The story of the Children of Lir is one that we were told by our teachers while at school in Ireland.
It’s one of the better know legends from Irish mythology and it boasts everything from an evil stepmother and magic to love and loss.
In the guide below, you’ll discover the brilliant tale of the Children of Lir – a story where heartbreak collides with the powerful bond between siblings.
Now, I’d like to state from the get-go that many of the stories surrounding Lir and the beautiful swans change quite a bit, depending on who’s telling the story.
The version below is simply the one that I was told as a kid, and that I have passed on to those that have asked about it over the years.
The Children of Lir
Many years ago in ancient Ireland there lived a King called Lir who ruled the Irish sea. Lir was married to a woman named Eva and the couple was blessed with four beautiful children – three boys (Aodh, Fiachra and Conn) and a girl (Fionnula).
One day, when the children were still very young, their mother tragically passed away. Naturally, King Lir and his four children were devastated.
Now, I’ve always found this next bit weird. King Lir went and married Eva’s sister, Aoife… Moving swiftly on. Aoife was believed to have been one of the few people in Ireland to possess magical powers.
The beautiful swans and the evil stepmother
Aoife was very fond of the four children at first. She was their aunty, after all. However, as time went by, she became envious of all of the time that her husband devoted to his kids.
Aoife faked a painful illness, in the hope that her husband would throw pity on her and devote all of his time to taking care of her. Although he looked after her like a loving husband would, he still spent time with his children
After some time, Aoife reached breaking point and could no longer stand competing with the four children for her husband’s attention, so she hatched a horrific plan.
She brought together a small entourage of men and promised them that she would make them rich if they helped her to get rid of the Children of Lir.
They agreed and the group planned to meet at the lake. One day, when the King was preoccupied with his duties, Aoife brought the children down to the water where the men were waiting.
However, when the time came, the men backed out and ran. An infuriated Aoife took a sword that she brought from the castle of Lir and thought about using it on the children but realised that she couldn’t.
Although Aoife was tempted to drown the Children of Lir, she decided that she didn’t want to risk being haunted by them, so she decided that she would cast a spell that would force the kids to live as swans for nine hundred years.
A sentence of 900 years
Three hundred years were to be spent on Lake Derravaragh. Another three hundred years were to be spent on the Sea of Moyle. And the final three hundred years were to be spent on the Island of Inish Glora.
Aoife’s evil spell would only be broken when the Children of Lir heard the gentle ringing of a bell that signified the arrival of St. Patrick.
Naturally enough, Fiachra and Conn and their elder brother and sister were all terrified when they realised what had happened. The prospect of spending nine hundred years as swans was not appealing.
Although they were swans, the Children of Lir could still sing
Although Aoife’s wicked spell successfully transformed the four children into swans, it didn’t stop their ability to sing. The swans used their voices to tell the King what Aoife had done.
Furious at what his new wife had done to his four beautiful children, he banished her off into the mist, never to be seen again. Although he was happy that he had discovered what had happened, he was distraught at the prospect of their sentence to 900 years.
The King spent a lot of time down by the lake, listening to the Children of Lir as they sang their wonderful songs. Sometime later the King of Lir died.
The first three hundred years (Lake of Derravaragh)
The Children of Lir spent their first three hundred years on the chilly Lake of Derravaragh. After a while, they learned to embrace their destiny and started to enjoy themselves.
They accepted their new fate and started to treat the lake as home. Their time here was hard at the beginning, especially after the father they each loved so much passed away.
The second three hundred years (The Sea of Moyle)
The Children of Lir got through their first stint as swans without much hassle. Then they moved to the Sea of Moyle for the second three hundred.
Their time here was much different from what they experienced on the lake. Here, the Children of Lir were forced to face powerful storm after powerful storm and they ended up spending much of the time apart.
The final three hundred years (Inis Glora)
The end was in sight. Their final three hundred years were to be spent on a small lake on the Isle of Inis Glora. It had been many years since Aoife cast her spell and much had changed during their time away.
One day, while off looking for fish, one of the children heard a strange sound off in the distance. It took a moment to recognise it, but it was soon clear that it was the sound of a bell.
This was the sound that they were waiting for – St. Patrick and his Christian bell. The swans took to the air and followed the sound of the bell to a small house owned by a holy man called Caomhog.
And just when the Children of Lir thought it was all over
The Children of Lir introduced themselves to Caomhog and told him their story. He was shocked by what they were forced to endure over hundreds of years.
Taking pity on them, he offered to take them in and take care of them for the final years of their life. All was good until one day when a man dressed in battle armour arrived at Caomhog’s house.
He stated that he was the King of Connacht. Word had gotten around about the magical swans from Lir and the King wanted to take them with him, believing that he could use the powers of Lir for his own good.
He forcefully entered Caomhog’s house and just as he was about to put his hands on Fionnuala and her brothers, the sound of a bell rang out.
The King turned and saw mist from the lake at Lir enter the house and circle the swans. When the mist evaporated, the swans were no longer there.
The four Children of Lir were stood in their place, looking exactly as they did 900 years previously when Aoife cast her evil spell.
But all was not as it seemed – Caomhog noticed that the children were starting to age by the second and, believing that they would soon die, he Christened them. Moments later, the Children of Lir were no more.
Keith O’Hara has lived in Ireland for 34 years and has spent most of the last 10 years creating what is now The Irish Road Trip guide. Over the years, the website has published thousands of meticulously researched Ireland travel guides, welcoming 30 million+ visitors along the way. In 2022, the Irish Road Trip team published the world’s largest collection of Irish Road Trip itineraries. Keith lives in Dublin with his dog Toby and finds writing in the 3rd person minus craic altogether.