The Children Of LÎr
: A Book Of Myths
“Silent, O Moyle, be the roar of thy water;
Break not, ye breezes, your chain of repose;
While murmuring mournfully, Lîr’s lonely daughter
Tells to the night-star her tale of woes.”
They are the tragedies, not the comedies of the old, old days that are handed down to us, and the literature of the Celts is rich in tragedy. To the romantic and sorrowful imagination of the Celts
f the green island of Erin we owe the hauntingly piteous story of the children of Lîr.
In the earliest times of all, when Ireland was ruled by the Dedannans, a people who came from Europe and brought with them from Greece magic and other arts so wonderful that the people of the land believed them to be gods, the Dedannans had so many chiefs that they met one day to decide who was the best man of them all, that they might choose him to be their king. The choice fell upon Bodb the Red, and gladly did every man acclaim him as king, all save Lîr of Shee Finnaha, who left the council in great wrath because he thought that he, and not Bodb, should have been chosen. In high dudgeon he retired to his own place, and in the years that followed he and Bodb the Red waged fierce war against one another. At last a great sorrow came to Lîr, for after an illness of three days his wife, who was very dear to him, was taken from him by death. Then Bodb saw an opportunity for reconciliation with the chief whose enemy he had no wish to be. And to the grief-stricken husband he sent a message:
“My heart weeps for thee, yet I pray thee to be comforted. In my house have I three maidens, my foster-daughters, the most beautiful and the best instructed in all Erin. Choose which one thou wilt for thy wife, and own me for thy lord, and my friendship shall be thine forever.”
And the message brought comfort to Lîr, and he set out with a gallant company of fifty chariots, nor ever halted until he had reached the palace of Bodb the Red at Lough Derg, on the Shannon. Warm and kindly was the welcome that Lîr received from his overlord, and next day, as the three beautiful foster-daughters of Bodb sat on the same couch as his queen, Bodb said to Lîr:
“Behold my three daughters. Choose which one thou wilt.”
And Lîr answered, “They are all beautiful, but Eve is the eldest, so she must be the noblest of the three. I would have her for my wife.”
That day he married Eve, and Lîr took his fair young wife back with him to his own place, Shee Finnaha, and happy were both of them in their love. To them in course of time were born a twin son and a daughter. The daughter they named Finola and the son Aed, and the children were as beautiful, as good, and as happy as their mother. Again she bore twins, boys, whom they named Ficra and Conn, but as their eyes opened on the world, the eyes of their mother closed on pleasant life forever, and once again Lîr was a widower, more bowed down by grief than before.
The tidings of the death of Eve brought great sorrow to the palace of Bodb the Red, for to all who knew her Eve was very dear. But again the king sent a message of comfort to Lîr:
“We sorrow with thee, yet in proof of our friendship with thee and our love for the one who is gone, we would give thee another of our daughters to be a mother to the children who have lost their mother’s care.”
And again Lîr went to the palace at Loch Derg, the Great Lake, and there he married Eva, the second of the foster-daughters of the king.
At first it seemed as if Eva loved her dead sister’s children as though they were her own. But when she saw how passionate was her husband’s devotion to them, how he would have them to sleep near him and would rise at their slightest whimper to comfort and to caress them, and how at dawn she would wake to find he had left her side to see that all was well with them, the poisonous weed of jealousy began to grow up in the garden of her heart. She was a childless woman, and she knew not whether it was her sister who had borne them whom she hated, or whether she hated the children themselves. But steadily the hatred grew, and the love that Bodb the Red bore for them only embittered her the more. Many times in the year he would come to see them, many times would take them away to stay with him, and each year when the Dedannans held the Feast of Age—the feast of the great god Mannanan, of which those who partook never grew old—the four children of Lîr were present, and gave joy to all who beheld them by their great beauty, their nobility, and their gentleness.
But as the love that all others gave to the four children of Lîr grew, the hatred of Eva, their stepmother, kept pace with it, until at length the poison in her heart ate into her body as well as her soul, and she grew worn and ill out of her very wickedness. For nearly a year she lay sick in bed, while the sound of the children’s laughter and their happy voices, their lovely faces like the faces of the children of a god, and the proud and loving words with which their father spoke of them were, to her, like acid in a festering wound. At last there came a black day when jealousy had choked all the flowers of goodness in her heart, and only treachery and merciless cruelty remained. She rose from her couch and ordered the horses to be yoked to her chariot that she might take the four children to the Great Lake to see the king, her foster-father. They were but little children, yet the instinct that sometimes tells even a very little child when it is near an evil thing, warned Finola that harm would come to her and to her brothers were they to go. It may also have been, perhaps, that she had seen, with the sharp vision of a woman child, the thing to which Lîr was quite blind, and that in a tone of her stepmother’s voice, in a look she had surprised in her eyes, she had learned that the love that her father’s wife professed for her and for the others was only hatred, cunningly disguised. Thus she tried to make excuses for herself and the little brothers to whom she was a child-mother, so that they need not go. But Eva listened with deaf ears, and the children said farewell to Lîr, who must have wondered at the tears that stood in Finola’s eyes and the shadow that darkened their blue, and drove off in the chariot with their stepmother.
When they had driven a long way, Eva turned to her attendants: “Much wealth have I,” she said, “and all that I have shall be yours if you will slay for me those four hateful things that have stolen from me the love of my man.”
The servants heard her in horror, and in horror and shame for her they answered: “Fearful is the deed thou wouldst have us do; more fearful still is it that thou shouldst have so wicked a thought. Evil will surely come upon thee for having wished to take the lives of Lîr’s innocent little children.”
Angrily, then, she seized a sword and herself would fain have done what her servants had scorned to do. But she lacked strength to carry out her own evil wish, and so they journeyed onwards. They came to Lake Darvra at last—now Lough Derravaragh, in West Meath—and there they all alighted from the chariot, and the children, feeling as though they had been made to play at an ugly game, but that now it was over and all was safety and happiness again, were sent into the loch to bathe. Joyously and with merry laughter the little boys splashed into the clear water by the rushy shore, all three seeking to hold the hands of their sister, whose little slim white body was whiter than the water-lilies and her hair more golden than their hearts.
It was then that Eva struck them, as a snake strikes its prey. One touch for each, with a magical wand of the Druids, then the low chanting of an old old rune, and the beautiful children had vanished, and where their tiny feet had pressed the sand and their yellow hair had shown above the water like four daffodil heads that dance in the wind, there floated four white swans. But although to Eva belonged the power of bewitching their bodies, their hearts and souls and speech still belonged to the children of Lîr. And when Finola spoke, it was not as a little timid child, but as a woman who could look with sad eyes into the future and could there see the terrible punishment of a shameful act.
“Very evil is the deed that thou hast done,” she said. “We only gave thee love, and we are very young, and all our days were happiness. By cruelty and treachery thou hast brought our childhood to an end, yet is our doom less piteous than thine. Woe, woe unto thee, O Eva, for a fearful doom lies before thee!”
Then she asked—a child still, longing to know when the dreary days of its banishment from other children should be over—“Tell us how long a time must pass until we can take our own forms again.”
ONE TOUCH FOR EACH, WITH A MAGICAL WAND OF THE DRUIDS
And, relentlessly, Eva made answer: “Better had it been for thy peace hadst thou left unsought that knowledge. Yet will I tell thee thy doom. Three hundred years shall ye live in the smooth waters of Lake Darvra; three hundred years on the Sea of Moyle, which is between Erin and Alba; three hundred years more at Ivros Domnann and at Inis Glora, on the Western Sea. Until a prince from the north shall marry a princess from the south; until the Tailleken (St. Patrick) shall come to Erin, and until ye shall hear the sound of the Christian bell, neither my power nor thy power, nor the power of any Druid’s runes can set ye free until that weird is dreed.”
As she spoke, a strange softening came into the evil woman’s heart. They were so still, those white creatures who gazed up at her with eager, beseeching eyes, through which looked the souls of the little children that once she had loved. They were so silent and piteous, the little Ficra and Conn, whose dimpled baby faces she often used to kiss. And she said, that her burden of guilt might be the lighter:
“This relief shall ye have in your troubles. Though ye keep your human reason and your human speech, yet shall ye suffer no grief because your form is the form of swans, and you shall sing songs more sweet than any music that the earth has ever known.”
Then Eva went back to her chariot and drove to the palace of her foster-father at the Great Lake, and the four white swans were left on the lonely waters of Darvra.
When she reached the palace without the children, the king asked in disappointment why she had not brought them with her.
“Lîr loves thee no longer,” she made answer. “He will not trust his children to thee, lest thou shouldst work them some ill.”
But her father did not believe her lying words. Speedily he sent messengers to Shee Finnaha that they might bring back the children who ever carried joy with them. Amazed, Lîr received the message, and when he learned that Eva had reached the palace alone, a terrible dread arose in his heart. In great haste he set out, and as he passed by Lake Darvra he heard voices singing melodies so sweet and moving that he was fain, in spite of his fears, to stop and listen. And lo, as he listened, he found that the singers were four swans, that swam close up to where he stood, and greeted him in the glad voices of his own dear children. All that night he stayed beside them, and when they had told him their piteous tale and he knew that no power could free them till the years of their doom were accomplished, Lîr’s heart was like to break with pitying love and infinite sorrow. At dawn he took a tender leave of them and drove to the house of Bodb the Red. Terrible were the words of Lîr, and dark was his face as he told the king the evil thing that Eva had done. And Eva, who had thought in the madness of her jealousy that Lîr would give her all his love when he was a childless man, shrank, white and trembling, away from him when she saw the furious hatred in his eyes. Then said the king, and his anger was even as the anger of Lîr:
“The suffering of the little children who are dear to our souls shall come to an end at last. Thine shall be an eternal doom.”
And he put her on oath to tell him “what shape of all others, on the earth, or above the earth, or beneath the earth, she most abhorred, and into which she most dreaded to be transformed.”
“A demon of the air,” answered the cowering woman.
“A demon of the air shalt thou be until time shall cease!” said her foster-father. Thereupon he smote her with his druidical wand, and a creature too hideous for men’s eyes to look upon, gave a great scream of anguish, and flapped its black wings as it flew away to join the other demons of the air.
Then the king of the Dedannans and all his people went with Lîr to Lake Darvra, and listened to the honey-sweet melodies that were sung to them by the white swans that had been the children of their hearts. And such magic was in the music that it could lull away all sorrow and pain, and give rest to the grief-stricken and sleep to the toil-worn and the heavy at heart. And the Dedannans made a great encampment on the shores of the lake that they might never be far from them. There, too, as the centuries went by, came the Milesians, who succeeded the Dedannans in Erin, and so for the children of Lîr three hundred years passed happily away.
Sad for them and for Lîr, and for all the people of the Dedannans, was the day when the years at Darvra were ended and the four swans said farewell to their father and to all who were so dear to them, spread their snowy pinions, and took flight for the stormy sea. They sang a song of parting that made grief sit heavy on the hearts of all those who listened, and the men of Erin, in memory of the children of Lîr and of the good things they had wrought by the magic of their music, made a law, and proclaimed it throughout all the land, that from that time forth no man of their land should harm a swan.
Weary were the great white wings of the children of Lîr when they reached the jagged rocks by the side of the fierce grey sea of Moyle, whose turbulent waves fought angrily together. And the days that came to them there were days of weariness, of loneliness, and of hardship. Very cold were they often, very hungry, and yet the sweetness of their song pierced through the vicious shriek of the tempest and the sullen boom and crash of the great billows that flung themselves against the cliffs or thundered in devouring majesty over the wrack-strewn shore, like a thread of silver that runs through a pall. One night a tempest drove across and down the Sea of Moyle from the north-east, and lashed it into fury. And the mirk darkness and the sleet that drove in the teeth of the gale like bullets of ice, and the huge, irresistible breakers that threshed the shore, filled the hearts of the children of Lîr with dread. For always they had desired love and beauty, and the ugliness of unrestrained cruelty and fury made them sick at soul.
To her brothers Finola said: “Beloved ones, of a surety the storm must drive us apart. Let us, then, appoint a place of meeting, lest we never look upon each other again.”
And, knowing that she spoke wisely and well, the three brothers appointed as their meeting-place the rock of Carricknarone.
Never did a fiercer storm rage on the sea between Alba and Erin than the storm that raged that night. Thunderous, murky clouds blotted out stars and moon, nor was there any dividing line between sky and sea, but both churned themselves up together in a passion of destruction. When the lightning flashed, it showed only the fury of the cruel seas, the shattered victims of the destroying storm. Very soon the swans were driven one from another and scattered over the face of the angry deep. Scarcely could their souls cling to their bodies while they struggled with the winds and waves. When the long, long night came to an end, in the grey and cheerless dawn Finola swam to the rock of Carricknarone. But no swans were there, only the greedy gulls that sought after wreckage, and the terns that cried very dolorously.
Then great grief came upon Finola, for she feared she would see her brothers nevermore. But first of all came Conn, his feathers all battered and broken and his head drooping, and in a little Ficra appeared, so drenched and cold and beaten by the winds that no word could he speak. And Finola took her younger brothers under her great white wings, and they were comforted and rested in that warm shelter.
“If Aed would only come,” she said, “then should we be happy indeed.”
And even as she spoke, they beheld Aed sailing towards them like a proud ship with its white sails shining in the sun, and Finola held him close to the snowy plumage of her breast, and happiness returned to the children of Lîr.
Many another tempest had they to strive with, and very cruel to them were the snow and biting frosts of the dreary winters. One January night there came a frost that turned even the restless sea into solid ice, and in the morning, when the swans strove to rise from the rock of Carricknarone, the iron frost clung to them and they left behind them the skin of their feet, the quills of their wings, and the soft feathers of their breasts, and when the frost had gone, the salt water was torture for their wounds. Yet ever they sang their songs, piercing sweet and speaking of the peace and joy to come, and many a storm-tossed mariner by them was lulled to sleep and dreamt the happy dreams of his childhood, nor knew who had sung him so magical a lullaby. It was in those years that Finola sang the song which a poet who possessed the wonderful heritage of a perfect comprehension of the soul of the Gael has put into English words for us.
“Happy our father Lîr afar,
With mead, and songs of love and war:
The salt brine, and the white foam,
With these his children have their home.
In the sweet days of long ago,
Soft-clad we wandered to and fro:
But now cold winds of dawn and night
Pierce deep our feathers thin and light.
Beneath my wings my brothers lie
When the fierce ice-winds hurtle by;
On either side and ’neath my breast
Lîr’s sons have known no other rest.”
Fiona Macleod (William Sharp).
Only once during those dreary three hundred years did the children of Lîr see any of their friends. When they saw, riding down to the shore at the mouth of the Bann on the north coast of Erin, a company in gallant attire, with glittering arms, and mounted on white horses, the swans hastened to meet them. And glad were their hearts that day, for the company was led by two sons of Bodb the Red, who had searched for the swans along the rocky coast of Erin for many a day, and who brought them loving greetings from the good king of the Dedannans and from their father Lîr.
At length the three hundred years on the Sea of Moyle came to an end, and the swans flew to Ivros Domnann and the Isle of Glora in the western sea. And there they had sufferings and hardships to bear that were even more grievous than those that they had endured on the Sea of Moyle, and one night the snow that drifted down upon them from the ice was scourged on by a north-west wind, and there came a moment when the three brothers felt that they could endure no more.
But Finola said to them:
“It is the great God of truth who made both land and sea who alone can succour us, for He alone can wholly understand the sorrows of our hearts. Put your trust in Him, dear brothers, and He will send us comfort and help.”
Then said her brothers: “In Him we put our trust,” and from that moment the Lord of Heaven gave them His help, so that no frost, nor snow, nor cold, nor tempest, nor any of the creatures of the deep could work them any harm.
When the nine hundred years of their sorrowful doom had ended, the children of Lîr joyously spread their wings and flew to their father’s home at Shee Finnaha.
But the house was there no more, for Lîr, their father, was dead. Only stones, round which grew rank grass and nettles, and where no human creature had his habitation, marked the place for which they had longed with an aching, hungry longing, through all their weary years of doom. Their cries were piteous as the cries of lost children as they looked on the desolate ruins, but all night they stayed there, and their songs were songs that might have made the very stones shed tears.
Next day they winged their way back to Inis Glora, and there the sweetness of their singing drew so many birds to listen that the little lake got the name of the Lake of the Bird-Flocks. Near and far, for long thereafter, flew the swans, all along the coast of the Western Sea, and at the island of Iniskea they held converse with the lonely crane that has lived there since the beginning of the world, and which will live there until time is no more.
And while the years went by, there came to Erin one who brought glad tidings, for the holy Patrick came to lead men out of darkness into light. With him came Kemoc, and Kemoc made his home on Inis Glora.
At dawn one morning, the four swans were roused by the tinkle of a little bell. It was so far away that it rang faintly, but it was like no sound they had ever known, and the three brothers were filled with fear and flew hither and thither, trying to discover from whence the strange sound came. But when they returned to Finola, they found her floating at peace on the water.
“Dost not know what sound it is?” she asked, divining their thoughts.
“We heard a faint, fearful voice,” they said, “but we know not what it is.”
Then said Finola: “It is the voice of the Christian bell. Soon, now, shall our suffering be ended, for such is the will of God.”
So very happily and peacefully they listened to the ringing of the bell, until Kemoc had said matins. Then said Finola: “Let us now sing our music,” and they praised the Lord of heaven and earth.
And when the wonderful melody of their song reached the ears of Kemoc, he knew that none but the children of Lîr could make such magic-sweet melody. So he hastened to where they were, and when he asked them if they were indeed the children of Lîr, for whose sake he had come to Inis Glora, they told him all their piteous tale.
Then said Kemoc, “Come then to land, and put your trust in me, for on this island shall your enchantment come to an end.” And when most gladly they came, he caused a cunning workman to fashion two slender silver chains; one he put between Finola and Aed, and the other between Ficra and Conn, and so joyous were they to know again human love, and so happy to join each day with Kemoc in praising God, that the memory of their suffering and sorrow lost all its bitterness. Thus in part were the words of Eva fulfilled, but there had yet to take place the entire fulfilment of her words.
Decca, a princess of Munster, had wed Larguen, king of Connaught, and when news came to her of the wonderful swans of Kemoc, nothing would suffice her but that she should have them for her own. By constant beseeching, she at length prevailed upon Larguen to send messengers to Kemoc, demanding the swans. When the messengers returned with a stern refusal from Kemoc, the king was angry indeed. How dared a mere cleric refuse to gratify the whim of the queen of Larguen of Connaught! To Inis Glora he went, posthaste, himself.
“Is it truth that ye have dared to refuse a gift of your birds to my queen?” he asked, in wrath.
And Kemoc answered: “It is truth.”
Then Larguen, in furious anger, seized hold of the silver chain that bound Finola and Aed together, and of the chain by which Conn and Ficra were bound, and dragged them away from the altar by which they sat, that he might take them to his queen.
But as the king held their chains in his rude grasp, a wondrous thing took place.
Instead of swans, there followed Larguen a very old woman, white-haired and feeble, and three very old men, bony and wrinkled and grey. And when Larguen beheld them, terror came upon him and he hastened homeward, followed by the bitter denunciations of Kemoc. Then the children of Lîr, in human form at last, turned to Kemoc and besought him to baptize them, because they knew that death was very near.
“Thou art not more sorrowful at parting from us than we are to part with you, dear Kemoc,” they said. And Finola said, “Bury us, I pray you, together.”
“As oft in life my brothers dear
Were sooth’d by me to rest—
Ficra and Conn beneath my wings,
And Aed before my breast;
So place the two on either hand—
Close, like the love that bound me;
Place Aed as close before my face,
And twine their arms around me.”
So Kemoc signed them in Holy Baptism with the blessed Cross, and even as the water touched their foreheads, and while his words were in their ears, death took them. And, as they passed, Kemoc looked up, and, behold, four beautiful children, their faces radiant with joy, and with white wings lined with silver, flying upwards to the clouds. And soon they vanished from his sight and he saw them no more.
He buried them as Finola had wished, and raised a mound over them, and carved their names on a stone.
And over it he sang a lament and prayed to the God of all love and purity, a prayer for the pure and loving souls of those who had been the children of Lîr.