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The Children of Lir

LIR WAS the father of the sea god Mananan. Lir married in turn two sisters. The second of them, Eefa, was childless, but the first wife of Lir had left him four children, the girl Fionuala and three boys. Lir loved his children so much that it made their stepmother so jealous that in the end she resolved to destroy them.

Eefa went on a journey to a neighbouring king, Bov the Red, taking the four children with her. When they arrived at a lonely place by Lake Derryvaragh in Westmeath, she ordered her attendants to slay the children. They would not. She would have to do it herself; but as her womanhood overcame her, she transformed the children by spells into four white swans instead of killing them. Then she lay on them the following doom:

"You are to spend three hundred years on the waters of Lake Derryvaragh, three hundred on the Straits of Moyle between Ireland and Scotland, and three hundred years on the Atlantis by Erris and Inishglory."

The four swans then flew away to act the spell.

When the children fail to arrive with Eefa at the castle of Bov, her enchantment of the children was discovered, and Bov changed her into a demon of the air. She flew away shrieking, and was heard of no more. But Lir and Bov sought out the swan children, and found that it was not within their powers to change them back again.

"Very well, then, "said the two. "If this cannot be undone, you shall have the blessing of making wonderful music."

And so it was. From all parts of the island came companies of people to Lake Derryvaragh to hear the wondrous music, and a great peace and gentleness came over the land.

But at last the day came for them to leave their family members and friends and take up their life by the straits between Scotland and Ireland and battle the angry sea of the northern coast. Here the four swan-children knew the worst of loneliness, cold, and storm. Forbidden to land, their feathers froze to the rocks in the winter nights, and they were often buffeted and driven apart by storms. Fionuala sang:

Eefa was cruel
To play her magic on us,
And drive us out on the water
Four wonderful snow-white swans

Our bath is the frothing brine,
In bays guarded by red rocks.
Instead of mead at our father's table
We drink of the sea.

Three sons and a single daughter.
Live in clefts of the cold rocks,
The hard rocks, cruel to mortals
We are full of keening tonight.

Fionuala, the eldest of the four, took the lead in all their doings, and mothered the younger children most tenderly, wrapping her plumage round them on nights of frost. At last the time came to enter on the third and last period of their doom, and they took flight for the western shores of Mayo. Here too they suffered much hardship; but a young farmer, Evric, who lived on the shores of Erris Bay, found out who and what the swans were and befriended them. Then they told their story to him.

When the final period of their suffering was close at hand they headed toward the palace of their father Lir, who dwelt at the Hill of the White Field in Armagh, to see how things had fared with him. However, when they arrived there they could see nothing but green mounds and whin bushes and nettles where once had stood the palace of their father. At length they flew back to Erris Bay. There they heard for the first time the sound of a church bell. It came from the chapel of a hermit who had established himself there. The swans were at first startled and terrified by the sound, but afterwards approached and made themselves known to the hermit. He in turn instructed them in the faith, and they joined him in singing the offices of the Church.

At this time a princess of Munster, Deoca became betrothed to a chief named Lairgnen, and begged him as a wedding gift to procure for her the four wonderful singing swans. He asked them of the hermit, who declined to give them out. Then Lairgnen seized them violently by the silver chains that the hermit had coupled them with, and dragged them off to Deoca.

When they arrived, an awful transformation happened to them. The swan plumage fell off, and revealed four withered, snowy haired, and miserable human beings, shrunken in the decrepitude of their vast old age. Lairgnen flied from the place in horror, but the hermit prepared to baptise them at once, for he saw that death was rapidly approaching them.

"Lay us in one grave," said Fionuala, "and place Conn at my right hand and Fiachra at my left, and Hugh before my face, for there they were wont to be when I sheltered them many a winter night on the seas of Moyle."

And so it was done, and the hermit grieved over them to the end of his days.

[A Celtic myth]


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