning, with the bite of winter already in the air, Fionnuala called her brothers to her. "The first part of our sentence is done; now we must make our way to the Straits of Moyle." The swans circled their father's court three times, slowly, before bidding it, and him, farewell forever.
The Straits of Moyle was a cold and unforgiving place, full of wind, spray, storms, and bitter cold. Many times, the children thought that their poor coat of feathers would not be enough to keep them alive under such harsh conditions, but survive they did, passing the long cold years by singing, and huddling together for warmth within each other's wings.
Finally, the second three hundred years came to an end, and the children took flight from the dismal, grey Straits of Moyle and over the land toward the western sea.
Little had changed in the three hundred years they had been gone from the land - but the age of the old gods had passed, and it seemed to the children of Lir that they had lived beyond their time.
Inish Glora, in the western ocean, was a windswept, nearly barren island. But still, it was much more hospitable than the Straits of Moyle, so the children took some cheer in this. And, they were still all together.
Towards the end of their enchantment, the children became aware of a hermit living on the island. This hermit took to throwing bread to the swans, and talking to them from time to time. He was very kind.
In time, the hermit built a monastery on the island, and erected a structure before it that was strange to the children's eyes. They did not recognize the cross-shaped icon, nor the new god to whom the hermit's monastery was raised. Yet, he was kind to them, and that is all the children knew. They spent their days singing, and caring for one another, and listening to the
lilting prayers of the hermit, strange songs to a strange new god.
There came a day soon after on Banba, now called Eire, when Deoca, a princess of Munster, in the south, was betrothed to Lairghen, the king of Connacht, in the north. Wishing to impress his bride-to-be, Lairghen promised Deoca anything she so desired. Now Deoca was a very spoiled and privileged princess, and was used to asking her suitors for the sun and the
moon. "I have heard," began the covetous girl, "of a lake which lies on an island within your lands...the tales tell that the children of Lir are there, still in the form of swans, and still singing beautifully. I want those swans."
Lairghen smiled mirthfully at the girl. He believed not the tales, but thought it would do no harm to obtain for her the swans she so desired. Lairghen, Deoca, and their retinue set out for Inish Glora at once.
Arriving on the island, they found the hermit's cell, and asked him about the swans. The hermit was aghast that they had come to take his friends, and cautioned them that they must not do so, because...but he could not say why. "So, the legends are true," snapped the king. "The children in swan-shape do exist." Lairghen's men roughly pushed the hermit aside, and went to the lake. There, they snared the swans, and brought them out of the water and
The children did not struggle in their bonds, but sat quietly, without speaking, or singing...as suddenly, across the water, came a sound that had never reached the children's ears before. It was the chiming of a great set of bells, as if from every church in the land at once. The sound frightened and hurt the children, who were eldritch and could not abide the ringing of bells, and they clapped their great snow-white wings over their delicate
Time stood still.
And then, as the man of the north stood before them, ready to take the woman of the south as his bride...and the bell of Christendom rang out over Banba...the air suddenly chilled and a blue mist descended upon Inish Glora. All colors froze, and a wind howled about Lairghen, Deoca, the hermit, the swans, and the men; it was the wind of the Otherworld. Voices cried out, the howling of those who walk between, and the air was heavy with the pungent
odor of spices and smoke.
And just as abruptly, it was gone.
The wind died down; the blue mist dissipated in fingers of smoke on the afternoon breeze...and in the place of the four swans stood four tall, incredibly ancient, incredibly beautiful creatures. "Not...not human," cried the astonished Deoca. "No," answered Fionnuala, "we are of the De Danann. Behold, the children of Lir."
All assembled were spellbound by the presence of the godlike creatures, and it was Fionnuala who finally spoke, this time to the hermit. "We are now free," she said to him, "and our time on this earth grows short." In deference to the new god who walked the land, and his teachings, which they had learned while listening to the hermit sing and pray, she asked him to
prepare the four for baptism. And Fionnuala requested that they be buried in the old way, standing up, and that she have Aedan on her right, Fiachra on her left, and Conn before her, as they had huddled together for shelter for so many years on the Straits of Moyle.
The hermit nodded his understanding, and when the time came, he buried them there by the lake on Inish Glora, in the manner that Fionnuala requested, and he placed a single stone upon their graves which said simply, "The Children of Lir: Betrayed, Enchanted, Freed."