Lovely swans, but what a sad story!
After their defeat by the Gaelic people, the Tuatha Dé Danann retreated to their otherworld dwellings, hidden away in the landscape. One of their leaders was Bodhbh Dearg, who lived in the cairn on Slievenamon in County Tipperary. Another of their noblemen was Lir, who lived at the palace called Sídh Fionnachaidh (the cairn on Deadman’s Hill in County Armagh). The five main noblemen and the assembly of the whole Tuatha Dé chose Bodhbh Dearg as their king, but Lir was offended by this, as he wished the honour for himself.
To bring about a reconciliation, after the death of Lir’s beloved wife, Bodhbh offered him one of his foster-daughters in marriage. She was the oldest of his three foster-daughters and she was called Aobh. She bore Lir two sets of twins. The first twins were a boy called Aodh and a girl called Fionnuala. The second twins were the boys Fiachra and Conn, but in giving birth to the two boys their mother died. Lir was very upset at the loss of his lovely and kind wife. Shortly after before even he had time to grieve, Bodhbh gave him his second foster-daughter Aoife, the sister of Aobh.
Aoife was kind to the children for a while but, noticing how besotted her husband was with his children, Aoife grew jealous of them and plotted to do them harm. One day, she took them with her on a journey, telling Lir that she was bringing them to visit Bodhbh. That would be a direct route southwards through the country, but she took a wide detour.
In reality she intended to kill the children. However, her womanly nature would not allow her stab them with the sword, and instead she struck them with a magic wand and turned them into swans at Lake Derravarragh in County Westmeath. Realising what the stepmother had done, the girl Fionnuala begged her allow them certain human traits, such as speech and singing. She agreed, and Fionnuala then begged her to settle on a date when they could become human again. Aoife said that that would only happen when a noblewoman from the south would marry a noble man from the north. Aoife then went on to Bodhbh’s dwelling, but Bodhbh was surprised to find that she did not have the children with her, and he sent messengers to Lir, who soon discovered what had happened. Livid with anger, Bodhbh changed Aoife into a demon, and ordered that she would wander through the air forever.
For three hundred years, the four swans remained on Lake Derravarragh, being visited in great anguish by Lir and other members of the Tuatha Dé. They would talk with these visitors by day and sing beautiful music for them by night. Then they flew away to the Sea of Moyle between Ireland and Scotland, where they spent a further three hundred years in the cold and in terrible misery. After that, they spent three hundred years off Erris in County Mayo, where they endured even greater misery. At the end of that time, they flew home to their father’s dwelling of Sídh Fionnachaidh, but found the place empty and deserted. During all this time, Fionnuala encouraged and comforted her brothers as a mother would her children.
In sadness they returned to the west and alighted on Inishglory, an island in the bay of Erris. Christianity had now come to Ireland, and the holy St Mochaomhóg had settled on that island. The swans heard the bell calling people to prayer one morning, and they joined in the prayers with their beautiful singing. On hearing this, the saint enquired of them who they were, and when he heard their story, he took them home with him to his residence. They were very happy there but, not long after, the Connacht king Lairgnen married Deoch, the daughter of the king of Munster. Hearing of the three wonderful swans in west Connacht, Deoch desired them as a wedding-present, and Lairgnéan came to seize them.
Their period of enchantment was now at an end, however, and when the king laid his hands on them the swans turned into three withered old men and an old woman. The saint baptised them and they died contentedly. They were buried together by the saint, who sorely missed his dear friends.
The Connections and insights from Participants
Here are some of the connections made by the participants following the telling of the story and Karina’s telling from the perspective of Aoife.
Connection 1 – Abuse of Children by Adults
The abuse of the Children of Lir by both Aoife and, in some tellings, Lir is a central theme in this story. The group suggested that this was well understood long ago, and yet how even (or especially) now we never seem to learn. Powerful social messaging, then, in this story, perhaps.
Connection 2 – Emotive Power of Image
There was the picture of Fionnuala sheltering her brothers with her wings against the cold and the wind. An image of immense emotive power!
Connection 3 – The Nature of Evil
What Aoife did to the children was surely evil. In discussion, was the evil originating from the intense pain of the neglect of the marginalisation and the lack of love she felt from Lir. The discussion extended to that of trauma and the inter-generational projection (onto children and then onto their children). But also the trauma of how women are treated.
Connection 4 – Forgetting Trauma
One of the reflections was the way society is constantly forgetting the lessons of traumatic moments e.g. World Wars, The Troubles (especially this week’s rows over Brexit and vaccines). But traumas can be so painful people do not want to tell the story after the events. Maybe then it is the role of the myth tellers to keep these memories alive. And the advantage of the myth is that it is at one stage removed from the ‘actual’ trauma.
Connection 5 – Aoife as Villain
One of the tellings this week was Karina telling the story from Aoife’s perspective. Like the story of Fuamnach in Midir and Etain the effect of this powerful inner voice telling was to challenge the “villainous” framing of Aoife.
Connection 6 – The Woman’s Voice
The sheer power of the Aoife telling, its rawness, realness and its ‘as she felt it’ feeling was to some listeners ‘cathartic’ ….. how marvellous it would be to be free enough to ‘express what I really feel’ rather than playing a part assigned to me in my youth and in my life!
Connection 7 – A Prism on the Irish
Some saw the story of the Children of Lir as a prism on the Irish, e.g. relationship with the Church, mistreatment of women, oppression (800 years), clichés but perhaps meaningful ones.
Connection 8 – The Matter of Kingship
The kings’ rivalry and sense of entitlement in abusively employing women to resolve it. Failure of responsibility? Contrast with other similar stories where that had devastating personal, political and/or cosmic consequences for those kings (e.g. Deirdre, Conaire Mor) – why not in this one?
Connection 9 – Mayan Parallels
Margarita from Guatemala drew parallel with Ireland and Christianity and Colonialism in relation to Mayan culture and the Conquistador and the Franciscan Christian conversion. She introduced the correlation with the Popol Vuh and Irish Mythology.
Connection 10 – The Oral telling
The delivery here with Karina was reminiscent of the theatre, especially when coming out afterwards. It is enthralling. It takes you to another world.