This legend from Irish mythology tells the story of Fionnuala and her three young brothers, who were turned into swans by their jealous stepmother.
The old monk looked across the western sea and smiled. He had come a long way to bring the message of hope and peace to these lands. The locals welcomed him into their lives and together they built a small church on a rocky hill overlooking the bay. He loved the simple life and savored each day as if it were his last.
As he passed between the reeds and the shallows, he heard the faint sound of music in the distance. ‘What a wonderful song’ he thought and decided to search for the beautiful voices. He followed the sounds and came to the edge of a quiet cove. Four swans swam there, each perfectly reflected in the calm water, and each sang with a human voice in perfect harmony with the others. He stood there and listened and shed tears as he was very moved by the music.
For several days he went to the shore and was captivated by the music. Finally, one of the swans spoke to him; she said her name was Fionuala and the other swans were her brothers Fiachra, Aodh and Conn. They were the children of Lir and as they swam near the shore, she told their story to the monk. And what a story it was!
Long ago, the Tuatha de Danaan, who were the oldest of the Irish people, had fought to repel the Gaels and retain control of their kingdom. Lir was a great warrior and general and he did a lot to defend the lands. However, when it came to deciding who would be the new king, his rival Bov Deareg was chosen. Lir was not happy but he accepted the decision.
As an appeasement, Bov encouraged his daughter-in-law Eve to marry Lir. It worked out well, as the couple loved each other and their union brought peace to the Tuatha de Danaan. It wasn’t long before Eve gave birth to beautiful twins, a girl Fionuala and a boy Fiahra. All was well, and after a while the family was even more blessed when two more sons, Aodh and Conn, arrived together. Alas, as fate would have it, also at this time Eve fell ill and died. Lir was heartbroken.
Bov had another daughter-in-law, Aoife, and when he heard of Lir’s plight, he encouraged her to marry Lir instead of her sister. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but what a trail of misfortune resulted from this proposal. Lir loved his children, because they reminded him of Eve, and every night he told them stories about the land, the people, and the other inhabitants. On the surface, Lir and Aoife seemed to get along but deep down, Aoife was unhappy with the attention he was giving his children. Aoife wanted more but Lir was still devastated by the loss of the children’s mother. It wasn’t going to end well.
Aoife set off on a journey along the lakes with the children and a small retinue of servants. She claimed she was visiting her father Bov, but her real plan was to kill the children. At first she asked the servants to do the deed, but they refused. She opted for an alternative. In the evening, when the children bathed in the lake, she cast a spell to turn them into swans. Fionuala, the only girl among them realized what was happening; scared and desperate, she begged Aoife to put a time limit on the spell. Aoife’s meager concession was to set the duration at nine hundred years.
So the young swans were left alone on the lake all this time ago. Hearing the story so far, the monk was filled with grief and then rage. “How could she? he exclaimed. “To the children!”. Fionuala was silent. Finally, he asked “What happened next?” What did you do?”
Fionuala continued: “I think back to those early days when I was swimming with my terrified brothers, in a strange body, on a lonely lake. We were sorry and confused. It didn’t take long for us to realize that even though Aifé’s magic was powerful, it didn’t rob us of our human voices. So we started talking and taking stock of what had happened and what we needed to do. Yes, from time to time we abandoned ourselves to tears and sadness but after a while we realized that it was of no use to anyone. So I created a song and gave it to my brothers, and we sing it all the time.
The voices you hear are the children of Lir,
We may be desperate like the swans you see.
The music we make is the songs of the lake.
The story we tell is a nine hundred year old spell.
The wisdom we give is the life we live
As best as possible, by the lake and the sea.
Fionuala explained how Aoife’s dirty deed was exposed and she was punished by being turned into an air demon forever. She’s still there in the choppy drafts and shivers you may feel from time to time. She has never settled down, will never be calm, and is best avoided.
On the other hand, the Children of Lir have become a real attraction. In the evening, as the sun set on the shores of the lake, the Tuatha de Danaan gathered to hear the Song of Fionuala. Their music had magic and beauty and brought comfort to all who heard it. For sixty years, people came, and children were in good company. Over time the numbers dwindled and finally the swans were all alone on the lake realizing that the ancient people they came from had disappeared.
They moved twice, once in the Sea of Moyle between Ireland and Scotland. They had hard times, but they also had their song, their stories, and each other. Time is up. After three hundred years they moved again to the west coast where the monk now sat. In all, nine hundred years had passed since that fateful evening when they had gone to bathe in the lake. Fionuala finished his story and the monk was overwhelmed with admiration for the bravery and tenacity of the swans.
He asked them to go to church with him so he could gather the people and say mass. He wanted everyone to hear their beautiful song for the glory of God. The bell called the locals to prayer and when they answered they were surprised to see four swans next to the church. When the monk started the service, the children sang like angels and everyone was moved. At the same time, a strange transformation began; their swan-like bodies fell, and the true form of Lir’s children was revealed. Alas, for a very brief time, they appeared young and radiant. A moment later, the ravages of nine hundred years revealed themselves on their frail old bodies. It was clear that they hadn’t been in this world long.
The monk baptized them and blessed them and they died. The congregation carried their bodies to the cemetery and they were buried among the Christians. Since that time, three things have changed in Ireland. First, no decent person has ever hunted or injured a swan. Secondly, the stories of the ancient days of the Tuatha de Danaan were told and retold and especially among them the story of the children of Lir. And finally, many times when people returned from the lakes, they claimed to have heard the sound of chanting and the magical melody of the Song of Fionuala. “The wisdom we give is the life we live, and the best we can be, by the lake and the sea.”