Notes on the Children of Lir

Well, yes. I often work on two pieces at the same time, and considering it is almost the end of January, I would like to get moving on more than one piece. It is also easier, when working with eggs and dry pigment, to have a second piece to work on while one is drying.

The story of the Children of Lir is a popular one in Irish mythology. There are a surprising number of versions of the story, and I have worked with the translation by Marie Heaney (Over Nine Waves; Faber and Faber, 1995.) She approaches her translation in a literary fashion, aiming for accuracy and understanding. Heaney’s book is a good overview, though not complete. I like to use it for quick reference. Some translations are for a more targeted audience, emphasizing the pagan aspects or emphasizing the Christian aspects.

Early monks in Ireland wrote down many of the older myths and stories. The secular stories are grouped traditionally by scholars into four collections. The Mythological Cycle centers predominantly on the arrival of the Tuatha de Dannan in Ireland and their struggles against the Formorians. The Ulster Cycle tells the stories of Conor mac Nessa and the heroes of the Red Branch, (most famously, Cu Cuchulainn), taking place in and around Ulster. The Fenian Cycle follows the history of the Fianna, followers of Finn Mac Cumhaill. The Cycle of Kings retells the legends of the more historical kings of Ireland, and is mainly centered around the Hill of Tara.

The Children of Lir is a story taken from the Mythological Cycle. The characters are of the race of Tuatha de Dannan. This makes the story read a bit differently than if the characters are merely human. When the children are cursed to live 900 years as swans, they fully expect to return to their father at the end of this time.

Lir, or Lyr/Lear, is married to the daughter of King Bodb Dearg/Bov the Red. She is named Eve/Ove. They have four children; a daughter named Fionnuala, and sons named Aed, Conn and Fiacra. Eve dies when the children are young, and Lir eventually marries her younger sister, Aoife. Aoife becomes jealous of the attention paid to the children, both by the other Tuatha de Dannan, and by her husband who cannot bear to be parted from them.

She spirits the children away from her husband and tries to get the servants to kill them for her. They refuse, and she herself is forced to admit that she cannot kill them either. She curses them to live as swans, unable to set foot on dry land. When Fionnuala cries for an end to their curse, Aoife relents and states that they may walk again as humans on dry land after 900 years as swans, and after a Northern King marries a Southern queen, and after a new faith sweeps through the land of Ireland.

Aoife becomes a spirit of air, either through her own magical skill or through the anger of Lir, and to this day she flies between the clouds, wailing on the wind.

For three hundred years, the children are allowed to stay by the shores of Lough Derravaragh, near their father and grandfather. Their singing calms troubled souls. Then they are forced to spend three hundred years in the wild seas of the Straits of Moyle, between Ireland and Scotland in the North Sea. They survive the loneliness and cold through the strength of Fionnuala’s spirit and their knowledge that they will return home someday.

They are then required to spend three hundred years on the Atlantic coast near Erris, which allows them to fly near their father’s lands again. But the halls are gone, and there is nothing but nettles and dry grass growing on the once-populated Sidhe mounds. The Tuatha de Dannan have retreated behind the veil. Devastated, the children rest on Inis Gluaire, or Inish Glory, a place said to be the first stop by the Tuatha de Dannnan as they came to Ireland. It is a place made holy by St. Brendan the Navigator, and a holy saint lives there, waiting for Lir’s children.

He calms them, allowing them to share his food and small chapel. They sing prayers with him, and listen to the bells that announce a new faith sweeping through Ireland. The saint fashions silver chains for the children to ensure they will never be separated again.

A Northern king takes a Southern queen for his wife, and she requires the magical, singing swans of the holy isle as a gift from her new husband. When he tries to drag the swans from the saint’s chapel by their silver chains, they become four ancient human beings, and he flees in horror. The saint baptizes the ancient children before they die, and lays them to rest under an Ogham stone, carved with their names.


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