It was the mission of the Bards and the Seanchaí to keep alive the ancient stories of Ireland: I am always eager to hear these wonder tales: if they are well told, they will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Your storyteller is being watched and listened to by a generation gone before, who in turn carried that story forward from their ancestors – a chain of continuity which for all we know could go back to the time of the Bronze Age rock carvers and Megalith builders – or even before that. History books are mere speculation and short lived; stories encompass the spirit of the people, and last forever.
Have you ever wondered why Swans are such special birds? Did you know that in Ireland no-one can harm the Swan? Some say that law was made by the Milesians, who are said to have arrived in Ireland from Galicia (northern Spain) around four thousand years ago, and heard about The Children of Lir.
It’s a Wicked Step-Mother Tale. Finola is a Step-Mother and is sensitive to such stories, but interestingly she herself appears in this story – in fact she is its heroine! The twins Finola (…as beautiful as sunshine in blossomed branches…) and Hugo and the twins Fiachra and Conn were the children of King Lir and Queen Aoibh.
When the children were very young their mother died, and the King married Aoifa, a sister of Aoibh. All was well until Aoifa noticed that Lir was spoiling his children: each one of them was given a beautiful white horse and a pair of white hounds and the King spent most of his time in their company. In true step-mother fashion, Aoifa became jealous and determined to intervene. Just as in the story of Snow White, she planned a dire end for them: she took them off to the wild shores of Lake Derryvaragh and threw them into the waters. But her magical powers were not strong enough: Finola gathered her brothers around her and, as Aoifa looked on, the children were transformed into beautiful Swans. In a final curse their step-mother said that they would live out three hundred years on the lake, then three hundred years more in the Sea of Moyle (the narrowest part of the Atlantic Ocean between Ireland and Scotland), then a final three hundred years on Sruth Fada Conn or Irrus Domnann – Stream of the Long Hound – in County Mayo. The spell could only be broken when the sound of the first Christian bell was heard by the Swans.
Aoifa might have suffered some last minutes pangs of guilt, for she allowed the Swans to retain their human voices. They also had the gift of music and while they were on Lake Derryvaragh people flocked to hear them singing. In fact, it is said that all of Ireland’s great musical tradition originated from the Children of Lir.
When the King found out about Aoifa’s treachery he turned her into a ‘night demon’ – a Moth, and she’s still around: we see her frequently down here in Nead an Iolair.
One of the most poignant parts of the story (and I am telling only the briefest of versions here) pictures the Swan children revisiting their father’s tower house on their journey to the Sea of Moyle – only to find grass covered ruins and no traces of the family’s heritage:
…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… (http://www.sacred-texts.com)
We watch the Swans in Rossbrin Cove. On occasion we are fortunate enough to see them taking off from or landing on the water – a noisy and energetic affair: it’s hard to believe that such large and heavy birds can actually take to the air, and migrate over huge distances. Swans appear in folktales all over the world: usually they are associated with light and beauty. A tradition that the Swan only sings when dying has been captured in a madrigal by Orlando Gibbons:
The Silver Swan who, living, had no note,
When death approach’d, unlock’d her silent throat.
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last, And sung no more:
“Farewell all joys, O death come close mine eyes.
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise”
To return to our tale – the Children of Lir took their final journey to the far west of Ireland: to the Beara peninsula in West Cork. There they heard St Patrick’s bell and were transformed to human shape again. A hermit – Saint Kemoc – found them, four ancient, withered people. He baptised them just before they crumbled to dust. This place is marked now by a stone where offerings are made: their story is alive today.