Saturday, July 5, 2014

What's with those Irish singing swans?

I haven't blogged in yonks, but I've been doing a monthly blog at work about random Irish topics for the last year or so. I thought I'd borrow my latest blog post, because I like the topic and want to share it with a wider audience. Enjoy!

This is my retelling of the Children of Lir, a very popular Irish mythological legend.

So, there was this Irish king named Lir (lihr), not to be confused with the other King Lear who came along later. Anyway, Lir married a lovely lady, and they had four children, a girl and three boys. They were a happy family and everything was going tickety-boo until the queen died. The king was grief-stricken but he still had his kids. The kids missed their mom but they still had their dad. Grand so.

However, the king had to remarry, so he ended up marrying the queen’s sister, Aoife (ee-fa). Nobody seemed to notice that Aoife had magical powers and wasn’t very nice really. Things were okay at first, but Aoife was dead jealous of the love between the king and his kids. She tried to have the kids killed on the quiet, but that didn’t work. She didn’t kill them herself but instead turned them into swans and cursed them to spend 300 years on the lake by their father’s castle, then 300 years on the Moyle, then the final 300 years on an Atlantic bay near an island. The only thing that the kids didn’t lose in the transformation was their ability to sing and their memories. Not sure why. I suppose to make the curse even worse. It was very cruel of Aoife. She was a meany.

When the king found out what his wife had done, something nasty happened to her, and she disappeared from the scene. However, there was no way to break the spell on the kids. Lir visited them at the lake every day. And they sang a lot. That’s how people knew it was them and not just regular swans. They watched their father age and die, and then everybody they knew aged and died. They only had each other for company. 

After the first 300 years, which were relatively calm on the lake, they shifted to the Sea of Moyle. Fionnula (fee-o-noo-la), who was the oldest, kept her three younger brothers with her and kept their spirits up. Although if you’ve ever heard the song Silent O Moyle, you wouldn’t find it a very cheerful song. Life on the sea was lonely and hard, but they still stuck together.

They spent their final 300 years on the waters of Irrus Domnann near Inishglora Island in county Mayo. I gather the weather was pretty crap, and they didn’t know anybody, so they were really pretty fed up. There was nothing to do but eat green stuff and sing sad songs. When the 900 years was up, they were finally able to land on the island, where a monk was living. He took them “under his wing” and cared for them. (This is where the story gets Christianized.)

The story ends the same way but I’ve heard a number of versions. In one, a princess or queen covets the singing swans, so her future husband tries to get the swans off the monk, who’s looking after them. There’s a bit of a scuffle, and some silver chains that the swans have been wearing to keep them together break. The swans turns back into kids, but they barely have time to say “how are ya” before they die and turn into dust. They are 900 and something years old after all.

Another version I heard, maybe this is the pre-Christian one, is that a king of a southern kingdom and a princess of a northern kingdom are united in marriage. When the bells ring out to celebrate their union, the curse is finally broken and the swans turn back into kids. They still die.

The most Christian version is that the monk breaks the curse, baptizes or blesses the four kids, then they die. They are buried together, and everyone assumes they’ve gone to heaven to hang out with their mom and dad.

The Children of Lir transformation is sometimes seen as a kind of rebirth, and it has been used as a political symbol representing the freedom of Ireland after 900 years of oppression by various conquerors including Vikings, Normans, and Brits. Considering the kids died at the end though…hmmm.

When I lived in Galway, I heard that it was against the law to kill swans. About six years ago, people were in an uproar when some crazy guy went around killing and eating swans. Somebody recently told me that the law was actually brought over from England. Probably had more to do with saving the birds for the high lords’ tables than a belief in the legend.

Regardless, I think a lot of people in Ireland still feel a strong connection to the legend of the Children of Lir, and they don’t want to kill the swans, just in case like.