Irish mythology stories, sometimes known as Celtic mythology, is a group of sacred beliefs that people in the pre-Christian era relied on when they did not have an answer to natural phenomena. To clarify, when it rained heavily, causing thunderstorms, people believed it to be the wrath of Taranis (god of thunder). Legends about the existence of supernatural creatures have been passed down through generations via stories and fables. Surprisingly, Irish mythology is so vast that the historians divided them into 4 different cycles according to the time period.
- The Mythological Cycle
- The Ulster Cycle
- The Fenian Cycle
- The Historical Cycle
The Mythological Cycle
The Mythological cycle in Irish mythological stories comprehends the legends of gods who were believed to roam around in Ireland before the arrival of Christianity. Some important stories include The Children of Lir, King Nuada, The sons of Tuaireann, etc. Here, I will start with the famous stories in the Mythological Cycle and will continue with the others in my upcoming articles.
As most of you know, killing or poaching of swans is not only illegal, but also considered a criminal offense. How did this get decided? Well, the short story of The Children of Lir reveals why.
The Children of Lir
The story takes place thousands of years ago, when Ireland was ruled by a faction of people called the Tuatha Dè Danann, most of whom were known to have magical powers. The faction had chosen Bodb Derg as their mighty king. This was opposed by Lir, who considered himself to be the rightful candidate for the title. Even after repeated advice by the king’s followers to kill Lir, King Bodb refused the idea. Instead, to everyone’s surprise, king Bodb married off his eldest daughter, Aobh, to Lir. In return, Lir had to accept Bodb Derg as his king.
The deal was fair enough for Lir. You can imagine a happy family here. Dad, Mom, and 4 beautiful children. But, as in every happy story, there is a twist here. The mother dies in childbirth (Sorry for dropping that bomb).
Lir was concerned about the children. He knew how important a mother’s love is for a child. It is said that Lir had discussed finding a new wife with his eldest daughter, Fionnuala, but she kindly rejected this idea, saying she was capable enough to look after her brothers. But, history again proved that parents do not listen to their children. Lir married his dead wife Aobh’s younger sister, Aoife.
Now enters the evil stepmother. Aoife was initially happy with the life she had with Lir, but she became possessive. She wanted her husband all to herself, and the children were obviously a burden to her. Remember, Aoife was one of the people of Tuatha Dé Danann who had magical powers. And she desperately wanted the children out of the picture. Her initial idea was to kill them, but she feared they might turn into ghosts and make the rest of her life miserable. Even her servants refused to kill the children. So, she had another fantastic idea.
She took the children for a “picnic” to a faraway lake, Loch Dairbhreach (the Lake of the Oaks) and cursed them to turn into swans! Swans with human voices! There is no reason that suggests why she would let them have their human voices. Some say it’s because she was feeling a little guilty, others say she was suddenly terrified, but what can we say, human psychology works in weird ways.
There were additional conditions to the curse. The “swans” were supposed to spend the next 300 years on Loch Dairbhreach, then migrate to Sruth na Maoile (the Straits of Moyle between Scotland and Ireland) for 300 years, and, finally, to Irrus Domnann and Inis Gluaire for another 300 years. Their curse would be lifted when they heard the first bell of the new religion (Christianity) that was to come after 900 years. I have to say, Aoife is clever. She made sure that no one will haunt her as she will be long gone before the swans turn into spirits. Who would ever think like that!
After she reached her father’s palace, King Bodb Dearg enquired about his grandchildren for which he did not get a satisfactory answer from Aoife. He sent a messenger to Lir enquiring about the children, which made Lir realise that something was wrong. After further enquiries and investigation, Lir found his “swan children” and they told him what happened. King Bodb Dearg, who had considered his grandchildren to be his greatest treasure, asked Aoife what she was most afraid of. She was apparently scared of “the howling Northern wind”, so, with the help of a magic wand (Druids Rod), Bodb Dearg turned his daughter into a demon who was then banished into the northern winds and for eternity. Some people still believe that you can hear her sobbing and singing songs reflecting her guilt for destroying the children’s lives.
Lir and King Bodb spent the rest of their lives near the swan children. Their story spread and it is believed that people from all over the 7 continents came to see the wondrous swans. This continued for 300 years, between which Lir and Bodb had to leave the earth behind. Before his end, King Bodb declared that no one could ever kill any swans in Ireland. If ever anyone was proven guilty, they would be sentenced to death. This is still followed by the Irish government to date.
After 300 years, the swans flew to the Sruth na Maoile, which was known for its very harsh climatic conditions, thunderstorms, and sea turbulence. It was very difficult for the swans to even stick together. As expected, they got separated in a storm and, as a promise made to each other, they met at the Carraig na Ron (the Rock of the seals). But, it took them years to finally be together. In the final 300 years of the curse, they had migrated to Lorus Domhnann. Unfortunately, their ill fate did not leave them behind. It was getting very rough for the swans as they aged. Their wings suffered, they were unable to stay in the water for long, they were suffering from illness, and, over time, they became silent.
One day, the weather was so cold that the water froze, which was more than they could take. Soon, they travelled to Inis Gluaire where, one fine day, they finally heard the bell. They saw that the bell was rung by a monk. The swans explained their story and the monk promised to look after them until the time comes.
One day, Deoch, the princess of Munster, who was betrothed to Lairgren, the prince of Connaught, declared that she wouldn’t have a wedding unless she had the swans to herself. Any man would have been terrified about losing the love of his life. Without a second thought, Lairgren sent his men in search of the swans. By then, the news about the “talking swans” had spread across the country and Lairgren, along with his soldiers, went to fetch them.
A dispute started between the monk and the prince. But, the moment the prince touched the swans, the bell rang the second time. This means the time has arrived to break the curse. Their feathers, wings, and beaks disappeared. There they stood, the children of Lir. Though they were no longer children, but an old woman with 3 old men. They knew that this was their time to leave the world forever.
They requested that the monk baptized them and they were finally free of their curse.
Read the story of the mythological cycle, King Balor and his evil eye!
- Also read the origin of Ireland’s Pegan.