Allod, Llyr (Welsh)
Children of Lir
Son of Elatha
Lir is the god of the sea in Irish and Welsh mythology. He was known during the time of the Tuatha De Danaan (pronounced TOO-uh-huh day DAH-nuhn), an ancient race of gods who conquered and ruled Ireland long before humans arrived. His most notable appearance is in Children of Lir, a tale from the Mythological Cycle of Irish legend.
The Tuatha De Danaan were ruled by a king named Bodb Dearg (pronounced boov DEERG), who was not liked by Lir. In an attempt to make peace with Lir and maintain order in his kingdom, Bodb Dearg sent Lir one of his own daughters, Aoibh (pronounced EEV), to marry. Lir and Aoibh had four children, three sons and a daughter named Fionnuala (pronounced fin-NOO-lah). Unfortunately, Aoibh died, and Bodb, wanting to ease Lir's sadness, sent another one of his daughters to marry Lir and serve as the mother of his four children. This daughter, Aoife (pronounced EE-fah), was a cunning young woman well-versed in the arts of magic.
Aoife was jealous of the family bond between Lir and his children, and began plotting a way to get rid of the youngsters. After a plan to murder them failed, Aoife used her skills with magic to transform the children into swans. According to the spell, the children had to remain as swans for nine hundred years, spending three hundred years in each of three different places on or near the water. They would not change back into human form until church bells rang out in announcement of the coming of God.
When Aoife's father Bodb discovered what she had done, he turned her into a demon as punishment. The children spent three centuries at each of the required locations, and afterward were taken in at a monastery where they were chained together and protected by a monk named Mochua (pronounced MUK-oo-uh). When a local queen found out about the swans, she convinced her husband to attack the monastery and take the swans for her. After they were captured, the church bells rang out, transforming the swans back into children. Because so many centuries had passed, however, the children aged quickly and soon died. Soon after, the rest of the Tuatha De Danaan also died out, and a new race ruled the land.
Lir in Context
According to Irish history and legend, the island of Ireland has been ruled by many different groups over the centuries. The legendary version of this history is documented in the Book of Invasions, a list of the different ruling groups since the beginning of the world, as well as the battles they undertook. Many of these legendary invasions are clearly based on actual historical events; for example, the Milesians (pronounced mi-LEE-zhuhnz)—the group who, according to tradition, ruled Ireland after the Tuatha Dé Danaan—are most likely the Gaelic people, who invaded Ireland around the first century BCE.
Key Themes and Symbols
The most important theme in the tale of Lir's children is the death of old traditions and beliefs, coupled with the arrival of new beliefs. This is shown when the children are cursed to remain swans until church bells announce the coming of God; pre-Christian gods are ineffective against the curse, but the arrival of Christianity puts an end to it. The children are even baptized as Christians before they die. After they die, the Tuatha De Danaan—symbols of the old beliefs before Christianity— also fade away.
Lir in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Though he is described as a god of the sea, Lir appears in few Irish myths. However, the story of his children is one of the more popular tales from Irish legend, and Lir may have also served as the original inspiration for the later legend of King Lear. A park in Dublin known as the Garden of Remembrance contains a popular sculpture depicting the children of Lir; the statue is meant to compare their nine centuries of struggle with the struggles of the Irish people to gain independence from England.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Daughter of the Forest (2000), by Australian author Juliet Marillier, is largely a retelling of the legend of the children of Lir. In it, Sorcha is the daughter and youngest child of the warrior Lord Colum. One day her father brings home a new wife who, jealous of the children, casts a spell that turns Colum's six sons into swans. Sorcha escapes the same fate and finds that she is the only one who can save her brothers. The book is the author's first in a series of three, known collectively as the Sevenwaters Trilogy; the other two titles are Son of the Shadows (2001) and Child of the Prophecy (2002).