Six Swans | The Children of Lir (A Celtic Tale)

The following is an annotated version of the fairy tale. I recommend reading the entire story before exploring the annotations, especially if you have not read the tale recently.

LONG ago when the Tuatha De Danaan lived in Ireland there was a great King called Lir. He had four children--Fionnuala, Aodh, Fiacra, and Conn. Fionnuala was the eldest and she was as beautiful as sunshine in blossomed branches; Aodh was like a young eagle in the blue of the sky; and his two brothers, Fiacra and Conn, were as beautiful as running water.

In those days sorrow was not known in Ireland: the mountains were crowned with light, and the lakes and rivers had strange starlike flowers that shook a rain of jewelled dust on the white horses of the De Danaans when they came down to drink. The horses were swifter than any horses that are living now and they could go over the waves of the sea and under deep lake-water without hurt to themselves. Lir's four children had each one a white horse and two hounds that were whiter than snow.

Every one in Lir's kingdom loved Fionnuala, and Aodh, and Fiacra, and Conn, except their step-mother, Aoifa. She hated them, and her hatred pursued them as a wolf pursues a wounded fawn. She sought to harm them by spells and witchcraft. She took them in her chariot to the Lake of Darvra in Westmeath. She made them bathe in the lake and when they were coming out of the water she struck them with a rod of enchantment and turned them into four white swans.

Swim as wild swans on this lake," she said, "for three hundred years, and when that time is ended swim three hundred years on the narrow sea of the Moyle, and when that time is ended swim three hundred years on the Western Sea that has no bounds but the sky."

Then Fionnuala, that was a swan, said:

"O Wicked Woman, a doom will come upon you heavier than the doom you have put on us and you will be more sorrowful than we are to-day. And if you would win any pity in the hour of your calamity tell us now how we may know when the doom will end for us."

"The doom will end when a king from the North weds a queen from the South; when a druid with a shaven crown comes over the seas; when you hear the sound of a little bell that rings for prayers."

The swans spread their wings and flew away over the lake. They made a very sorrowful singing as they went, lamenting for themselves.

When the Great King, their father, knew the sorrow that had come to him, he hastened down to the shore of the lake and called his children.

They came flying to him, four white swans, and he said:

"Come to me, Fionnuala; come Aodh; come Conn; come Fiacra." He put his hands on them and caressed them and said: " I cannot give you back your shapes till the doom that is laid on you is ended, but come back now to the house that is mine and yours, White Children of my Heart."

Then Fionnuala answered him:

"The shadow of the woman who ensnared us lies on the threshold of your door: we cannot cross it."

And Lir said:

"The woman who ensnared you is far from any home this night. She is herself ensnared, and fierce winds drive her into all the restless places of the earth. She has lost her beauty and become terrible; she is a Demon of the Air, and must wander desolate to the end of time--but for you there is the firelight of home. Come back with me."

Then Conn said:

"May good fortune be on the threshold of your door from this time and for ever, but we cannot cross it, for we have the hearts of wild swans and we must fly in the dusk and feel the water moving under our bodies; we must hear the lonesome cries of the night. We have the voices only of the children you knew; we have the songs you taught us--that is all. Gold crowns are red in the firelight, but redder and fairer is dawn."

Lir stretched out his hands and blessed his children. He said:

"May all beautiful things grow henceforth more beautiful to you, and may the song you have be melody in the heart of whoever hears it. May your wings winnow joy for you out of the air, and your feet be glad in the water-ways. My blessing be on you till the sea loses its saltness and the trees forget to bud in springtime. And farewell, Fionnuala, my white blossom; and farewell Aodh, that was the red flame of my heart; and farewell, Conn, that brought me gladness; and farewell, Fiacra, my treasure. Lonesome it is for you, flying far off in places strange to you; lonesome it is for me without you. Bitter it is to say farewell, and farewell, and nothing else but farewell."

Lir covered his face with his mantle and sorrow was heavy on him, but the swans rose into the air and flew away calling to each other. They called with the voices of children, but in their heart was the gladness of swans when they feel the air beneath them and stretch their necks to the freedom of the sky.

Three hundred years they flew over Lake Darvra and swam on its waters. Often their father came to the lake and called them to him and caressed them; often their kinsfolk came to talk with them; often harpers and musicians came to listen to the wonder of their singing. When three hundred years were ended the swans rose suddenly and flew far and far away. Their father sought them, and their kinsfolk sought them, but the swans never touched earth or rested once till they came to the narrow Sea of the Moyle that flows between Ireland and Scotland. A cold stormy sea it was, and lonely. The swans had no one to listen to their singing, and little heart for singing amid the green curling bitter waves. The storm-wind beat roughly on them, and often they were separated and calling to one another without hope of an answer. Then Fionnuala, for she was the wisest, said:

"Let us choose a place of meeting, so that when we are separated and lost and wandering each one will know where to wait for the others.

The swans, her brothers, said it was a good thought; they agreed to meet together in one place, and the place they chose was Carraig-na-Ron, the Rock of the Seals. And it was well they made that choice, for a great storm came on them one night and scattered them far out over the sea. Their voices were drowned in the tempest and they were driven hither and thither in the darkness.

In the pale morning Fionnuala came to the Rock of the Seals. Her feathers were broken with the wind and draggled with the saitness of the sea and she was lamenting and calling on Aodh and Fiacra and Conn.

"O Conn, that I sheltered under my feathers, come to me! O Fiacra, come to me! O Aodh, Aodh, Aodh, come to me!"

And when she did not see them, and no voice answered, she made a sore lamentation and said:

"O bitter night that was blacker than the doom of Aoifa at the first to us! O three that I loved! O three that I loved! The waves are over your heads and I am desolate!"

She saw the red sun rising, and when the redness touched the waters, Conn came flying to her. His feathers were broken with the wind and draggled with the saltness of the sea. Fionnuala gathered him under her wings and comforted him, and she said:

"The day would not seem bitter to me now if only Aodh and Fiacra were come."

In a little while Fiacra came to her over the rough sea. She sheltered and comforted him with her wings, and she cried over the waters:

"O Aodh, Aodh, Aodh, come to me!"

The sun was high in the heavens when Aodh came, and he came with his feathers bright and shining and no trace of the bitter storm on him.

"O where have you been, Aodh?" said Fionnuala and Fiacra and Conn to him.

"I have been flying where I got sight of our kinsfolk. I have seen the white steeds that are swifter than the winds of March, and the riders that were comrades to us when we had Our own shapes. I have seen Aodh and Fergus, the two sons of Bove Dearg."

"O tell us, Aodh, where we may get sight of them!" said the swans.

"They are at the river mouth of the Ban," said Aodh, "Let us go there, and we may see them though we cannot leave the Moyle."

So much gladness came on all the swans that they forgot their weariness and the grievous buffeting of the storm and they rose and flew to the river mouth of the Bann. They saw their kinsfolk, the beautiful company of the Faery Host, shining with every colour under heaven and joyous as the wind in Springtime.

"O tell us, dear kinsfolk," said the swans, " how it is with our father?"

"The Great King has wrapped his robes of beauty about him, and feasts with those from whom age cannot take youth and light-hearted-ness," said Fergus.

"Ah," said Fionnuala, " he feasts and it is well with him! The joy-flame on his hearth cannot quench itself in ashes. He cannot hear us calling through the night--the wild swans, the wanderers, the lost children."

The Faery Host was troubled, seeing the piteous plight of the swans, but Aodh, that was a swan said to Fergus, his kinsman and comrade:

"Do not cloud your face for us, Fergus; the horse you ride is white, but I ride a whiter--the cold curling white wave of the sea."

Then Fiacra said:

"O Fergus, does my own white horse forget me, now that I am here in the cold Moyle?"

And Conn said:

"O Fergus, tell my two hounds that I will come back to them some day."

The memory of all beautiful things came on the swans, and they were sorrowful, and Fionnuala said:

"O beautiful comrades, I never thought that beauty could bring sorrow: now the sight of it breaks my heart," and she said to her brothers:

"Let us go before our hearts are melted utterly." The swans went over the Moyle then, and they were lamenting, and Fionnuala said:

"There is joy and feasting in the house of Lir to-night, but his four children are without a roof to cover them."

"It is a poor garment our feathers make when the wind blows through them: often we had the purple of kings' children on us.

"We are cold to-night, and it is a cold bed the sea makes: often we had beds of down with broidered coverings.

"Often we drank mead from gold cups in the house of our father; now we have the bitterness of the sea and the harshness of sand in our mouths.

"It is weariness--O a great weariness--to be flying over the Moyle; without rest, without cornpanions, without comfort.

"I am thinking of Angus to-night: he has the laughter of joy about him for ever.

"I am thinking to-night of Mananaun, and of white blossoms on silver branches.

"O swans, my brothers, I am thinking of beauty, and we are flying away from it for ever."

The swans did not see the company of the Faery Host again. They swam on the cold stormy sea of the Moyle, and they were there till three hundred years were ended.

"It is time for us to go," said Fionnuala, "we must seek the Western Sea."

The swans shook the water of the Moyle from their feathers and stretched out their wings to fly.

When they were come to the Western Sea there was sorrow on them, for the sea was wilder and colder and more terrible than the Moyle. The swans were on that sea and flying over it for three hundred years, and all that time they had no comfort, and never once did they hear the foot-fall of hound or horse or see their faery kinsfolk.

When the time was ended, the swans rose out of the water and cried joyfully to each other:

"Let us go home now, the time is ended!"

They flew swiftly, and yet they were all day flying before they came to the place where Lir had his dwelling; when they looked down they saw no light in the house, they heard no music, no sound of voices. The many-coloured house was desolate and all the beauty was gone from it; the white hounds and the brightmaned horses were gone, and all the beautiful glad-hearted folk of the Sidhe.

"Every place is dark to us!" said Conn. "Look at the hills!"

The swans looked at the hills they had known, and every hill and mountain they could see was dark and sorrowful: not one had a star-heart of light, not one had a flame-crown, not one had music pulsing through it like a great breath.

"O Aodh, and Conn, and Fiacra," said Fionnuala, "beauty is gone from the earth: we have no home now!"

The swans hid themselves in the long dank grass, till morning. They did not speak to each other; they did not make a lamentation; they were silent with heaviness of grief. When they felt the light of morning they rose in the air and flew in wide circles seeking their kinsfolk. They saw the dwellings of strangers, and a strange people tending flocks and sowing corn on plains where the Tuatha De Danaan had hunted white stags with horns of silver.

"The grief of all griefs has come upon us!" said Fionnuala. "It is no matter now whether we have the green earth under us or bitter sea-waves: it is little to us now that we are in swans' bodies."

Her brothers had no words to answer her; they were dumb with grief till Aodh said:

"Let us fly far from the desolate house and the dead hills. Let us go where we can hear the thunder of the Western Sea."

The swans spread their wings and flew westward till they came to a little reedy lake, and they alit there and sheltered themselves, for they had no heart to go farther.

They took no notice of the days and often they did not know whether it was the moon or the sun that was in the sky, but they sang to each other, and that was all the comfort they had.

One day, while Fionnuala was singing, a man of the stranger-race drew near to listen. He had the aspect of one who had endured much hardship. His garments were poor and ragged. His hair was bleached by sun and rain. As he listened to the song a light came into his eyes and his whole face grew beautiful. When the song ended he bowed himself before the swans and said:

"White Swans of the Wilderness, ye have flown over many lands. Tell me, have ye seen aught of Tir-nan-Oge, where no one loses youth; or Tir-na-Moe, where all that is beautiful lives for ever; or Moy-Mell, that is so honey-sweet with blossom?"

"Have we seen Tir-nan-Oge? It is our own country! We are the children of Lir the King of it."

"Where is that country? How may one reach it? Tell me! "

"Ochone! It is not anywhere on the ridge of the world. Our father's house is desolate! "

"Ye are lying, to make sport for yourselves! Tir-nan-Oge cannot perish--rather would the whole world fall to ruin!

"O would we had anything but the bitterness of truth on our tongues!" said Aodh. "Would we could see even one leaf from those trees with shining branches where the many-coloured birds used to sing! Ochone! Ochone! for all the beauty that has perished with Tir-nan-Oge!"

The stranger cried out a loud sorrowful cry and threw himself on the ground. His fingers tore at the roots of the grass. His body writhed and trembled with grief.

The children of Lir wondered at him, and Aodh said:

"Put away this fierceness of grief and take consolation to yourself. We, with so much heavier sorrow, have not lamented after this fashion."

The stranger raised himself: his eyes blazed like the eyes of a hunted animal when it turns on the hunters.

"How could your sorrow be equal to mine? Ye have dwelt in Tir-nan-Oge; ye have ridden horses whiter than the snow of one night and swifter than the storm-wind; ye have gathered flowers in the Plain of Honey. But I have never seen it--never once! Look at me! I was born a king! I have become an outcast, the laughing stock of slaves! I am Aibric the wanderer!--I have given all--all, for the hope of finding that country. It is gone now--it is not anywhere on the round of the world!"

"Stay with us," said Fiacra, "and we will sing for you, and tell you stories of Tir-nan-Oge."

"I cannot stay with you! I cannot listen to your songs! I must go on seeking; seeking;

seeking while I live. When I am dead my dreams will not torment me. I shall have my fill of quietness then."

"Can you not believe us when we tell you that Tir-nan-Oge is gone like the white mists of morning? It is nowhere."

"It is in my heart, and in my mind, and in my soul! It burns like fire! It drives me like a tireless wind! I am going. Farewell!

"Stay!" cried Aodh, "we will go with you. There is nothing anywhere for us now but brown earth and drifting clouds and wan waters. Why should we not go from place to place as the wind goes, and see each day new fields of reeds, new forest trees, new mountains? O, we shall never see the star-heart in any mountain again! "

"The mountains are dead," said Conn.

"The mountains are not dead," said Aibric. "They are dark and silent, but they are not dead. I know. I have cried to them in the night and laid my forehead against theirs and felt the beating of their mighty hearts. They are wiser than the wisest druid, more tender than the tenderest mother. It is they who keep the world alive."

"O," said Fionnuala, " if the mountains are indeed alive let us go to them; let us tell them our sorrowful story. They will pity us and we shall not be utterly desolate."

Aibric and the swans journeyed together, and at dusk they came to a tall beautiful mountain--the mountain that is called Nephin, in the West.

It looked dark and sombre against the fading sky, and. the sight of it, discrowned and silent, struck chill to the hearts of our wild swans: they turned away their heads to hide the tears in their eyes. But Aibric stretched his hands to the mountain and cried out:

"O beautiful glorious Comrade, pity us! Tir-nan-Oge is no more, and Moy-Mell is lost for ever! Welcome the children of Lir, for we have nothing left but you and the earth of Ireland!"

Then a wonder happened.

The star-heart of Nephin shone out--magnificent--tremulous--coloured like a pale amethyst.

The swans cried out to each other:

"The mountain is alive! Beauty has come again to the earth! Aibric, you have given us back the Land of Youth!"

A delicate faery music trembled and died away and was born again in the still evening air, and more and more the radiance deepened in the heart of Nephin. The swans began to sing most sweetly and joyously, and at the sound of that singing the star-heart showed in mountain after mountain till every mountain in Ireland pulsed and shone.

"Crown yourselves, mountains!" said Aodh, "that we may know the De Danaans are still alive and Lir's house is builded now where old age cannot wither it! "

The mountains sent up great jewelled rays of light so that each one was crowned with a rainbow; and when the Children of Lir saw that splendour they had no more thought of the years they had spent over dark troublous waters, and they said to each other:

"Would we could hear the sound of the little bell that rings for prayers, and feel our swan-bodies fall from us!"

"I know the sound of a bell that rings for prayers," said Aibric, " and I will bring you where you can hear it. I will bring you to Saint Kemoc and you will hear the sound of his bell."

"Let us go," said the swans, and Aibric brought them to the Saint. The Saint held up his hands and blessed God when he saw them, and he besought them to remain a while and to tell him the story of their wanderings. He brought them into his little church and they were there with him in peace and happiness relating to him the wonders of the Land of Youth. It came to pass then that word reached the wife of King Largnen concerning the swans: she asked the king to get them for her, and because she demanded them with vehemence, the king journeyed to the Church of Saint Kemoc to get the swans.

When he was come, Saint Kemoc refused to give him the swans and Largnen forced his way into the church to take them. Now, he was a king of the North, and his wife was a queen of the South, and it was ordained that such a king should put an end to the power of Aoifa's spell.

He came to the altar, and the swans were close to it. He put his hands on the swans to take them by force. When he touched them the swan-feathers dwindled and shrivelled and became as fine dust, and the bodies of Lir's children became as a handful of dust, but their spirits attained to freedom and joined their kinsfolk in the Land-of-the-Ever-Living.

It was Aibric who remembered the story of the children of Lir, because he loved them. He told the story to the people of Ireland, and they were so fond of the story and had such pity for Lir's children that they made a law that no one was to hurt a wild swan, and when they saw a swan flying they would say:

"My blessing with you, white swan, for the sake of Lir's children!"

Young, Ella. Celtic Wonder Tales. Dublin: Maunsel & Company, 1910. 



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