Ireland is a small island rich in history and folklore. Much of these folklore tales are told through oral tradition, passed on through from one generation to the next through story and song. Many tales are tied to landscapes, even used as a way to explain why a certain place has come to look the way it does.
One such tale is the story of the Children of Lir, most often associated with the remote, hilly terrain of north County Mayo where the children were destined to spend 300 years. Today, in the remote wilds of the Carrowteige in North Mayo, there is even a sculpture dedicated to the the Children of Lir. Condemned to the wilds of Mayo for 300 years and unable to return home, this is a fate that has resonated with the many thousands of people forced to emigrate from their homes in Mayo to new lives in America, Canada, Australia, England and more, nearly all never to return.
There once was a great lord called Lir, who, when passed over to be the new king, was angered, and refused to swear allegiance. Though off to a rocky start, as a gesture of peace, the new king Bodb Derg offered Lir his own daughter, Aoibh’s (pronounced “Eve”) hand in marriage, ending the feud.
Aoibh and Lir went on to lead a happy domestic life resulting in four children: their daughter, Fionnghuala or Fionnuala, and their three sons, the elder Aodh and the twins, Fiachra and Conn, though Aiobh unfortunately died after the last of her children were born.
At the behest of Bodb, Lir remarried (again, another of Bodh’s daughters – what could possibly go wrong what that?), this time to the beautiful but increasingly bitter Aoife. Stepmothers get a bad reputation in fairy tale and folk stories, and right on cue, it wasn’t long until Aoife became jealous of Lir’s love for his children. He doted on them, playing the role of both mother and father, and leaving little room in the household for Aoife.
Feeling shut out and unrequited, Aoife grew more and more bitter and eventually jealous of Lir’s love and attention to his children at the disadvantage of her.
Aoife had some knowledge of magic, and far too much jealousy in her veins. After failing to gain any help from her entourage or her subjects in the deadly task, she gritted her teeth and resolved to kill the Children of Lir herself.
Calling the four children to her, she proposed a drive out to the shore of the lake. But try as she might, she could not bring herself to slay them.
So instead, she proposed a swim in the lake. And once the children of Lir were in the water, she called upon her magic to cast a spell over them. In the place of the four beautiful and beloved children once so full of life and spirit, there were now four feathery white swans bobbing on the lake’s shores.
Aoife had to set a time limit for her spell, and her chosen time limit was thus: the Children of Lir were doomed to spend three hundred years as swans on the glittering shores of Lough Derravaragh in Co Westmeath; a second three hundred years on the rough and harsh Sea of Moyle (The North Channel, separating Scotland from Ireland) and a final three hundred on a wee rocky island called Inis Glora in Co Mayo. Relenting a little, Aoife allowed the children of Lir to retain the powers of speech, reason, and dignity.
When Aoife showed up to Bodb’s court alone without the four children, Bodb became suspicious and soon both he and Lir suspected that Aoife had done something very bad. It wasn’t until Lir came upon the shores of Lough Dairbhreach when he heard four swans singing in human voices that we recognised his children and understood what his jealous bride had done.
When Lir shared what had happened with King Bodb, he grew angry with his daughter. As punishment, he cursed her to what they imagined as the worst shape she could take: a “demon of the air.” And in that state, she remains.
And so 300 years came and went, and they were still swans.
Unable to leave each location until each 300-year-long spell was at its end, the Children of Lir were unable to return home to live with their father and family.
Instead, generations of Tuatha De Danann came to to hear their beautiful songs before the swans’ stay on Lough Derravaragh was over. The song of the swans was said to be magical – able to make happy people even more blissful, able to remove pain from illness or sorrow. Peace filled the lands.
300 years ended, and it was time for them to go to the Straits of Moyle, otherwise known as the North Channel, where it was colder and harsher, and violent storms would separate the Children of Lir from one another, freeze their feathers and drench their spirit. So 300 miserable years came and went.
The swans’ final 300 years were spent is the waters that surrounded the island of Inis Glora in Co Mayo, on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.
And this is where the tendrils of Christianity took hold of the traditional tale, making itself present. Once again cold and miserable, the swans started praying to god to protect them. Their prays were heard and answered – and their remaining years as swans on Inis Glora in Mayo were good ones.
And so 300 years came and went.
Freed from their curse to remain connected to specific bodies of water, the swans returned home to their father Lir. They were saddened to find their former home forlorn and deserted. The swans retreated to the beautiful island, Inis Glora, off the coast of County Mayo. It was here that they heard the ringing of a church bell, and suddenly they were struck with the knowledge that this bell would remove their 900-year-long curse. A monk (sometimes St Patrick himself, in some versions) heard their singing and knew they were the Children of Lir.
Despite their relative happiness and liberty in the company of the monk, the swans had not regained their human form. The king of Connacht, King Lairgnen, wanted the magical swans for himself, and came in search of the swans, but upon his touch, they were transformed into three old men and an old woman – the now-aged Children of Lir. Upon transformation and close to death, they requested to be baptised before they died.
Thus was their fate.
The summary here is based on a few sources: Richard Duffy’s 1883 book, “The Fate of the Children of Lir,” written in Irish and translated to English, (a revision of Eugene Curry’s 1863, “Three Most Sorrowful Tales”), Bard Mythologies and Short Kid Fairy Stories.
Want more stories? This is episode 5 in our series of Irish folklore – check out the other articles in the series below to meet the Hag of Beara, swim with selkies and find out who is the giant behind the Giant’s Causeway.