The Children of Lir
version 1.0, 4/2000
The Second Sorrow of Storytelling: Lir has four children who he loves. This causes great jealousy in their stepmother. She transforms them into swans and sends them into exile for 900 years. By the time their exile ends, the Tuatha de Danaan have passed into legend and there's no place for them in the mortal world.
Major characters include: The children - Fionnuala (fin-noo-la), Aed (ay: rhymes with day), Fiacra (fee-ak-ra) and Conn (kon); Lir, their fathar; Bov the Red, Lir's father-in-law, their grandfather; Aoife, Lir's second wife; a hermit; Lairgren, a mortal king of the North.
Minor characters include: Eve (the children's birth mother & Lir's first wife), servants, a messenger, Lairgren's wife, and members of the royal courts.
Long ago in Ireland, after the Fomorians had been defeated and Lugh (loo) of the Long Arm stepped down from the throne of Tara, Bodb Dearg (bov jar-ag) or Bov the Red, was elected to replace him. This turn of events greatly displeased Lir, father of Mannonon, and he withdrew to his shide (shee), refusing to acknowledge Bovís rule.
To seal the breach in the kingdom of the Tuatha De Danaan (too-ha day dan-an), Bov offered his daughter, Eve, in marriage to Lir. The two fell deeply in love, were wed, and were quickly blessed with children.
Eve first bore a daughter, Fionnuala (fin-noo-la), then a son, Aed (ay: rhymes with day), and finally twin boys, Fiacra (fee-ak-ra) and Conn (kon). The children were the joy of their lives, but sadly that joy was cut short when Eve died suddenly.
Stricken with grief, Lir withdrew again into his fortress. Still a young man, Bov urged Lir to marry again and to maintain their friendship, he offered his foster daughter, Aoife (eef-eh), to be Lir's bride.
For a time they were happy, but Lir doted on his children from his first marriage. He frequently would fall asleep in their room so that they were the last thing he saw at night and the first thing he saw when he woke up. He made it clear to Aoife that he had no desire to have any more.
In the fullness of time, Aoife grew deeply resentful and jealous of the children and Lirís devotion to them. She emerged from her bed chamber after a year of avoiding her family determined to rid herself of the burden of her predecessor's children. She summoned her chariot and called for Fionnuala and the boys to join her on a visit to their grandfather's house.
The boys scrambled down to the courtyard, anxious to visit Bov, but Fionnuala trembled in fear knowing that their stepmother did not love them. She had no choice but to obey.
Deep in the forest Aoife stopped the party for a rest. She pulled her most trusted servant aside and said, "What would you do if I told you there was someone who has supplanted my place with Lir? Who had turned his love from me?"
"Lady," the servant replied, "I would say, 'Tell me who so that I may remove her from your way.'"
"You see these four children? They have taken my place in Lir's heart," she said. "Obey me and slay them."
He was horrified at the command and refused to obey. Despite her great envy, she did not have the heart to kill the children herself, so back into the chariots they climbed.
As they approached Bov's stronghold, Aoife conceived a terrible plan to rid herself of the children. She stopped the company by the shore of a lake surrounded by oak trees. "Go down and wash the dirt of the road from your face before we go to see your grandfather."
The boys hopped out of the chariot and ran down to the water, laughing and playing. Fionnuala hesitated. Aoife turned to her and sternly commanded her to obey. With great trepidation, Fionnuala complied.
When she reached the shore of the lake, Aoife drew forth her druidical wand and began chanting. "Children of Lir, good fortune has always followed you but now your good fortune is at an end. Family of Lir and Bov no more, henceforth your only family shall be the waterfowl. Your cries will mingle with the birds of the lake. Be seen no more." By the time her chant was done, all four children had vanished and in their place swam four beautiful swans.
Aoife turned to leave, but Fionnuala called out to her, "You loved us once Aoife. We called you mother. How can you do this to us?"
Aoife continued to walk away.
"Please, you cannot leave us like this."
Aoife stopped but did not look back at the swan children. "Even if I wanted to, the spell cannot be undone."
"Oh, I pity you stepmother."
At this Aoife turned to face her stepdaughter.
"Lir, our father, and Bov, our grandfather, love us above all other things. Do you think you can keep this from them? Their anger will be terrible."
"I know. There is nothing I can do."
Fionnuala reached out her head towards her stepmother pleading, "Ease our plight a little. Say at least that we shall not be swans forever."
Aoife's heart melted at the sight of her stepchildren floating on the water. "If I could break the spell now I would, but this is all that I may do. You shall keep your human voices and minds. Your songs will calm and comfort all who hear them. But, for all the time you live as swans you must remain on the water and never live on dry land.
"For 300 years you will remain here on the waters of Lough Derravaragh (derr-va-ra). Then for 300 years you will reside on the Sea of Moyle. Finally, you shall spend 300 years by the Atlantic Ocean where the sun sinks into the West, down to the Land Of The Ever Living.
"When these 900 years have passed, the peal of a bell will announce the coming of a new faith. Then a king from the North shall marry a queen from the South and your exile will be ended."
"900 years? That will be hard to bear," Fionnuala lamented.
"So long as we're together," Conn began.
"We'll be strong," Fiacra continued.
"Swans or humans; our shape doesn't matter. We are the children of Lir. We'll make him proud," Aed said, swimming close to Fionnuala. "We'll make you proud too."
Together, the children swam out onto the calm water of the Lough.
Aoife cried out and ran from the lake, the full horror of her action finally striking her. She climbed into her chariot and drove to Bov's fortress, fearful of Lir's anger.
When Aoife came into Bov's hall, her foster father greeted her asking, "Where are my grandchildren?"
Much as she had dreaded this moment, Aoife had a story ready. "I couldn't bring them. As we were preparing to leave, Lir came charging down to the stable saying he wouldn't risk his children with you. He feared you would keep them as your own." She withdrew quickly, claiming fatigue from the journey.
At first, Bov was terribly angry. Then, he started to doubt Aoife was telling the truth. He couldn't believe Lir would be so petty as to keep the grandchildren he loved from him. He wrote a letter to Lir that night, asking him to come, bringing the children. He dispatched his swiftest rider at once so that Lir would receive the message by dawn.
Lir flew into a panic when he received the letter for he knew Aoife was very jealous of the children. Fearing something terrible happened, he set out at once for Bov's fortress. As he passed Lough Derravaragh, he thought he heard the sound of his children singing. Leaving his company behind, he leapt from his chariot and ran through the woods shouting their names.
The children heard their father's voice and swam to the shore, calling to him. Lir strained his eyes looking along the shore; he was certain he heard his children, but he could not see them.
At last the children swam close to where he stood and called out, "Father, we are here on the water."
"My darling children, what happened?"
Fionnuala replied, "Alas, our stepmother has transformed us."
"Curse the day I took her into my home. What can be done to break this spell?"
"Nothing. It is too powerful to be broken. We are to remain as swans for 900 years," Fionnuala said.
"Don't be sad, Father," Aed called.
"We still have our human minds and speak with our human voice," Fiacra said.
"And our songs will ease the sadness in your heart," Conn said.
"Do not stay on the water, my children. At least come close and let us shelter you."
"That cannot be, Father. While we are swans, we must live on the water. Come close in and let our song comfort you." Fionnuala led the swan children in a song which gladdened Lir's heart. By now all of the company had come down to the water and heard the children's song. When it was over, all their troubles were forgotten and the group fell into a deep, restful slumber.
Next morning at first light, Lir awoke and rode with his company to his father-in-law's fortress. When he entered the hall, Aoife stood beside Bov's chair.
Bov asked, "What has happened?"
"That spiteful thing beside you has changed my children, your grandchildren, into swans and condemned them to the water for 900 years. Stand aside, Bov and let me ring the life from her worthless body."
"She's still my foster daughter," Bov replied. "She is my responsibility." Turning on the child who had betrayed him, Bov commanded with the power that cannot be defied, "I charge you now, tell me true; what do you fear the most?"
Trembling, but unable to ignore the command Aoife replied truthfully, "I fear the howling North wind and its piercing cold more than any other thing."
Drawing forth his druidical wand, Bov chanted, "Then by your own treachery, be condemned for all time to live as a creature of the air borne aloft eternally on the howling North wind."
Aoife screamed as her body became light and transparent as air. The North wind howled in through the window of Bov's hall and bore the transformed Aoife far, far away; up into the sky where she can still be heard screaming when the North wind blows hard.
Lir and Bov set out with a heavy heart, down towards the Lough. When they arrived, the swan children swam to the shore to greet them. At first, the men were inconsolable, but the children put on a brave face and sang sweetly. As promised, all who heard their song were comforted by the sound.
In the fullness of time, a large settlement grew around the shore of the lake. For the next 300 years, the children lived in the company of their family and the Tuatha De Danaan until finally, one evening Fionnuala called to her father. "Our time here is nearly an end. Tomorrow morning we shall have to leave for the Sea of Moyle."
"So soon?" Lir replied. "How shall I survive without my beloved children?"
"One day, Father, we will return to you," Aed said.
"It will be hard to leave you and grandfather and have no one but each other for company," Fiacra added.
"But we are your children, and if our fate is to live in exile, we will bear it bravely and make you proud," Conn continued.
For the final time, the children sang their enchanted music which sent all of the company into peaceful, sound sleep. As the sun rose the following morning the four of them took wing together, circling the lake three times then heading off to the north with Fionnuala in the lead.
Lir returned to his shide, unable to bear the sight of the Lough and the constant reminder of his lost children. Bov returned to this fortress and sent forth word to every corner of the kingdom that no person should ever harm a swan on pain of death (which remains the law to this day).
The children arrived in the Sea of Moyle, a cold and stormy straight between Ireland in Scotland. They kept close to each other for they had no other company except seabirds and seals.
One night, a fierce storm blew in from the North. Fionnuala shouted above the howling of the wind that if they should become separated in the gale they should meet again at the Rock of Seals, Carraignarone (carrig-na-rone).
The winds were harder than they had ever felt before and waves threatened to dash them all against the rocks. The lightning flashed, the thunder roared, the wind screamed like a creature in torment and the four were tossed asunder.
Fionnuala made her way to Carraignarone first. Half drowned, she pulled herself from the water up onto the rock. By the time storm broke and the sun rose the following morning, there was no sign of her brothers. Fionnuala wept, certain that she was condemned to be alone for the rest of her transformed existence.
Suddenly, Conn appeared, flying towards her; barely clearing the waves. He arrived the rock too weak to speak and Fionnuala took him under her right wing. Fiacra arrived next, drenched and shivering; Fionnuala took him under her left wing. At last, Aed crawled out from the sea utterly spent and curled up beneath Fionnuala and his brothers.
No tempest was ever again so bad as the one which nearly sundered them. Throughout the freezing winter and fierce gales of spring the children drew strength from each other. No storm ever managed to separate them again.
One day as they swam to the mouth of a river on the northern coast, the swan children saw troop of horsemen riding along with riverbank. They saw at once the banner of Bov and recognized the voices of his sons. The horsemen approached and called out to the swans; often had their father told them of Aoife's treachery and the sad fate of the children of Lir.
"Fionnuala, Aed, Fiacra, Conn! We bring you tidings of Lir, your father."
"Pray, tell us everything. How fares our house?"
"Small comfort I know this may be, but Lir and Bov have never been so close as they are now, united in sorrow of losing you. Apart from that sorrow which plays constantly on the minds, they are happy and content; living together in Lir's fortress."
Gladdened though she was the her father was well, Fionnuala cried out, "Tonight our father and his household are drinking and feasting in a warm house while we live unsheltered."
Aed continued, "Once, we wore soft, warm wool; now only white feathers protect us from the cold."
Fiacra called out, "Our drink is saltwater from the boiling Sea of Moyle where once we drank sweet mead and wine from golden goblets."
Conn concluded, "Our beds are nothing but hard rocks, while our kinsmen rest on soft cushions."
Bov's son replied, "Alas, I know your fate is hard to bear."
"It lightens my heart to know that father is well," Fionnuala replied. "And since you are here, we can share the one small comfort of this curse. Listen to our song and carry it back to our father; we have not had the heart to sing only for ourselves."
The swan children sang their heart lifting song and every man who heard it was filled with great joy. Only as the music ended did their hearts grow heavy again because they knew they could not stay and there was nothing they could offer the children to comfort them.
As dawn broke, the horsemen turned south, back to the kingdom of the Tuatha De Danaan.
In the fullness of time, Fionnuala called her brothers to her saying, "Our time here is done. We fly now to the Atlantic until we hear the peel of the bell. Be of good cheer, my brothers. Our father's home lies between us and the Atlantic. Let us visit his shide as we pass."
The four swan children stretched their wings and flew off into the cool clear morning, circling Carraignarone, their shelter from storms, three times before leaving it behind forever.
Straight as an arrow, they flew across the heart of Ireland coming at last to their childhood home. Even from the air, they recognized the surrounding hills at once. Lower and lower they swooped, their alarm growing at every turn; there was no sign of Lir's fortress.
They landed at the spot they remembered so well, the courtyard where cruel Aoife had separated them from their father. A cold wind blew across the plain. The fence, the walls, the doors, the hearth; nothing remained. Fionnuala thought that her heart would crack with grief. The children sang a deep lament for loss of their father, their home, all the warmth and comfort they had hoped someday to return to.
At length, they had no choice but to continue on to the last portion of their exile, the Atlantic Ocean, where the world ends.
The waters of the Atlantic were nowhere near as cruel was the Sea of Moyle had been. The winter cold and spring gales were much milder. The children sheltered frequently in the bays and inlets which lined the coast, at last settling in a small Lough with an island.
As the time of their exile passed, legends spread across the land of a Lough in the North where swans sang with the sweet voice of children. This Lough became known as Inish Gloria, or sometimes the Lake of Birds, although the swans never spoke to men and were seldom seen.
The only reason we know the story to this day is that a visitor to this lake learned and kept alive the story of the Children of Lir even as the new faith consumed the land and Lir, their father; Mannonon, ruler of the sea; Lugh of the Long Arm, battle lord and defeater of the Fomori; even Danu, mother of their race faded from living memory and into the realm of legend.
Sometime after 300 years had passed, a holy hermit came to the Lake of Birds and built himself a small hut and a chapel. He did not know why, but he had been drawn to the stories of the Children of Lir and he wished to be near the lake they were supposed to inhabit. One morning, as the sun rose, the hermit rang a bronze bell as he prepared for his morning prayers.
Aed, Fiacra, and Conn were startled by the sound, but joy rose up in Fionnuala for she knew the end of their exile was at hand. Across the water, she led her brothers towards the sound of the bell. As the approached the shore, they saw the hut with a small open-doored chapel standing beside it. Through the door, the streaming morning sun glinted off of the bronze bell which had summoned them. Within, they heard the hermit chanting his morning prayers. They answered in their clear strong voices, undiminished by the passage of almost one thousand years.
Hearing the wondrous sound of the children's voices, the hermit rushed towards the sound. The children swam back, afraid. He called to them, "Do not fear me. Are you the Children of Lir?"
Fionnuala came ashore first saying, "I am Fionnuala, firstborn of Lir. Pray tell me good Sir, what has become of my father and my people, the Tuatha De Danaan."
He answered, "Alas, my poor child, they are but legends. Long ago, they passed from the world of men."
Aed came ashore next. "Then why are you here?"
He replied, "It is for your sakes that I have made my home here. Your sad story is told across the land and I had hoped that my prayers might ease your suffering."
Fiacra walked up behind his brother and sister asking, "No power in this world or the next can break our enchantment."
The hermit smiled, "A new religion has come. A religion of love and through it you will be saved."
Conn walked up last saying, "All that I care is that we are together."
The hermit replied, "Stay here and learn the new ways with me, my children, and I will see that you are never parted."
The swan children did stay. They sang and prayed with the hermit as they waited for the final release from their enchantment. True to his word, the hermit joined about their necks a fine chain of silver so that the four would never be separated.
While the children stayed with the monk in his home on the west shore of the Lake of Birds, Lairgren, a king of the North, when south to Munster and took a king's daughter for his wife. So it was the final condition of release from Aoife's curse had been fulfilled though the children had no way to know.
It happened Lairgren's queen had heard of the legendary swans that sang with the sweet voice of children and she decided to hear them in court. Lairgren was leery of the request, for he was certain the hermit would never permit the children to leave. Nevertheless, he sent a messenger commanding the childrenís' presence in court.
The messenger returned, his head still swollen from the cudgel blow the monk dealt him. Enraged, Lairgren stormed from the court to bring the swan children himself. With a small entourage, he passed quickly across his land to the far shore of the Lake of Birds. With a single oarsman, he crossed the Lake to the hermit's hut.
Stepping on to the shore alone he called out, "Where is the man who has defied the king!"
The hermit emerged from the door of his hut calling back, "I am here. Who asks?"
"Lairgren, the king himself! Bring forth these miraculous swan children. I will have been in my court before the night falls."
"I care not if you are the king or the Bishop of Rome! The Children of Lir have found sanctuary in my church. No earthly power has the right to move them."
Lairgren charged over to the chapel, shoving the hermit aside. He found the swans cowering in the corner. The young king grasped the silver chains and pulled them out the door towards the lake. The children flapped their wings and fought back as hard as they could, but they were no match for his strength. As Lairgren stepped into the boat the chain went slack in his hands.
Turning, he was horror stricken to see the white feathers falling away from the swans. Their bodies twisted and stretched as they shed their bird shape. Lairgren dropped the chain and cried out, falling back into the boat as he watched the glorious, beautiful swans transformed into three feeble old men and an ancient crone.
The hermit ran down to the shore hurling insults and stones at Lairgren as the king urged the boatman away from the shore. It may prove some small consolation to know that thereafter Lairgren was a much more careful, considerate, and wiser (if infinitely sadder) ruler then he might have been otherwise.
The hermit wept as he begged Fionnuala's forgiveness. She replied gently, her voice now crackling with age, "Do not grieve, my friend."
"At last, we shall know true peace," Aed said.
"We had lived too long in this world," Fiacra said.
"And we have been separated from our family for far too long," Conn added.
"Perform one last act of kindness for us," Fionnuala entreated. "Commit our bodies to the earth here where we found comfort. Bury us standing, as was the custom of our people. Bury us as we stood so often in life with Conn at my right side, Fiacra at my left side and Aed before me. As we stood together in life, so let us stand together in death."
The kind hermit did as she requested and joined the children's hands for all eternity with the remains of the silver chain. For the rest of his days, he prayed for their souls; though whether they rose up to heaven or joined their father and people of the goddess Danu in the Otherworld, no one can say.
Here ends the Second Sorrow of Storytelling, the sad fate of the Children of Lir.