Introduction: The story of the Children of Lir is one of the most famous and resonant of all Irish fairy stories. There are several versions but they all contain the same core elements. Lir has four children with his beloved wife Ove.
When she dies, Lir marries her sister Oifa. Oifa becomes jealous of the children and orders a servant to kill them, but he refuses. Oifa tries to kill them herself but doesn’t have the strength or the courage. Instead, she uses magic to turn the children into swans. She then begins to feel guilty and allows the children to retain the ability to speak, and to make the most beautiful music.
The children have to wander Ireland for the next 900 years. Towards the end, they find sanctuary with the holy Mac Howg, who made silver chains for them to bind them together so they will never be separated. The princess Deoch hears about the swans and sends her fiancé Lairgnen to bring them to her. When Lairgnen touches the birds, they turn back into humans…but they are old and withered. They are baptised just before they die and then they are all buried together.
More on the Children of Lir.
This is the Joseph Jacobs version published in Irish Fairy Stories
It happened that the five Kings of Ireland met to determine who should have the head kingship over them, and King Lir of the Hill of the White Field expected surely he would be elected. When the nobles went into council together they chose for head king, Dearg, son of Daghda, because his father had been so great a Druid and he was the eldest of his father’s sons. But Lir left the Assembly of the Kings and went home to the Hill of the White Field.
The other kings would have followed after Lir to give him wounds of spear and wounds of sword for not yielding obedience to the man to whom they had given the over-lordship. But Dearg the king would not hear of it and said: “Rather let us bind him to us by the bonds of kinship, so that peace may dwell in the land. Send over to him for wife the choice of the three maidens of the fairest form and best repute in Erin, the three daughters of Oilell of Aran, my own three bosom-nurslings.”
So the messengers brought word to Lir that Dearg the king would give him a foster-child of his foster-children. Lir thought well of it, and set out next day with fifty chariots from the Hill of the White Field. And he came to the Lake of the Red Eye near Killaloe.
And when Lir saw the three daughters of Oilell, Dearg the king said to him: “Take thy choice of the maidens, Lir.” ” I know not,” said Lir, “which is the choicest of them all ; but the eldest of them is the noblest, it is she I had best take.” ” If so,” said Dearg the king, “Ove is the eldest, and she shall be given to thee, if thou willest.” So Lir and Ove were married and went back to the Hill of the White Field.
And after this there came to them twins, a son and a daughter, and they gave them for names Fingula and Aod. And two more sons came to them, Fiachra and Conn. When they came Ove died, and Lir mourned bitterly for her, and but for his great love for his children he would have died of his grief.
And Dearg the king grieved for Lir and sent to him and said: “We grieve for Ove for thy sake; but, that our friendship may not be rent asunder, I will give unto thee her sister, Oifa, for a wife.”
So Lir agreed, and they were united, and he took her with him to his own house. And at first Oifa felt affection and honour for the children of Lir and her sister, and indeed every one who saw the four children could not help giving them the love of his soul. Lir doted upon the children, and they always slept in beds in front of their father, who used to rise at early dawn every morning and lie down among his children.
But thereupon the dart of jealousy passed into Oifa on account of this and she came to regard the children with hatred and enmity. One day her chariot was yoked for her and she took with her the four children of Lir in it. Fingula was not willing to go with her on the journey, for she had dreamed a dream in the night warning her against Oifa : but she was not to avoid her fate. And when the chariot came to the Lake of the Oaks, Oifa said to the people: “Kill the four children of Lir and I will give you your own reward of every kind in the world.”
But they refused and told her it was an evil thought she had. Then she would have raised a sword herself to kill and destroy the children, but her own womanhood and her weakness prevented her; so she drove the children of Lir into the lake to bathe, and they did as Oifa told them. As soon as they were upon the lake she struck them with a Druid’s wand of spells and wizardry and put them into the forms of four beautiful, perfectly white swans, and she sang this song over them:
“Out with you upon the wild waves, children of the king!
Henceforth your cries shall be with the flocks of birds.”
And Fingula answered:
“Thou witch ! we know thee by thy right name !
Thou mayest drive us from wave to wave,
But sometimes we shall rest on the headlands
We shall receive relief, but thou punishment.
Though our bodies may be upon the lake,
Our minds at least shall fly homewards.”
And again she spoke : “Assign an end for the ruin and woe which thou hast brought upon us.”
Oifa laughed and said ” Never shall ye be free until the woman from the south be united to the man from the north, until Lairgnen of Connaught wed Deoch of Munster; nor shall any have power to bring you out of these forms.
Nine hundred years shall you wander over the lakes and streams of Erin. This only I will grant unto you: that you retain your own speech, and there shall be no music in the world equal to yours, the plaintive music you shall sing.” This she said because repentance seized her for the evil she had done. And then she spake this lay:
“Away from me, ye children of Lir,
Henceforth the sport of the wild winds
Until Lairgnen and Deoch come together,
Until ye are on the north-west of Red Erin.
“A sword of treachery is through the heart of Lir,
Of Lir the mighty champion,
Yet though I have driven a sword.
My victory cuts me to the heart.”
Then she turned her steeds and went on to the Hall of Dearg the king. The nobles of the court asked her where were the children of Lir, and Oifa said : ” Lir will not trust them to Dearg the king.” But Dearg thought in his own mind that the woman had played some treachery upon them, and he accordingly sent messengers to the Hall of the White Field.
Lir asked the messengers “Wherefore are ye come? ”
“To fetch thy children, Lir,” said they.
“Have they not reached you with Oifa ?” said Lir.
They have not,” said the messengers; “and Oifa said it was you would not let the children go with her.”
Then was Lir melancholy and sad at heart, hearing these things, for he knew that Oifa had done wrong upon his children, and he set out towards the Lake of the Red Eye. And when the children of Lir saw him coming Fingula sang the lay:
“Welcome the cavalcade of steeds
Approaching ‘the Lake of the Red Eye,
A company dread and magical
Surely seek after us.
“Let us move to the shore, O Aod,
Fiachra and comely Conn,
No host under heaven can those horsemen be
But King Lir with his mighty household.”
Now as she said this King Lir had come to the shores of the lake and heard the swans speaking with human voices. And he spake to the swans and asked them who they were. Fingula answered and said : “We are thy own children, ruined by thy wife, sister of our own mother, through her ill mind and her jealousy.” “For how long is the spell to be upon you?” said Lir. “None can relieve us till the woman from the south and the man from the north come together, till Lairgnen of Connaught wed Deoch of Munster.”
Then Lir and his people raised their shouts of grief, crying, and lamentation, and they stayed by the shore of the lake listening to the wild music of the swans until the swans flew away, and King Lir went on to the Hall of Dearg the king. He told Dearg the king what Oifa had done to his children. And Dearg put his power upon Oifa and bade her say what shape on earth she would think the worst of all. She said it would be in the form of an air-demon. “It is into that form I shall put you,” said Dearg the king, and he struck her with a Druid’s wand of spells and wizardry and put her into the form of an air-demon. And she flew away at once, and she is still an air-demon, and shall be so for ever.
But the children of Lir continued to delight the Milesian clans with the very sweet fairy music of their songs, so that no delight was ever heard in Erin to compare with their music until the time came appointed for the leaving the Lake of the Red Eye. Then Fingula sang this parting lay:
“Farewell to thee, Dearg the king,
Master of all Druids lore
Farewell to thee, our father dear,
Lir of the Hill of the White Field
“We go to pass the appointed time
Away and apart from the haunts of men
In the current of the Moyle,
Our garb shall be bitter and briny,
“Until Deoch come to Lairgnen.
So come, ye brothers of once ruddy cheeks
Let us depart from this Lake of the Red Eye,
Let us separate in sorrow from the tribe that has loved us.”
And after they took to flight, flying highly, lightly, aerially till they reached the Moyle, between Erin and Albain.
The men of Erin were grieved at their leaving, and it was proclaimed throughout Erin that henceforth no swan should be killed. Then they stayed all solitary, all alone, filled with cold and grief and regret, until a thick tempest came upon them and Fingula said: “Brothers, let us appoint a place to meet again if the power of the winds separate us.” And they said : ” Let us appoint to meet, O sister, at the Rock of the Seals.” Then the waves rose up and the thunder roared, the lightning’s flashed, the sweeping tempest passed over the sea, so that the children of Lir were scattered from each other over the great sea. There came, however, a placid calm after the great tempest and Fingula found herself alone, and she said this lay:
“Woe upon me that I am alive
My wings are frozen to my sides.
O beloved three, O beloved three,
Who hid under the shelter of my feathers,
Until the dead come back to the living
I and the three shall never meet again!”
And she flew to the Lake of the Seals and soon saw Conn coming towards her with heavy step and drenched feathers, and Fiachra also, cold and wet and faint, and no word could they tell, so cold and faint were they: but she nestled them under her wings and said: “If Aod could come to us now our happiness would be complete” But soon they saw Aod coming towards them with dry head and preened feathers : Fingula put him under the feathers of her breast, and Fiachra under her right wing, and Conn under her left: and they made this lay:
“Bad was our stepmother with us,
She played her magic on us,
Sending us north on the sea
In the shapes of magical swans.
“Our bath upon the shore’s ridge
Is the foam of the brine-crested tide,
Our share of the ale feast
Is the brine of the blue-crested sea.”
One day they saw a splendid cavalcade of pure white steeds coming towards them, and when they came near they were the two sons of Dearg the king who had been seeking for them to give them news of Dearg the king and Lir their father. “They are well,” they said, “and live together happy in all except that ye are not with them, and for not knowing where ye have gone since the day ye left the Lake of the Red Eye.” “Happy are not we,” said Fingula, and she sang this song:
“Happy this night the household of Lir,
Abundant their meat and their wine.
But the children of Lir – what is their lot?
For bed-clothes we have our feathers,
And as for our food and our wine –
The white sand and the bitter brine,
Fiachra’s bed and Conn’s place
Under the cover of my wings on the Moyle,
Aod has the shelter of my breast,
And so side by side we rest.”
So the sons of Dearg the king came to the Hall of Lir and told the king the condition of his children.
Then the time came for the children of Lir to fulfil their lot, and they flew in the current of the Moyle to the Bay of Erris, and remained there till the time of their fate, and then they flew to the Hill of the White Field and found all desolate and empty, with nothing but unroofed green raths and forests of nettles-no house, no fire, no dwelling-place. The four came close together, and they raised three shouts of lamentation aloud, and Fingula sang this lay:
Uchone! it is bitterness to my heart
To see my father’s place forlorn –
No hounds, no packs of dogs,
No women, and no valiant kings
“No drinking-horns, no cups of wood,
No drinking in its lightsome halls.
Uchone ! I see the state of this house
That its lord our father lives no more.
“Much have we suffered in our wandering years,
By winds buffeted, by cold frozen;
Now has come the greatest of our pain –
There lives no man who knoweth us in the house where we were born.”
So the children of Lir flew away to the Glory Isle of Brandan the saint, and they settled upon the Lake of the Birds until the holy Patrick came to Erin and the holy Mac Howg came to Glory Isle.
And the first night he came to the island the children of Lir heard the voice of his bell ringing for matins, so that they started and leaped about in terror at hearing it; and her brothers left Fingula alone. “What is it, beloved brothers?” said she. “We know not what faint, fearful voice it is we have heard.” Then Fingula recited this lay:
Listen to the Cleric’s bell,
Poise your wings and raise
Thanks to God for his coming,
Be grateful that you hear him,
“He shall free you from pain,
And bring you from the rocks and stones.
Ye comely children of Lir
Listen to the bell of the Cleric.”
And Mac Howg came down to the brink of the shore and said to them “Are ye the children of Lir?” “We are indeed,” said they. “Thanks be to God!” said the saint; “it is for your sakes I have come to this Isle beyond every other island in Erin. Come ye to land now and put your trust in me.” So they came to land, and he made for them chains of bright white silver, and put a chain between Aod and Fingula and a chain between Conn and Fiachra.
It happened at this time that Lairgnen was prince of Connaught and he was to wed Deoch the daughter of the king of Munster. She had heard the account of the birds and she became filled with love and affection for them, and she said she would not wed till she had the wondrous birds of Glory Isle. Lairgnen sent for them to the Saint Mac Howg. But the Saint would not give them, and both Lairguen and Deoch went to Glory Isle. And Lairgnen went to seize the birds from the altar: but as soon as he had laid hands on them their feathery coats fell off, and the three sons of Lir became three withered bony old men, and Fingula, a lean withered old woman without blood or flesh. Lairguen started at this and left the place hastily, but Fingula chanted this lay:
Come and baptise us, O Cleric,
Clear away our stains
This day I see our grave –
Fiachra and Conn on each side,
And in my lap, between my two arms,
Place Aod, my beauteous brother.”
After this lay, the children of Lir were baptised. And they died, and were buried as Fingula had said, Fiachra and Conn on either side, and Aod before her face. A cairn was raised for them, and on it their names were written in runes. And that is the fate of the children of Lir.
More on the Children of Lir
The Fate of the Children of Lir begins in ancient times when Ireland was under the influence of the druids and people believed in magic spells. The story ends at the time when St Patrick and Christianity have just arrived.
It means that the children, who were born in the Druid pre-Christian times, eventually end their lives within the Christian Church. This would have been a comfort for people hearing this tragic story, as Ireland was a devoutly Catholic country.
Joseph Jacobs said his version of the Children of Lir was abridged from the translation published by the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language in 1883.