The strange, haunting tale of the Children of Lir

Many are the stories, good and bad, that are told of the ancient people of Ireland, and not only of the people but of the Gods and more than human beings who lived in our country in the distant past. Some of the stories told and passed down to us from these people were real classics, and one of the most beautiful of them all was the story of the Children of Lir.

We may have heard this story several times but I wonder did we hear the full story or just a shortened version. Let us start by telling who we are talking about, this is the strange tale of Transformation of the Children of Lir. Probably the first question you will ask is “Who was Lir?”

Lir was a Danaan divinity, the father of the sea-god Mananan who occurs time after time in the Milesian cycle. He had married in succession two sisters, the second of whom was named Aoife. She was childless, but the former wife of Lir had left him four children, a girl named Fiounala (the maid of the fair shoulder) and three boys, the intense love of Lir for the children made the stepmother jealous, and she eventually resolved on their destruction (it should be remembered that the people of Dana, conceived as unaffected by time, and naturally immortal, were nevertheless subject to violent death at the hands of each other or even of mortals).

With her wicked plan in view, Aoife went on a journey to a neighbouring Danaan king. Bov, taking the four children with her. Arriving at a lonely place by lake Derryvaragh in County Westmeath she ordered her attendants to slay the children. They refused and rebuked her. Then she resolves to do it herself but her womanhood overcame her and instead of killing the children she transformed them into four white swans, and laid on them the following doom, three hundred years they are to spend on then waters of lake Derryvaragh, three hundred on the Straits of Moyle (between Ireland and Scotland) and three hundred on the Atlantic by Erris and Inishglory. After that ‘when the woman of the south is mated with the man of the north’ the enchantment was to have an end.

When the children failed to arrive with Aoife at the palace of Bov her guilt was discovered, and Bov with a magic spell, changes her into ‘a demon of the air’. She flies north shrieking and is heard of no more in the story. Lir and Bov seek out the swan-children, and find them not only have they human speech but have preserved the characteristic Danaan gift of making wonderful music. From all parts of the island companies of the Danaan folk resort to lake Derryvaragh to hear this wonderous music and to converse with the swans, and during that time a great peace and gentleness seemed to prevade the land.

But at last the day came for them to leave the fellowship of their kind and take up their life by the wild cliffs and ever angry sea of the northern coast. Here they knew the worst of loneliness, cold and storm. Forbidden to land, their feathers froze to the rocks in the winter months, and they were often buffeted and driven apart by storms. To try and keep her family happy Fionuala used to sing for them “Cruel to us was Aoife, Who played her magic upon us, And drove us out on the water, Four wonderful snow white swans. Our bath is the frothing brine, In bays by red rocks guarded, For mead at our fathers table, We drank of the salt, blue sea. Three sons and a single daughter, In celfts of the cold rocks dwelling, The hard rocks, cruel to mortals, We are full of keening to-night. “Fionuala, the eldest of the four, takes the lead in all their doings, and mothers the young children most tenderly, wrapping her plumage round them on nights of frost.

At last the time comes to enter on the third and last period of their doom and they take flight for the western shores of Mayo. Here too they suffer much hardship, but the Milesians have now come into the land, and a young farmer named Evrie, dwelling on the shores of Eris bay, finds out who and what the swans are, and befriends them. To him they tell their story and through him it is supposed to have been preserved and handed down. When the final period of their suffering is close at hand they resolve to fly towards the palace of their father Lir, who dwells, we are told, at the Hill of the White Field in County Armagh, to see how things had gone with him. They do so but not knowing what has happened since the coming of the Milesians, they are shocked and bewildered to find nothing but green mounds, whin-bushes and nettles where once stood the palace of their father.

We are told that it still stood there but that they could not see it because their eyes were holden, and a higher destiny was in store for them than to return to the Land of Youth.

On Eris Bay they hear for the first time the sound of a Christian bell. It comes from the chapel of a hermit who has established himself there. The swans are at first startled and terrified by the ‘thin, dreadful sound’ but afterwards approach and make themselves known to the hermit who instructs them in the faith, and they join him in singing the offices of the church.

Now it happens that a princess of Munster, Deoca (the woman of the south) became betrothed to a Connaught chief named Lairgnen and begged him as a wedding gift to procure for her the four singing swans, whereupon the ‘man from the north’ seizes them violently by the silver chains with which the hermit had coupled them and dragged them off to Deoca.

Arrived at her presence, an awful transformation befalls them. The swam plumage falls off, and reveals four withered snowy-haired and miserable looking human beings. Lairgnen flies from the palace in horror, but the hermit prepares to administer baptism at once, as death is rapidly approaching them ‘Lay us in one grave’ says Fionuala, ‘and place Conn at my right hand and Fiachra at my left, and Hugh before my face for there they were wont to be when I sheltered them many a winter night upon the seas of Moyle’. And so it was done and they went to heaven, but the hermit it is said, sorrowed for them to the end of his earthly days.

We will read many a story and see many a film covering periods of world history, but few match the Celtic legends and in all the Celtic legends there is no more tender and beautiful a tale than this one of the ‘Children of Lir’.

Courtesy of Willie Walsh and The Carlow Nationalist