The Children of Lir

Patrick Kennedy
1891 (2nd Edition)

Lir, though the father of a demi-god, was not able to secure domestic comfort.

Having lost his beloved wife he sought relief in travel; and being on a visit with Bogha Derg, King of Conacht, he was induced to enter on the married state again, taking the beauteous and virtuous Princess Aebh (Eve) as his new partner.

She bore him twins, Fionula (Fair-shoulder) and Aodh (Hugh), and at a second birth, Fiachra and Conn.

This was followed by her death; and after some time the bereaved widower again sought the court of his father-in-law.

He was there tempted to commit matrimony again, hoping that the sister of his lamented wife, the Princess Aoifé, would do the duty of an aunt, at least, to his orphans.

For a year there was nothing to be complained of, but then she began to be jealous of the tenderness and attention ever exhibited by Lir to the Princess Fionula and her brothers.

From mere despite she took to her bed, and there remained a year.

At last a skilful but wicked Druid visited her, extracted her heart's secret, and tendered his advice.

Rising from her bed, she arrayed herself in her best, and taking the children with her, got up into her chariot, and set out for her father's court, near Loch Derg, on the Shannon.

On the route she urged her charioteer to destroy the children; but he was deaf to her entreaties, and she was obliged to enact the part of executioner herself.

Fionula, with a girl's acuteness, sorely distrusted her stepmother; and when they arrived at the edge of a lake, and she and her brothers were commanded to get down and bathe, she refused in the most decided manner for them and herself.

However, Aoifé, with assistance from her retinue, forced them into the water, and then and there, by a stroke on the head of each with a wand, the wicked Druid's gift, she changed them into four beautiful swans.

On arriving at her father's palace, he made inquiry about his grandchildren, and suspecting that her representation of their being in health at home was not true, he cast her into a druidic sleep, and made her reveal her wickedness.

Restoring her to her ordinary state, he bitterly reproached her in the presence of the court, changed her into a grey vulture by a stroke of his wand of power, and doomed her to live in the cold, and windy, and sleety air, while time was to endure.

All repaired to the lake where the enchantment was effected, and were kept in a state of delight listening to the magic songs of the birds.

The chariots stood by the shore, and the steeds consumed their provender, and the knights and ladies still listened entranced, night and day, until by the power of Aoifé's words, they were obliged to rise in the air, and direct their flight to Loch Derg.

There through the mildness of summer, and the harsh winds and ice of winter, they abode three hundred years;—Fionula pressing her dejected and shivering brothers to her side, covering them with her wings, and cheering them with her grandfather's prophecy—that when men with shaved heads came over the sea, set up their tables in the east ends of their houses, and rung their bells, the first sound would again restore their human form.

Three hundred years being gone, they once more were obliged to take their flight to the sea of Moyle, between Erinn and Alba, and there, for three hundred years more, endured unspeakable sufferings.

In their flight they passed over the pleasant rath where their childhood had been spent, and now it was but a grass-covered mound, with a slimy ditch at its base.

The last three hundred years of their sad pilgrimage were passed on the wild waves of the great western sea near Irrus Domnann (Erris).

The bell that rung in the first Mass celebrated on Inis na Gluaire (Isle of Glory), restored them to their human shapes; but they were now emaciated and decrepit, and only waited for baptism, to flee away to rest eternal.[1]

End of this Story


[1] The "children of Tuirrean," the "children of Lir," and the "children of Uisneach," form the "Three Sorrows of Story" so lovingly quoted by admirers of Celtic literature. It is a grief to us to have spoiled one of them by inevitable contraction, and to be obliged, by want of space, to omit the other. There being nothing of a magical character about the last-named one, it has no place in this article; but a charming version furnished by Samuel Ferguson may be found in the Hibernian Nights' Entertainments in an early volume of the University Magazine.