This tale formed part of the Irish bards’ repertoire and was known as one of the ‘Three Sorrows of Storytelling.’ The flight of the enchanted swans can be understood on many levels: At this time of year, it may remind us of our search for connection with the past, and the longing of the exiled soul for home.
Out of the worlds thread, fates fingers spinning. Some lives are shot with gold, others with shadow. This is a tale of enchantment and exile, of four lives woven together by white swans feather, storm and ice and the sound of a little bell.
Long ago, when the high gods and goddesses known as the Tuatha Dé Danann lived in Ireland, there was a great king whose name was Lir (lihr). And this Lir had four lovely children – Fionnuala (fin-oo-luh), Conn, Fiachra (feekh-ruh) and Aodh (ee). Fionnuala was the eldest, and she was as fair as the young rowan tree; her brothers Fiachra and Conn were as swift as running water, and Aodh was a little bright-eyed baby boy. Everyone in Lirs court on the Hill of the White Field loved them - except their stepmother, Aoifa (ee-fuh), who was jealous of their fathers love for them. And her hatred pursued them as the wolf pursues the fawn.
One day, Aoifa took them in her chariot to the lake of Derravaragh to bathe in the waters. But as they played on the shores edge, laughing and splashing, catching rainbows of mist and light between their fingers, she struck them with a rod of enchantment, and turned them into four white swans.
“You will swim on this lake for three hundred years,” she said, “then three hundred years on the narrow sea of Moyle, and three hundred years upon the Western Sea. This only will I grant you: that you shall still have human voices and there will be no music in the world sweeter than yours. And so shall you stay until a druid with a shaven crown comes over the seas, and you hear the sound of a little bell.”
The swans spread their wings and rose up, circling the lake, and as they flew they sang their sorrow in the voices of human children. When the king found out what had happened, he turned Aoifa into a demon of the air and banished her from his court forever. He rode like the wind to the lake, and called his children to him. “Come to me, Fionnuala, come Conn, come Aodh, come Fiachra!” And there they came, flying to him over the lake: four white swans, and they huddled sadly around him as he knelt by the waters edge.
King Lir said through his tears, “I cannot give you back your shapes till the spell is ended, but come with me now to the house that is mine and yours, dear white children of my heart.”
But the swan that was Fiachra said, “We cannot cross your threshold father, for we have the hearts of wild swans. We must fly into the dusk and feel the wave moving beneath us. Only our voices are of the children you knew, and the songs you taught us - that is all. Gold crowns are red in the firelight, but redder and fairer far is the dawn on the water.”
The king reached out his hand to touch them, but the swans rose into the air, and their voices were lost in the sound of beating wings.
Three hundred years they flew over Lake Derravaragh and swam upon its waters. Many came to listen to their singing, for their songs brought joy to those in sorrow and lulled the sick to sleep. But when three hundred years were over, the swans rose suddenly and flew away to the straits of Moyle that flow between Ireland and Scotland. A cold, stormy sea it was and lonely. The swans had no one to listen to their songs, and little heart for singing on the wild and chanting sea. Then one winter, a great storm rushed upon them and scattered them far into the dark and pitiless night.
In the pale light of morning, Fionnuala fetched up on the Carraig-na-Ron, the Rock of Seals. Her feathers were broken and bedraggled with salt sea-water, and she lamented long for her brothers, fearing never to see them again. But at last she saw Conn limping towards her, his feathers soaked, his head hanging, and now Fiachra, tired and faint, unable to speak a word for the cold. Her heart gave them a great welcome, and she sheltered Conn under her right wing and Fiachra under her left.
“Now,” said Fionnuala, “if only Aodh would come to us, we would be happy indeed.”
And as the first evening star rose in the sky, they caught sight of the little swan that was Aodh paddling valiantly over the waves towards them. Fionnuala held him close under the feathers of her breast. As they huddled together, the water froze their feet and wing-tips to the rock, so that when they flew up, skin and feathers remained behind.
In the morning, they turned westward towards the wild Atlantic Ocean and there they flew among the bird-haunted islands till three hundred more years had passed. Then, at last, the Children of Lir were free to return once more to the Hill of the White Field. Homeward they soared on wings of joy, eager to see the face of their father once more. But when they arrived, they found all desolate and empty, with nothing but roofless green raths and forests of nettles: no house, no fire, no hearthstone. Gone were the packs of dogs and drinking horns, silent the songs in lighted halls. And that was the greatest sorrow of all - that there lived no-one who knew them in the house where they were born. They rested the night in that desolate place, singing very softly the sweet music of the sídhe.
At dawn they flew back to the western sea, for now they had no other home, and they lighted down on the island of Glora, off the coast of Connacht. There, they made their nest among the reeds of the Lake of Birds.
Now, it was about this time that blessèd Patrick came into Ireland to spread the faith of Christ. One of his followers, Saint Caemhoch (kwee-vokh), built a little church by the lake-shore on the Isle of Glora. In a break of day, the saint arose from his heather bed, wrapping his rough brown robe around him to keep out the chill, and rang the bell for matins. On the other side of the island, the swans started up and stretched their necks in fear.
“What is that dreadful thin sound we hear?” said the brothers.
Fionnuala said, “That is the sound of the bell of Caemhoch and soon our enchantment will be passing away.”
They began to sing gladly, and the sweet strains of faery music floated across the lake and in through the reed walls of the cell. St. Caemhoch rose in wonder and walked down to the shores edge, and saw them, lit by the morning sun: four white swans singing with the voices of children! They came to rest at the saints feet and told him their story and he brought them to his little church. Every day they would hear Mass with him, sitting on the altar. Their beauty gladdened his heart and the hearts of the swans were at peace.
Then one day Fionnuala asked the saint to baptize them, but no sooner did the holy water touch the swans than their feathers fell away, and in their place stood three lean withered old men, and a thin withered old woman. In a cracked whisper, the woman that was Fionnuala said:
“Bury us, cleric, in one grave. Lay Conn on my left, and Fiachra on my right, and on my breast place Aodh, my baby brother.”
So they were buried, a cairn was raised above them, and their names written in Ogham. And that was the fate of the Children of Lir.
But it is said, that on windy days in the west of Ireland, by lake-shore or ocean strand, you can sometimes hear children’s voices in the air, singing sweeter than you’ve ever heard, as they play with their father at home in the blessed Summerlands.