The is one of the most famous legends in Irish mythology. It’s also one of the most visual; the swans and lakes have appeared beautifully evoked in stained glass and sculpture in Ireland.
Vincent Byrne of Celtic Wedding rings, retells the tragic story of jealousy, witchcraft and freedom.
The original title in Irish is Leannai Lir or Clann Lir. This legend is part of the Irish Mythological Cycle, one of the Irish literary traditions’ four major cycles along with the Ulster Cycle, Fenian Cycle and Cycle of the Kings. The story is from an era where belief in druids and magic was commonplace in Ireland.
The story begins as Bodb Derg became king of the Tuatha De Danann. Lir, the Lord of the Sea, was unhappy with this outcome and in an attempt to appease him; Bodb offers one of his daughters, Aoibh, who Lir subsequently marries. The couple enjoys a happy marriage and has four children together: Fionnuala, Fiachra and Conn (twin brothers) and Aodh. When Aoibh died, Lir was devastated so Bodb offered another daughter, Aoife, and soon Lir was married again.
Marriage troubles in Irish mythology were almost as frequent as they are in real life. Aoife was extremely jealous of the love between the children and their father. She used dark magic to transform the four children into swans for a total of 900 years. These were divided into three segments of 300 years on three lakes: , the Sea of Moyle and waters near .
Aoife covered her tracks by saying the children had been killed by wild boars but Fionnuala told her father what had happened and he banished Aoife into exile. The next 300 years were a period of great sorrow as Lir visited his children on Lough Derravaragh. Once the children left for the Sea of Moyle they never saw their father again. Before reaching the final lake, the children flew back to where their father lived only to see the land in ruins. They wept and knew the era of Tuatha De Danann was over.
During their final 300 years, they met a man named Mochua who spoke to them about the advent of Christianity and Saint Patrick. He was the monk the Children of Lir needed to complete their transformation when their time was up. It is here that the story diverges with several alternate endings spoken of:
- The children were chained together to ensure they were never apart but Deoch, wife of the King of Leinster, told her husband to attack the monastery where Mochua housed the swans. The chains were broken but the children died as they transformed due to their great age.
- The King of Leinster took the swans and as he left the monastery, the bell tolled and the children crumbled into dust.
- The Children of Lir stay on the water for the last 300 years. They hear the bell toll, find the priest and he completes the transformation. They die and find peace in heaven with Lir and Aoibh.
While the latter ending is certainly the most romantic (though all of them are tinged with tragedy), many versions of the story use the middle ending where the King of Leinster succeeded in capturing the children only to be thwarted by the tolling of the bell.
The legacy of the myth
The Children of Lir is seen as one of the great ‘sorrows’ of storytelling in Ireland and is a tale of one people being conquered by another and is often used as an allegory of English rule in Ireland. In Dublin’s , the famous Children of Lir statue depicts a quartet of swans in flight with four human forms emerging beneath them. As with all art, there is a difference of opinion when it comes to the statue’s symbolism. Some say that it symbolises freedom as the swans soar into the air, while others see it as depicting bondage as the unfortunate Children of Lir lose their human bodies and are condemned to life in another form.
There is merit to both assertions though the latter seems more likely. The Children of Lir are forced to live as swans for 900 years, almost the same length of British rule in Ireland. They stay together because losing one another would be a worse fate than not having their human forms.
Aside from the Garden of Remembrance statue, the heartbreaking story has informed many aspects of Irish culture. Various folk music groups have written songs and albums related to the topic. It also features in Irish literature and there is another Children of Lir statue in , a village located just a few miles from Lough Derravaragh where the legend began. The stained glass art created by Richard King in The Franciscan friary, is a stunning depiction of the story.
As one of Irish folklore’s most poignant and enduring legends, there’s no doubt you will come across some version of the Children of Lir in Ireland.
Read more of Ireland’s myths and legends.