The story of Connor and the Swan maiden follows a familiar theme in folktale and one which some might find problematic in these times of heightened awareness of the power imbalance between male and female characters in so many traditional stories.
(Although I think if we tidy up and ‘correct’ our traditional tales we are potentially just pretending these things never existed/don’t exist, better to be aware and discuss and also look for the stories that subvert these ideas, they are out there…)
In ‘Connor Quinn and the swan maiden’ the protagonist manages to capture a shapeshifting Swan woman by picking up her cloak and they marry. Many Selkie stories have a similar theme, the man usually concealing the Selkies sealskin to force her to remain with him.
But Beatrice (for that is the swan maidens name) is no passive victim here, she has power and agency, she is self assured and unafraid and her marriage to Connor is a bargain she strikes on her own terms.
Beatrice could leave whenever she wanted to, her feather cloak hung in her own chamber in plain sight to all. But she chooses to stay, honour her bargain and sample the human life for a while, (including bearing children for what I suspect from the story is the first time in her long life) maybe she stays out of curiosity? perhaps to punish her sisters for fleeing so readily when she was captured? The opening paragraph of the story makes it clear that her connection with them is a very close and elemental one but she then cuts them from her life very thoroughly for a while.
Personally I think it is curiosity, she has observed humanity for millennia and is looking for new experiences and new ways of being. To me she is a powerful nature spirit, uncompromising in her desires and decisions, when Connor breaks the terms she has set out she leaves immediately, taking their two children and rejoining the sisters whom she has shunned for seven years.
Beatrice is unashamed in her nakedness, she is unashamed of everything. There was no other way she could be for me. As she emerged almost luminous from the dark background I found myself a little in love with her myself, well, a lot in love with her to be honest. I took her to be framed immediately after scanning and she now hangs at the top of my stairs to greet me every morning.
I often wonder whether the heady, erotic opening passage of this story and the feeling that perhaps I was potentially looking at Beatrice through Connors eyes were what made me develop such a passionate attachment to this piece. But this is not a male gaze here, it is my gaze. My connection with her is of a different nature I think. I would be interested to know how you respond to her as well.
She does seem able to connect with other women too, when I asked Rab Fulton for permission to reproduce her story here, this was part of his reply:
‘Your illustration added so much to the Galway Bay Folk Tales Book, and it still inspires me it is so beautiful.
I recently showed your illustration to a women’s group in Galway. The group is made up of a mix of Traveller and Migrant women. I work with them to help them create stories for their children and friends.Anyway i wanted them to begin talking about folk tales. I deliberately chose not to tell them the story as i wanted them to make their own story using their own ideas and experiences. Instead I showed them your illustration to start a conversation going – and they were awestruck. It was incredible how your illustration really touched something in them and ignited their imaginations. So they’ve been working on a new swan maiden story, which we hope to publish in 2018. If you’d like to see a draft of that, give me a shout and i’ll send it on to you.’
And here is the story in full, reproduced with the kind permission of Rab Fulton from his book for the History press of Galway Bay Folk tales.
Connor Quinn and the Swan maiden
One day as the light was fading Connor Quinn walked the length of the lake of his estate. When he came to the ancient ruins of his family’s ancestral home, he sat down and looked at the water stretching away from him. A gentle breeze cooled him. The sun was low on the horizon and the rippling water glowed red and gold. As he rested he saw three swans moving gently on the water. Each bird was attired in feathers as white and dazzling as midnight stars and they moved with a grace and nobility that showed their superiority to any of nature’s other creations.
As the creatures drew closer to the shore Connor was touched by a deep and terrible melancholy. Compared to the perfection and contentment of the three birds his struggle for wealth and power seemed pitiful. His whole live had been dedicated to bringing renewed honour and status to his family, but suddenly he understood that his name and his history had no more importance than a speck of dust in a giant’s eye or grain of sand in the hand of God. The swans, on the other hand, seemed to Connor to exist with a complete disregard to the limits of time and space.
The swans moved across the lake, drawing nearer to the shore were Connor sat. The young man wiped his eyes and carefully hid himself behind a broken wall. Sending a wish and a prayer out to the infinite he peered over the ruin and saw, to his delight, that the swans were now stepping onto to the grassy bank some thirty or forty feet away. One of the creatures nodded its heads and stretched out its great white wings. Connor was horrified to see hands suddenly sprout out from the middle of the creature. With a sickening rip the hands tore the swan open and out stepped a young woman. The swan’s form was now nothing more than a beautiful cloak, which the woman folded with great care and placed on a rock at the water edge.
The two other swans likewise opened up to reveal two more women, each of whom likewise folded her robe and placed it on the rock. The three women walked away from the lake until they came to a flat piece of ground only a few yards in front of Connor. Each of the women was similar in appearance, with copper skin, thick black hair and dark eyes. Even the curve of breasts and the musculature of limbs were replicated in each of the women. The only difference seemed to be in age, and so Connor knew that the three were sisters.
Before the gaze of the astonished young man the three swan women formed a small circle, facing outwards and clasping each other hands. First they dipped and curtsied, then stood upright and stretched towards the red and purple sky. It seemed to Connor that some invisible force was connecting the three for they moved with such perfect synchronicity: when one bowed, her sisters did the same; when one bent a knee, whilst stretching her arms wide, the movement was perfectly and instantly replicated by her two companions.
Then, with a gleeful yell each released her grip and leapt forward. Mesmerized Connor watched the youngest of the sisters stomp the grass with her naked feet, then slap her hands on the naked flesh of her thighs and belly. Her sisters too were yelling and jumping in a frenzy, their skin glowing scarlet in the dying sun’s light, their hair a wild raven black aurora. As they spun and screeched sweat spun off the tips of their fingers and the point of their breasts and their musky scent filled Connor’s nostrils and mouth, choking him and filling him with terror and lust and white hot sparks that blazed through his groin and his gut until in a sudden rush of madness he scrambled over the rock and ran roaring towards the women.
With a yelp the maidens ran to the lake. The older two grabbed a hold of their cloaks and in an instance transformed into swans. The younger sister tripped only a few feet from the rock. She cried out for help but her two sister beat their great white wings and took flight. Connor jumped over the fallen woman and snatched her swan cloak. With that he turned and walked all the length of the lake back to his own grand house. Not once did he turn around, for he knew the young woman had no option but to follow him. When he arrived home he went into his hall and walked towards the great hearth were logs blazed and spat. Holding the cloak before the fire he turned and faced the swan maiden.
There she stood in that great hall, with its tapestries and furnishings from all the corners of the world, with a hundred candles glittering and the great oak beams overhead. There she stood naked and defenseless, but no tears spilled from her dark eyes. Instead she stood proud and wary looking first at her cloak and then directly at Connor.
‘I know what you want Connor Quinn,’ she said, ‘And I will be your wife, your willing wife, but only if you do two things for me. You must give up gambling for it is a childish folly and I have sworn never to become the bedmate of a fool or a boy. And you must never bring a member of the O’Brien family into this house, for they are an enemy to me and mine.’
Connor rang for a servant and asked for a bible to be brought for himself and clothing for swan maiden. He swore then to keep his side of the bargain and smiled as he made his pledge. Gambling was a pastime he good easily forgo, and the O’Brien family and Connor’s family had for many centuries been the bitterest of foes and none had ever stepped a foot into the others dwelling.
So it was that Connor married the swan maiden. After they were wed Connor gave his wife her own chamber that opened onto the great hall. It was only then that she let him know her human name, Beatrice. The chamber contained everything a woman would need for comfort; a great bed, soft chairs, a box of sewing material, a rope to summon a servant at any time of the day or night. There was a large window that looked over the lake, and hanging from a hook on the wall was the beautiful swan cloak. Connor kept to his side of the bargain and his wife to hers and the cloak remained untouched as the months and the years went by.
Many sages have written and sang and extolled the innumerable virtues that go toward making a marriage successful. None though have ever mentioned the benefits of mistrust and uncertainty. Yet it was these two attributes that helped bring closeness between Connor and his wife. Having committed to sharing a life together they both were not sure what to do next. In the weeks following their wedding they kept a resentful distance from the other. Each assigned malign motives and desires to the other that with every day became blacker in the imagination. When finally they confronted each other it was only to discover that their fears lacked any foundation.
From that moment they both were more careful and attentive of the other’s needs. One morning Connor came into the hall to find his table had not been set for breakfast. A servant was called for and an explanation demanded. ‘The mistress of the house asked that we lay the Master’s meal out in her chamber’ explained the serving girl.
Connor went into his wife’s chamber. There they both sat facing each other, a small table between them. They ate a little; they drank a little, and said not a word during the meal. With the meal over Connor attempted to break the uncomfortable silence.
‘If you wish, I could have food put out by the lake for your two sisters.’
‘That pair, they’ve food enough. What they need is a stick across their backs.’
‘You know why. When I needed them most they fled.’
‘Would you rather return to them?’
‘Oh Connor, do you want rid of me now?’
‘No. But I would not have it said that I forced you to live a life filled with sorrow.’
‘And I would not have it said that I broke a pledge.’
‘So you will stay.’
‘In which case,’ declared Connor with a grin, ‘I will get a stout stick to teach your sisters a lesson.’
Beatrice smiled and shook her head. ‘Oh dear husband, I pity the man who ever tried to hurt me or mine.’ She put her hand on his. Her skin was soft and her grip firm. She kissed Connor on the cheek. ‘If you are free this evening, perhaps you would care to join me for supper.’ Sparks shot through Connor’s belly, and he laughed at his fortune and his folly. ‘Maybe,’ he said and kissed his wife’s hand.
A year after they were wed husband and wife were sat at the breakfast table. The previous twelve months had seen a change in Connor’s fortune. Investments yielded stunning returns, merchants up in Galway City begged his patronage, powerful men took account of his views on the great politics of the state. Good fortune seeped into the very soil he walked on and the air that he breathed. His lake was packed with large and sweet tasting fish, the trees appeared wider and their foliage thicker. There was less sickness amongst his tenants and none could recall when last his crops had been bigger and more abundant.
‘Who knows,’ said Connor, ‘ maybe one day I could regain all the land my family once controlled here in Munster and up in Connacht. It would only be fitting; Queen Medb was my ancestor after all.’
‘That would explain your nose,’ said Beatrice. ‘I thought I had seen it’s like before.’
‘Dear wife, you must be very distracted. Queen Medb lived a thousand years ago.’
‘Was it that long ago? How strange.’
Connor took a bite of meat. His wife frowned, looked at her husband.
‘Husband, I have unexpected news that terrifies me almost as much as it fills me with joy. I have a child in my belly.’
The birth, when it came six months later, was a long and agonizing enterprise. After twelve hours a trembling serving girl was sent with a message to Connor as he paced the great hall. ‘The mistress fears she is dying, and begs you give her a good and Christian burial.’
‘Can I see her? Should I call for her sisters?’
The serving girl curtsied and returned into the mistress’s chamber. The door had no sooner shut than a shriek of pain and rage resounded through the building. The serving girl stepped back into the hall. ‘Begging your pardon Master, but the Mistress says that you need not attend to her yet, nor send for her sisters.’
‘What were her exact words,’ demanded Connor? The girl’s face reddened and she shook like the final leaf on a tree in an autumn storm.
‘Come,’ said Connor gently, ‘a penny for an honest answer.’
‘Well, begging your pardon master but the mistress only shook her head when I asked if you could see her. When I mentioned calling for her sisters, her reply was more loud and fulsome.’
‘Her exact words please.’
‘To be exact she said “My sisters can go to hell, and take the fool that dares consider inviting them.”’ Quickly the girl added; ‘The midwife asked me to say that the mistress’s response shows her strength and resilience.’
Connor laughed in relief and handed the girl a coin.
Beatrice endured ten more hours of pain, stabbing like a blade into womb as her body pushed and kneaded life into the child. Ten hours she suffered as none of her kind had ever suffered before. Ten hours of arduous agonizing journeying into motherhood and womanhood, with death and life alike attending her, each offering peace or punishment as the mood took them. At last a final scarlet stab between her legs and suddenly Beatrice was free of weight and of worry, as the wailing child was placed on her sweat soaked breast. ‘Tell me husband he has a son.’
It is a rare achievement to balance ambition and contentment, yet for seven years Connor manage to do precisely that. Eighteen months after the birth of his son, Beatrice bore him a daughter. Now Connor had a child to inherit his estate and a child to offer in political marriage. Yet political calculation did not blunt the affection Connor felt for Beatrice and his children. As his income grew, so the great hall filled with the sound of merriment as the children crawled, walked and ran circles around parents and servants.
During summer the family walked the length of lake, taking food and drink to the ancient ruins. At first Connor was afraid to return to those ancient stones. ‘It is important,’ explained Beatrice, ‘that we make that spot ours. My sisters must understand they have no ownership over any of this land. It belongs to you, my husband, and you alone.’
The swans were seen on the first family expidition. They floated on the waters white and magnificent, paralleling the progress of the little group. The oldest child had stopped to look at them. They stopped too, to stare at him with their black eyes. Beatrice had grabbed the boy’s shoulder and hissed at the birds. They flapped their wings and took flight. That was the last time they disturbed the family picnic.
No matter how many times they visited the broken ruins, Connor always began the picnic with the same words. ‘Here is where I first met your mother,’ he would explain to his children. ‘She was dancing.’ Each time he said this he sounded astonished as if only realizing for the first time how blessed he was. Beatrice, for her part, would grasp her husband’s hand and laugh, ‘Oh, grá mo chroí.’
Exactly seven years after he had first saw his future wife dancing with her sisters on the banks of the lake Connor kissed Beatrice and his children and promised to bring them a little something when he returned in a few days time. It was the season for horse racing, a time when the powerful meet to shake hands, slap backs, cut deals and quietly or boldly – depending on the disposition of the men involved – shape the politic and commerce of the land. Connor never missed a festival and though he never enjoyed a flutter he sponsored a number of celebrated races.
As well as the sports on and off the racetrack a racing festival was (and is to this day) the arena in which all men, from the meanest labourer to the wealthiest banker, could observe whose influence was waxing fat and full and whose influence was on the wane.Connor’s prestige was clearly on the rise; he was a figure to be observed, pointed at, and, if lucky, win a shake of the hand from. With the last of the day’s meetings finished the great men of the west retired to a tavern, to eat, drink and assess what hand Fortune dealt to each of the day’s players. Connor’s successes that day included an amiable discussion about the sacred and societal importance of marriage with Mayor Lynch of Galway, who after many childless years had recently been blessed with a son. Connor ate well and drank deep.
As the night wore on ever more men packed into the tavern. Candles sputtered and smeared the hot gloom with a thin and smoky light. The air was thick with the reek of horses and earth, of onions and stewed meat. The festive banter was punctuated with laughter and shouts and the occasional thumping of the table. In the midst of all this a cheery voice called out ‘Is Connor Quinn so elevated above us he cannot enjoy a bet on the horses like all us mortal men.’ To which Connor replied equally merry, ‘A drink for that man to dip his tongue in.’ But his heckler was not satisfied with the tankard that was placed in front of him.
‘In all seriousness Connor Quinn, your behavior is troubling. If the greater can’t spare a coin on chance why should the lesser. If we all followed your example no risks would ever be taken. Nothing ventured as they say and nothing gained. Soon it would all be stagnation from Ballyhannon to Belmullet.’
‘Of I have taken many a risk in my life and made many a gain as many of these gentlemen will testify. I have more than enough coin and would not take the chance for gain away from others. Indeed happy as I am in life I now extend a drink to everyone in this fine place!’
‘And doubtless you would ask us all to raise a glass to health and happiness of you and your good estate.’
‘Not at all. I need no more joy and wellbeing. As for my estate, how could it b e any better. The trees on my land are bigger than houses. So many fish are packed into my lake that you could walk across their backs and never wet the soles of your feet. My home is filled with tapestries from the Indus and beyond, and furnishing inlaid with gold and ivory. My son is as handsome as a prince, my daughter as happy as a princess, and my wife as good and as fair as an angel from heaven.’
The stranger stood up with a suddenness that knocked his fellow imbibers sideways. ‘Gentleman, listen to the great Connor Quinn. The way he talks you would think he was one with God and our savior. Maybe he should be given an ould bit of mackerel to turn it into a feast for thousands. Or perhaps we could ask him to turn a basin of dishwater into a casket of finest Spanish wine.’
No one laughed. Not a voice was raised in agreement or dissent. Every man there, from the labourer to the overseas trader, remained silent as Connor stood up and carefully gave his reply. ‘Stranger, if you are as honest a man as you are foul mouthed, you will come to my estate now and see for yourself that I spoke the truth. You will then return to this place and tell these gentlemen that every word I spoke was free of falsehood and exaggeration.’
‘I accept the challenge. What’s more I will add another round of drinks for these good witnesses.’ With that the stranger took out a purse and spilled gold coin on to a plate. ‘This should keep everyone in good form until I return.’
Connor and the stranger got up on their horses. As they galloped across the country, trees grabbed at their hats, and hedgerows at their boots. Above them the moon and stars shook and shone as white and bright as swan feathers. It was only when they arrived at Connor’s estate that the two riders allowed their creatures some rest. Trotting along a laneway, Connor gestured to the trees on either side. ‘Big as houses, as I said. And look over there, observe the lake. You can see the backs of the fish glinting in the moonlight.’
When they came to the great home, Connor invited the stranger to lay a hand on the stonework and take a look at the turrets and carved figures leering down from above. ‘It would take a morning to walk around this building, and a hundred years of to knock it down.’ The stranger nodded but said not a word.
Inside, Connor showed the stranger his great furnishings inlaid with precious metals and jewels, the tapestries from the furthest corners of the known world, the hearth open like a vast mouth in which a great yellow and red flame licked and lolled ‘The fire and the candles are always lit, no matter the hour or the season,’ boasted Connor Quinn. The stranger nodded and finally spoke.
‘I admit to being impressed. You spoke the truth my friend.’
Connor gestured to the two chairs by the fire. Between the chairs was a small ornate table, on which Connor placed two glasses and a decanter of whiskey. ‘I am glad to win your approval; you will of course transmit your opinions to the witnesses.’
‘Of course,’ said the stranger with a smile. ‘I give my word as a high ranking member of the ancient and noble O’Brien family.’
Connor trembled with dread. He tried to speak but his mouth was dry and his tongue swollen and heavy. Unable to breathe he yet forced himself to fill the glasses. With the taste of the whiskey he snapped back into a semblance of composure. Another drink was poured. With a merry ‘Slainte!’ Connor clinked his glass against O’Brien’s. All was not lost, his wife and his children were asleep in their chamber. He need only remove his unwelcome guest as quickly as possible and all would be well.
‘It is well that an O’Brien has visited my home. Our families have spilled too much blood and anger over the centuries. Let us drink to our mutual good fortune and continuing prosperity. Let us also commit ourselves to meeting again at a more hospitable hour.’
Connor stood but the O’Brien remained in his chair. He stretched out his legs, took a sip of his whiskey, gazed at the fire. Finally he turned to look up at Connor. ‘Well I guess I should take my leave now. There is a tavern filled with gentlemen who are awaiting my honest assessment of your possessions. I will, on my word as a gentlemen and an O’Brien, tell them that everything you said was true. That your trees are as big as houses; your lake packed with fish a man could walk across the backs of. I will tell them about your rich furnishings and delightful tapestries. I will tell them about the blaze in your hearth and the glitter of your candles. But I will also make sure to tell them, on my word as a gentleman and an O’Brien, that yours Connor Quinn is the worse hospitality in the whole of Ireland. Never before has my mouth suffered such a brief acquaintance with another man’s uisce beatha.’
Connor sat down again. A true gentleman, he would rather a knife in the belly than such an indictment. Wounds can be recovered from and scars displayed with pride, but a reputation for frugalness in a host is an injury as evil as it is fatal. ‘Ah now O’Brien, you need only have said that you had time enough for a proper welcoming. There is more whiskey in the cabinet over there and some cheese and fruit, though it would be my pleasure to wake the kitchen and have a more substantive supper prepared.’
‘Whiskey and cheese sounds a grand enough supper. Go raibh maith agat.’
The two men ate and drank and drank and ate. Connor kept his voice low and was grateful when the O’Brien follow his example. The whiskey, as whiskey does, induced a conviviality between the two men. Connor wondered why he had not met his guest before, and his guest explained that he had been raised in the court of England. ‘I have returned to oversee my family’s commission to control piracy in Galway Bay. My approach is more one of regulation that eradication. But even in England I heard news of your own improved standing in life. What is the secret to your success’
‘A good and loving marraige,’ declared Connor. ‘Ni ceart go cur le cheile!’
O’Brien raised his glass in agreement, ‘It is very true. Only unity bring strength. But I see you glancing towards that door there. Is that where your wife rests.’
‘My wife and my two children.’
‘Well,’ whispered the O’Brien. ‘Let’s finish the evening soon, and finish it as strong friends.’ He took a packet of cards from his pocket. ‘Let us play a quiet game Connor Quinn, before I go out to tell the world of your honesty and good fortune?’
The guest dealt the cards and the host happily picked up his hand. They play in silence, the only sound in the vastness of the hall the slurp of lips imbibing, the clink of glasses touching, the sigh and snap of cards playing. Connor won a couple of hands; the O’brien likewise. After a while the O’Brien spoke softly. ‘What is a game between friends without a little flutter…?’ Connor agreed and the game began in earnest.
Both gentlemen remained polite and outwardly affable, but it the game had changed into a competition as savage as any battle or politicking. At first the men were equally matched in intellect stamina, but as the whiskey brought weariness and confusion to Connor, the O’Brien became ever more focused and full of vitality. The hours crawled by as Connor first lost his wealth, then his land, then his beautiful furnishings and tapestries. In a last desperate bid to win it all back Connor lost his grand house.
The O’Brien sat back in his chair and raised a glass to his stupefied opponent. Connor was numbed and shocked at the massive and utter reversal of his fortune. When he heard a door slam he leapt up in terror, grabbed a hold of the O’Brien and dragged him across the hall. ‘To hell with hospitality!’ he roared and threw his enemy out into the cold pre-dawn darkness.
He walked back into the hall, placed a hand on the door of his wife chamber. A great fearful melancholy echoed through his belly and heart. Wiping away tears he opened the door.
His wife was standing by the open window. Outside the sky was grey and purple. The two children stood in front of their mother. Behind Beatrice stood two woman with feathery capes draped over their shoulders. Connor reached out to his wife, but one of her sisters opened her mouth in a wide terrible grimace and hissed. The other sister took the swan robe from the hook it had rested on untouched for seven years. She placed it on Beatrice’s shoulders. ‘You have no more hold on me,’ wept Connor’s wife. Before his eyes she and her sisters began to mutate into great white birds. As Beatrice’s arms transformed into wings she touch her children and they two began to change.
One by one the five creatures leapt up to the window and flew off into the blood red sky of the new morning. And that was the very final ruin of Connor Quinn.