Friday, September 12, 2008

The Children of Lir

Last night I read my son the story of the Children of Lir , an old Irish legend in which four children are turned into swans. It struck me how sad the story is. The children are turned into swans against their will, their father dies, they spend 900 years in miserable conditions, then they all die. I could not see the story turning up as one of the stories Steve reads on Blues Clues. Many old Irish stories are sad like that.

We learned the story at primary (elementary school). I was interested in the story as a child, and when I read it again last night, new meanings strike me. Lir's new wife had said the four children were drowned in the lake, but Lir did not believe her. He went down to the lake where he saw four swans who he believed were his children. He spent the rest of his life living down by the lake with those four swans, and people came to help him and also to watch out of curiosity. As an adult now, I wonder was Lir just compensating for the loss of his children, who were actually drowned.

The lake is Lough Derravaragh. Derravaragh is Irish for "Lake of the Oaks", or "Lake of the oak groves". Doire means Oak, hence Derry in Ireland, and hence Derry in New Hampshire.

I grew up about 8 miles from Lough Derravaragh, so the story was local for me. The story was set a long time ago, but the site of Lir's castle is said locally to be the present site of Tullynally Castle, again a place familiar to me too.

Given that the story was taught by my teacher in primary school, and part of it was set locally, it seemed quite "real" to me.

Here is a page of the story, taken from the excellent Irish Fairy Tales book by Una Leavy and Susan Field:

The hill which Aoife walks up, beside Lough Derravaragh, is Knockeon (in Irish: Cnoc Eoghain, hill of Eoghan or Eyon).

Here is a photo I took of the shores of Lough Derravaragh, showing Knockeon sloping up on the right. This is where the children would have been turned into swans. I had been here with my son, and it was good to explain the site of the story to him as a place we had visited:


When I travel up to lakes in Maine and New Hampshire, I often think that they are similar to Lough Derravaragh or many other lakes in the Irish midlands. But, in Ireland there is much less pleasure boating and much less development around the lakes. For many lakes, pleasure boating is forbidden by law, and you would not get planning permission to build the kinds of lakeside houses which are common in New Hampshire or Maine. So the lake is as it was in the time of Lir.

Crookedwood is the closest town to that part of Lough Derravaragh. Here is a picture of Lough Derravaragh from the Crookedwood road. You can see more of the shore and hill here, as well as the oak trees which give the lake its name:

Lough Derravaragh from the Crookedwood road

And here is the same landscape in, uh, landscape:


At a pull-off on the Crookedwood road, there is a poster explaining the story of the Children of Lir. I have photographed it in three pieces and pasted them below:

As the story above says, after 300 years at Lough Derravaragh they moved on to other locations around Ireland. I suspect that the reference to God was tacked onto the story when Christianity came to Ireland with Saint Patrick (many Irish stories have a Christian ending tacked on, such as the story of Tir na nOg).

If you visit Westmeath, or the Irish midlands in general, grab a copy of the Irish Fairy Tales book before you go, and then be sure to visit the site of the Children of Lir story.

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