The Children of Lir

Artist Warren Osborne's depiction of the enchanted Swans

Artist Warren Osborne‘s depiction of the enchanted Swans

It was the mission of the Bards and the Seanchaí to keep alive the ancient stories of Ireland: I am always eager to hear these wonder tales: if they are well told, they will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Your storyteller is being watched and listened to by a generation gone before, who in turn carried that story forward from their ancestors – a chain of continuity which for all we know could go back to the time of the Bronze Age rock carvers and Megalith builders – or even before that. History books are mere speculation and short lived; stories encompass the spirit of the people, and last forever.

The story captured in sculpture at Ballycastle, County Mayo

A story captured in sculpture at Ballycastle, County Antrim

Have you ever wondered why Swans are such special birds? Did you know that in Ireland no-one can harm the Swan? Some say that law was made by the Milesians, who are said to have arrived in Ireland from Galicia (northern Spain) around four thousand years ago, and heard about The Children of Lir.

It’s a Wicked Step-Mother Tale. Finola is a Step-Mother and is sensitive to such stories, but interestingly she herself appears in this story – in fact she is its heroine! The twins Finola (…as beautiful as sunshine in blossomed branches…) and Hugo and the twins Fiachra and Conn were the children of King Lir and Queen Aoibh.


When the children were very young their mother died, and the King married Aoifa, a sister of Aoibh. All was well until Aoifa noticed that Lir was spoiling his children: each one of them was given a beautiful white horse and a pair of white hounds and the King spent most of his time in their company. In true step-mother fashion, Aoifa became jealous and determined to intervene. Just as in the story of Snow White, she planned a dire end for them: she took them off to the wild shores of Lake Derryvaragh and threw them into the waters. But her magical powers were not strong enough: Finola gathered her brothers around her and, as Aoifa looked on, the children were transformed into beautiful Swans. In a final curse their step-mother said that they would live out three hundred years on the lake, then three hundred years more in the Sea of Moyle (the narrowest part of the Atlantic Ocean between Ireland and Scotland), then a final three hundred years on Sruth Fada Conn or Irrus Domnann – Stream of the Long Hound – in County Mayo. The spell could only be broken when the sound of the first Christian bell was heard by the Swans.

Sruwaddacon Bay - also known as Sruth Fada Conn

Sruwaddacon Bay – also known as Sruth Fada Conn

Aoifa might have suffered some last minutes pangs of guilt, for she allowed the Swans to retain their human voices. They also had the gift of music and while they were on Lake Derryvaragh people flocked to hear them singing. In fact, it is said that all of Ireland’s great musical tradition originated from the Children of Lir.

Children of Lir by John Duncan, 1914

Children of Lir by John Duncan, 1914

When the King found out about Aoifa’s treachery he turned her into a ‘night demon’ – a Moth, and she’s still around: we see her frequently down here in Nead an Iolair.

Aoifa - the Emperor Moth

Aoifa – the Emperor Moth

One of the most poignant parts of the story (and I am telling only the briefest of versions here) pictures the Swan children revisiting their father’s tower house on their journey to the Sea of Moyle – only to find grass covered ruins and no traces of the family’s heritage:

…when they looked down they saw no light in the house, they heard no music, no sound of voices. The many-coloured house was desolate and all the beauty was gone from it; the white hounds and the brightmaned horses were gone, and all the beautiful glad-hearted folk of the Sidhe… (

stamp children of lir

We watch the Swans in Rossbrin Cove. On occasion we are fortunate enough to see them taking off from or landing on the water – a noisy and energetic affair: it’s hard to believe that such large and heavy birds can actually take to the air, and migrate over huge distances. Swans appear in folktales all over the world: usually they are associated with light and beauty. A tradition that the Swan only sings when dying has been captured in a madrigal by Orlando Gibbons:

The Silver Swan who, living, had no note,
When death approach’d, unlock’d her silent throat.
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last, And sung no more:
“Farewell all joys, O death come close mine eyes.
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise”

children of lir

To return to our tale – the Children of Lir took their final journey to the far west of Ireland: to the Beara peninsula in West Cork. There they heard St Patrick’s bell and were transformed to human shape again. A hermit – Saint Kemoc – found them, four ancient, withered people. He baptised them just before they crumbled to dust. This place is marked now by a stone where offerings are made: their story is alive today.

The Lir Stone, near Allihies on the Beara

The Lir Stone, near Allihies on the Beara

patricks bell

St Patrick’s Bell

The Laughing Boy

Birthplace of a Folk Hero

Birthplace of a Folk Hero

T’was on an August morning, all in the dawning hours,
I went to take the warming air, all in the Mouth of Flowers,
And there I saw a maiden, and mournful was her cry,
‘Ah what will mend my broken heart, I’ve lost my Laughing Boy’


Let’s face it: our travels today were a pilgrimage. We went out in search of a hero and we found shrines, monuments, places of devotion and folktales. It all started last week, which was ‘Rebel Week’ in Cork County and Skibbereen was one of the centres of activity. We were attracted by a flyer for a ‘Tribute to Michael Collins’ being held in the Eldon Hotel – a venue which we now know features in the story of the man: it claims to be the place where he ate his last meal. The ‘Tribute’ proved a bit of a damp squib as the advertised speaker didn’t turn up, but as compensation we were shown a 1973 British film made and zealously narrated by a very ebullient Welsh actor, Kenneth Griffith: Hang Up Your Brightest Colours. This film extravagantly documents the life of Michael Collins and the Irish struggle for freedom in the early twentieth century, and was considered ‘incendiary’ in a time when The Troubles were boiling over; consequently its showing was banned for twenty years. We determined to visit some of the significant locations that featured in the film and which are not too far away from Nead an Iolair.

Master of Oration

Master of Oration

West Cork is Collins’ country: he was born in Sam’s Cross, near Clonakilty – the youngest of eight children – in October 1890. His father Michael had married Marianne O’Brien (23) when he was 60. Already the folklore kicks in: Michael the elder was the seventh son of a seventh son and therefore gifted with powers of divination. On his deathbed he predicted that our hero – then aged 6 – would one day “…be a great man. He’ll do great work for Ireland…” Also, there’s a touch of mystery about Collins’ birth: the records state he was born on 16 October whereas on his tombstone the date is given as 12 October.

The Collins grave in Rosscarberry

The Collins grave in Rosscarbery

In the burial ground in Rosscarbery we found the family grave. There is a modest entry on the headstone for young Michael, recording that he died on 22 August 1922 (he’s actually buried in Dublin). That’s about all that’s modest about the Collins story. He was known as The Big Fella, as much because of his reputation and charisma as for his physique.

You can’t miss his birthplace – it’s signposted for miles around the area of Woodfield – but the family farmhouse isn’t there! It was burnt to the ground by the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1920, during the Irish War of Independence (and not by the Black and Tans, which is often claimed). However, the site has been preserved as an essential waymark of the Michael Collins pilgrim trail.

Memorial at Sam's Cross

Memorial at Sam’s Cross

There is also another, larger monument to Michael a little way up the road at Sam’s Cross – this is in fact next door to the house where his mother was born – and opposite his cousin Jeremiah’s pub – The Four Alls (this is one of several places where Collins is supposed to have taken his last drink).

Four Alls pub - cousin Jeremiah's

Four Alls pub – Cousin Jeremiah’s

For anyone who doesn’t know I had better just say that Michael Collins – soldier, freedom fighter and politician – was one of the key figures in the long Irish struggle for Independence – a conflict that was won, after a fashion, in December 1921 when the irish Free State was set up. Collins signed the Treaty in his then role as ‘Chairman of the Provisional Government and Commander-in-chief of the National Army’ and (legend has it) pronounced that he was also signing his own death warrant (the great folk heroes usually foretold their own death). The conditions of the Treaty, and the exclusion of some of the northern counties from the new state caused such dissension that a civil war ensued, and Michael Collins fell as a victim to that war as he toured through his home county of Cork on 22 August 1922.

The Eldon, Skibbereen

The Eldon, Skibbereen

His convoy left the Eldon Hotel, Skibbereen, in the early afternoon for Cork city and was ambushed at Béal na Bláth, on a minor road between Clonakilty and Macroom. During the skirmish Michael Collins was shot in the head and died instantly. He was the only casualty of that confrontation.


Béal na Bláth

Béal na Bláth may mean ‘Gap of the Blossoms’ but there is some debate as to its correct translation: ‘Mouth of the Ford of the Buttermilk’ is one suggestion. Brendan Behan, in his folk ballad on the death of Michael Collins (the first stanza of which starts off this post), goes for ‘Mouth of Flowers’. We began our pilgrimage here on a wet Sunday morning. The place had a sombre atmosphere and the monument that we found – although unmistakably Messianic – is grim. Crowds come to this site, especially on the anniversary of the assassination. A white stone marks the actual spot where he fell: the fine details seem all important.


But – sifting through these details when I was trying to assemble this piece – I realise that there is so much that is apocryphal or contradictory in the various accounts, not just of his death but with many aspects of his life. And it’s the stories that will win out in the end. Michael Collins is a real national hero – quite rightly – but he’s on his way to becoming a folk hero – something different. He could be a Saint (he did after all perform a miracle in bringing together so many different factions and feelings to found the beginnings of modern Ireland) but to me he is more likely to end up in the ranks of the great Hero Warriors of Irish mythology such as Cu Chulainn, Medb or Finn McCool – or even the Gods. I wish I could be around to hear his sagas told in a few hundred years from now.

The fate of a Folk Hero...

The Fate of a Folk Hero…