USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Irish legend’
Folk Beliefs
Tales /märchen

The Children of Lir

I mean I don’t remember who told me honestly. It was probably my mum or dad. They might have told us in school as well. There are two of the endings that are familiar to me, but I couldn’t say for certain which I’m supposed to know. There are a lot of parts of the story that…well I don’t know… it’s very Irish in itself. So more or less once upon a time there was a king in Ireland called Lir. Erm…anyway the king is given from someone else… a guy called Bodb… given a daughter to marry called Aoibh (pronounced Eve) and they have four children… a girl and three sons…erm…and the mother died. So to keep Lir …basically Lir was devastated and missed his wife. So to keep Lir happy, that guy Bodb gave him another woman called Aoife and Aoife married Lir and this is literally Irish version of the wicked stepmother in Cinderella. She was jealous of Lir’s love for his children. So one day she said, “Let’s go swimming in the lake” to the four children. But there are different versions of this ending as well but this is my version…the version I have been told. I’m not really sure which one I’m supposed to know or even which one is the correct ending. Anyways…erm…so she took them off swimming, and when they were in the lake, she used a spell to turn them into swans, and they were supposed to have to roam three different lakes for three hundred years as swans… and to end the spell, the children (now swans) would have to be blessed by a monk… so anyway they were blessed by a monk after nine hundred years and became humans again, but they were super old by that time and died. This is a pretty scary story to be told when you’re young. That’s my version but, again, there are several different ending to that tale, and I’m not sure anyone really knows what the correct ending to this story is. Another one of the endings is that the children were each tied together with invisible silver chains to keep them together, but the children were able to break free of the chains when they transformed into the old withered people. Also there is another version that talks about hearing a bell… and the bell being a sort of a moment for the swans/children to become human again. Another version is that the priest found them and another that they just withered and died. No one really knows what the right ending is. But anyways yeah a lot of these old Irish stories are kind of depressing…it’s a sad, scary story, especially to be told from such a young age, like I was, but yeah… that’s mostly all I know.

This legend has also been published in A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology by James MacKillop and titled “Oidheadh Chlainne Lir,” which can be found at


Background information: My aunt, Lynda Redington, was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, and she is married to my father’s brother, and they now reside in London. She stated this was fairly prominent legend that, as she already mentioned, was even told to them in schools. It is so prominent that she is not even sure where she first heard it – from her parents or in school. For her, it is just one of many intense and dark stories that make up Irish folklore in general, as she mentioned above that most Irish legends are fairly depressing. This story itself does not have very happy ending, as these children are kidnapped and are trapped on a lake for hundreds of years, only to die as old people just as they are brought back to their original human form. I think this story is incredibly interesting and it represents the main idea of folklore well in its multiple endings, and how most people are unsure of how it really ends. This really exemplifies the idea of multiplicity and variation to a point where people are unsure of which end to tell. The context of the performance was via FaceTime as my aunt is very far away. However, it was a good means of getting the story, and I was able to record her very well and word for word.


The Naming of Cú Chulainn

Informant: “I heard an Irish legend, it was the story of a guy named Cú Chulainn. He wasn’t originally called Cú Chulainn because Cú means dog. But, he was the most fearsome warrior in all the land. But I am getting ahead of myself; sorry I am a horrible story teller. Ok so, he grew up as a farm boy and there was an elite group of warriors and he ran all the way across Ireland to try out for them and he blew everybody out of the water and he was this super feared warrior and whatnot and people would just surrender if they knew he was coming. But he was invited to a party for one of the lords and his military general or whatever was there and asked him to grab somebody so he left on a quest, and when he came back the lord had the most feared dogs in the land and the dogs attacked him and he killed the dogs, but they were these prized dogs. So, in order to make amends for him killing his hosts dogs, he told him I’ll be your dog, and so he was the lords dog in the sense that he would stand out and guard the place and that’s how he became called Cú Chulainn.”

The informant comes from a very small town in California. The informant states that “there is nothing to do there, it is just a small town and the biggest thing we have is a Walmart.” The informant first heard this tale when she went to Ireland on a school trip last spring break and it was told to her by one of the people she met in her group. This other member told the informant many different stories, but she remembers this one “because I had the song on my Ipod and they were telling the story of it” and she was very excited that she had heard a reference to the tale before.

The song “Blood of Cú Chulainn” was used as the theme of a movie known as “The Boondock Saints” (1999) by Troy Duffy. A picture of the movie is attached. is a link to the song.


After looking up Cú Chulainn, I found that his name was originally Sentanta, and there are many stories and legends associated with this epic Irish hero that extend far beyond how he received his name. Cú Chulainn is part of a series of legends and stories that span his life, somewhat similar to Greek heroes like Achilles. He noted in Irish mythical sagas for his superhuman strength and amazing deeds on the battlefield. From what I could find, his story was originally passed down by word of mouth, until it was written down more than 800 years ago in the Táin Bó Cúailnge.

In fact, the story is so popular that it was drafted into a five, short animated, bilingual series on BBC (and thus a folk-loreisthmus):  This series follows the hero and tells the tales of some of his deeds as he grows up. Apparently, this tale is used in Irish schools to teach language and literacy.

This BBC series tells a variant of the naming of Cú Chulainn which states:

“Setanta is invited with his friends to a great feast but he starts to daydream and is left behind. By the time he arrives the feast has begun, the gates are locked and worse, the guard dog attacks him. Setanta kills the dog by driving a hurley ball (sliotar) down its throat. The host, Culann, the blacksmith is furious at the loss of the fiercest dog in Ireland. Setanta offers his services as replacement and is duly renamed, Cú Chulainn, Culann’s Hound.”


Another longer variant of this story states that:

“While at home with his parents at Murtheimne Plain, the five-year-old Setanta heard exciting rumours about a school in Armagh called the Macra. It was run by the King Conchobhar of Armagh to train the best young boys of the day to be great warriors for Ulster, called the Red Branch Knights. Setanta made a big impression at the Macra. One day in particular, he was down at the playing field, playing a game called Shoot-the-Goal against 150 of his classmates. All 150 of them together couldn’t stop any of his shots into the goal with his sliotar, nor could they score a goal against him.

The king was going to a special feast that night, organised for only the most important warriors in Ulster by the blacksmith Culann. On his way, he passed the field and watched the boys playing. He was so impressed with Setanta’s domination of the other boys that he decided to invite him to the feast too. But Setanta was completely caught up in the game and replied, ‘I haven’t had my fill of play yet, friend Conchobhar. I’ll follow you on.’ The king agreed and went on his way. When the king arrived at the feast, the host welcomed him and asked whether there was anyone to come after him. King Conchobhar forgot that he had invited Setanta and replied that there was no one else. So Culann released his savage hound to guard the premises from attackers while the guests feasted. This was no ordinary dog. Three chains were needed to hold it, with three men on each chain.

Soon Setanta arrived, playing with his hurley and sliotar as he travelled. On seeing him, the hound ran out with his ferocious teeth shining in the dark. At this stage, the men feasting could hear what was happening, but they could only watch from the door because the dog was too fast to stop. They were sure this was the end for Setanta. However, in a flash, Setanta raised his hurley and thwacked his sliotar with great force at the dog. His aim was perfect, as the ball ripped into its mouth and through its body, killing it instantly. Culann was relieved that Setanta had survived the encounter, but sad to have lost such a great guard dog. To make up for killing him, young Setanta promised to guard Culann’s land until a new puppy had been reared. Impressed with this promise, those at the feast agreed that Setanta should be given a new name. They called him Cúchulainn, which means ‘the Hound of Culan’. Still only a young boy, Setanta was known by this name from then onwards. Cúchulainn had numerous adventures after that. He became the best Red Branch Knight and did King Conchobhar proud.”

( For more information visit this website:

Although the informant says that she is not experienced story teller and thus would be considered a passive folklore bearer. It is interesting to see what parts of the tale she remembers and why she remembers it, especially the version that she gives in relation to the versions that can be found online because this tale is widely drafted and has many different variations. This story and the one that the informant told share many similarities; although, the informant’s story is not set when Cú Chulainn is a young man, but after he has already received much recognition and no mention is made regarding the duration Cú Chulainn is to serve the lord. In addition, the informant includes more than one dog, although the other versions have only one.

Picture of a young Cu Chulainn

"The Boondock Saints" Movie Cover

 The Boondock Saints. Dir. Troy Duffy. Perf. Willem Dafoe, Sean Patrick Flanery, and Norman Reedus. Franchise Pictures, Brood Syndicate, Fried Films, 1999. Film.

Image of the website containng the BBC TV series

Cú Chulainn. BBC. November 2012. Television.



Form of Folklore: Folk Narrative (Legend)

Informant Bio: The informant was born and raised primarily in Glendale, California; he only left the United States for a two year period (from age fourteen to fifteen) to live in London, England. Most of his knowledge of folklore is from his mother (of Irish decent), his father (of Persian-Armenian decent), and media such as the internet and television. Context: The interview was conducted in the living room of another informant’s house in the presence of two other informants.

Item: Well um… this is one of the Irish legends my mom used to tell me about. About a young warrior named Setanta, who’s kind of an Irish hero. And he was raised by his father to be the greatest hunter, the greatest fisher, that there ever was, you he was kinda one with the wilderness… great in all these areas. And he had this ambition of joining the Red Branch Knights… a kind of mythical Irish heroes, that weren’t kinda named individuals, just like an order of great knights of the land heroes. And when he becomes old enough, his father gives him… um… I think a sling and a magic ball that he’s got to go into the wilderness and kind of prove himself before he becomes a member of the Red Branch Knights. And while he’s going, he happens across a dog. And the dog is really aggressive and territorial and he fights the dog and kills it with the sling and the ball. And it turns out that this is a famous dog, this famous guard dog of the area of Cullan, this is the official… the hound of Cullan. He’s just killed this famous dog in combat. And the owner of the dog, the lord of the castle, comes out, he’s like “what’s going on, you just killed my dog”. And because he’s such an honorable soldier, been trained so well by his father, he offers to take the guard dogs place. Setanta, he assumes the name of Cuchulain, he becomes the hound of Cullan, guarding the place. And this kinda cements his legend and lets him join the Red Branch Knights later on. It’s a nice Irish hero story.

Informant Comments: The informant’s mother told him about this legend. He believes that there is some partial truth to the tale. Most likely, he thinks, the Red Branch Knights probably existed but were glorified in the legend out of proportion; their doings and achievements seeming more than in reality. He believes it is possible for Setanta to have existed and to have become the hound of Cullan, but does not have any reason to say that his legend is completely true or completely untrue.

Analysis: This legend is famously told in Ireland and amongst Irish communities. Honor, respect, and strength are key elements in the legend of Cuchulain. According to the legend Setanta was raised to be strong and to become a member of the Red Branch Knights (an honorable position). This is physical strength, which is also apparent when he is able to kill the large hound. Beyond physical strength, inner strength, respect and honor are demonstrated by Setanta when he offers to take the hound’s place. Whether the legend of Cuchulain is true or not, it is clear that the legend is intended to uphold virtues of having inner and physical strength, honor, and respect.

Annotation:  The legends of Cuchulain can be found in “Mythastrology:  Exploring Planets and Pantheons” by Raven Kaldera (page 203).