The Story of "Children of Lir"
To celebrate April's Irish at Heart theme celebrating the Children or Lir and all things Irish mythology, we're telling the story of one of Ireland's most celebrated tales.
Photo Creds: William Murphy
Centuries before Tchaikovsky's celebrated ballet, a legend of swans and metamorphosis was being told to children on the knees of their mothers and fathers all over Ireland.
The tale has everything you could want from a bedtime story, from a mythical kingdom, to an evil stepmother and an abundance of magic. The only thing it lacks perhaps is a happy ending, as the story of the Children of Lir, in all its variations, is a sad one. It goes something a bit like this:
Once upon a time, long before anyone in Ireland can remember, an ancient mystical race in Ireland known as the Tuatha Dé Danann elected a man named Bodb Derg as their King.
He was a brave and kind man, and most of his tribe were pleased with the appointment, but one of his lords, Lir, felt that he himself would be better suited to the throne and refused to acknowledge Bodh Derg as his ruler.
Most of the tribe were outraged by this show of disrespect, but the King was a fair man who wished to form a truce with his wayward lord. He offered the hand of his daughter Aoibh in marriage – a gesture that would bring their families together and cease any disagreements. Lir accepted the offer, and soon fell completely in love with his new wife, leaving thoughts of jealousy and rebellion far behind him.
Together, the happy couple had four children – the eldest Fionnuala, followed by Aodh and finally two twins Fiachra and Conn. Sadly Lir’s beloved Aoibh died bringing the twins into the world – leaving her loving family distraught in her passing.
King Bodh Derg had grown to love Lir as his own son, and nothing brought him greater joy than the happiness of his grandchildren. So, in an attempt to mend their broken hearts, he arranged a marriage between Lir and his other daughter Aoife.
While Aoife’s beauty may have resembled her sisters, her nature was nowhere near as sweet. While initially delighted at her high-ranking marriage, she soon became dissatisfied with her lot – and jealous of the love and affection that Lir poured upon her sister’s children.
She seethed in silent resentment, pretending to care for her nieces and nephews as if they were her own, while all the time plotting on how she could be rid of them forever – and become the sole object of her husband’s affection.
One morning she took she took the children out on her chariot, telling Lir that she was taking them to visit their grandfather. On the way she summoned her servants and commanded them to slaughter the children of whom she was so jealous.
The servants, having known the children for all of their lives and watched them grow and play, could not bear to hurt them, and refused to obey the wicked stepmother’s demands.
Furious with their disobedience, Aoife lifted the sword herself and carried it to the chariot to execute her own orders, but when she came face-to-face with their innocent eyes she knew she could not go through with it.
Instead she drove on, to a place called Lough Dairbhreach – where the children had often come to play with their father. Once they reached the banks the four siblings, oblivious to their stepmother’s intentions, gleefully jumped into the water.
While the children were distracted by their games, Aoife withdrew a druid’s wand from her pocket and summoned her powers with a terrible incantation. She touched the wand to the water and watched as its power took hold of the children. Their forms shrank, and their necks elongated, as beautiful wings burst from their shoulder blades and their smooth skin metamorphosised into velvety-soft, white feathers.
Once the spell was complete, in the children’s places floated four stunning, but distressed swans. Fionnuala cried out in horror and, upon realising that she still had her voice, begged her stepmother to change them back – warning that the consequences for her would be dire if she refused.
From the shore Aoife cackled that her spell was so powerful even she could not reverse it. They must spend three hundred years living in the waters in which they now swam, then they must pass another three hundred in the cold waters of Sruth na Maoilé, before waiting out the final three centuries of their sentence at Inis Gluairé.
Only then, when the tolls of the Christians’ bells could be heard in Ireland, could the spell be lifted.
She then left them, bound to the water by her spell, the only comfort in her wake was their sweet melodic voices, which they used to comfort each other in their despair.
On appearing at her father’s court, Aoife was greeted by a worried King, who demanded to know where his grandchildren were. In an attempt to sow distrust between her father and husband, she responded that Lir had forbade her from bringing them.
However the King could not be fooled, and immediately sent word to his son-in-law that his daughter had appeared without the children and with deceptions to excuse their absence.
Upon hearing the news Lir immediately feared the worst and began scouring the road on the way to King Bodh Derg’s palace. He searched high and low, in every bush and thicket and it was only as night began to fall that he reached the banks of Lough Dairbhreach.
Sobbing, he called his children’s names across the water without hope of a response, when he heard the voice of Fionnuala answering him, he ran towards the waters in delirious joy.
His relief was short lived, as he realised the voice had come from one of the beautiful swans which were resting in the lake and, as they told him their tale, he saw the horrors his wife had achieved and was consumed with grief. Lir could not bear to leave his children, and so lay by the water all night, where they consoled him with their enchanting lullabies.
When the king found out what his wicked daughter had done, he was so enraged that he vowed to design a fate for her that was more terrible than the one she had inflicted on the children. And so, feigning calmness, he asked her to name the most awful creature she could imagine.
No sooner had the words “a demon of the night” left her lips, than her father used his own infinitely superior vein of magic to turn her into that which she feared most. He banished her into the sky where she would roam for all eternity, as the most awful creature in her own eyes, as well as her father’s.
With their wicked stepmother out of the way, the children of Lir passed the first three-hundred years of their sentence in relative happiness. Their father visited them every day, and people came from far and wide to rejoice in their exquisite singing, as they swam through the warm familiar waters.
Alas, when this time was up they had to leave the life they had made for themselves, and journey to their new destination as decreed by the curse of Aoife. Before they took flight their ever-doting grandfather, Bodh Derg, ensure their safety by declaring a new law - that no man in Ireland may kill a swan.
The waters of Sruth na Maoilé which ran between Scotland and Ireland were not as hospitable a resting place as the four swans had become accustomed to. The winds were colder and crueller, causing the water to be far more turbulent.
Soon after they arrived, the clouds darkened and the winds rose into an almighty frenzy, producing the most terrifying storm that any of them had ever experienced. Despite their best efforts, the siblings were torn apart from one another, and all four of them were frightened and alone.
Over time the four were reunited once more and from then on weathered out the storms together, as Fionnuala stretched her wings around her brothers to keep them close and protect them from harm.
At last the day came for the Children of Lir to seek out the final jail of their sentence, and they made their way beyond the coast of today’s County Mayo, to the waters surrounding the lonely island of Inis Gluairé.
They spent an isolated three centuries meandering around the island, taking company only from the occasional fishermen who passed through their waters and delighted in their beautiful songs.
Finally the nine hundredth anniversary of the wicked stepmother’s curse was upon them and they were free to roam the lands of Ireland as they pleased. Immediately they set out for the home they had known as children, desperate to be received by their kinsman and returned to their human forms. There they discovered the consequences of the curse that they had not been prepared for.
As much as nine hundred years had felt like an eternity as a swan, it was several more lifetimes for a human, and all that remained of their loved ones were the crumbling buildings and empty roads that they had left behind.
Disheartened, the four swans took themselves to Lough Dairbhreach where they were first imprisoned – resigned to the fact the they would never escape the terrible fate that had been inflicted upon them there.
One day, as the Children of Lir were treading on water near the banks, they heard a deep clanging sound quite unlike anything they had ever heard before. Soon from between the trees, emerged a man dressed in flowing robes of white, ringing a large golden bell. His weathered face split into a smile as soon as he saw their inquisitive faces and came over to speak with them.
The man introduced himself as a monk named Caomhog, who was helping St. Patrick in his mission to bring the word of Christianity to the people of Ireland. He said that he had been searching for the four Children of Lir as soon as he heard of their plight, and promised he would look after them and teach them the ways of this new religion.
He taught them many things while they were in his care, about God, his faith, and what had come to pass while they were banished. The four swans listened with rapt attention and were so moved by his kindness and devotion, that they made him vow – if they were ever to be human again - that he would baptise them as Christians, so that they could live as he did.
News of these beautiful singing swans had travelled all across Ireland, and Deoch the new bride of King Lairgnen of Connacht demanded that he bring them to her as a wedding gift. Lairgen made his way in earnest to the home of Caomhog, and upon arrival requested that the swans be entrusted to his care.
The kind monk refused, saying that the Children of Lir could not be owned, which made the powerful King extremely angry. He attempted to grab the swans, but as soon as his fingers made contact with them, their feathers began to fall off. Their elegant necks shortened and their sharp beaks widened into smiles that spread across the faces of the freshly transformed Children of Lir.
However, almost as soon as they had taken up their child-like forms, the effects of the past nine hundred years began to take their toll and all four children began to age at an alarming rate.
Lairgnen fled in terror, while a bony and withered Fionnuala emitted her final swan song - begging Caomhog to honour his vow before they all succumbed to death.
The good monk took them to the waters where they had been transformed and baptised them all as Christians, finally bringing them peace in the moments before they closed their eyes for a final time - joining their beloved father, mother and grandfather.