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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Mythological Cycle
The Children of Lir, a sorrowful tale of sweet sadness
It was in the time of legends and heroes, when the Tuatha Dé Dannan had determined to go into their deep halls beneath the hills and mountains of Éireann the green, that the Dagda mór had fallen at the second battle of Moy Tura. With his slaying a new leader had to be elected and that was decided by the Tuatha to be the Red Crow, Bodb Dearg. Now the Bodb wasn't without his rivals, fierce and powerful lords in their own right, chief among whom was Lir, so to keep the peace and ensure goodwill Bodb decided to marry his daughter to Lir.
Their marriage was a happy and fruitful one, and all the people rejoiced at the beauty of the children of Lir and Aoibh. They had four children between them, daughter and son Fionnuala and Aodh, as well as the twins Fiachra and Conn, but their happiness wasn't to last long for Aoibh daughter of the Red Crow died suddenly.
Great was the grief of her children and her husband, their weeping could be heard across the land, so Bodb decided it would be in the best interests of all concerned if his daughter Aoife was to marry Lir in the stead of his lost Aoibh. Such was the custom in those ages long gone, and for the most part it worked out.
But Aoife had a dark reputation and was rumoured to be on good terms with certain ancient powers who shall remain unnamed, for it's not wise to speak of such as those even in passing. Although quick to anger she nonetheless found love in her for Lir and his children, until a worm of jealousy slowly began to gnaw at the apple of her heart. For what young wife wants a husband more devoted to the children of another than to her? And Lir loved his children greatly, spending as much time as he could with them.
As time passed her envy grew, until she eventually made the decision - she had to do away with them! But accursed are those who slay their kin, even if only by marriage, and she didn't much like the idea of being haunted by four young ghosts for the rest of her years, so she consulted her deep dark pool under the shadowy willow until the answer bubbled up to her from the stygian depths. Round and round she danced under the sickle moon and her spells were made ready.
In her wickedness she told the children, the eldest of whom was only eight years old and the youngest, Conn, but a babe as yet, that as the day was hot 'twould do no harm to go for a cooling dip in the lake, so up they climbed into her chariot and away they went from the palace of Lir. Across rutted track and over dusty field they bounced, and even with the malice in her heart Aoife saw that the children were beautiful, with skin as pale as milk and eyes as blue as sapphires. Musical were their voices as they laughed and played, all unaware of the dark fate fast approaching.
When they got to the lake and went swimming, Aoife at last played her hand, and with a cackle she worked her malice and touched the tip of her twisted blackthorn wand into the waters, calling on the quicksilver spirits she had bound to herself to transform the young ones into beasts of the wind, for it was the air she feared more than anything else and could imagine no worse fate than to float forever adrift without anchor or path.
With a thunderous sound as though two rivers had crashed together, the waters arose and drank the children down, and when they came up again they were children no longer but swans! Her dark magic took hold but not deeply enough, for their blood like her own was of the eldritch Druids, and so they kept their voices and could speak the tongues of men.
No longer human but not struck dumb either, they clamoured to know their fate. Aoife smiled her sharp smile and said to them, "Three times a hundred years shall you live on this lake, and three times a hundred on the Sea of Moyle, and three times a hundred at Inis Glora on the far western ocean! No power of mine or yours will undo this enchantment. You shall be as you are until you hear the ringing of the Christian bell and speak to the one called Caomhog, who comes in the name of the light!" And in this she displayed her prophetic prowess as well, knowing of Patrick's coming long before his birth.
Many truths and futures did she see in her dark pool but not that Lir himself would chance by the lake that very day! And so he came, the father of the children, and heard the swans singing sad songs in sweet voices.
Astonished, he cried "How came you by those voices and can speak the tongues of men?"
The swans replied sadly, "But father, we are your children and have been done unto the forms of birds by your new wife Aoife, our childhood's over and here we must stay." They did not weep for of course swans cannot, but Lir wept bitter tears, thinking of his children and even the youngest, only babes.
He took his sorry tale of woe to Aoife's father for he dared not challenge her by himself, and the Red Crow was furious. In his rage he called for the warriors to bring his daughter before him in a silver net, that she might not turn to a fish and flee down the river, and summoning all of his mystical energy he said to her, "You shall envy those children you so accursed in your vain jealousy, for I know you as only a father can and I will give you what you fear the most forevermore! They will escape in the end, but not you!"
And with that Aoife was transformed painfully into a demon of the airs and banished into the mists, her nightmare made life for all eternity by her own deeds, and some say she still haunts the dark places of Ireland seeking to do mischief to those who listen too closely to the whispering wind on dark nights.
Lonely their father sat by the lake day after day, listening to the voices of the children he would never hold again, until a party of travellers came upon him and heard the rich, beautiful voices of the swans singing. They were struck with wonder and filled with a great calm, sitting by Lir until the sun set. They left that place and quickly told others, and the fame of the swans spread throughout all the land. For three hundred years people came from far and wide in Éireann to hear the melodies across the waters of the lake, and although in other places castles were built and fell, wars were waged, villages and settlements established and abandoned, peace reigned supreme while the swans sang. This is why even today it is forbidden to kill a swan in Ireland.
But after three centuries had passed the children of Lir went to the storm-wracked sea of Moyle to fulfill the second of their woes. A dark and dreary place it was, and often the howling wind was so fierce that they were driven apart, so they swore to one another to meet up at the jutting rock called Carricknarone should they get separated.
It was a chilly and lonely place with no audience for their songs, and when the ice came to the rock their skin and feathers froze to the stone, only peeling off painfully when they went into the water. Lacking fire or shelter they huddled beneath one anothers' wings, and three hundred years is a long time to spend living like that I don't mind telling you.
Then on a bright spring morning they chanced to spot a shining company of bold warriors on horseback riding up the shore. Fair of face they were and mighty of arm, and the swans recognised them as their own people, the Tuatha Dé Dannan. Shouting out glad greetings to one another the chief of the Tuatha party said he'd been sent to find them and check were they still alright. There was nothing, he admitted, he could do for them, but he shared the cold comfort that someday their sorrows would pass, and went on his way.
When the time came, Fionnuala sang out that their second sadness was finished, and they flew over land and water to the third and final place where they were to live out their days. On the cold and barren island of Inis Glora they dwelt, around a salt pool, and a sailor or fisherman might chance upon them as he went about his daily business, seeing in the distance beautiful white wings or hearing the echo of a lonely song.
After three hundred more years had passed, almost a thousand in total, the chidlren of Lir took flight and thought to visit the home of their father in Finnaha, but found it a tumbled ruin. The once-splendid palace where laughter and merriment had danced like tinkling sparrows was no more and the people had left. Struck with sadness they knew they were to be alone, and flew higher and higher into the blue sky, until in the farthest distance they heard a bell's chime.
They followed the sound to the home of a man called Caomhog, and as they flew the evil spirits that Aoife had bound to her will fled in terror, for Caomhog was one of the first to help spread Christianity throughout Ireland. Caomhog was a kindly and gentle sort who looked after them for the last years of their time.
And then they heard the thunder of hooves outside, and a well built man in armour and jutting beard burst in, demanding the swans for himself. He was the king of Connaught he said, and it was the custom in those days for kings and princes to hunt and capture mystical creatures for their own benefit. With many an oath and dark threats he laid hands upon the swans but the bell tolled again!
With that the waters rose and the last of their terrible enchantments were taken back into the underworld, a great mist enveloped the swans and they became as children once more. The warrior stood back aghast and fled, as the weight of the childrens' years came upon them all at once. Caomhog quickly baptised them before they could die and their name and legend live on forever as the Children of Lir.
Indicated on the map below is the lake close to Mullingar where the Children of Lir are said to have been transformed into swans.
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