Irish Cultural Heritage: Two Beloved Myths
Updated: Mar 5
Did you know that, in the United States, March is National Irish American Heritage Month? As an American of Irish descent, I can tell you that it is a little-known fact, even in the U.S. Even among Irish Americans. In general, Americans know very little about Irish history, including the history of the Irish in America. Familiarity with authentic Irish culture is mixed in with stereotypes and sentimental images of faeries and leprechauns. So, in aid of spreading knowledge of Irish cultural heritage, this week I want to share two important stories from Irish mythology: Dagda’s Harp and The Children of Lir. I hope you enjoy them.
Dagda was one of the Tuatha Dé Danann, a magical race that occupied the ancient island of Eire. The faeries are said to be descended from them. He owned several magical items. One was a gigantic cauldron, abundantly full and bottomless. Dagda also had a big club with which he could kill anyone with one blow. Interestingly, he could use the same club to bring a person back to life. A third important item, and the one relevant to this story, was his harp, Uaithne. He was the only one who could get music out of this instrument, and the music did wondrous things. It could make people laugh or weep uncontrollably. It could them into a deep sleep. The harp’s music could even bring about a change of seasons.
Over time, the island of Eire was invaded by different races of peoples. One was the Fomorians. These were a race of monstrous giants. Although the Fomorians and the Tuatha Dé Danann sometimes intermarried, they were most often at war with each other. Dagda used his harp to help his men as they went into battle against these giant foes. His music gave them courage. They lost all fear and threw themselves into battle with a bloodlust and a desire for glory. After each battle, his music soothed the survivors, helping them forget the trauma they had suffered during the fight, and easing the grief they felt at the death of their comrades.
The Fomorians heard about Dagda’s magic harp and realized it would be to their advantage to this powerful weapon away from him. One night, while the Tuatha Dé Danann were feasting and celebrating a victory, a couple of stealthy Fomorians snuck into the castle and stole the harp. They hurried away, back to their own castle, rejoicing in their success.
Naturally, Dagda was furious when he discovered his beloved harp had been stolen. Determined to get it back, he decided not to entrust such a mission to anyone but himself and his two trusted companions, Lugh and Ogma.
The three traveled to the Fomorians’ castle and managed to find a way in undetected. Seeing his harp hanging on the wall, Dagda called to it. Uaithne flew to his hand, but the Fomorian guards also came running and surrounded Dagda, Lugh, and Ogma.
Lugh said, “I think it’s time for a little music.”
Just as the giants rushed at the Tuatha Dé Danann trio, Dagda began to played Music of Mirth. The Fomorians chuckled, then doubled over in laughter, dropping their weapons. Dagda, Lugh, and Ogma ran for it, but as soon as the music stopped, the Fomorians sobered. Furious, they picked up their weapons and gave chase.
Ogma nodded to Dagda, who again played his harp. This time, though, the music was solemn and sad. He played the Music of Tears. The Fomorians dropped their weapons, sat down, and sobbed.
But, just as before, as soon as Dagda stopped playing, the Fomorians stopped crying and picked up their weapons.
“I know,” Dagda said. He played a soft, soothing melody of exquisite beauty, the Music of Sleep.
The Fomorians yawned, dropped their weapons, and laid down. One by one, they nodded off to sleep. This time, Dagda kept playing for a long while until the giants had fallen into a deep sleep and were snoring.
Quietly, Dagda, Lugh, and Ogma tiptoed away. Dagda kept playing until they had gotten so far away, they could no longer hear the giants’ snores. Then the trio hurried back to the castle of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Dagda ensured that his harp was well-guarded after that. and it was never stolen again.
The Children of Lir
Lir, a king of ancient Ireland, had a beautiful wife and, between them, they produced four children. The eldest was a daughter whom they named Fionnuala. They also had three sons: Aodh, Fiachra, and Conn. They were all a very happy family until Lir’s wife died.
After a long period of grief, Lir decided he needed to marry again so the children could have a mother. He married Aoife, the eldest daughter of Bodb Dearg, the High King of Ireland. She was quite beautiful and proved to be a good companion for the lonely Lir. Aoife also made a show of being a doting mother to his children but, in truth, she longed for children of her own.
Time passed and Aoife learned she was barren. The sight of Lir’s children became intolerable to her. Anger and resentment grew into rage within her and grew to such a fevered pitch that she decided the children had to go. But Lir was utterly devoted to his children. In fact, he paid more attention to them than he did to her, which made Aoife all the more resentful. She knew if she told him to choose between her and the children, she would lose.
One day, she came up with a plan. She told Lir she was taking the children on a trip to the nearby loch so they could play and swim, but she had evil intentions. While the children were swimming in the lake, she ordered the servants who had accompanied her to drown them. But the servants refused. Infuriated, she started towards the lake to do it herself, but something held her back. Finally, she picked up the Druid’s wand she always carried with her and cursed the children. In an instant, they transformed into swans.
Fionnuala cried out, “What have you done to us?”
“You are swans,” her stepmother said, “and swans you shall stay until the ringing of Christian church bells are heard in Ireland.” Aoife thought for sure the new religion would never take root in Eire.
She also mistakenly believed Lir would love her more with the children out of the way. She told him they drowned but the servants told the king about Aoife’s malicious curse.
Lir tried in every way to get her to reverse it, but she refused. Finally, he banished her from his kingdom. He consulted the Druids for a remedy, but they told him the spell could not be broken except by the conditions Aoife had set. For the rest of his life, Lir spent every day by the loch, watching his children swim. They, in turn, tried to cheer him up by singing. Their music was the most beautiful heard throughout all Ireland.
To protect his children, Lir decreed it against the law for anyone in Ireland to kill a swan. Eventually, he died.
His children remained swimming in that loch for 300 years then they moved to the Straits of Moyle, which lies between Scotland and Ireland. They lived there for another 300 years, then moved to Inis Gluaire, where they spent another 300 years.
After 900 years had passed since Aoife had cursed them, the children of Lir one day heard a sweet sound in the distance. They swam to the shore and heard the ringing of the bells of a Christian church.
Standing next to the church was a monk named Caomhog. To his astonishment, the four swans transformed into elderly humans who collapsed before him from weakness and old age. As he attempted to tend to them, Fionnuala told him the story of how their stepmother cursed them. He blessed them and baptized them. Then the four Children of Lir died. That night, the monk had a dream of four swans ascending to the heavens and he knew the Children of Lir had gone to heaven to be reunited with their parents.
I hope you enjoyed these two jewels from Irish mythology.
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Slan go foil!