A long, long time ago...
The story begins thousands of years ago, in ancient Ireland, a time when ancient warlords ruled the country. One such community was known as the Tuatha Dé Danann named after the goddess Dana. The Gaels had invaded Ireland, defeating the Tuatha Dé Danann at the battle of Teltown, and the ancient people felt it was necessary to elect a king to rule over them and hence strengthen their position against the Gaels.
The king they chose was Bodhbh Dearg (also called Bov the Red) of Lough Derg. This choice was accepted by all, except for Lir (from the Fews in County Armagh), who wanted the kingship for himself. Lir refused to accept Bodhbh as king, yet despite the fact that many of the king's followers wanted Lir dead, Bodhbh refused to persecute him.
Later, the king learned that Lir's first wife had died after three nights of sickness, and feeling pity for his heartbroken rival offered Lir the hand in marriage of one of his three foster daughters - if Lir would in turn recognize him as king. Lir accepted the offer, choosing the eldest - Aobh (also called Aebh or Eve in English) as his wife.
Aobh made Lir very happy and their union produced four beautiful children - Fionnuala (the eldest, a daughter), Aodh or Aed (a son, Fionnuala's twin), and younger twin sons (Fiachra and Conn). Unfortunately, Aobh died giving birth to Fiachra and Conn and Lir was devastated in his grief.
The Evil Stepmother
On hearing of Lir's loss, Bodb Dearg once more offered to help Lir, offering another of his foster daughters - Aobh's sister Aoife. At first all was well in this new marriage, but as Lir continued to dote on his children (to the point of sleeping near them at night), Aoife became jealous. She feigned illness for a year in an attempt to draw attention to herself. Legend also has it that Aoife was barren and that Lir did not want any more children anyway.
Jealously began to build in Aoife to the point where she felt she needed to get rid of the children in order to regain Lir's attentions. She plotted, until, finally one summer's day she awoke, ordered her chariot to be made ready and told Lir that she would take the children to visit their grandfather, Bodb Dearg.
Fionnuala was afraid to make the journey, suspected that their stepmother had plans for their destruction after a dream she'd had the night before the journey. Unfortunately, there was no escape. On the way to Bodb Dearg, Aoife stopped the chariot and ordered her servants to kill the children. To her intense anger, they refused. She unsheathed her sword but found that she could not kill them either. Later on in the journey she stopped at Loch Dairbhreach, the Lake of the Oaks, and ordered the children to go down and clean themselves in the lake. Fionnuala was afraid but they still all complied with Aoife' s command. Once in the lake Aoife, using a Druids rod cast a spell, turning the Children of Lir into swans.
Fionnuala cursed her and implore her to put some limits on the spell. Aoife, seeing what she had done, relented a little. She allowed them to keep their human speech and gave them the gift to sing the beautiful music of the Sidhe, which would be the most beautiful, peaceful music ever to be heard. The songs would calm the most troubled heart.
Details of the Curse
However Aoife also imposed a harsh sentence on the swan children; they were to spend the next 300 years on Loch Dairbhreach, then 300 years on Sruth na Maoile (or the Straits of Moyle between Scotland and Ireland) and the final 300 years at Irrus Domnann and Inis Gluaire. The sentence would be lifted when they heard the first bells of Christianity (when St. Patrick came to Ireland) and when a Man from the North lay with a Woman from the South. Leaving the Children of Lir on the lake, Aoife left for Bodb Dearg's castle.
When she got there, the children's grandfather inquired about where the children were. Aoife lied saying that Lir did not want them to visit Bodb Dearg. The king didn't believe her and sent a messenger to Lir to find out the truth. Lir set out for Bodb Dearg's Castle immediately, fearing that the children had met with harm.
As Lir's entourage passed Loch Dairbhreach he heard voices, and journeying closer to the lake realized with horror that his children had been cruelly transformed into swans. He was grief stricken, as were all of his men. The swan children talked to their father and sang for the men, who, despite their grief spent a peaceful night, lulled by the beautiful music, on the banks of the lake.
The next day Lir reluctantly left his beloved children and headed to Bodb Dearg' s castle. On hearing the news, the king was devastated. Asking a terrified Aoife what she was most afraid of, she answered "the howling North Wind". Using a Druids rod, Bodb Dearg turned her into a 'witch of the air' who, the legend goes, still listens to the howling North Wind and her screams can be heard when a storm blows.
Lir and Bodb Dearg returned to the lake. For the next three hundred years, men from all over Ireland traveled to hear the beautiful music of the swans and listen to their stories. Too quickly, the enchanting time at Loch Dairbhreach came to an end, and the second part of their 'sentence' began. Sad to leave their family and friends they flew to the Sea of Moyle, a harsh, wild place. Bodb Dearg decreed that no one could kill swans in all of Ireland - the penalty at that time was death - a law that remains in Ireland to this day.
On the Sea of Moyle life was harsh for the Children of Lir. At one point a fierce storm turned the sea turbulent and deadly. Fearing they would be separated they agreed to meet at Carraig na Ron (the Rock of the Seals). Fionnuala waited there for her brothers, weeping, until finally they appeared. They vowed never to be separated again. Fionnuala would take care of her brothers taking Aobh under her breast feathers, Conn under her right wing and Fiachra under her left wing.
The Passing of Time
Time passed until one day they saw a troop of riders bearing Bodb Dearg' s colors, at the mouth of the Banna river. Calling to them they met two sons of their grandfather - Aodh Aithfhiosach and Fergus Fithchiollach, who had been looking for the swans all over Ireland. Delighted that they were alive they talked with the Children of Lir for some time before returning home with the good news.
The last 300 years of Aoife's curse were spent on Irrus Domanann where more harshness met them; they froze in the sea and suffered great pain. When the time here was spent they made their way back to Sidhe Fionnachaidh and their father's home. To their dismay their father was dead and nothing remained of their childhood home. After a night they traveled to Inis Gluaire and it was here that they first heard the Christian bells. News reached St. Mochaomhog (or Caomhog) who came to Inis Gluaire, asking if they were the Children of Lir.
He took them home with him and had silver chains made, one between Aodh and Fionnuala, and one between Conn and Fiachra. They were however well looked after here. The king of Connacht (Lairgren) heard about the singing swans. His wife Deoch begged her husband to get them for her. They were the Man from the North and the Woman from the South that Aoife had spoken of.
When Mochaomhog would not give the swans to Lairgren he grew angry and either he (or his servants) went to grab them. At the point he put his hands on them the spell Aoife had placed on them was broken. Before their eyes the feathers fell away and four very old, wrinkled humans were left in their place. Lairgren fled in horror.
Fionnuala's last wish was granted; Mochaomhog baptized them before they died, and they were buried the way they had always lived - together, with Conn on Fionnuala's right, Fiachra on her left, and Aodh between her arms.
The legend goes that when the Children of Lir died Mochaomhog dreamed that he saw four beautiful children flying over the lake and going straight up to heaven. Today, the legend of the Children of Lir lives on in the beautiful silver jewelry that is made in Ireland, the folklore which can be heard recounted by story tellers in Irish pubs dotted around the country, and, swans are still protected birds in Ireland.