This story is based around the time that the tribe Tuatha Dé Danann occupied Ireland (around 1700 BC). Many kings reigned during this time, but when a new kingship was given to Bodb Derg, Lir was not at all happy with this news. In an act of good faith, he offered a choice of his three daughters, Aobh, Aoife or Ailbhe to be a bride to Lir. Lir chose Aobh, and together they had four children, named Fionnuala, Aodh, Fiachra and Conn. Sadly, Aobh passed away following the birth of Fiachra and Conn who were twins. The children were loved all across the land but Lir was aware that they needed a Mother. Bodb decided to step in once again and offered another of his daughters, Aoife, to wed Lir. The marriage followed and Aoife took the role of stepmother over her sister’s children.

It so transpired that Aoife became hugely jealous of the love of the children and soon grew to despise them. She decided to do away with them so as to have Lir all to herself to build a new life, and tried to have them killed. When she realised that nobody was willing to commit such an act she decided to cast a spell over the children.

So, one day she brought them out to go swimming in a lake. As the children were emerging from the water she then cast her spell with a Druid’s rod, turning the children into four swans. The spell cast meant that they four swans would have to spend 300 years swimming on Loch Dairbhreach (Lake Derravaragh), 300 years on the waters of Sruth na Maoile (the straits of Moyle, which run between Scotland and Ireland), and 300 years on the waters of Inis Gluaire, in County Mayo. However, feeling guilt over her actions, she did leave with them their own voices and in doing so, she said no music would ever compare to their singing. The spell couldn’t be broken, but the swans would know it was an end when they would hear a bell that would indicate blessing from a monk, or when the woman from the south would be wed to the man of the north.

When they left their first resting point, having filled the air with music for all that time, sorrow grew over the entire community. It is said that the men of Ireland then proclaimed that no swan should ever be killed in all of the land. This is still a law today in Ireland. Their 900 years were filled with sorrow and loneliness and they could not return to visit their Father. When their time on the final water came to an end, they returned to their Father’s dwelling place, only to realize it no longer existed, but instead was replaced with empty fields and forests.

During the 900 years, St. Patrick had come to Ireland and introduced Christianity. MacCaomhog was the name of a Saint in Ireland at the time and the four swans took sanctuary with him, in Allihies, which is a coastal village in the Beara Peninsula in Co. Cork. It was at this same time that Deoch, daughter of the king Munster wed Lairgnen, prince of Leinster (woman of the south to man of north). It transpired that Deoch wanted the swans for her own keeping, and she sent Lairgnen to capture them. As he put his hands on them, their feathers fell from them and they returned to human form. They were baptized and now, as old, withered people, they died together. They were buried standing, with Fiachra and Conn on either side of Fionnuala and Aodh. Three large stones were placed over them and their names were carved in Ogham writing.

The first lake where the children were turned into swans is situated in Co. Westmeath and its nearest village is called Crookedwood. This is not far from where I am from, and in fact is on Emmet Cahill’s doorstep. Perhaps he knows more about Lir and his children! Below is a picture of their graves, it is said that local people made rounds of the graves circling them and leaving money underneath the stones as an offering to the children.