If you’re into Irish history, you’ll be thrilled after reading this legend. Even though its sad and gloomy, The Children of Lir, is one of the most renowned myths throughout human history. Simply, knowing about ancient fantasies allows you to explore how people in the past lived, thought and interacted with each other.
Mythology is not irrelevant in today’s world. Undoubtedly, early myths and legends are major elements in shaping and forming the modern culture, but they are a rich insight into the way our ancestors saw the world around them.
Many countries have their own culture and beliefs. Mythology often forms a solid part of a country’s culture. Stories were told and eventually written down to explain the origin of the world, the universal experience of mankind and it attempted to add reason to the chaos of the natural world.
As a result, you have probably heard of the mighty Thor in Norse mythology, Hades the Greek God of the Underworld, Ra the Egyptian God of the Sun or even the tale of Romulus and Remus, the two brothers raised by wolves and responsible for founding the city of Rome. Each of these cultures were polytheistic and used mythology to explain the world around them. These Ancient Gods were often responsible for creation, nature, love, war and the afterlife
A lesser known, but equally impressive pantheon of Gods belongs to Celtic mythology, called the Tuatha de Danann (Tribe of the Goddess Danu). They feature in much of Irish mythology including the Children of Lir. The Children of Lir is one of Ireland’s most famous legends; many of us were told the poignant story in school. It is a sensational yet sad short story, but impactful nonetheless managing to change the way that Irish people see and treat swans. Ireland is famous for having quite a few mythologies that played a role in forming new rituals
The Children of Lir legend is a must know story that will meet your curiosity for history. So, if you’re the type of person who’s fascinated by the past’s fantasies, you’ll be amused after reading this legend. Children of Lir is an amusing ancient fable and a part of bigger mythology, Celtic mythology. Due to the legend’s fame, it has a wide variety of versions. The Celts did not keep records so the story was told by word of mouth for centuries before it was recorded, further leading to different versions. However, this one will be as close to the original version as possible.
What is Celtic Mythology?
Celtic mythology is similar to any other mythologies that you’ve heard of before, for instance, ancient Greek and Egyptian mythology. Mythologies are folklore series of myths that originated in a specific region or culture. Most of them share similarities featuring gods, monsters and supernatural mortals.
Moreover, Celtic mythology contains many fables As examples, Finn MaCcool and The Giant Causeway, The Tale of Oisin in Tir Na Nog, The Legend of Pookas, The Frenzy of Sweeny Tales, and The Children of Lir. The ‘lesson’ behind tales in Celtic myth can be difficult to decipher, no more so than in the Children of Lir.
Irish Mythology and Legends
Interestingly, the ancient history of Ireland is full of mysterious legends and myths. If you have ever been to the island of Ireland you will see the impact of mythology in place names such as the Giants Causeway.
The emergence of Christianity and the fact that monks were the first to record Celtic tales have created many Christian myths with distinct Celtic elements, such as the stories of Saint Patrick banishing demons from Croagh Patrick and casting out snakes (who were important beings to pagan druids) from Ireland, or even Saint Brigid’s magical cloak.
There are countless Irish legends; however, some of them are the most popular, including the children of Lir and Saint Patrick. Some versions state that there is a connection between the two legends. However, all of the Irish stories have various changes and endings. The latter resulted in more than a few versions, but the story’s main plot stayed the same. The story of the children of Lir has gained admiration from many artists throughout the years.
The Cycle of Irish Mythology
Ireland had always been popular for having a remarkable imagination. Its mythology is full of extraordinary stories full of supernatural powers, gods, and more. The mythology of Ireland is, in fact, not limited to short stories like the Children of Lir whatsoever.
The story of the Children of Lir, definitely, takes a great part in the history of Irish myths, but there is a cycle of these mythologies. It is a bit more complex than just a set of stories. The cycle of Irish mythology embraces a wide range of stories and characters. Each story and character fit into one of the four main cycles that we’re about to mention.
These cycles are divided into the following: Mythological cycle, Ulster cycle, Fenian cycle, and King cycle. Each cycle happens to induce different types of worlds. Consequently, every world has its own characters and stories along with a set of values, morals, and beliefs. They are never the same as one another. However, interestingly, characters exist in more than one cycle.
Before diving into the details of each cycle, we’ll learn about the distinctiveness of each one of them. Later, we’ll get to know which one of those cycles holds the legend of the Children of Lir and to which cycle each character belongs.
Brief Explanation of Each Mythology Cycle
Starting with the mythological cycle, it is about a set of five invasions of a world that is called Lebor Gabála Érenn. The latter is the essence of the mythologies creation; it is from which the whole legends develop.
Right after, comes the Ulster cycle. This cycle combines magic and fearless mortal warriors.
The third cycle, the Fenian one, is quite similar to the Ulster cycle, but it tells the tales of Finn or Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his warrior tribe known as the Fianna. It is sometimes called the Ossianic Cycle, as Finn’s son Oisín narrates the stories.
Finally, the King cycle is or Historical cycle revolves around the worlds of kingship, revealing all of the details in a king’s life in terms of marriages, battles, and more.
Background of The Children of Lir
The story takes place in the context of The Tuatha de Danann realm and starts with the death of Dagda, the king of the Tuatha de Danann. The council gathers to vote for a new king. The sea god Lir was expecting to be the next in line and was furious, storming out and refusing to swear loyalty to the new king.
Bodb Dearg, the new king, wanted to win Lirs support so he decided to arrange a marriage between Lir, who had been widowed, and one of his daughters. Lir married Bodb’s eldest daughter Aoibh (Eva) and they both had a happy life. They had four children, one girl called Fionnuala, and three boys who were named Aodh, Conn, and Fiachra. It also believed that the four children were extremely beautiful and charming. Sadly, this happy marriage did not last for long; Eva got sick and died a few days later.
You might expect that Lir’s and Bodb’s feud arose after this, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The two men were grief stricken but both loved the family Eva left behind.
The New Mother
After the death of Eva, Lir and his children were miserable and the children were in grief and in need of someone to fill their mother’s care. Hence, their grandfather, king Bodb, decided to arrange another marriage between Lir and one of his other daughters. Lir married Aoife, Eva’s sister, and the picture of the happy family reappeared again. The children loved Aiofe as their new mother, but jealousy started to brew beneath the surface
Aiofe realized that Lir devoted to his children and she felt that he didn’t really care about her. She got envious of the fact her step children belonged to Eva and not her. Consequently, the new caring mother the children had turned into a hating and bitter enemy. She started to plot to get rid of Lir’s children. She made many attempts to exclude them from Lir’s life.
She had convinced herself that Lir could only truly love her if the children were not in the picture.
Full of hatred, Aiofe ordered all of her servants to kill the children but they refused, shocked and disgusted by her true nature. After much effort, she took a sword and sneaked in while they were sleeping to kill them but she couldn’t do it. Even though she couldn’t kill the children herself, she was still determined to separate them from their father.
Then, she gave one last shot to get rid of the children of Lir. She took the children camping and told them to go swimming in a lake nearby their castle, and while they were swimming she used a magical wand pointed towards them and casted spells. Hence, her magic turned the four children into four swans.
The Children of Lir’s fate
Although she cursed the children of Lir and turned them into four Swans, Aiofe left them the ability to talk and sing. In reaction, Fionnuala, the daughter, cried and asked her when their curse would end. Aiofe replied by saying that no other power on earth could remove the curse. However, she told them that this curse will end when they spend 900 years divided in different places.
In mythology there was a spell called a geis or geas that could either be an Irish curse or a blessing. It was a spell that controlled a person’s fate and could be used to specify how someone would die (heroes like Cu Chulainn created a bizarre, nearly impossible death, to fight fearlessly in battles) or who they would marry (The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne). They were nearly impossible to break, and the result of breaking a geas could be dire. This isn’t necessarily the spell that Aoife used but it is interesting.
Firstly, they would live for 300 years in the lake they had camped at, then spend another 300 years in the Sea of Moyle, and spend the final 300 years in the Isle of Inish Glora. After the news came to his castle, Lir ran to the lake to see the fate of his cursed children. He cried in grief and his swan children started to sing for him until he fell asleep.
Then, he headed to Bodb’s castle to tell him what his daughter had committed. Bodb ordered Aoife to transform herself into an air demon, which she remains as until this day.
The Singing Swans
For 300 years, the Children of Lir lived in the lake Derravaragh lake, where they were not totally isolated from people. Bodb, Lir, and people all across Ireland kept frequently visiting the swans to listen to their beautiful voices. In some versions the father and grandfather lived by the lake, but either way in the next 300 years, they left the lake and headed alone to the Sea of Moyle. For their protection, the king issued a law that no one is ever allowed to harm a swan.
Moreover, the Swans’ new home, where they felt isolated, appeared to be dark and cold. However, some locals liked to listen to them sing. They spent the final 300 years in the Isle of Inish Glora, which is a small and isolated island where the conditions were even worse for the four swans.
Finally, after spending 900 years cursed to transform in the form of swans, the children of Lir flew to their father’s castle. However, they found only the wrecks and the remnants of the castle and knew that their father had passed.
The Uncertain Ending of the Children of Lir
This is the part that varies the most among the many versions of the Children of Lir’s legend. However, the most renowned ending was that the four swans continued to fly across the land in grief.
Moreover, when a princess of Connacht heard their story, she sent her suitor to bring them the children of Lir to her. When the guards found the swans, they shed their feathers and returned into a human form. However, they did not return into young children as they once were, they transformed into old figures ageing hundreds of years.
Later when Christianity arrived in Ireland, a new version was told. The four swans met a Christian monk. In some versions this monk was St. Patrick who arrived in Ireland to spread Christianity. They asked him to baptize them since they felt that their death was close. Consequently, baptized them before their death. Hence, this was the fate of the Children of Lir.
The Original Story of the Children of Lir
The settings of the story take place during the ancient times of Ireland. That time was during the battle of Mag Tuired between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorians, two supernatural races in Irish mythology. Tuatha Dé Danann won the battle and Lir was expecting to receive the kingship.
Lir believed that he deserved to be the one made a king. However, the kingship was granted to Bodb Dearg, instead. Lir was enraged and he stormed out of the gathering place, leaving a blizzard of rage behind.
Lir’s action had driven some of the king’s guards to decide to go after him and burn down his place for not showing submission or compliance. However, the king turned down their suggestion, believing that his mission was the protection of his people and that included Lir.
Bodhbh Dearg’s Precious Gift to Lir
In turn, King Bodhbh Dearg offered his daughter to Lir for marriage in order to restore peace 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 gave him four beautiful children. They had 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 were a happy family, but the good times started fading away when Eva got sick.
Eva remained sick for a few days before it was time for her to pass away and leave the world behind. Her departure left her husband and children in a terrible mess. She was the sunshine of their lives.
King Bodhbh cared about the happiness of his son in law and four grandchildren. Thus, he sent his other daughter, Aoife, to marry Lir. He wanted to give the children a caring mother to look after them and Lir agreed and he married her right away.
A Twist of the Unexpected
Aoife was the caring mother they longed for. She was a loving wife as well. However, 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 to playing with his own children. For that reason, the children of Lir became her enemies instead of her stepchildren.
She started planning their death so that she could have Lir’s time all to herself. She definitely thought about killing them with the help of the servants. But to her surprise, they refused to do so. She was not courageous enough to kill them all by herself, for she believed that their ghosts would haunt her forever. Instead, she used her magic.
The Fate of the Children of Lir
On one fine day, she took the children of Lir for a swim in the lake. The sky was brightly shining and the children were having a great time. Aoife watched them while they were playfully swimming in the lake, unaware of their fate.
While they were getting out of the water, Aoife spelt her cast and turned all four of them into 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 Lake Derravaragh. The second three hundred years, they lived on the Sea of Moyle, and the last ones were on the Isle of Inish Glora.
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 turned Aoife into an air demon for eternity as punishment.
The Different Endings for the story of the Children of Lir
Most of the ancient stories face the fortune of undergoing slight changes. The story of the Children of Lir was no exception. The repetition of the story has included changes throughout the years; however, the real ending of the story remained mysterious.
Several versions had come to appear, making the possibilities of knowing the ending of the original story quite slim. The only similarity is that all of the versions shared was the fact that the ending was not a happily ever after one.
The First Ringing Bell in Ireland (The First Version)
In one 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 his life at the lake protecting swans. He remained a good and caring father to his swan children until he died of old age.
For the first three hundred years of their spell, Lir lived by Lake Derravaragh with them. He enjoyed spending time with his children, listening to their enchanted voices while they sang. Maybe this symbolised learning to be happy with change in life, even aafter loss, who knows?
They had many 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 for 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 by supporting each other. Sadly, they separated more than a few times, but they always 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 on and the castle 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 spell was about to be lifted.
Caomhog the Holy Man
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 Caomhog.
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 King 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 city had they refused to follow him.
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 king freaked out and started fleeing away. The happy ending turned into a tragedy when the children started ageing rapidly. They were very old; over 900 hundred years old.
Caomhog 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. In consequence, he baptised them, so they would die faithful believers. And, that was the end of the children of Lir, but their legend lived on forever.
The Blessings of the Priest (The Second Version)
The details in how the children of Lir had spent their days on the three different water’s remained the same. The slight changes that each version bears lie in how the spell was broken.
One version said that the spell broke with the first ringing Christian church bells in Ireland. Conversely, the second version seemed to have a different opinion. When the children of Lir reached the house where a monk lived, he did not only take care of them but instead, they asked him to turn them back to humans.
This monk was probably still Caomhog the Holy man, as he was also known as Mochua in some versions. Anyways, the spell broke when the priest agreed to their request, so he changed them to their previous forms. Still, even this version did hold the happy ending that everyone wished for.
Once the swans were back to their children, they were so old by that time that they died right away. Nonetheless, they met their parents in heaven and lived there happily ever after.
The Marriage of a King and a Queen (The Third Version)
The story of the Children of Lir is so confusing; nobody is sure how it really ended. In another version, when Aoife cast her spell on the children, Fionnuala asked her when they would be children again.
At the instant, Aoife’s answer included that they shall never return 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 Christian bell ring in Ireland.
The Marriage Came True
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 lake by the monastery. She wanted them for herself, so she asked her husband to attack the place and take the swans away.
The King of Leinster, Lairgean, did what his wife asked for. He seized the swans and they were leaving with him. 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, back to being the beautiful children of Lir. But again, they were old, so they died.
The True Ending Remains Mysterious
Interestingly, people in Ireland are familiar with all of those endings of the Children of Lir story. Each Irish child heard the story with a different ending, but, at last, they all knew that the spell had to break through one way or another.
The Relation between the Prominent Characters of the Children of Lir and Other Legends
The story of the Children of Lir involves more than a few characters who are considered deities in the Celtic mythos.
Besides the four children of Lir, there were other characters whose appearances are vital to the story. Even if their roles haven’t caused dynamic changes in the plot, they were important. Besides, some of the characters had connections with other famous characters that did not show up in the story of the Children of Lir. However, they were popular in Irish mythology as well.
Lir had a prominent role in the story – his name was even used in the story’s title. It was almost assumed that Lir would be king after the battle Tuatha De Dannan had, but it was Bodhbh Dearg who took over, partly because he was one of the Dagda’s children. Maybe Lir felt as though he was the worthy successor, but Bodb got the title because of his lineage.
In the story of the Children of Lir, the sea god was a great example of how a loving and caring father should be. He devoted his life to his children even after they transformed into swans. According to Irish mythology, Lir lived during the last days of the Tuatha De Dannan before they went underground to the Otherworld and became the fairy folk of Ireland.
Irish mythology always connects Lir with the hill of the white field. He is a holy character whose name comes associated with the white field which is, in turn, connected to a sea. The white field is related to the descriptions of a sea.
Successively, this sea builds a connection between Lir and the god of the sea, Manannán Mac Lir (Manannán son of Lir). Some sources state that Lir was the personification of the sea while Manannan was the sea god, but others state that there were both sea gods.
Another family in the Tuatha de Danann that are gods of a particular thing is Dian Cecht, the healer god and his healer children Miach and Airmed. Dian Cecht is Lirs foil; while Lir loves his children, Dian grows jealous of his own for their medicinal talents, sacrificing the health of his people and even killing his own son to remain the best healer in the tribe. You can read Dian’s story in our Tuatha de Danann article.
Manannan the God of the Sea
Manannán is the name of the God of the sea. Sometimes, people refer to it as Manannán Mac Lir. “Mac Lir” means the son of Lir. That is why there was a connection between Lir and the god of the sea.
People say that he was the son of Lir, which would make him the half brother of the four children of Lir. Manannan is a divine figure in Irish mythology. It was the blessing associated with certain races of ancient Ireland, including Tuatha de Dannan and the Fomorians.
Manannan features in all four cycles of Irish mythology. He doesn’t make an appearance in lots of tales, but was an essential part of the legends of Ireland.
Manannan’s Magical Items
Manannan became popular for possessing more than a few items with mystical properties. They were all magical and played great roles in the ancient tales of Ireland. One of the items that Manannan owned was a magic goblet of truth. He gifted that goblet to Cormac mac Airt; meaning the son of Art.
Cormac mac Airt was a High King during ancient times; probably, the most famous of all of them as well. Most of the Irish legends even attach themselves to his existence. Moreover, Manannan also had the Wave Sweeper; it was a boat that did not need sails. The waves were its own sailor; they moved it everywhere without the need for a human being.
More surprisingly, Manannan’s magical items extended to more fantasies. They included a flaming helmet, an invisibility cloak, and a sword which he called Fragarach. The sword’s name means the Answerer of the Retaliator; it was so powerful that it could slick through steel armour. Its name was an indication of its competence in making the target truthfully answer any question once it’s pointed at him.
Manannan’s Mystic Creatures
Manannan, the Sea God, owned animals as well; they were mystic creatures. These animals included a horse and a swine. The horse’s name was Enbarr the Flowing Mane; a mane that could walk over water for great distances. It could walk as easily as it could on land.
The swine had a flesh that offered food for feasting and celebrations. It never ran out of food, for its skins regenerated on a daily basis.
Some myths suggest that Manann is the father of Nimah Cinn Or who arrives in Ireland and brings Oisín to Tír na nOg (the Otherworld) on a white horse that can travel over water. Oisín i dTír na nÓg is one of the most famous legends alongside the Children of Lir.
Bodhbh Dearg was an ingenious king whose people looked up to as someone who had a solution for every problem. He was also a caring and considerate person. After receiving the kingship after the battle, he realised how offended Lir was. In turn, he offered him his precious daughter who gave him four beautiful children.
Bodhbh had a great role in the story of the Children of Lir. He may have gifted Lir with both of his daughters, but he also punished Aoife for what she had done to the children.
He transformed her into a demon for eternity. During the children’s first stage of the spell, Lir stayed by the lake to be always near them. It was the time when Bodhbh also joined Lir to raise his spirits during that tough time. Besides, he found pleasure in the beautiful voices of the children swans.
Bodhbh made appearances in other tales of ancient Ireland. He had a connection to Aongus Og, son of the Daghda, the Huge Father God Figure, and Bionn, the Goddess of the River Boyne. Aongus too was a god; he was the god of love.
Bodhbh Dearg’s Relation to the God of Love
When Aongus fell in love with a woman he saw in his dreams, his father, the Daghda, sought help from Bodhbh. The latter started investigating and searching for a whole year. Then, he announced that he found the woman of Aongus’ dreams.
Her name was Caer and she was the daughter of Ethel. Like the symbol found in the Children of Lir, Caer lived in the form of a swan. She transformed into a maiden as well; however, her father refused to let her go and imprisoned her in swan form.
Bodhbh sought help from Ailili and Meadhbh; they were the ones to discover that Caer was a maiden as well as a swan. Aongus declared his love to her and he changed himself into a swan. They flew away together and lived a happy life.
This story turned swans into a symbol of love and fidelity in Ireland.
Aoife, pronounced as Eve, was the youngest daughter of King Bodhbh Dearg. She was the second daughter of his to marry Lir in order to console him after his first wife’s death.
In some tales Aoife was Bodhbh’s foster daughter. He raised her like his own, but she was actually the daughter of Ailill of Aran. Aoife was popular for being a jealous woman. However, before projecting her jealousy toward the children of Lir, she used to shower them with her affection.
Her jealousy won, but robbed everyone of happiness. Lir’s devotion of his time to his children was unwavered but things were never the same. She was a prominent character in the story of the Children of Lir, for she actually was the main reason all of that tragedy happened.
Legends stated that Aoife felt bad at first when she transformed the four children. In some cases she even went to Bodb Dearg before Lir found out what she had done. She allowed the children to keep their voices and human comprehensive skills and they begged her to reverse her spell. At the instant, Aoife regretted what she did, but it was already too late. The children of Lir had to suffer for 900 years before the spell was supposed to break.
Aoife’s Enigmatic Fate
Aoife suffered severe punishment for her bad deeds and what she had done to the children of Lir. What exactly happened to her is part of the mysteries that the story holds. Some say that Bodhbh transformed her into an air demon for eternity.
People claimed that her voice was clear in the wind; she sobbed and cried. Moreover, others claim that she turned into a bird that had to roam the skies forever and a day. Legends and myths have always had an unexplained relationship between women and birds. These themes did not only exist in Irish culture, but other cultures adopted the same themes and symbols as well.
Although he was not one of the characters that made an appearance in the Children of Lir, he had connections with some of the main characters. Ailill made an appearance in other tales with Bodhbh Dearg; he helped him during the case of Aongus Og.
Most importantly, he was the real father of the two daughters who married Lir, Aobh and Aoife. Bodhbh Dearg was the one who raised the two daughters as if they were his own; the reason behind that was not stated in Children of Lir. However, it should have roots in other tales of ancient Ireland.
Most of the stories of Ailill are somehow connected to Queen Meadhbh. He was an adequate champion who Meadhbh ditched her third husband to be with. Their most famous legend is called Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley).
Ailill seemed to be the best candidate for her at first; he accepted her affair with Fearghus MacRioch, the King of Ulster. A twisted turn came to being when Ailill eventually let his jealousy takeover and was responsible for Fearghus death.
The Relation between the Irish Mythology Cycles and the Characters of the Children of Lir
Since we have introduced each cycle and character, it is interesting to know which cycle holds each one of them. The legend of the Children of Lir falls into one cycle, but it does not necessarily mean that all of the story’s characters belong to just that cycle.
In fact, some of them may belong to other cycles. The reason behind that is that those characters’ tales were not only restricted to one legend. For example, Aoife is one of the Children of Lir characters.
However, she had her own stories in the Irish myths; a profile that stated all about her background information, the cycle she belonged to, and the tales that were known about her. These profiles may also include the relation between characters from different cycles and how they connect with one another.
There are four main cycles in Irish mythology, but the Children of Lir tale involves only two of them. These two cycles are the Mythological cycle and the Ulster cycle. The characters of the story belong to these two cycles only. These cycles do not reveal their roles in the story itself, but it tells more about their backgrounds in myth.
It may help you to think of cycles as eras or time periods. A person can live through many eras in their life, and for supernatural deities who can live for centuries, this is even more true.
The Mythological Cycle and the Children of Lir
The Mythological Cycle is one that plays the biggest role in the story. It includes most of the characters. Besides, it is the cycle in which the story itself falls under as well. It the oldest cycle in Irish mythology and it revolves around a set of tales of people that are considered to be divine figures. Knowing that, it is easy to guess that the tale of the Children of Lir is one of the most popular stories of this cycle.
The Tuatha de Danann can pop up in any cycle, but the mythological cycle was the era that they arrived in and inhabited Ireland.
The tales that belong to this cycle did not have the opportunity to be converted to Christianity because the stories revolved around the Tuatha De Dannan, who went underground for good after the Milesians succeeded in defeating them.
The Ulster Cycle and the Children of Lir
The second cycle, the Ulster, is all about warriors and fearless fighters. Surprisingly, Aoife happens to fall into this category. This may not have been obvious through the plot of the Children of Lir. She was also the foster daughter of Bodhbh Dearg, the second wife of Lir, and the stepmother of the four swan children.
However, just like her real father, Ailill, she was a warrior. The latter was obvious in other tales of ancient Ireland, but the Children of Lir was not one of them. In this story she appears a magic user despite her father Ailill’s more grounded nature. This is likely because she was raised by a member of the Tuatha de Danann, and so learned magic from her father.
The Ancient Irish Races Related to the Children of Lir
In the tales of ancient Ireland, there are more than a few races that make an appearance. These races are responsible for making up the whole history of the legends and myths. There are usually historical battles that involve two or more of those races.
They include the Tuatha De Danann, the Fomorians, and the Gaels. Each of them was a powerful, supernatural, magical race; they had their own spans of living and then, some of them, disappeared. According to myth, the residents of Ireland today descend from the Gaels. The Tuatha de Danann were the Gods and the Fomorians represented the destructive power of nature.
Of all of the tribes in Irish myth, the Fomorians are quite interesting, some of them were monsters, others were giants and a few were beautiful humans. This variety made for many interesting tales and characters, such as Balor of the Evil Eye who set in motion the tragic story of the Wooing of Etain.
Just to add to the complex feuds we have discussed, some Tuatha de Danann and Fomrians fell in love and had children. These children often played a crucial role in either fostering peace or rallying wars between the two tribes.
Tuatha De Danann
Their name means tribes of the god. More precisely, Danann refers to the goddess Dana or Danu. There were not a lot of tales about her in ancient legends and myths. However, she had been looked up to as an admired divine figure. There were tales that mentioned more information about her, but they were unfortunately lost. She was the mother Goddess and the figure that the tribe looked up to. She was seen as a creator of sorts.
Anyhow, the Tuatha De Danann was a supernatural race that existed during ancient Ireland. They were a representation of the folks that lived in Ireland before the emergence of Christianity.
Before the existence of the Tuatha De Danann, there were the Nemeds. They were the ancestors of the Tuatha De Danann. Both races seem to come from the same cities.
These cities existed in the northern part of the world, outside of Ireland, and were called Falias, Gorias, Murias, and Finias. From each city they brought one of the four treasures of the Tuatha de Danann; Lia Fáil (The Stone of Destiny), Lughs Spear, Dagda’s Cauldron and Nuada’s Sword of Light. Nuada was the king of the Tuatha De Danann when they first came to Ireland.
He died during their battle against the Fomorians. The King of the Fomorians, Balor, killed Nuada through his poisonous eyes. In revenge, Lugh, a champion of the Tuatha De Danann, killed Balor himself. In doing so, Lugh unknowingly fulfilled the prophecy that Balor would be killed by his grandchild. Right after the battle Lugh took over the kingship of the Tuatha De Danann.
The Reign of Bodhbh Dearg
After the death of Dagda, Bodhbh Dearg from the Children of Lir story seized the kingship of the people. He remained a good and resourceful king throughout the time of his authority.
After the Milesians defeated the Tuatha De Danann, they went underground for good. During their underground time, their ruler was Manannan Mac Lir, the god of the sea who was another son of Lir.
This race is commonly known as Fomoire in Old Irish. It is another supernatural race. Their portrayals are often hostile and monstrous. They belong to either the deep parts of the sea or the underground. With the development of their portrayals linked to the destructive powers of nature, Fomoire started to seem like titans, enormous beings, or raiders of the sea.
Their relationship with other races of Ireland was never pleasant. All races were their enemies; however, their relationship with the Tuatha De Danann was a bit more complicated. They were enemies, yet people from both parties married and had children.
The Fomorians seemed to be the complete opposite of the Tuatha De Danann. The latter believed in gods that represent the symbols of peace, tranquillity, and civilization. On the other side, the Fomorians’ gods were ones of darkness, chaos, death, and all power that seems destructive to nature.
The Fomorians had nothing to do with the legendary tale of the Children of Lir, but their story in myth is intertwined with the tribe of Danu.
Swans in the Irish Culture
Swans are amazing creatures. They had always been part of 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.
Swans have always been symbols of love and purity. Obviously, the reason behind this symbolisation is these mate for life. No wonder Irish mythology used them to describe those who possess clarity and fidelity within their heart.
Mythologies have always depicted swans as shape-shifters. 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. In Ireland Swans are protected by the Wildlife Act 1976.
The Swan maiden is a common archetype in mythology all over the world. Similar to the Celtic Selkie, who wears a seal skin to transform into a seal, maidens used a swan skin to transform into a bird in legends all around the world.
Irish people call the swans Eala; the pronunciation of this word is Ellah. 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 captivity. According to Irish mythology, swans were capable of travelling between the real world and other worlds that existed in different realms.
The Swans Symbol in the Children of Lir
Having known how the world, and Ireland specifically, regards swans, it is easy to guess why the children of Lir were changed into ones. Swans represent transparency, innocence, and purity.
The same applies to the four poor children. They were kids when their life turned upside down. Naively, they went with their stepmother to spend a fun day by the lake, unaware of what was waiting for them.
Swans in Other Irish Legends
Apart from the Children of Lir, many tales in Irish mythology have depicted the swans and included them as part of the plot. The swans in those tales were usually people who fell victim to some sort of a spell. However, other tales portray the swan as the symbol of eternal love.
One of these legends was Tochmarc Étaíne or the Wooing of Etain. In this legend, Etain was the beautiful daughter of Ailill (yes the father of Aoife and Eva) and Midir of the Tuatha De Danann fell in love with her.
They got married and their life was great until the jealousy of a woman took over. That woman was Fúamnach; she turned Etain into a butterfly, leading people to believe that she ran away or just disappeared.
For many years, Etaine, a butterfly wandered aimlessly in the vast world. One day, she fell into a glass of wine and the wife of Etar swallowed her. It sounds tragic at first, but in fact; that incident ensured that Etain was reborn into a human being once again.
Once she was a human again, she married another king, but her previous husband, Midir, knew the truth and he wanted her back. He had to go through a game; a challenge against the High King and whoever won got to be with Etain.
Midir finally won and when both of them hugged one another, they changed into swans. Unlike the Children of Lir, the swans in this story symbolise the meaning of true love. It also assures that loving couples live committed to one another for life.
The Wonders of Ireland
An ancient tale that P.W. Joyce wrote back in 1911; the story is about a man who threw a stone at a swan. The swan fell to the ground and, in that instant; it turned into a beautiful woman.
The woman told the poet Erard Mac Cossi her story of changing into a swan. She claimed that some demons stole her while she was on her deathbed. The word demon in that story does not refer to real evil spirits. Instead, it refers to magical folks who travelled together in the form of swans.
Aengus, the God of Love, and Caer Ibormeith
The swans were a symbol of tragedy in the Children of Lir. Conversely, it is a symbol of love in this legend. This tale was previously mentioned throughout the article, but briefly. It is about Aengus, the God of love, who fell in love with a woman called Caer that he constantly saw in his dreams.
After a long time of searching for her, he realised that she was a swan. She was among 149 girls who changed into swans too. There were chains that paired each two of them to one another. Aengus turned himself into a swan, recognised Caer, and they married.
They flew away together, singing love songs in their beautiful voices. Again, the swans in this story symbolise freedom and eternal love. The god of love turning into a swan definitely helped add to the bird’s symbolism.
The Three Shallows on Which the Children of Lir Lived as Swans
Beyond doubt, the story of the children of Lir took place in the Irish lands. Within the story, the names of several places passed by the readers. These places include the Lake Derravarragh, the Sea of Moyle, and the Isle of Inish Glora.
Above and beyond, Lir, the God of the sea, lived in a beautiful castle. It was the castle where he had the best time of his life in the presence of his wife and four beautiful children.
Before the tragic incidents happened, the castle was an amazing place. The locations featured all truly exist in Ireland, but for now, we’ll introduce the waters on which the children swans lived.
Most stories would mention this location as Lake Derravarragh, but you may have heard it called Lough or Loch Derravarragh. Both words, Lough and Loch, mean Lake in Irish and are more commonly used.
This lake sits within the hidden heartlands or midlands of Ireland, Lough Derravaragh sits on the River Inny which flows from Lough Sheelin on its way to the River Shannon.
The Lake or Lough Derravarragh became the main spot for performing water sports and activities. By that lake, there is a public area where people gather. It contains a café, a shop store, and a caravan park. The area usually opens during the summer, so people can enjoy their time soaking in the sun and swimming in the water.
At the end of the lake, there are a number of Ringforts. Ringforts are rounded settlements in Ireland with many spread throughout the country. They have existed for years.
They had numerous functions, including agriculture and economic significance, and it also acted as a defensive feature.
Going back to the significance of the lake, it has taken part in more than a few popular legends and Irish myths. Most importantly, the Children of Lir, but Saint Cauragh is another legend that shares a connection with the Lough Derravarragh.
The Children of Lir and Lough Derravarragh
The popular Irish legend, the Children of Lir, takes in this significant location of Ireland in a great part of its plot. It was mentioned when the four children went on a picnic with their stepmother and she turned them into swans. Her spell stated that the children are to live their first 300 years on the shallows of Lough Derravarragh. Since the spell should last for 900 years, the remaining 600 years were equally divided to be spent on the Sea of Moyle and then the Isle of Inish Glora by the Atlantic Ocean.
Saint Cauragh and Lough Derravarragh
In this legend, Saint Columcille ejected Saint Cauragh out of the Kells Monastery. Saint Cauragh had no place to go, so he kept randomly wandering around the city until he came across Knockeyon.
Once he arrived there, he started his spiritual journey by praying to God and fasting. There was nobody around and he was so far away from the eyes of the world. Saint Cauragh fasting reached an extreme level that he started to feel like his death was somewhere near. He kept praying to God to appease his thirst.
After a short while, Saint Cauragh started paying attention to the sound of water. It was dripping out of a rock that was right above his head. The sudden appearance of water strengthened Saint Cauragh’s belief in God.
He drank with satisfaction until he tamed the thirst that was slowly killing him. This source of this water was actually Lough Derravarragh. By then, he decided to build a chapel.
The well that receives the water from the lake had been a place of attraction during the middle ages. People used to undertake a pilgrimage uphill with their feet quite bare. The first pilgrimage usually took place on the first Sunday of harvest. Successively, this was how Cauragh Sunday emerged.
The Swans of Lough Derravarragh
This title is not a reference to the Children of Lir. In fact, it refers to the existence of swans in Lough Derravarragh. People are used to seeing swans live there and aimlessly roam around.
They might be the reason that the legend of the Children of Lir still lives until this very day. Many of the Irish legends survived through the years and became popular among different generations over time, but very few are as well known and preserved as the Children of Lir. This could be thanks to the constant presence of swans in Ireland, acting as a reminder of the tragic tale.
The Sea of Moyle
According to the Irish and Scottish people, that sea is called the Straits of Moyle. It is the narrowest extended area of the sea of the North Channel. The Sea of Moyle actually extends between the northeastern and the southeastern highlands of Scotland.
The northeastern part is the County Antrim, which is one of the six main counties that form Northern Ireland. On the other side, the southeastern part is actually the Mull of Kintyre. It lies in the southwest of Scotland.
Interestingly, the two opposite shores of the sea can be clearly seen during the clear conditions of weather. Although both shores fall in two different countries, the shortest distance between them reaches only 20 kilometres.
They suffered great obstacles during their period on that sea. They even lost one another during the heavy storms and got wounded by the freezing cold. Gladly, for one happy moment, they reunited once again and they were ready to travel again to their last destination of the fate bestowed on them.
Inish Glora, the Isle of the Atlantic Ocean
Different sources disagreed on whether the name of this place was composed of two words, Inish Glora, or it was only one word written like Inishglora. Either way, at least, they are all stating the same needed destination and the one that the Children of Lir story included in its plot.
In Irish, this island is known as Inis Gluaire. It is an island that lies by the coast of Mullet Peninsula. The latter exists in Erris, a town that lies in County Mayo in Ireland.
According to Ireland, Inishglora has been the holiest island among all of the ones that surround it. It was the last destination that the Children of Lir flew to during their last 300 years of banishment.
It was also the same place where they met the holy man who took care of them while they lived by his house. Legends say that when the Children of Lir turned back to their human forms after the spell broke, they died immediately considering their very old age. In sequence, people buried their bodies on that island. In some stories they fly home before becoming human, only to find the ruins of their home.
The Tullynally Castle
The name Tullynally derives from the Irish expression, Tullaigh an Eallaigh. The literal translation of this word means the Hill of the Swan. The castle earned this name, for the hill on which it overlooks the popular lake known as Lough Derravarragh.
It was the lake on which the children of Lir turned into swans and lived their very first 300 years of the spell on. Legends suggest that the castle in which the children of Lir lived was what is now the Tullynally Castle.
The plot of the story may not have made it clear, but since their father found them nearby, the speculation may turn out to be true. Besides, when Lir learnt about the tragedy of his own children, he lived by the lake to be near them. In other words, finding them nearby and staying around the house for 300 years was soothing for his endless wounds.
Henry Pakenham was the one who built this castle. It is sometimes referred to as the Pakenham hall Castle, too. It was home to the family of Pakenham; they were a royal family. Henry Pakenham was a captain in the Parliamentary Dragoons. He received a large piece of land in which this castle was included.
The Significance of the Children of Lir Story
Ireland may have grown out of the era of developing mythology and legendary tales. However, some, or even most, of its legends and myths will always be prominent in the world of classic literature.
Even though the tale is quite old and ancient, people still mouth the story of the Children of Lir. Since a lot of historical places took place in the story, it is easy to always keep it in mind while witnessing the beauty of Ireland.
The Children of Lir has made a great part of Ireland’s history. People will always remember the story while watching the swans aimlessly swimming in Lough Derravaragh or once they are passing by the Tullynally castle or even the Sea of Moyle.
No wonder all of those mentioned places are sites of attraction in Ireland. Not only are the places beautiful, but they’re also reminders of the immortal legends and myths of Ireland.
It is the kind of legend that will always live on, no matter how much time passes. The moral of the story is ambiguous – is it about the evils of jealousy? Or the importance of love and loyalty? Or even the fact that you have to try and make the best of situations you can’t change?
In truth it doesn’t really matter how you interpret it. With each version of the Children of Lir, you get to witness some one’s interpretation of the tale that is tragic yet beautiful, sombre yet magical. Irish storytelling is all about bringing people together to share a few moments of wonder and that is what’s really important.
Through bad times and good times, people gathered together to escape their world for a little while and join the Tuatha de Danann in an island full of magic, fierce warriors and supernatural creatures.
Have you ever heard of the Story of the Children of Lir? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
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