The Children of Lir
(An Irish Tale)
King Lir of Ireland had four young children. Their stepmother, a Druid with magical powers, cared tenderly for them for many years. But after a while she grew jealous of the love their father had for them. She decided she would cast a spell upon them.
One day she took them for a ride in her chariot. Finola, who was 8, called to her three younger brothers -- Aodh, Fiacre and little Conn, who was still a baby. They were lovely children with soft skin, sweet voices and gentle temperaments. Joyfully they climbed into the chariot, and off they rode together, singing and enjoying the day.
When they reached Lake Davra, the stepmother sent them to bathe in the clear water. Happily they ran into the water, but as soon as they had touched the surface, their stepmother struck them with a fairy wand and turned them into snow-white swans.
Finola looked down at her feathers in amazement. She still possessed her human voice. "Tell us, how long must we remain swans?"
"Nine hundred years," cried their stepmother. "You will live here on Lake Davra for 300 years. For 300 years afterward you will live on the stormy Sea of Moyle. And for the next 300 you will live in the Great Sea at Inis Glora, the rocky island. Until St. Patrick comes to Ireland and brings the Christian faith, you will not be free."
The stepmother looked at the swans. She felt stricken with sadness at the spell she had cast, but alas, she had no power to undo it. "Neither your power nor mine can bring you back to human shape," she called, "but you will keep your reason and your speech. And you will sing so sweetly that everyone who hears your song will be calmed and happy."
Before long King Lir came to the shores of the lake. As he sat upon the bank, he heard the swans singing to him. "Father," they sang, "we are your children. Our stepmother's jealousy changed us into swans."
"Come live with me," the father wept. He held his arms out to the beautiful swans.
"We cannot, father," sang the swans. "We are allowed to live together and to keep our reason and our speech. We will sing sweetly to you, but we cannot live among humans."
The king went home and confronted his cruel wife. She bowed her head and confessed all she had done. King Lir went to her father, King Bove, and told him what his daughter had done.
King Bove was furious. "What life would be most terrible for you?" he asked his daughter. "That is the price you will pay."
"Make me the demon of the air," she said sadly. "There is no fate more cruel."
At once her father struck her with his fairy wand, and she turned into a bat. She flew away screeching.
Time passed. All the people in Ireland came to the lake to hear the swans' song. The happy were made happier by the song, and those who were sad forgot their sorrows. Peace reigned in the land. Towers and castles rose and fell; villages were built; generations were born and died. Still the swan children sang, and no one in the land was permitted to kill any swan.
At the end of 300 years, the swans flew away from the peaceful wooded shores to the stormy Sea of Moyle. There they slept on the rocky coasts and the wild sea. One night a great storm swirled around them. The winds blew them this way and that, but Finola carried her brothers beneath her wings and reached the rock called Caricknarone.
The swans huddled together, shivering and exhausted. Many stormy nights followed. Water froze into solid ice around them, and their feet were frozen to the rock so that when they moved, they left the skin of their feet and the feathers of their breasts behind them. They suffered, but still they sang, and at long last the ice melted and the swans swam out to sea.
And so the second 300 years passed. Once again the swans left their home and flew to the island of Inis Glora. There they spent the next 300 years, living among still wilder storms and colder winds. The sailors and fishermen who passed the island often heard the sweet songs of the children of Lir.
As 900 years came to an end, Finola remembered her stepmother's promise. "Come, brothers," she said. "We will return to our father's home."
They flew from the island into the bright skies. They flew for days above the sea, and at last landed atop the palace that had once been their home.
But when they landed they saw how much had changed. The palace walls were crumbled and ruined. "This is our home no longer," Finola said, and the swans wept, remembering how beautiful their land had once been. At the end of the day Finola said, "We no longer belong here," and so they flew back to Inis Glora. "If we must live forever solitary, we will live where we lived last."
One morning as the children of Lir floated in the air around the island of Inis Glora, they heard a bell sounding across the sea. The thick mist lifted, and they saw in the distance, beyond the waves, a stately white-robed priest surrounded by many attendants.
"This is St. Patrick," Finola sang. "He is bringing Christianity to Ireland. We will be free."
The swans rose into the air once again and sailed above the blue seas toward their own coast. Once they were near they heard the bells chiming, and they knew that all the evil spirits were fleeing the world.
As they approached the land, St. Patrick stretched out his hands to them. "Children of Lir, return to your land."
The swans touched shore, but when they did the weight of all those years fell upon them. They turned into human beings again, but now they were now old and pale and wrinkled. St. Patrick quickly baptized them. When he did, a change came over them. Lying side by side upon the ground, they died quietly. Once more they were children, dressed in white clothes.
The time of sorrow was ended, and the last swan song sung, though the people who had heard the swans' song never forgot. And all those who have looked into the sad face of the bat know that the stepmother still flies through the dark nights, suffering for her sins.