Not far from my home is the ancient kingdom of Moyle. Its capital Ballycastle is one of the closest ports to Scotland and is at the heart of many mystical stories and lore. One such story is of the Children of Lir who were bewitched by their step-mother, changed into swans and cursed to spend 300 years suffering the storms that buffet the North Irish Coast off the Moyle. This beautiful sculpture at Ballycastle commemorates the Children’s time on the north coast and shows that the Moyle is not always stormy!
Back in the mists of time, when the druids and the legendary god-like Tuatha De Danann frequented Ireland, the kingdom of King Lir was a happy one. His beautiful wife Eva gave Lir four children: Aodh, the eldest son; a daughter Fionnula; and twins Fiachra and Conn. Sadly Eva died giving birth to the twins leaving King Lir and the children desolate. Eva’s sister, Aoife bewitched King Lir and he took her to be his wife and a mother for his children. Aoife was jealous of the attention and gifts that King Lir bestowed on his children, but she knew she would be haunted by their spirits if she killed them, so she determined to use magic to banish them from their human form.
It was the height of summer when Aoife took the children to the Lake of Derravaragh in Westmeath and while they were playing in the water, she put on a mystical cloak and began an incantation. Suddenly a fireball emerged from her and turned much of the lake into mist. The children struggled to regain the shore, splashing in the shallows, but as they looked at each other they realised that they had been turned from their human form into the most beautiful swans. Aoife cackled and swore that they would only be released from their swan-form after 300 years on Lake Derravaragh, 300 on Straits of Moyle, and a further 300 more on Isle of Inish Glora; and upon the children hearing the ringing of a bell of the new religion.
That evening Aoife swore to Lir that his children had been killed by wild boars, but she had been unable to take one thing from the children – their voices. Fionnula in her swan-form told her father the truth. Enraged, King Lir used his own magic and cursed Aoife, turning her into a witch of the air – a bat. Distraught, King Lir spent the remainder of his days by the Lake of Derravaragh listening to the haunting cries and singing of his children, which became renowned throughout Ireland. Many flocked to hear the swans: those who were happy were made happier by the song; and those who were in grief or illness or pain forgot their sorrows and were lulled to a peaceful calmness. The 300 years by the stormy Straits of Moyle between Ireland and Scotland were more challenging until they finally travelled to Inish Glora, passing by their old home, which was now in ruins.
Caomhog was a follower of St Patrick, who had built a small chapel by the side of the lake at Inish Glora. Here the four swans found refuge for the last phase of their curse. Liargren, the King of Connacht, heard of the legendary singing swans and wanted to gift them to his wife. Dressed in armour and accompanied by his warriors, he appeared at the chapel and demanded that he be given the swans. Caomhog did not want to see the swans carted off in chains and rang his bell. With the first toll, a fireball turned the lake to mist. This scared off the warriors from Connaught and the mist once again enveloped the swans while they returned to their mortal form. Sadly, the once beautiful children began to show the signs of their 900 years, which scared Caomhog but realising that they would soon die, he quickly christened them. Fionnula requested that they be buried as they often sheltered in the storms of Moyle with Conn on her right, Fiachra on her left and Aodh before her face. The cairn where they were buried remains holy to this day.
What is the Life Lesson that we can learn from the story of the Children of Lir?
In the Celtic religion, like many other ancient religions, there was no sacred text like the bible to guide them. Instead stories of the Gods were used to teach life lessons, which were passed down through an oral tradition. The characteristics and traits that were prized most by the Celts, as well as life lessons, were illustrated by these wonderful stories of the gods and men. This rich oral tradition lasted well into the Middle Ages until the stories were written down by monks in the Middle Ages – how much of the original Celtic beliefs and earlier religious overtones were lost in the writing is uncertain.
If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.
Celtic legend is often dark, foreboding and manifestly unfair – what did Aodh, Fionnula and the twins Fiachra and Conn do to deserve their fate? Why couldn’t Lir or another druid change them back? The Celtic concept of geas can be a curse, but could also be a gift – however, it could not be honourably cancelled. Neither King Lir, nor the children liked the change, nor could they change back from being a swan. Therefore, the Children embraced their curse and brought happiness to those who heard their beautiful song. They are famed for their devotion to each other whether in the calm of Lake of Derravaragh with their father, the stormy seas off the Moyle, or even in death. The ancient Celtic religion believed in life after death and that they would have been reunited with their parents after death, just as a Caomhog would have believed that the Children went to heaven to be with their father. However, there is some justice – Aoife was cursed to be the witch of the air forever.