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The Children of Lir: The Legend, its Origin and Role in Irish Culture

The Chldren of Lir Sculpture at Ballycastle in Northern Ireland.
The Chldren of Lir Sculpture at Ballycastle in Northern Ireland. (Photo: Anna Aitken via Shutterstock)

The Legend of the Children of Lir

As a country known for its storytelling, Ireland has many wonderful myths and legends. What is the most famous Irish tale of all? It is difficult to say, but the Children of Lir is likely to be a good bet.

This legend encompasses the magic of pagan Ireland through to the early Christian times. To complete the fairy tale, there is even a jealous, evil stepmother. 

The bond between siblings and love of a father for his children help to make this tale popular for all ages. There are many illustrated books of the Children of Lir for kids available. 

Interestingly, the legend hasn’t been a part of Irish culture for quite as long as one may think and the story as we now know it, probably evolved from several combined stories in probably the mid-19th century. 

The Children of Lir Story

Swan in flight
Swans are magnificent birds, especially in flight. (Photo © Andhoj via Canva)

There are several versions of the Children of Lir story, including different spelling variations of the names of the main characters and the locations where they stayed. Based on our research, this is our interpretation of the legend. We hope you enjoy it!

The King of the Tuatha Dé Danann

The Tuatha dé Danann was an ancient mythic race in Ireland, thought to have godly or otherworldly powers. To strengthen the group against invading peoples, such as the Milesians, the decision was made to elect a king. 

Bodh Dearg (sometimes also known as Bodb) was the chosen favorite to take this coveted kingship. This decision was said to be contested by his rival Lir, who believed that if he was crowned King Lir, that the kingdom would be better served.  

In an effort to appease his rival, Bodh Dearg offered Lir his daughter’s hand in marriage on the condition that Lir would accept him as king. 

This deal was agreed to and a wedding was arranged between Lir and Bodh Dearg’s daughter, Aobh. 

Their union produced four children, the eldest was a girl and the younger three were boys. 

Fionnuala, Aodh, Fiachra and Conn were the names of the Children of Lir. Some versions say that the children were two sets of twins, others say that just the two younger boys were twins.

Tragedy struck the young family when Aobh died after giving birth to Fiachra and Conn. and left behind a grief-stricken husband and young children. 

When Bodh Dearg heard of the sad news about his daughter, he offered another of his daughter’s to Lir. Aoife was Aobh’s younger sister and became stepmother to her sister’s children. 

The Evil Stepmother

As the tale goes, the children were beautiful, talented and well liked by all, especially their adoring father. Aoife became jealous of the children and the close bond they shared with their father. 

Over time, Aoife became more frustrated with the situation and her jealousy grew each day. She sought to have Lir’s love and affection for herself and even pretended to have an illness in the hope that she would become his central focus. 

A Curse of 900 Years

Swans taking flight
Swans are a protected species in Ireland. Mute swans (Eala bhalbh in Irish) are resident in Ireland all year round are found through the island in lakes, ponds, rivers and coastal areas. (Photo © LindaMarieCaldwell via Canva)

After her initial attempts to capture Lir’s attention failed, Aoife opted for a more drastic plan.

One day she ordered the children to get ready for a visit to their grandfather Bodh Dearg. En route she commanded the servants to stop the chariot at the Lake Derravaragh and to kill the children. 

Shocked at the barbaric request, the servants refused to act upon Aoife’s wishes. This insolence made Aoife even more furious so she decided to murder the children herself, but could not bring herself to do so. 

Instead Aoife cast a spell on the four children and transformed them into four white swans.

She told them that they were cursed for nine hundred years. For the first three hundred years they were to stay at Lough Derravaragh (County Westmeath), then they would be banished to the cold Straits of Moyle (between Ireland and Scotland) and the remaining three hundred years at Irrus Domnann (County Mayo). 

The curse would only be broken by the marriage of a Prince from the north and a Princess from the south of the island and the sound of a Christian bell. 

Fionnuala pleaded with Aoife to be merciful and so Aoife left the swans with the ability to talk with human voices and sing enchanting songs.

Aoife then abandoned the four swans in the lake and traveled onwards to her father. 

Aoife’s Punishment

Stormy Seas
Aoife was transformed into a howling demon of the air. (Photo © tunart via Canva)

It was unusual that the children were not with their stepmother and Bodh Dearg became suspicious when Aoife said that the children were with their father. He secretly sent servants to investigate and once Lir was told that the children were missing he feared something terrible had happened. 

Lir left immediately to visit Bodh Dearg and to find out what Aoife had done with the children. On his journey, Lir passed Lake Derravaragh and heard swans singing a beautiful song.

The mesmerizing song captivated his attention and he went to get a closer look of where the song was coming from. It was then that he discovered his children in the form of swans. 

They told him of Aoife’s failed plan to slaughter them out of jealousy and the nine hundred year curse that she put on them.

After staying one night with the swans, Lir traveled to Bodh Dearg where he confronted Aoife. As punishment for her terrible deed, Bodh Dearg transformed her into a demon of the air with his druids staff.  

When it is stormy and the wind from the north howls, it is said that Aoife is the demon behind the screams and wails.  

The First Three Hundred Years

Lough Derravagh in County Westmeath
The Children of Lir spent their first three hundred years as swans at Lough Derravaragh in County Westmeath. (Photo © Conor D via Canva)

A saddened Lir returned to Lake Derravaragh to be with his children, the four beautiful swans. 

For the first three hundred years of the curse, the swans lived a relatively peaceful existence together with their father, who relocated to be with them.

It is said that Lir remained at this location with them for entire three hundred years. (As he was a member of the Tuath dé Dannan, he is said to have lived for a very long time!)

Straits of Moyle

View of the Straits of Moyle, from Ballycastle, Northern Ireland
The view from Ballycastle, Northern Ireland, looking out on the the Straits of Moyle, with Scotland seen on the horizon. (Photo © Artur Kosmatka via Canva)

The second part of their sentence was to be executed on the Straits of Moyle (or Sea of Moyle). This is the narrowest stretch of sea in the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland. 

The cold, harsh conditions of this barren expanse of water inflicted much suffering on the swans. 

Stormy seas continually threatened to separate the siblings. The thought of enduring the hardship alone was too much for the swans and Fionnuala helped to sustain her brothers by vowing to always stay together and meet on Carraig na Ron (Seal’s Rock) if they were to become parted.

One moment of joy for the swans occurred near the end of their time on the Straits of Moyle. 

Some of the Tuath dé Dannan had been searching for the Children of Lir for years. After finally finding the swans, they recounted tales of Lir, Bodh Dearg and their homeland. 

This encounter lifted the spirits of the swans for the final part of the curse in Irrus Domnann.

Irrus Domnann 

Mayo Coastline, Ireland
The swans spent their final three hundred years off in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of County Mayo. (Photo © Simon Roughneen via Canva)

When three hundred years on the Straits of Moyle had passed, the swans flew to Irrus Domnann and hoped that their final sentence would be easier than the one they had just completed. 

Unfortunately, the opposite was true and more torturous, freezing conditions faced them during this time. 

The sea is said to have frozen around them. Fionnuala once again tried to keep her brothers safe and warm in the appalling conditions. 

At the end of the three hundred years, the swans return to where they had left their father. He has long since died and only ruins and abandonment await them on their return. 

Breaking the Curse

Mute Swan Ireland
The swans transformed by into elderly people at the end of the curse. (Photo © Rory Ferguson via Canva)

The swans must now wait for the curse to be broken. They are thought to have based themselves on Inis Gluaire  (also known as Inishglora or Inis Glora) off the west coast of Mayo.

It was here that the swans are thought to have heard the first Christian bells and they met  Mochaomhog (sometimes also known as Saint Mochaomhog or Caomhog). 

He had been searching for the Children of Lir and taught the swans about Saint Patrick and Christianity.

Around the same time, a Prince from the North, Lairgnen married a Princess from the south, Deoch and thus completed the prophecy that Aoife had described all those centuries before. 

Deoch heard of the enchanted singing swans and wanted to have them. When Mochaomhog refused to hand them over to her Lairgnen became involved and he touched one of the swans. 

This act was sufficient to break the curse and suddenly all of the feathers fell off the swans and there stood four frail individuals, one woman and three men. 

Fionnuala’s Wish

With her last remaining energy, Fionnuala asked Mochaomhog to baptize her and her brothers before they died. He willingly did and also carried out Fionnuala’s last wish that they would never be separated and be buried together.

As Fionnuala requested, the siblings were laid to rest together. Fiachra was buried on her left side and Conn on her right. Aodh was buried between her two hugging arms.

Origin of the Children of Lir Legend

Swans on the Grand Canal, Dublin
Swans are a regular sight in Ireland, like here on the Grand Canal in Dublin. (Photo © edfuentesg via Canva)

Evidence suggests that the oldest record of the Children of Lir story dates back to about the 15th century. 

It might be often overlooked, but literate monks probably played a significant role in recording and preserving Irish myths and legends in manuscripts.  

Eugene O’Curry is thought to have written the Children of Lir that we are familiar with today in 1863 by piecing together the story from a number of the ancient Irish manuscripts.

This version served as the foundation for the other modern interpretations by folklorists. 

In 1895, before becoming Ireland’s first president, Douglas Hyde published translated versions of the Children of Lir, as well as the other tragedies “the Sorrow of Deirdre” and the “Children of Tuireann”.

After he took office in 1938, increased demand for these stories resulted in them being reprinted in 1939, 1940 and 1941.

The famous Irish dramatist and folklorist, Lady Augusta Gregory, also wrote her own version of the Children of Lir, which she published in 1904. 

Swans in Irish Mythology

Elegant swan in water
The graceful, elegant nature of swans has long captured the imaginations of storytellers, not only in Ireland but also other parts of the world. (Photos © complex via Canva)

The Children of Lir is not the only Irish legend to involve swans. In fact, there have been several tales from Irish folklore of humans transforming themselves into swans. 

Examples include the complicated love story of Midir and Étaín, when the two lovers escape together as swans and Derbforgaill, Cú chulainn’s Scandinavian Princess lover transformed herself into a swan so that she could fly to her beloved Cú Chulainn. 

(Unfortunately, the meeting didn’t go quite as planned. Cú Chulainn did not recognize Derbforgaill in the form of a swan and shot her down from the sky with his slingshot. Once he realized his mistake, he saved her life, but as he had tasted her blood while rescuing her he could no longer marry her.) 

Children of Lir Art

The Garden of Remembrance in Dublin is a memorial space that is dedicated to all those who lost their lives in the pursuit of Irish freedom. It is then fitting that the main design feature is a statue of the Children of Lir, by Oisín Kelly that was added in 1971.

This monument symbolizes the hardship that the Irish people experienced under British rule, followed by the rebirth of the Irish nation after the struggles for independence.

Children of Lir sculpture in Ballycastle, County Antrim
The last golden rays of the sun can be seen behind the Children of Lir sculpture in Ballycastle, County Antrim. (Photo © Alex Leonard via Canva)

More recently a sculpture of the Children of Lir has been erected on the shore front in front of the hotel and shops in Ballycastle, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. From here you can look out onto the Straits of Moyle and see Scotland on the horizon. 

This stunning piece is the work of sculptor Malcolm Robertson and depicts the swans in graceful flight heading out to sea.

On the Mayo clifftop, at Carrowteige to the north west of Belmullet, there is another striking building entitled “A Home for the Children of Lir”. 

This is one of the Spirit of Place Sculpture Trail pieces that celebrates architecture and mythology at unique locations across the world, with several installations in County Mayo. 

If you are in the area around north west Mayo and want to go on a spectacular headland loop walk, then the Children of Lir Loop Walk which includes this sculpture is a great option. 

For plenty more interesting information about ancient Ireland discover our posts on Celtic symbols, Celtic knots and Celtic Crosses.

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