The Children of Lir
The settings of the story takes place during the battle between the Tuatha Dé and the Fir Bolg- two supernatural races in the Irish mythology. Tuatha Dé won the battle and Lir was expecting to receive the title of Ard Rí (High king). He believed that he deserved to be the one made the Ard Rí. However, the kingship was granted to Bodhbh Dearg, instead. Because of this, Lir became enraged and he stormed out of the gathering place, leaving a storm of rage behind. Lir’s action had driven some of the Rí’s guards to decide to go after him and burn down his place for not showing submission or compliance. But, the Rí turned down their vengeful suggestion, believing that his mission was the protection of his people and not the other way round.
As a means of peaceful resolution, an Rí Bodhbh Dearg offered his daughter to Lir for marriage in order to put down the fire that he set inside of himself. So, Lir married Bodhbh’s eldest daughter, Aiobh (commonly known as Eva in modern versions of the story). Aiobh and Lir had a cheerful life where she bore four beautiful children. They were one girl, Fionnuala, a boy, Aodh, and two twin boys, Conn and Fiachra. People had commonly known them as the children of Lir and they all made a big happy family. But, their happiness started fading away when Eva got sick. She remained sick for a few days before it was time for her to pass away and leave the world behind. Aiobh’s departure left her husband and children in a terrible mess. She was the sunshine of their lives. However, an Rí Bodhbh seemed to always care about the happiness of Lir. Thus, he sent his other daughter, Aoife, to marry Lir. Wanting to give the children a caring mother to look after them, Lir agreed and he married her right away.
Aoife was the caring mother they longed to. She was a loving and caring wife as well. But, her pure love transformed into jealousy as soon as she realised Lir’s remarkable affection for his children. She was jealous of the fact that Lir dedicated most of his time for playing with his own children. For that reason, children of Lir became her enemies instead of her stepchildren. She started planning for executing them out so that she could have Lir’s time all to herself. She thought about killing them with the help of the servants. But to her surprise, they refused to do so. She wasn’t courageous enough to murfer them outright all by herself, for she believed that their spirits would haunt her forever. Instead, she used her magic.
On one fine day, she took the children of Lir for a swim in Lough Derravaragh while Lir was away hunting. The sky was brightly shining and the children were having a great time. Aoife watched them while they playfully swimming in the lake, unaware of their awaited fate. While they were getting out of the water, Aoife spelt her cast and turned all four of them to beautiful swans. The children of Lir were no longer children, not human beings at all; they were swans. Her spell kept them swans for 900 years where they had to spend every 300 years in a different region. The first three hundred years, they lived on Lough Derravaragh (in northern modern day West Meath). The second three hundred years, they lived on the Sea of Moyle ( the Northern Channel), and the last ones were on the Isle of Inish Glora ( Bay of Erris, Co. Mayo). The children of Lir transformed into swans, but their voices remained. They could sing and talk and that was how their father knew the truth. Lir, in his grief and vengeance, turned Aoife into an air spirit (in some accounts a crow) in which she was disappeared for good.
(Most of the old legends and sagas face the misfortune of undergoing slight changes through the passage of time. The story of the Children of Lir is no exception. The repetition of the story hasn’t included changes throughout the years; however, the real ending of the story remained mysterious. Several versions had come to appearance, making the possibilities of knowing the ending of the original story very remote. The only similarity that all the versions shared was the fact that the ending was not a ‘happily ever after’ one.)
The First Ringing Bell in Ireland and Naofa Caemhoch:
In this version, Aoife stated that the spell would break once the first Christian bell rings in Ireland. That was the version where Lir found his children and spent once they changed into swans. He remained a good and caring father to his swan children. For the first three hundred years of their spell, Lir lived by the Lough Derravaragh with them. He enjoyed spending time with his children, listening to their enchanted voices while they sang. They had long happy years until it was time for them to leave, according to the rules of the spell. It was time for them to say goodbye to their father and leave to the Sea of Moyle. During their time in the Sea of Moyle, they had the toughest time of their lives. However, they survived the fierce storms and endured the wounds they got. Sadly, they separated for more than a few times, but they reunited eventually. It was time for them to travel once again. Together, they went accordingly to their destiny and headed to the Isle of Inish Glora. It was the last destination that they were entitled to before their spell broke. By that time, their father had passed away in his mourning and the fortified home in which the children of Lir lived was nothing but ruins. One day, they heard the first Christian bells coming from the first church in Ireland. That was when they knew that the end of their spell was so soon. The children of Lir or, more precisely, the swans followed the sound of the bell until they reached a house that was by the lake. That house belonged to a holy man called Caemhoch. He took care of the four swans during the last days of their spell. But again, things went against their wishes. An armoured man appeared at the house, claiming that he was the Rí of Connacht. He claimed that he came all the way to that place after hearing about the swans that had beautiful voices. He wanted to take them away and threatened to burn down the whole monastery grounds had they refused to follow his decree. As soon as he was stretching his hands out to grab them, the bells rang for the second time. But this time, it was a call for the spell to break. The swans were about to return back to their original forms as children, the beautiful children of Lir. The Rí of Connacht panicked and started fleeing out of the building. The ending that supposedly had to be happy turned out to be a tragedy when the children started ageing rapidly. They were ancient, over 900 hundred years old. Caemhoch the holy man was there all along. He realised that the supposed-to-be children were only a few days, or even hours, away from death. As a follower of Patrick, he baptised them, so they would die faithful believers of the newly arrived god of the East. In some variations of this, Caemhoch ( St. Caomhog) is replaced by different saints. Patrick and Mochua are other popular candidates.
The Provincal marriage of a King and Queen:
In this version, when Aoife cast her spell on the children, Fionnuala asked her when would they be children again. At the instant, Aoife’s answer included that they shall never return back to their human form unless a king from the north marries a queen from the south. She also stated that this should happen after they hear the first bell in Ireland. Throughout the plot of the story, those details did not change. But, in that version, another king showed up to take the swans and not the king of Connacht. This time, it was the King of Leinster, Lairgean. This king married Deoch, the daughter of the King of Munster. Deoch heard about the beautiful singing swans that lived on a lough by a monastery. She wanted them for herself, so she asked her husband to attack the place and take the swans away. Lairgean, did what his wife asked for. He seized the swans and bound them together in chains made of silver. He travelled back to his wife with them. By that time, the silver chains that attached the four swans together broke open. They were free of any chains and changed back to human beings. But again, they were ancient, so they died.
There are other variations and are told and told again much to the joy and sorrow of both young and old. It is a tale that captivates the imagination the world over. No one really knows the true ending of the famous tale from the Mythological Cycle but one theme that connects all is that the tale ends in tragedy. But in saying that, one can draw lessons from the tale of the Children of Lir or “Oidhe Chlann Lir” (the Fate of the Children of Lir). It belongs to a Trio of Tragedy in Irish mythology called “Trí Truagha na Scealaidheachta” (The three Sorrows of Storytelling) along with “The Exile of the Children of Uisneach” and the “Fate of the Children of Tuireann”.
Swans are amazing creatures and are protected by both Irish and English Law. They had always been part of the Irish mythology. In fact, the story of the Children of Lir was not the only tale where swans take a significant part of the story; there are a lot of other tales in Irish mythology such as the “Dream of Wandering Aoenghus”, “the Wooing of Etain”, the tragic saga of the ‘Norse wife to be’ of Cú Chulainn and others. Swans have several types, including white, mute, black, and more. The world sees the swan archetype as a symbol of love and purity. Obviously, the reason behind this symbolisation is because these creatures are wired to mate for life. No wonder the Irish mythology used them to describe those who possess clarity and fidelity within their heart. Mythologies have always depicted swans as shapeshifters. They drove people to believe that swans can shift to the form of human beings by their will and the other way around. Such misconception has driven people in Ireland, in particular, and the world, in general, to treat swans like they treat humans. The Irish word for swan is Eala. Swans are also some of the rare animals that can live up to twenty years in the wild, so imagine how long they can live in captivities. According to the Irish mythology, swans were capable to travel between the real world and other worlds that existed in different realms. it is easy to guess why the children of Lir were changed into swans for they represent transparency, innocence, and purity. The same applies to the four poor children. They were kids when their life turned upside down. As with the naivety, they went with their stepmother for spending a fun day by the lake, unaware of what was waiting for them in the future. The world is a cruel place and sometimes you have to grow up fast.
Go raibh maith agat as do chuid ama ag léamh seo,
Seán Ó Tuama.