The Children of Lir
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Mythological Cycle
The Children of Lir, a sorrowful tale of sweet sadness
It was in the time of legends and heroes, when the Tuatha Dé Dannan had determined to go into their deep halls beneath the hills and mountains of Éireann the green, that the Dagda mór had fallen at the second battle of Moy Tura. With his slaying a new leader had to be elected and that was decided by the Tuatha to be the Red Crow, Bodb Dearg. Now the Bodb wasn't without his rivals, fierce and powerful lords in their own right, chief among whom was Lir, so to keep the peace and ensure goodwill Bodb decided to marry his daughter to Lir.
Their marriage was a happy and fruitful one, and all the people rejoiced at the beauty of the children of Lir and Aoibh. They had four children between them, daughter and son Fionnuala and Aodh, as well as the twins Fiachra and Conn, but their happiness wasn't to last long for Aoibh daughter of the Red Crow died suddenly.
Great was the grief of her children and her husband, their weeping could be heard across the land, so Bodb decided it would be in the best interests of all concerned if his daughter Aoife was to marry Lir in the stead of his lost Aoibh. Such was the custom in those ages long gone, and for the most part it worked out.
But Aoife had a dark reputation and was rumoured to be on good terms with certain ancient powers who shall remain unnamed, for it's not wise to speak of such as those even in passing. Although quick to anger she nonetheless found love in her for Lir and his children, until a worm of jealousy slowly began to gnaw at the apple of her heart. For what young wife wants a husband more devoted to the children of another than to her? And Lir loved his children greatly, spending as much time as he could with them.
As time passed her envy grew, until she eventually made the decision - she had to do away with them! But accursed are those who slay their kin, even if only by marriage, and she didn't much like the idea of being haunted by four young ghosts for the rest of her years, so she consulted her deep dark pool under the shadowy willow until the answer bubbled up to her from the stygian depths. Round and round she danced under the sickle moon and her spells were made ready.
In her wickedness she told the children, the eldest of whom was only eight years old and the youngest, Conn, but a babe as yet, that as the day was hot 'twould do no harm to go for a cooling dip in the lake, so up they climbed into her chariot and away they went from the palace of Lir. Across rutted track and over dusty field they bounced, and even with the malice in her heart Aoife saw that the children were beautiful, with skin as pale as milk and eyes as blue as sapphires. Musical were their voices as they laughed and played, all unaware of the dark fate fast approaching.
When they got to the lake and went swimming, Aoife at last played her hand, and with a cackle she worked her malice and touched the tip of her twisted blackthorn wand into the waters, calling on the quicksilver spirits she had bound to herself to transform the young ones into beasts of the wind, for it was the air she feared more than anything else and could imagine no worse fate than to float forever adrift without anchor or path.
With a thunderous sound as though two rivers had crashed together, the waters arose and drank the children down, and when they came up again they were children no longer but swans! Her dark magic took hold but not deeply enough, for their blood like her own was of the eldritch Druids, and so they kept their voices and could speak the tongues of men.
No longer human but not struck dumb either, they clamoured to know their fate. Aoife smiled her sharp smile and said to them, "Three times a hundred years shall you live on this lake, and three times a hundred on the Sea of Moyle, and three times a hundred at Inis Glora on the far western ocean! No power of mine or yours will undo this enchantment. You shall be as you are until you hear the ringing of the Christian bell and speak to the one called Caomhog, who comes in the name of the light!" And in this she displayed her prophetic prowess as well, knowing of Patrick's coming long before his birth.
Many truths and futures did she see in her dark pool but not that Lir himself would chance by the lake that very day! And so he came, the father of the children, and heard the swans singing sad songs in sweet voices.
Astonished, he cried "How came you by those voices and can speak the tongues of men?"
The swans replied sadly, "But father, we are your children and have been done unto the forms of birds by your new wife Aoife, our childhood's over and here we must stay." They did not weep for of course swans cannot, but Lir wept bitter tears, thinking of his children and even the youngest, only babes.
He took his sorry tale of woe to Aoife's father for he dared not challenge her by himself, and the Red Crow was furious. In his rage he called for the warriors to bring his daughter before him in a silver net, that she might not turn to a fish and flee down the river, and summoning all of his mystical energy he said to her, "You shall envy those children you so accursed in your vain jealousy, for I know you as only a father can and I will give you what you fear the most forevermore! They will escape in the end, but not you!"
And with that Aoife was transformed painfully into a demon of the airs and banished into the mists, her nightmare made life for all eternity by her own deeds, and some say she still haunts the dark places of Ireland seeking to do mischief to those who listen too closely to the whispering wind on dark nights.
Lonely their father sat by the lake day after day, listening to the voices of the children he would never hold again, until a party of travellers came upon him and heard the rich, beautiful voices of the swans singing. They were struck with wonder and filled with a great calm, sitting by Lir until the sun set. They left that place and quickly told others, and the fame of the swans spread throughout all the land. For three hundred years people came from far and wide in Éireann to hear the melodies across the waters of the lake, and although in other places castles were built and fell, wars were waged, villages and settlements established and abandoned, peace reigned supreme while the swans sang. This is why even today it is forbidden to kill a swan in Ireland.
But after three centuries had passed the children of Lir went to the storm-wracked sea of Moyle to fulfill the second of their woes. A dark and dreary place it was, and often the howling wind was so fierce that they were driven apart, so they swore to one another to meet up at the jutting rock called Carricknarone should they get separated.
It was a chilly and lonely place with no audience for their songs, and when the ice came to the rock their skin and feathers froze to the stone, only peeling off painfully when they went into the water. Lacking fire or shelter they huddled beneath one anothers' wings, and three hundred years is a long time to spend living like that I don't mind telling you.
Then on a bright spring morning they chanced to spot a shining company of bold warriors on horseback riding up the shore. Fair of face they were and mighty of arm, and the swans recognised them as their own people, the Tuatha Dé Dannan. Shouting out glad greetings to one another the chief of the Tuatha party said he'd been sent to find them and check were they still alright. There was nothing, he admitted, he could do for them, but he shared the cold comfort that someday their sorrows would pass, and went on his way.
When the time came, Fionnuala sang out that their second sadness was finished, and they flew over land and water to the third and final place where they were to live out their days. On the cold and barren island of Inis Glora they dwelt, around a salt pool, and a sailor or fisherman might chance upon them as he went about his daily business, seeing in the distance beautiful white wings or hearing the echo of a lonely song.
After three hundred more years had passed, almost a thousand in total, the chidlren of Lir took flight and thought to visit the home of their father in Finnaha, but found it a tumbled ruin. The once-splendid palace where laughter and merriment had danced like tinkling sparrows was no more and the people had left. Struck with sadness they knew they were to be alone, and flew higher and higher into the blue sky, until in the farthest distance they heard a bell's chime.
They followed the sound to the home of a man called Caomhog, and as they flew the evil spirits that Aoife had bound to her will fled in terror, for Caomhog was one of the first to help spread Christianity throughout Ireland. Caomhog was a kindly and gentle sort who looked after them for the last years of their time.
And then they heard the thunder of hooves outside, and a well built man in armour and jutting beard burst in, demanding the swans for himself. He was the king of Connaught he said, and it was the custom in those days for kings and princes to hunt and capture mystical creatures for their own benefit. With many an oath and dark threats he laid hands upon the swans but the bell tolled again!
With that the waters rose and the last of their terrible enchantments were taken back into the underworld, a great mist enveloped the swans and they became as children once more. The warrior stood back aghast and fled, as the weight of the childrens' years came upon them all at once. Caomhog quickly baptised them before they could die and their name and legend live on forever as the Children of Lir.
Indicated on the map below is the lake close to Mullingar where the Children of Lir are said to have been transformed into swans.
We now have an amazing Patreon page as well, where you can listen to the many myths and legends on the Emerald Isle! Exclusive to our Patreon, you can now hear stories of ancient Ireland, folklore and fairy tales and more, all professionally narrated. It's at times like these that it's most important to support artists and creative people whose income might be reduced, so if you'd like to support the work that goes into Emerald Isle, the Patreon can be found here: https://www.patreon.com/emeraldisle
More Stories from the Mythological Cycle
Her name was Clíona or Clíodhna and she was one of the most beautiful women of the Tuatha Dé Danann, that vanished sorcerous race whose legends echo still from one end of Ireland to the other. Some even say she was the most beautiful woman in the world, and she was worshipped as a goddess by the pagans of Ireland who followed t ... [more]
Many are the tales told of Lugh, the mightiest king of that ancient and mystical sorcerer race of Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Danann, but only one is told of his death. Now Lugh, lord of many warriors, had four wives, which back in those days wasn’t too unusual, and their names were Echtach, daughter of white-toothed Dagda, Englec, Ná ... [more]
Just as happens today, people in ancient Ireland had legal disputes and complaints they would bring before their courts, and the judge or king would try to make sense of what had happened and hand down a fair decision. But also just as happens today, there were situations where it was one person’s word against another, or there wasn’ ... [more]
The old stories of Ireland, some of the oldest in the world, tell of great ancients – almost immortals! – whose span of life stretched many thousands of years. Legends tell of their spirits passing from one body to the next, or upon occasion, staying in the one body for millennia, watching the tides of man and beast come and go. Such ... [more]
One of the chiefest and most powerful kings among the mystical Tuatha Dé Dannan was the one called Dagda, or Dagda Mór, which means “of shining skills”. He had other names too, such as Eochu the horseman, Ruad Rofhessa, lord of great knowledge, Dáire the fertile one and Aed, he of the fiery temper. Others yet called ... [more]
The Irish Brehon law codes are said to be the earliest fully developed legal system in Europe, but long before the Brehons were laid down there were earlier laws and all were subject to them, from the lowest to the highest! Women could hold their own property, were not themselves considered property, and could seek an education and improve their ... [more]
No tale of ancient Ireland could be complete without mentioning the Fomorians, dreaded foes of the Tuatha Dé Danann and all who came to conquer Ireland. The meaning of their name is debated even today, although most agree that the first part, fó, means “from below” or “nether” and the latter part means “t ... [more]
Many of the oldest records of Irish mythology and legend, which you might truthfully say are a history of prehistory, tell that the first people to arrive in Ireland were led by the lady Cessair when she fled to this land to escape the coming flood. The idols which had whispered through veils of midnight smoke that Ireland was a land untouched by p ... [more]
Throughout the old stories of Ireland are scattered mentions, and sometimes even descriptions, of some of the spells and rites used by both the Tuatha Dé Danann and those who came after them, the Gaels or Milesians, as they are sometimes known. Tales of these wondrous and mysterious feats of sorcerous skill may seem strange to us, but to the ... [more]
The river Barrow, like many rivers in Ireland, was given its name in ancient times. Few now know it once had another and very different name however, for it was when Dian Cécht walked the world, the healer of the Tuatha De Danann, that this river was first named! Dian Cécht, whose name meant swift power or swift potion, depending o ... [more]
A thousand years before the Olympic games were founded, the Tuatha De Dannan had arrived in Ireland and defeated the Fir Bolg, establishing their place on the Emerald Isle. The mighty queen Tailtiu had married Eochaid mac Eirc of the Fir Bolg, but he was killed during the invasion of Ireland by the Tuatha, so the leader of the invaders took her for ... [more]
In ancient times the Gaels would hold great festivals at different seasons of the year, such as the Tailteann Games, Tlachtga, Raigne and Lughnasadh, and it was at the beginning of August, every three years, that the festival of Carmun would be held during the festival of Lugh. Mighty were the celebrations held, with the racing of horses and the ... [more]
Long ago it was the time of the Tuatha De Danann in Ireland, and they were troubled by strife from beyond the Emerald Isle and within it. One of their mightiest warriors whose name was Lugh of the Long Hand heard that their demonic enemies from the sea, the Fomorians, had landed at Eas Dara, so he hopped up on Aonbharr, a horse which could gallop a ... [more]
Some of the most ancient Irish myths and legends tell of the Bocanachs and the Bananachs, known to the people of Ireland as fierce spirits of the air that were drawn to scenes of battle and bloodshed. Whenever armies gathered to test their might, the sky overhead would be filled with shrieking demons dancing to the sounds of swords clashing and blo ... [more]
Woven through many Irish stories, myths and legends is the ancient game of Fidchell, which means “wisdom of the wood”. It's said that it was invented by none other than Lugh of the Tuatha De Dannan, and predates chess by many centuries. Fidchell held a central role in the celebrations of Lugh, and at Samhain festivities as well, ... [more]
Well known is the ancient tale of the Children of Lir, and how two of the three of Bodb Dearg's daughters by Oilell of Aran married Lir to keep the peace in Ireland, between the rival chieftains of the Tuatha De Dannan. But less well known perhaps is the story of the daughter of the Bodb and one of her admirers, Cliach the Harpist. Cliach pl ... [more]
After the second battle of Moy Tura, Nuada the High King of the Tuatha De Danann was grievously injured, and as it was the law among their people that a king must be whole of body, Dagda Mór took his place. Mighty Dagda, of whom the ballads are sung, he was called the father of the Tuatha, the lord of knowledge, the many-skilled, th ... [more]
It is in the nature of fairytales and legends passed down from generation to generation that they might sometimes change and shift to fit the lives of the people of the time, and the more mysterious the figure the more legends accrue to it! And so it is with Donn of the Dead, king of the dead at the red tower of the dead, whose three sons cried &ld ... [more]
It was at the dawning of the world when the fair folk walked in broad daylight as bold as you and I, before the coming of the Milesians with their bitter iron blades and earthen ways, it was the time when magic was wrought and druidry had power, when heroes gave battle to gods and the titanic children of Seth still troubled the dreams of Heaven, it ... [more]
The raven has long been an omen of ill-tidings around the world, bearer of bad news and warnings, but in Ireland it was known once as a servant of the fairy Morrigan, or the raven was herself in person! She it was whose name meant the Great or Ghost Queen, from the old words for fear and greatness. Some will tell you earnestly that she was a god ... [more]
Long ago, in the time of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, one of their number became the high king of all Ireland, and his name was Eochaid Ollathair. He was a powerful magician of that sorcerous race, and by his workings he could change the weather and ensure the harvest was plentiful, as well as many other things. His wealth was vast and he was mu ... [more]
It was in the time of legends and heroes, when the Tuatha Dé Dannan had determined to go into their deep halls beneath the hills and mountains of Éireann the green, that the Dagda mór had fallen at the second battle of Moy Tura. With his slaying a new leader had to be elected and that was decided by the Tuatha to be the Red Cro ... [more]
And so it was when dragons still flew and champions walked the earth that the men of the Fir Bolg had lordship over all of Ireland. They had left Ireland centuries before due to the violence and heavy tribute demanded by the Fomorians, travelling far and wide until they came to the distant land of Greece. Although they made agreement and treaty ... [more]