More Celtic Fairy Tales: The Fate of the Children of Lir

This story is part of the Celtic Fairy Tales (2) unit. Story source: More Celtic Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs with illustrations by John D. Batten (1895).

The Fate of the Children of Lir

The Marriage of Lir and Ove

IT happened that the five Kings of Ireland met to determine who should have the head kingship over them, and King Lir of the Hill of the White Field expected surely he would be elected. When the nobles went into council together, they chose for head king Dearg, son of Daghda, because his father had been so great a Druid, and he was the eldest of his father's sons. But Lir left the Assembly of the Kings and went home to the Hill of the White Field.

The other kings would have followed after Lir to give him wounds of spear and wounds of sword for not yielding obedience to the man to whom they had given the over-lordship. But Dearg the king would not hear of it and said: "Rather let us bind him to us by the bonds of kinship so that peace may dwell in the land. Send over to him for wife the choice of the three maidens of the fairest form and best repute in Erin, the three daughters of Oilell of Aran, my own three bosom-nurslings."

So the messengers brought word to Lir. Lir thought well of it and set out next day with fifty chariots from the Hill of the White Field. And he came to the Lake of the Red Eye near Killaloe. And when Lir saw the three daughters of Oilell, Dearg the king said to him: "Take thy choice of the maidens, Lir."

"I know not," said Lir, "which is the choicest of them all, but the eldest of them is the noblest; it is she I had best take."

"If so," said Dearg the king, "Ove is the eldest, and she shall be given to thee, if thou willest." So Lir and Ove were married and went back to the Hill of the White Field.

And after this there came to them twins, a son and a daughter, and they gave them for names Fingula and Aod. And two more sons came to them, Fiachra and Conn. When they came, Ove died, and Lir mourned bitterly for her, and, but for his great love for his children, he would have died of his grief.

The Marriage of Lir and Oifa

And Dearg the king grieved for Lir and sent to him and said: "We grieve for Ove for thy sake, but, that our friendship may not be rent asunder, I will give unto thee her sister, Oifa, for a wife." So Lir agreed, and they were united, and he took her with him to his own house.

And at first Oifa felt affection and honour for the children of Lir and her sister and, indeed, everyone who saw the four children could not help giving them the love of his soul. Lir doted upon the children, and they always slept in beds in front of their father, who used to rise at early dawn every morning and lie down among his children. But thereupon the dart of jealousy passed into Oifa on account of this, and she came to regard the children with hatred and enmity.

One day her chariot was yoked for her, and she took with her the four children of Lir in it. Fingula was not willing to go with her on the journey for she had dreamed a dream in the night warning her against Oifa, but she was not to avoid her fate.

And when the chariot came to the Lake of the Oaks, Oifa said to the people: "Kill the four children of Lir, and I will give you your own reward of every kind in the world."

But they refused and told her it was an evil thought she had. Then she would have raised a sword herself to kill and destroy the children, but her own womanhood and her weakness prevented her, so she drove the children of Lir into the lake to bathe, and they did as Oifa told them.

The Four Swans

As soon as they were upon the lake, she struck them with a Druid's wand of spells and wizardry and put them into the forms of four beautiful, perfectly white swans, and she sang this song over them:

Out with you upon the wild waves, children of the king!
Henceforth your cries shall be with the flocks of birds.

And Fingula answered:

Thou witch! We know thee by thy right name!
Thou mayest drive us from wave to wave,
But sometimes we shall rest on the headlands;
We shall receive relief, but thou punishment.
Though our bodies may be upon the lake,
Our minds at least shall fly homewards.

And again she spoke, "Assign an end for the ruin and woe which thou hast brought upon us."

Oifa laughed and said, "Never shall ye be free until the woman from the south be united to the man from the north, until Lairgnen of Connaught wed Deoch of Munster, nor shall any have power to bring you out of these forms. Nine hundred years shall you wander over the lakes and streams of Erin. This only I will grant unto you: that you retain your own speech, and there shall be no music in the world equal to yours, the plaintive music you shall sing." This she said because repentance seized her for the evil she had done.

And then she spake this lay:

Away from me, ye children of Lir;
Henceforth the sport of the wild winds
Until Lairgnen and Deoch come together,
Until ye are on the north-west of Red Erin.

A sword of treachery is through the heart of Lir,
Of Lir the mighty champion;
Yet, though I have driven a sword,
My victory cuts me to the heart.

Then she turned her steeds and went on to the Hall of Dearg the king. The nobles of the court asked her where were the children of Lir, and Oifa said: "Lir will not trust them to Dearg the king."

But Dearg thought in his own mind that the woman had played some treachery upon them, and he accordingly sent messengers to the Hall of the White Field.

Lir asked the messengers, "Wherefore are ye come?"

"To fetch thy children, Lir," said they.

"Have they not reached you with Oifa?" said Lir.

They have not," said the messengers, "and Oifa said it was you would not let the children go with her."

Then was Lir melancholy and sad at heart hearing these things, for he knew that Oifa had done wrong upon his children, and he set out towards the Lake of the Red Eye.

(1100 words)

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