The story of the Fate of Lir’s Children is one of the three Tragic Stories of Erin and origins from a time just after Christianity came to Ireland. That is why it mixes the elements of druidic wands, magic and spells with the classic Christian message of suffering and freedom through death.
Children of Lir – A story full of sorrow and grief
After the Tuatha De Dannan fought the battle of Taillten, they all met in one place to choose a king amongst them.
There were five chiefs as? candidates – the five most noble with the highest chance of being crowned. They were the sons of Dagda, Bove Derg and Angus of Bruga respectively, although Angus preferred his current status; there were Midir of Bri-leth, Lir of Shee Finnah and Ilbrec of Assaroe.
When the other chiefs got together to discuss this matter and choose the best of them, the one best suited to be king of the entire race of the Tuatha De, they elected Bove Derg to be their king. The other noble chiefs did not take this to heart except for Lir of Shee Finnah who felt himself most suited for the role. He left the assembly in anger, never submitting to his new king.
While most present wanted to follow Lir to fight him, slay him for not showing submission to the rightfully elected king, Bove Derg did not allow them to follow him. He knew Lir and knew that pursuing him and fighting him would only result in the death of many.
So they let Lir return back home and there he remained until a great tragedy happened. His wife died following a grave illness and three days of pain. The news spread quickly and all of Ireland was full of sorrow for Lir and his loss.
The king, who had three maiden foster children in his home, then spoke of forming an alliance with Lir by giving of one of the maidens to Lir as a wife. These three maidens were named Eve, Eva and Alva respectively and hailed off of Ara in Galway Bay.
Bove Derg sent out a messenger to the grieving Lir who was to present the king’s message and tell him that if he’d submit to the king he would get one of his foster children as his wife. Lir accepted this and was pleased to hear of this hand extended towards him and so he left with fifty carriages accompanying him, never once stopping on his way to the palace.
The arrival of Lir was celebrated in the palace for he was loved by the king and his men, a truly good man even if he had not yet submitted to the king. They were welcomed with open arms and kind words and well attended to for the night.
After a good night’s rest, Lir was shown the three maidens who sat next to their foster mother, the queen of the Tuatha De. The king told Lir to take his choice; but they were all beautiful and it was not easy to choose between three equal beauties. So Lir chose the eldest, Eve, for the eldest must be the most noble of the three. Eva and Lir were wedded that day and then remained in the palace for a fortnight until Lir took his new wife home to Shee Finnah where the union was celebrated by a great wedding feast.
And Eva and Lir were happy together and loved one another very much and as time went by, Eva bore two children – twins, a girl and a boy, and they were named Finola and Aed. The second pregnancy also produced twins, two boys by the names Fiera and Conn but she would not see them grow up. Eva died during the birth of her second pair of twins and Lir fell into deep anguish. Twice now he had seen his wife die, unable to do a thing. The grief would have killed Lir too, had it not been for the immense love he felt for his four children.
With the news spreading, the country began to mourn, especially the palace of King Bove Derg who grieved strong and deep and the people of the palace raised three great cries of lamentation for the foster child that had been raised within the palace walls.
And when the mourning ended the king told of his grief for both his child and his acquaintance; saying their alliance should not be broken and that he would give his second eldest, Eva, to him in marriage. Lir agreed to this and he came to the palace to be united with Eva and then they left for Shee Finnah again.
Eva loved the children of her sister and her love grew every day she spent nursing them and caring for them and she cared for them tenderly. Lir himself found great joy and love in his children. They slept near Lir and Eva’s bed and Lir would get up during the night to lie near his children just to hear them breathe. He would get up early just to look at them and talk to them for he loved them dearly and nothing was as precious to him as they were.
And the king would come to Shee Finnah several times a year, for he loved them nearly as much as Lir did. Bove Derg would also bring them to his home and everyone who saw them would fall in love for they were joyful and gentle and whenever they left, a feeling of sadness came over the palace.
And when the Tuatha De celebrated the Feast of Age in Shee Finnah everyone would delight in the presence of the children of Lir and love them with their whole heart for they sparked joy with their beauty and mildness.
All was well for a time but jealousy can strike a heart at a moment’s glance and the heart that was struck was Evas. She saw her step children, her niece and nephews receive attention and love from everyone who saw them – and she felt neglect and envy stir in her heart. When Lir would leave their bed to look at his children, to stay with them or look at them, when they would command the attention of anyone who came to the house and every time they sang praise for the children she would feel her jealousy grow. The love she had felt got turned into hatred for her sister’s children; bitterness made all the soft and warm feelings disappear. Eva’s hate grew worse and worse and she did not leave her bed for an entire year, instead brooding and stirring in own bitter feelings. When the year ended, she had come up with a plan.
And so it came, that one morning she set out with her chariot to visit her foster father and take her children with her; when she said so, Finola at first denied her stepmother this request, for she had had a revelation in her dream and knew that Eva was up to something dreadful. But in the end she was not able to change or evade her fate and so she got into the carriage, believing in her aunt’s good heart.
After some time, when the carriage was still some distance from Shee Finnah, Eva took to her attendants and told them to kill the children for they would then be rewarded with everything earthly they could want. They refused Eva in horror. When Eva herself went to take up the sword, her heart grew softer – she could not kill the children of her late sister. So the company continued on their way until Lough Derravaragh, where the horses were unbound and Eva brought the children to the shore.
As they waded into the water to bathe, Eva took out a fairy wand of the druids and turned them into swans. And they spoke and asked their aunt how long they would have to remain swans and Eva told them. They would remain swans for three hundred years on Lough Derravaraghor and three hundred years on the sea that divided Ireland from Scotland and three hundred years on the sea at the Inishkea Islands. And then, said Eva, when the prince of the north and the princess of the south were united, when the Taillkenn comes and brings the pure faith, they shall be released when they hear the voice of the Christian bell. Until then nothing would be able to free them.
Eva continued to the house of her foster father without the children and when the king asked as to why she arrived alone she lied, saying that Lir did not trust Bove any longer. Bove however did not trust Eva’s word and sent out a messenger and when Lir heard of this he was distraught for he was sure Eva had done something to his lovely children and thought he may never be able to see them again. So he left and as they passed by Lough Derravaragh they heard the lovely song of the swans; for Eva had let them keep their tongue and the ability of singing music more beautiful than anything in the world. And Finola spoke to her father and told him of what had happened to them. Lir, full of sorrow, stayed the night with his children to seek out Eva the next day. At the palace, he told the king what Eva had done and she was turned into a demon of the air as punishment. She would stay this way for eternity.
For the children, the next three hundred years were spent in relative peace, their father and friends around them at the lake, singing and living, sleeping and eating. These years were good and full of love and light; but after the first period was over, they had to leave for the cold and windy sea. They said their farewell for they did not know when they would see their father again and left.
The next period was a sad and cold one, full of storms and hardships. Some winters the air grew so cold the water froze, and the children were left in the cold with no one and nothing to warm them; and Finola placed her Conn and Ficra under her wings and Aed under the feathers of her breast and so they spent many a night together.
One day, they flew to the shore after they had been nearly frozen to the stone they slept at, and at the shore they met a troop of Tuatha De on horses. When these horsemen saw the swans they were joyful for they were in fact two sons of Bove Derg by the names Aed the Keen-witted and Fergus the Chess-player. They had been searching for the Children of Lir for quite some time, riding along the shores on the lookout for four beautiful swans. They conversed for some time, the children happy to hear that their father was well; and they relegated tales of their own misery and that they missed their father and the king and wished them everything well in the world. Then they had to leave back onto the sea, for it was not permitted to them to stray away and Aed and Fergus bade them farewell. And the children stayed on the sea until their time was over and they were permitted to leave for the Western Sea.
This place near Erris did not treat them much kinder for the winters were so cold that sometimes the entire sea froze from the island of Achill to the barony of Erris – Umhall Iochtarach – and snow flew around in a storm and the children were close to giving up. But Finola found hope in their nearing salvation and their belief sustained them. And when finally the day came that they had spent three hundred years on the Western Sea, the children of Lir took to the sky to find their father and friends again. But when they found their home it was a home no more. The house stood empty, the halls ruined with nature having found its way inside the stonewalls and no sign of a living person anywhere. And the children wept and sang in sorrow – were all their trials and tribulations for nothing? Was it so that they would never see their people again? So they spent the night in the cold embrace of their empty childhood home with no one around to comfort them and they sang their sad music until they fell asleep. When morning came, they left and they spent their days flying along the shores of Erris, returning to the Island Inishglora every night until the day that Saint Patrick came to Ireland. And when he came and brought his faith, his follower Saint Kemoccame came to the island ringing his bells where the Children of Lir slept. The children were frightened by this sound at first, but by morning they understood what it was. They sang their song, realising the time had come and Kemoc heard them and he was joyful for he had set out to find these swans. They trusted him and were glad when he told them that he was there to free them. He created fine silver chains that he put around each twin pair and they lived with him until the king of Connaught came. Largnen was his name and his wife was Decca, the ones prophesised by Eva so many years before. Largnen came to bring the swans to his wife who had heard of them and their music and wanted them for herself. When Kemoc denied the King’s request to give the swans, the king tried taking them with force. A silver chain in each hand he hauled them from the altar and out of the church they had been in. But then the white dress of feathers they had worn for many centuries faded and gave way to human skin and bone, the swans transformed into three old men and an old woman. Finola said to Kemoc that he should baptise them for these were the children’s last moments on earth and he did so just seconds before their eyes closed forever. As he dug their grave he was filled with sadness and joy for they were finally free; and he buried them the way they had spent many nights – Finola on her back, Conn and Ficra under her arms and Aed before her.
So ends the story of the children of Lir on the small island at the coast of Erris.