The Children of Lir

as retold by: Marsha Williams

When the first wife of Lir, the sea-god died, Bodb the Red, the new ruler chosen by the Tuatha De Danaan, offered in marriage one of his foster- daughters, Lir, touched by this choose Aebh. They were soon wed and Lir took her back to Sidh Fionnachaidh and in time Aebh bore Lir four children. The eldest a daughter, Fionuala; the second a son called Aed; and twin sons who were called Fiachra and Conn, whose birth took Aebh's life.

Bodb hearing this news then again offered Ler another of his foster-daughters. This time, Lir choose Aeife and every year Lir, Aeife and the four children would go to Manannan's "Feast of Age." Soon, the children grew to be great favorites among the people of the goddess Danu.

But Aeife was barren and soon grew jealous of the children of Lir, for she feared that he would love his children more than her. She brooded over this till she began, first to hope for, and then finally, to plot the deaths of the children.

Aeife, along with the unsuspecting children went on a journey to visit Bodb the Red. Stopping at a lonely and deserted place by Lake Derryvaragh, in West Meath, Aeife then ordered her servants to kill the children, in horror they refused. Aeife then resolved to slay the children herself; and sent them into the lake to bathe, Where she then made an incantation over the children and touching them each in turn changed them into four white swans.But though Aeife had enough magic to alter their shapes, she didn't have enough to take away their minds and speech.

Fionuala turned, and threatened Aeife with the terrible anger of both Lir and Bodb the Red when they would come to hear of this, as surely would. Even that would not stop Aeife, she hardened her heart and laid upon them the following geis: three hundred years would they spend at Lake Derryvaragh, three hundred years were they to be on the Straits of Moyle, with yet another three hundred years to be spent in the Atlantic by Irros Domnann and the Isle of Glora in Erris, after which, when the woman of the South is wed with the man of the North, their enchantment would be at an end.

Aeife then turned and left, and when she returned to Lir she told him the children had fallen into Lake Derryvaragh and drowned. But Aeife's servants, fearing the wrath of Badb had rushed to him, telling him of Aeife's murderous orders. Bodb then put an oath upon Aeife and upon finding out the truth, flew into such a rage he caused her then to become a demon of the air forevermore, Aeife flew shrieking from the palace to never be heard from again.

Together, Bodb and Lir sought out the swan-children, and found that they not only still had speech, but had retained the Danaan gift of making enchanting music, the softest and sweetest songs that were ever heard in the world. From all parts of the island the Tuatha De Danaan went to Lake Derryvaragh to hear their wondrous music and to converse with the swans. The Milesians hearing of this, also went (for it was not till long after this that the gods and mortals ceased to associate) ... and during that time a great peace and gentleness seemed to pervade the land.

But the day came at last when the swans must leave the beautiful lake to fulfil the second period of their long exile on the Sea of Moyle. To take up their life by the wild cliffs and the freezing angry sea of the northern coast. They bid farewell to gods and men, and left. And so it was, for fear they might be hurt, the Milesians made it a law in Ireland that no man should harm a swan, from that time forth, forever.

It was here, on the Sea of Moyle, they knew the very worst of loneliness, cold and freezing storms. Forbidden to land, their feathers froze to the rocks in the long winter nights, they were buffeted and often driven apart by storms.

The eldest, Fionuala, would try to care for her younger brothers, wrapping her abundant plumage around them, trying to protect them from the worst of the frost and cold, and would sing:

"Cruel to us was Aeife
Who played her magic upon us,
And drove us out on the water
Four wonderful snow-white swans

Our bath is the frothing brine,
In bays by red rocks guarded;
For mead at our father's table
We drink now of the salt, blue sea

Three sons and a single daughter,
In clefts of the cold rocks dwelling,
The hard rocks, cruel to mortals -
We are full of keening tonight."

At long last, the time came to enter upon the third and final period of their doom and so they took flight for the western shores of Mayo. Again, they suffer and endured many hardships; when the final period of their suffering was close at hand they flew towards the palace of their father Lir, who dwells at the Hill of the White Field, in Armagh. There, they were shocked to find nothing but green mounds, nettles and bushes where once - and still stood, only they could not see it- the palace of their father.

On Erris Bay, they made a friend, the Lonely Crane of Inniskea, which had lived upon the island since the beginning of the world, and will be sitting there still on the day of judgement. It was here also that for the first time, they heard the sound of a Christian bell coming from the chapel of a hermit. The swans were at first startled and terrified by the thin, dreadful sound, but soon approached the hermit who instructed them in the faith.

It was then that a princess of Minster, Deoca (the "woman of the South") became betrothed to the Connacht chief , Lairgnen and begged from him as a wedding gift the four wonderful singing swans of whom she'd heard.

When asked to give his friends up, the hermit refused and so Lairgnen violently took them and carried them to Deoca, followed by the hermit. It was in the presence, of Deoca that an awful transformation befell the swans. Their plumage began to fall off and revealed then, not the radiant forms of Danaans, but instead four withered, ancient, snow-haired humans, shrunken in the decrepitude of their advanced age. Lairgnen flew away in horror, but the hermit stayed and prepared them for baptism. As death rapidly approached Fionuala asked "lay us in one grave, and place Conn at my right and Fiachra on my left, and Aed before my face, for there they were wont to be when I sheltered them during many a long winters night when we were upon the seas of Moyle." And so it was done, and they went to heaven. It is said the hermit sorrowed for his friends all the rest of his days until death released him and they were joined once again.

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