Irish writers are blessed not only with rhythm and “the miserable Irish Catholic childhood” that Frank McCourt acclaims at the beginning of Angela’s Ashes (“the happy childhood is hardly worth your while,” he says) but also an incredibly rich ancestry of myth and legend. In her 1904 book Gods and Fighting Men, Lady Gregory compiled and edited a large number of these myths.

I first read Lady Gregory’s version of Fate of the Children of Lir in an Irish Literature class in college and was completely smitten. The eponymous children in this story are Fionnuala and her three brothers Aodh, Fiachra, and Conn. After Lir, their father, is widowed he remarries a woman named Aoife. Her jealousy over Lir’s love for his children causes her to turn them into swans. She dooms them to spend nine hundred years in that form, three hundred years in each of three lakes/seas, until blessed by a monk.

Swans are popular in folklore around the world. In Hinduism they are revered for their ability to pass through water without getting wet, metaphorizing a saint’s ability to pass through the world without getting attached. Swans were the mascot of the Spanish-language Modernismo poetry movement from the late nineteen to early twentieth century (Mexican poet Enrique González Martínez published the poem “Wring the swan’s neck” in 1910 to symbolize the end of Modernismo). Wagner’s operas Lohengrin and Parsifal both feature swans prominently.

A surprisingly large number of swan stories are of transformation. The Ugly Duckling recounts the misfortune of a young bird who is harassed until he grows into his adult body of a beautiful swan. Zeus takes on the form of a swan in his rape of Leda, begetting Helen of Troy. In Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, based on old German and Russian legend, princess Odette is turned into a white swan, Odile to a black swan, and Natalie Portman to an Oscar winner.

Children of Lir statue in Dublin

Both innocent and elegant, large but fragile, swans are easily romanticized. Humans disguised as swans hide their terrible curses in muted throats and withstand centuries of punishment with grace. No wonder then, that the story of the children of Lir resonates so deeply with the Irish people who similarly suffered for nine hundred years under British oppression.

A tribute to the children of Lir and the people of Ireland stands in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance in Parnell Square. This statue, added to the park in 1971, symbolizes rebirth and resurrection. For just as the children of Lir ultimately turned back to their human selves after nine hundred years, the Irish are now free of the reign to which they were so long bound.