The Surprising History of the Children of Lir – Podcast script

This is the script originally written for the podcast, rather than a transcript, so there might be a couple of variations from what was actually spoken. If you notice any or have any questions, feel free to get in touch!


Welcome to Unreal, a podcast about Irish history, stories and tradition. Thank you so much for joining me for this first episode, and I hope we’ll have some long fascinating conversations in store on the best of Irish stories! This week I’m going looking at stories of swans, and one of Ireland’s most famous tales in particular – The Children of Lir.

The Children of Lir is probably Ireland’s best-known story. The fate of Fionnula and her brothers, condemned to spend centuries in the form of swans, shares  elements with many famous fairytales around the world – a wicked stepmother, a terrible curse, and hundreds of years spent in non-human form. 

Swans hold a special place in myths and folklore. The beauty of their pure white feathers, and their still presence on lakes and rivers have made these birds call out for tales filled with mystery and enchantment. In County Mayo in Ireland, swans were often said to hold the souls of virgins who had died pure of heart, while in the Scottish Highlands swans were believed to be women who had been treated poorly and placed under terrible enchantments, condemned to wander the country seeking kindness and comfort. It’s considered very unlucky to kill or to come across a dead swan because of this, but to see multiple swans on wing or wave in front of you, particularly on a Tuesday, will bring peace and prosperity to you and your people. But the stories told of swans are not always stories or peace. The Valkyries, mythical women of Norse Mythology who choose who will live and die in battle, are often depicted as having the ability to transform into swans or other birds, which allows them to fly over battlefield to get a better view of the fighting. 

The Children of Lir is actually a much more recent story than we might think. The oldest manuscripts recording the story date from the 15th century, and the tale in oral tradition doesn’t seem to have existed much earlier than that. Around the 18th century, it began to be grouped together with two other stories, The Fate of the Sons of Usna (sometimes called Deirdre of the Sorrows), and Fate of the Children of Tuirenn, which were called The Three Great Sorrows of Irish storytelling. I’m sure I’ll do episodes on each of these tales – if I keep up this podcast for long enough! 

The version of the Children of Lir that we know today is newer still, actually only about 150 years old. It was written in 1863 by Eugene O’ Curry, who assembled it from several fragmented Irish manuscripts. Eugene O’Curry’s tale has been used as a main source by other folklorists, including the more well-known Lady Augusta Gregory and Douglas Hyde. As a result, pretty much all modern versions and retellings stem back to this one account of the tale, with very little variation. It would be so fascinating to see what different directions this tale may have gone in in versions lost to time.

Douglas Hyde’s is my favourite of the modern retellings.  He reworked the translation into a long poem, which I think most closely resembles how bards would have told tales in oral tradition long ago. And he captures the beauty and lyricism that makes Irish folklore truly special:

It is the saddest and the softest tale
That ever harper harped, or wordful bard
… e’er framed in song.

I’ll use more quotations from his version as I tell the story.

Although the Children of Lir is a relatively recent tale, swan/human transformations have played an important role in older Irish stories. These transformations often take place as a way for people to overcome romantic obstacles and to demonstrate the intensity of their love. For example, when the lovers Etain and Midir finally escape together after years of being kept apart, they do so in the form of swans, allowing them to fly far away from those who tried to separate them. One of Cu Chulainn’s many romantic conquests was a swan maiden also. While abroad in his early years as a warrior, Cú Chulainn rescued a beautiful Scandinavian princess from a perilous death. Her name was Derb Forghaill, and she quickly fell in love with her handsome rescuer, and pined after him terribly when Cu Chulainn returned to Ireland. Derbforghaill decided to travel to Ireland to spend the rest of her days with him. She transformed herself and her handmaid into swans, so they could fly across the sea. But when her beloved Cu Chulainn saw the pair of swans flying above him, he didn’t see his lover… he saw dinner. One swift shot with his sling and Derbforghaill fell from the sky and lay, terribly injured, on the ground in front of him. Realising his mistake, Cu Chulainn dropped to his knees and sucked the stone he had shot from her side. Derbforghaill survived, but could no longer marry cu Chulainn, as he had tasted her blood, and so he offered her his son’s hand in marriage instead. The story continues, and I’m sorry to say that nobody in it lives happily ever after – being a hero in Irish mythology is a pretty hazardous position. You might be immortalised in the stories we tell, but you’re unlikely to survive long in person!

Portrayals in other cultures of the love between men and swan-maidens are similarly bittersweet. In the German tale of Wayland the Smith, Wayland and his brothers fall in love with three Valkyries or Swan Maidens, living with them for nine winters, but the women eventually leave them, returning to their lives as swans. In many tales Swan Maidens are captured as brides when a man steals her feathered robe. Without it, she cannot return to her swan shape, and is forced to stay with him until she can steal it back from him again – these stories are similar to the selkie tales of Irish and Scottish mythology. And of course there is Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, inspired by russian folklore. In the ballet, the swan maiden is the princess Odette, placed under a curse by a sorcerer. She is condemned to live as a swan by day and a girl by night, hoping that a handsome prince will break the spell. Her prince comes, but he is tricked by the sorcerer into betraying her and promising marriage to the sorcerer’s daughter. In the tragic ending to the much loved ballet, Odette and her prince kill themselves, rather than live under the curse and trickery of the sorcerer any longer. Love is a tricky business in folk tales, and we are granted the happily ever after ending far less often in mythology than we might think.

The Fate of the Children of Lir, has at its centre a tale of family love and affection, rather than romantic love. Lir and his family were part of a race of people called the Tuatha Dé Dannan, or the Tribe of the Gods.  When Bobh Dearg was named king of the Tuatha De, he gave Lir his daughter Aobh’s hand in marriage, and Aobh bore him two sets of twins: first Fionnula and her brother Aodh, and then Fiachra and Conn. Sadly, Aobh died giving birth to Conn and Fiachra, and, heartbroken, Lir married her sister Aoife so that his four young children would have a mother. Lir adored his children. Every morning before the sun rose he would leave his bed and lie down close to them. They were taken to visit their grandfather, The King Bobh Dearg, often, and their beauty and grace was talked about by everyone who knew them. The love Lir has for his children, and Fionnula has for her brothers, is movingly captured, and the story shows the lengths to which people will go to remain with the family they adore – even when they are put to the most terrible of tests.  For The Children of Lir were loved by everyone  – except their stepmother, Aoife. Hearing people talk constantly about their beauty, the jealousy within her grew and grew.

And every idle space within her mind
Was filled with hate, her blood flowed slow with hate
And hate was like a fire within her brain
She lay and meditated evil things.
She brooded on her old enchanted lore…
And counted words, and thought of sentences
And recollected spells, and muttered low

When the children went to visit Bobh Dearg again, Aoife saw her opportunity. First she tried to order her people to slaughter the children, but they refused. Then, she drew out her own knife, ready to kill them herself, but at the last moment her courage failed her. Finally, she told the children to go out into the lake, and when they were in the water she struck them with her staff, and instantly the children were turned into four swans.

Aoife told Fionnula and her brothers that they would have to remains swans for nine hundred years – three hundred years on Lake Derravara, three hundred years on the Straits of Moyle, and three hundred years at Irrus Domnann and Inis Gluaire:

Until a Prince from out the North shall wed
A Princess from the south, until there come
The Tailcinn into Erin teaching things
We never heard before, until there sounds
The first clear tone of Christian bell

When Bobh Dearg saw that the children weren’t with Aoife, he sent messengers to Lir, who went at once in search of his beloved children. At the shores of Lake Derravara, Lir realised the four swans on the water had human voices, and when he came closer his daughter Fionnula cried out to him what had happened.

Furious, Lir told the tale to Bobh Dearg, who asked his wicked daughter Aoife: “what shape would you least like to be?” “A demon in the air” she replied, and Bobh Dearg struck her with his staff and Aoife was at once transformed into a demon in the air, and she went away on the wind in that shape, and is in it yet, and will be in it to the end of life and time.

So far, so fairytale. Even the wicked stepmother gets an ending worthy of the Brothers Grimm. The tale up to this point has a lot in common with the folk tale The Wild Swans or The Tale of the Seven Ravens, which were retold by Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, about a girl who must endure terrible pain to free her brothers from a curse that has turned them into birds – sometimes she has to weave them shirts made from nettles, sometimes she has to chop off her own finger. I do love these stories of female rescuers – it’s thought that these tales  may have spread at a time when men made their daughters their heirs as the men so often had to go to war. This placed a severe burden and pressure, and even more male control on what the daughters could or could not do. The tale of a girl’s voyage to bring her brothers back and restore them to their rightful seats in the family could therefore be the wish of the female storyteller for freedom from these strict controls placed upon them.

The Children of Lir and stories like the Wild Swans may well have have been inspired by an Old French tale from the 12th century, called The Birth of the Swan Knight. In this tale, a king’s wife dies giving birth to seven children, six boys and a girl. Their grandmother the Queen Mother orders a servant to carry the babies into the forest and leave them to die. But somehow, they survive, and live alone in the forest. Seven years later the queen mother sends one of her subjects out to steal the gold chains the children wear around their necks. He steals all of the boys’ chains, and they instantly turn into swans and fly away. Eventually their sister is able to explain the truth to her father the king, and they restore all of the boys to human form except for one. This swan brother joins forces with one of the other brothers, and together they become The Swan Knight, a mysterious hero who rides on a boat pulled by swan, rescuing damsels in distress, and occasionally showing up in stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It’s a very entertaining tale, and given its similarities it may well be the prototype for the altogether more melancholy Children Of Lir. 

Of course, in the Children of Lir, Fionnula is turned into a swan, just like her brothers. And  what separates the children of Lir from the other folktales I have mentioned is that it gives a real visceral sense of what the curse meant for the children – and the lasting impact it had on their lives.

The story goes into intense detail about the suffering of the children, and is told from Fionnula the sister’s perspective. The first three hundred years weren’t so bad. Their father Lir made his camp at the shores of Lake Derravara, and was with them every day. But at the end of the three hundred years they had to leave for the Straits of Moyle, a stormy desolate place where they were tossed by the wind and waves, and separated from each other. Fionnula called to her brothers to meet her on a nearby rock called Carraig na Ron, but it was so cold that they froze to the ground where they stood, and when they struggled to free themselves, they tore the skin from their feet and the feathers from their breast. Fionnula wrapped her wings around her brothers and held them close to comfort them, and in her beautiful voice she sang out mournful songs lamenting the hardships they were facing.

Towards the end of their time in Moyle, the four came across some members of the Tuatha Dé Dannan by the shore who told them that their father Lir was still alive (they had longer lifespans in those days!), and passed on their news to him. They rejoiced to hear this, but their time at Inis Domnann was colder still than Moyle, and the sea itself froze around them, though Fionnula tried her best to keep her brothers warm. Finally they were able to fly back to their father’s homestead, but they were dismayed by what they found there:

There was no Lir to welcome them, no chiefs
Of the De Dananns; not a trace of life
Among the ruins childhood’s home.
All, all, was desolate. Around the walls
The ivy hung; the roof was overthrown,
And green grass was growing in the hall

They knew they had taken too long. Their father had died, the age of their people had passed, and all that was left was to wait out the rest of their curse. It’s one of the most haunting scenes I can imagine, realising that you are suddenly entirely alone in the world, and having to reckon with everything you’ve lost from the curse that was put upon you.

The swans meet with a man called Aibric, who enjoys their singing, and who, so the story goes, writes down their tale so that it can last forever. Then at last, they hear the Christian Bell of Saint Mochaomhog, who has arrived at Inis Gluaire. Mochaomhog asks them if they are the Children of Lir, and tells them that he came to this Island for their sakes, to teach them of St Patrick and the Gospel.

Now, at that time, the ruler of Connacht, Lairgnen was married to a woman named Deoch from Munster – so the Prince of the North and Princess of the south part of Aoife’s prophecy was fulfilled. Deoch became obsessed with the tales told about the singing swans on Inis Gluaire. She wanted them as a wedding present, and eventually Lairgnen agreed to get them for her. He asked Mochaomhog for them first, and when he was refused, he went to Inis Gluaire himself, and seeing the swans at the altar, grabbed hold of them. But as soon as he put his hand on them, their bird skins fell away, leaving three withered old men and a withered old woman. With the last of her strength, Fionnula asks Mochaomhog to baptize them so that they can go to heaven, and then she asks that they be buried together, as they lived together: Conn at my right side, and Fiachra at my left, and Aodh before my face between my two arms. Mochaomhog did so, and as he baptised each of them they breathed their last.

And even as they died
The saint looked up and in the air he saw
Four shining children with light silver wings,
And laughing faces smiling down on him.
And as he looked they rose into the air,
And sailing into heaven disappeared

In other stories of children being turned into birds, the curse is not permanently scarring, and there is a happy return to childhood when it is finally broken. But The Children of Lir are not children when they return to their human forms. They are old, dying men and a woman. Aoife’s spell has taken away everything that they held dear – their youth, their family, and their entire way of life and customs have fallen away with the centuries. All they are left with is each other, and the memories of an Ireland long past, and a hope that this new Christian age will be one to bring joy and prosperity to the land they called home in the years to come.

You’ll probably have noticed while listening to the tale that there are some pretty strong religious themes in The Children of Lir. It’s been noted that although Aoife has complete power over the bodies of her stepchildren, she has no power over their souls, and throughout the story Fionnula shows incredible strength in continuing to shelter and protect her brothers and keep the memory of their old life alive. This structure of terrible trials, followed by an acceptance of the Christian God, can often be seen in Lives of Saints biographies, such as the lives of Catherine and Margaret. In fact, hell was often depicted in early christian Ireland as being bitterly cold rather than fiery or hot. It’s often the case that Irish legends will end with a visit from St Patrick or other saint, as it was common for early Christians to co-opt the pagan folklore of the places they were converting, and put a Christian flavour on it. The Children of Lir would have been first written in a monastery, and is often found in manuscripts alongside religious tales, rather than mythological ones. So perhaps some religious scribe, inspired by the ancient myths they had grown up hearing, sought to create a tale of their own that was Irish in setting, and fairy-tale-like in premise, but which had an underlying religious message that would prepare the reader for the trials of Christianity and warn them from the pains of hell that awaited if one did not sufficiently submit to the hard trials of God. The Christian messages also explains why the tale is so well-known in Ireland today, despite not really having much connection to the story cycles that other Irish myths belong to. Around the late 19th century, when Irish people began to take pride in their myths again and looked to revive them, the good Catholic tale of the Children of Lir would have seemed like the perfect story to introduce children to the richness of Irish folklore, and it became a common fixture in schoolbooks from that point forward. The tale is read by children when young, and it is so gripping and haunting that it remains with them, for years to come.

Thank you so much for listening to this first episode of Unreal. You can keep up with the podcast by subscribing at iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts – feel free give me a nudge if you can’t find it! You can also keep up or get in touch at, or you can tweet at me @UnrealPod.

Unreal is researched and created by me, Ruth  Atkins. The music this week is from Slainte, available on the free music archive online. The podcast theme song is called The Butterfly, and the song you are listening to right now is called Manx Lullaby. For links to these, and also links to the sources I used while researching today’s story, please go to

Unreal is a fortnightly podcast, so I will be returning in two weeks time with another very well-known tale from Irish folklore. Until then, Go n-éirí an bóthar leat.