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Loch Etive and The Sons of Uisnach
Chapter II - The Children of Lir


A land where the past wills to be present, and refuses to yield to the senses.

Margaet—And now we have found repose in this hotel, looking over to the hills of Morven; are we still in the land of the past, and is the country peopled only by shadows? The very visitors pass through the land like ghosts, scarcely speaking. Do the people themselves become transformed, and to begin, how much of your story is to be believed?

O'Keefe.—We must admit that the cauldron never existed, and of course the conversation about it must go into the same region of romance; but I fear we must admit more. Even King Lochy did not reign at that time; he had been dead a few years before Congal Claen came over.

Margaet.—What then is true?

O'Keefe.—It is true that you have seen Dun Add, and that the king did live there, that he was chief of the Dalriads in what is now called Scotland, and the achievements are the ideas of a bard who did his best to make the history of his invading countrymen interesting. Let us be thankful for what we can learn.

Margaet.—I am glad to hear the opinions of men who lived at least much nearer the time of action than we do, and who had much probably of the same spirit as the actors had. It strikes me, however, that the love of giving away is inconsistent with the character of Scotchmen, who are always held to be so penurious.

O'Keefe.—Oh, you forget. These were Irishmen; but in both Scotch and Irish you will find the two extremes meeting; it is at least a wise thing for a people to be very careful of their goods when they have little, and both nations have had long struggles with poverty; this was especially felt when they came in contact with nations more advanced in the arts and accustomed to. an entirely different style of life. The struggle is not over yet, and some of us have seen a good deal of it in our early life, and when we visited the Highlands. These Scots came as conquerors, and may have had the generous extreme dominant in their excited condition.

Margaet.—For my part, I do not care how much of the story is true. I like to hear the romance, and I like to see the spot where it is said to have happened, just as I should like to look at the summit of Olympus, where Jupiter may be supposed to have sat and judged. I expected to find some romantic places, and I also expected to hear some romantic stories, but I never expected to be ushered into the halls of romance at once on leaving the steamer, or made to picture the tents of the invaders and invaded as soon as we left the banks of the canal. The word "canal" itself is void of romance, and we think of boats drawn by horses, and carrying loads of coal and lime. The canal, as we have seen, leads us through a region of time and backwards in history, and we can scarcely believe our school books which say that time past never returns. For my part I almost begin to fear that we may not return to 1876, or it may be that when we return home, it will be 1976, and no one will know us. Such things are said to have happened in lands not so romantic as this seems,

O'Keefe.—Yes ; but we shall at least be as young when we awake as in the century we left, like the seven sleepers, and not like the children of Lir.

Margaet.—Oh, tell us of the children of Lir.

Sheena.—Everybody knows of King Lear and his children from Shakespeare; don't let us have Shakespeare, we really have too much of him at home; we cannot live on honey alone or on beef alone.

O'Keefe.-The Lir of whom I speak was unknown to Shakespeare, and I see I must tell you the whole story to prove it. Lir was a chief among the Tuatha De Danann in Ireland, and he married a ward of the king of that people, Bodhbh Dearg, and her name was Aobh (I think it is pronounced Aive, perhaps it is Eve), and she died and left four children, when Lir married her sister Aoife (very like Effie, and we may call her so). Now Aoife was very fond of the children until she found the father devoted excessively to them; when one day as she drove them out in her carriage, pretending to go to the king, who was also very fond of them, she tried to incite her attendants to kill them. However, they refused to kill the children, and it then came out what a mighty witch, or rather Druidess, this woman was, for she struck them with a Druidical wand and told them to turn into white swans, and set them afloat on Loch Derryvaragh, in Westmeath, beside which they were. Now, the eldest daughter, Fionnguala, or white bosom, remonstrated, because although she was a swan she had the use of her speech. However, Aoife was rigorous, and condemned them to live for 300 years on Loch Derryvaragh, and 300 years about the Mull of Cantire, and 300 years on the sea at Erris, on the north-west of Ireland, among Firbolas. The father was enraged when he heard of this, and so was the kirk, their guardian, and they used to come down to the lake to feed the birds, and to talk to them. The stepmother was not allowed to escape, for the king was decided, and asked her what was the most disagreeable shape to be in, and she answered, "A demon of the air,'' and so the king used his Druid's wand, and a demon she was made for ever. One blessing the witch did leave them, that they were to keep their reason and not be distressed by being birds, if this was a blessing. But father and guardian died, and the poor swans were left for the rest of the 900 years flying about in all seasons. They used to chant plaintive music, "such as might delight the whole human race," and they could speak the Gaelic language; but they were forgotten not the less by the people. They were especially miserable before their feathers grew, and when sitting on the bare rocks with shoeless feet; and they made sore complaints of living so long on the Mull amongst the dreadful storms. Sometimes, as at Erris, a friend used to feed them; and there a young man, who was able afterwards to relate their adventures, found them hundreds of years after their transformation. When the long time was expired they went back to their ancient home, where they found only green raths, without roofs, with forests of nettles, and with no house or fire. They had a time of freedom to go about their old haunts and chant plaintive fairy music; but when St. Patrick came, one of his messengers found them on a little island. The bell, a symbol of Christian worship, was run- before them, and seems to have attracted them, and they came and accepted the Christian religion, worshipping on the altar tied together in pairs, with silver chains. The king of the time wanted to seize them, but their feathers came off, and they changed at once into shrivelled old bony people, who had no more than time to be baptized before they died.

Willie.—It was a dreadful place to live upon. Is not the Mull always stormy?

Cameron.—Very often; but I have slept on a smooth sea exactly opposite it several times, although when the great swells are blown in from the Atlantic upon it, one sees it must be wild, because all the soil is blown off, if ever there were any, and all the crumbling of the rocks that would make soil is removed, and there stand the awful effects of wind and rain playing their game for ages. Imagine how much water rolls up and down the Firth twice a day, filling and emptying, whilst a great deal of it comes by the Mull. But if you want to know about the character of the Mull, read "The Highland Drover"; it is only a little sixpenny book, but he was a clever man who wrote it.

Loudoun.--And now I think you have had enough of nonsense. If I have come here to help you to spend a holiday, I have begun well by letting all the sense be driven out of your heads with idle stories, conveying little real truth, although I have watched for it. No hard study here, no wasting of your brains, Willie, by lessons. Perhaps in the morning you may come to your senses; you have a chance of the swan's experience, in the wind and rain which are no uncommon things here. They will help to bring you to a sound state of body and mind.

Cameron.—In this country we all go to bed early, and don't be surprised if you can go without candles at this time of the year. The sun is down, what a glory it has left ! but that may not last many minutes, and we must wait till the end. One would think the sun lined all the hills of Morven; it brightens all the tops, and one cannot wonder if it fills all the valleys with fairy tales. Is it not like a land of ghosts? many a one has been seen there.

Loudoun.—If this is not a land of ghosts, I confess that is a sky of glory.


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