The Emerald Isle

THE CHILDREN OF LIR Lough Derravaragh is associated with one of the most famous tales of Irish imaginative literature: “The Fate of the Children of Lir” (Oidhe Chlann Lir ) . Founded partly on fact and partly on fiction, the tale is classed as belonging to what are generally known as “The Three Sorrows of Storytelling” (Tri Truagha na Scealaidheachta) , the other two being “The Exile of the Sons of Uisneach” and “The Faith of the Children of Tuireann.” Lir was a chieftain of the Tuatha Dé Danann tribe. On the death of the Dagda, their king, a convention of chiefs elected the Dagda’s son, Bodhb Dearg, to succeed him, a decision that offended Lir, who felt he had a greater claim to the kingship. Shortly after, Lir’s wife died and Bodhb Dearg, who had three beautiful foster-daughters, in a gesture of friendship, offered Lir the choice of one of them as his wife. Lir chose Aobh (Eve), the eldest, who bore him four beautiful children: Fionnuala, Aodh, Fiachra and Conn. Tragedy struck, however, and Aobh died. Lir was heartbroken and he too would have died but for the great love he bore for his children. After a time, Bodhb Dearg offered Lir Aoife, the sister of Aobh, as wife, and accordingly Lir and Aoife were married. Lir’s four children were famous for their beauty and were beloved by all the Tuatha Dé Danann. At first, Aoife cared for the children as if she were their real mother, but evil touched her heart and she grew insanely jealous of Lir’s devotion to his children. One morning, when Lir was away hunting, Aoife took the children out in her chariot to visit their grandfather, Bodhb Dearg. Stopping at Lough Derravaragh, she led the children to the water to let them bathe, but as soon as they were in the lake she used her magic wand to change them into four beautiful swans, cursing them to spend 300 years on Lough Derravaragh, 300 years on the Sea of Moyle (North Channel) and 300 years on the Bay of Erris, County Mayo. Aoife allowed the children to retain their speech and also gave them the power to sing in a way surpassing all earthly beings. Legend has it that Bodhb Dearg punished Aoife for this crime by transforming her into a demon of the air. Throughout their 300 years on Lough Derravaragh, great crowds frequently gathered to listen to the singing of the swans, but later, on the Sea of Moyle and finally on the Bay of Erris, the four swan-children underwent great sufferings. During their final days on the Bay of Erris, the children learn of a holy man called Patrick, who had come to Ireland to tell the people about the Christian faith. As one of Patrick’s disciples prayed with them their feathers fell away and they were restored to their human form, although they were now three feeble old men and an old woman. Patrick’s disciple, St. Caemhoch, baptized them before they died, and they were buried together in the one grave as they had wished. LEFT: Lir and the Swans, from the drawing by J.H. Bacon, A.R.A. BELOW: A sculpture of the Children of Lir in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance. OPPOSITE: Lough Derravaragh in County Westmeath. 160