By Sheila O'Neil-Farrow
I'd travelled to almost the west coast of the west of Europe, to visit Auntie Agnes again. Feeling weary, I saw that her brand new home was similar to the many "hacienda" type villas springing up across the country. The "Celtic Tiger's" in his prime! But, I came here for the timeless quality of the days, the atmosphere steeped in tradition. My spirits drooped as I gazed at the old thatched house, dilapidated now and part of the farm out-buildings, tall plants sprouting from the chimney. Noticing my gaze, she kissed me on the cheek. Her hands were busy with two cans of spring water. Despite her great age, her ruddy cheeks glowed and she wore her usual wellingtons. She kept them on as she entered the spotless kitchen arrayed with every modern utensil. It was a sprawling room with a large television set in one corner, rarely used she said.
"The reception is not good."
Her own butter stood on the table, the churn open, drying off, and brown bread cooled on the window-sill.
"Well, what's the news?" she asked, her shrewd blue eyes watching my face. Inevitably the weather entered our conversation as I looked out anxiously at the louring sky.
"Ah, `twill stay dry" she remarked in her soft brogue. "Four swans flew west this morning."
I cheered up considerably, not because of the weather alone, but because obviously the high-tec weather forecasts were not for her.
The rain did keep off and the grey left the sky. She was proved right, the graceful flight of the swans westward, had correctly foretold a dry afternoon. As she spoke her voice took on a wistful quality. She loved a good story. She was pouring tea when the door opened and in came old John-Joe. Without ceremony he accepted a cup and settled into the most comfortable chair, his clay pipe between brown teeth. Old John-Joe was a storyteller and poet. He'd been around for as long as my aunt could remember. Renowned for his gift, his every utterance was poetic, lyrical. His pale eyes turned to me. I told him about the swans.
"Four ye say?" The eyes glittered. "Be God, four swans!" He glanced at Auntie Agnes. "Not geese?" he asked.
"I s'pose they were indeed swans?"
"Indeed an' they were," she replied good-humouredly. "A beautiful sight, glory be to God. Four souls of poets!" Then, searching his face, she ventured,
"I'd say there's a tale coming." Smiling at me she sat down. "Come on John-Joe 'tis ready and waiting we are. Make it a good one. But, ah sure aren't all your geese swans."
Beaming at the compliment and shaking his grey head in fun, his eyes danced and shone.
"Four swans" he breathed. "Fionnuala, Aoch, Fiachra and Conn." The musical sounds rolled over his tongue.
"The children of Lir," he went on.
Spellbound, I listened, as he told the tale of the nobleman Lir's four children. There was a daughter and three sons and they were turned into swans by their jealous stepmother, Aoife, who had the power of witchcraft. They were banished for nine hundred years to three separate places in Donegal, which though very beautiful, could be a wild and lonesome place. They had to spend three hundred years in Lough Dairbhreach, three hundred in the sea of Sruth na Maoile and the remaining three hundred on the isle of Inis Gluaire. She allowed them to retain their human voices and they could sing so magically that they drew people from far and wide to hear them. At the dawn of Christianity on Inis Gluaire, they were given sanctuary by St. Mochaomhog who lived there. The wife of the King of Connaught, Queen Deocha heard them sing and wanted them for her own. Their holy guardian refused to allow her to take them. The King tried to wrest them from his hands and as soon as he touched them the spell was broken and they were restored to human form. They reappeared as four withered old people. At this the King fled in terror. They sang one final song, their voices more beautiful than ever before. Then Fionnuala begged the saint to baptize them for they were near to death. At peace then, they were laid to rest, their four names engraved on the stone marking the spot.
There was silence in the warm kitchen. John-Joe sighed and lay back in his chair, his story told.
"That's it now" he said. "That's the end of the tale."
He smiled, closed his eyes and lay back. A look of peace came over the lined face. Auntie Agnes bustled about the kitchen. Beside the window, I sat gazing out at the evening, realising I'd look at swans differently now. From the sideboard she took out a bottle of whiskey and poured a large glass.
"He likes a wee drop before he goes" she whispered.
Glass in hand she gently touched his arm. Suddenly she let it slip and it shattered on the hard floor, whiskey dribbling into the tile-cracks. Her anxious eyes turned to face me.
"Oh, asthor" she cried "I can't wake him."
Next morning I took a walk up the field. Above my head appeared one pure white swan in full flight. Silently and deliberately it headed due east, and sure enough there was rain before evening.
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