The evil stepmother trope is very common, and you probably know of at least one story that includes a stepmother that has some sort of vendetta against her stepchildren. The stepmother in the Irish Myth “The Children of Lir” makes Lady Tremaine, the evil stepmother in Cinderella, look like a saint. Before I explain how this tale’s stepmother is possibly the worst stepmother in all of literature, I am going to give a little context to help you better understand this story. The tale “The Children of Lir” is one of many stories that make up The Irish Invasion Myths which includes many tales of the early history of Ireland. The stories in The Irish Invasion Myths are folklore that has been passed down from generation to generation and consists of tales of gods, goddesses, magic, fairies, and even evil stepmothers. Now that you have a little background knowledge of The Irish Invasion Myths lets dive into the story of “The Children of Lir”.
You might be asking yourself “Who is Lir?” this is a story about his children after all so it might be helpful to know who he is. Lir was a Danaan divinity or god who was the father of the sea-god Mananan (Mananan is not one of the children mentioned in this story). Lir married two sisters, the second being Aoife (pronounced Eefa) who is the infamous evil stepmother I have been raving about. Aoife did not have any children but Lir’s former wife had four children, one of them being a girl named Fionuala, and Aoife was extremely jealous of these four children. Lir loved his kids so much and devoted a lot of attention to them and Aoife did not like this at all. Here is the first red flag with Aoife and a common characteristic of evil stepmothers, being jealous of your stepchildren for their father loving them. This jealousy isn’t what makes Aoife special, but I wanted to note it because I find this concept to be absurd, can adults stop being jealous of children it’s a little ridiculous. I digress. Because of this insatiable jealousy that Aoife was experiencing, she decided that in order to get the attention she wanted from her husband she would have to destroy her stepchildren.
We’ve all been jealous of someone and if you say you haven’t your lying, but deciding that you must destroy the person or people that you are jealous of seems a little extreme right? So, Aoife decides that she has to take the children away from their father so she can destroy them. She takes them to a neighboring Danaan king, Bōv the Red, and orders her attendants to kill the children. KILL THEM! Aoife tries to kill her four stepchildren because she is jealous of them, that is pretty evil if you ask me. Well the attendants refuse to kill the children so you think they are safe right? Wrong. She decides to take matters into her own hands, this is where things take an interesting turn, and tries to kill them herself but “her womanhood overcame her”. There are obviously a lot of issues with this statement so I’m not going to get into it but what I am going to say is that it is a little disappointing. I mean yes, it’s good the children aren’t being killed but for Aoife to have all of this disdain and resentment towards her stepchildren just for her “womanhood” to be what stops her from killing them is a little misogynistic if you ask me. Even though Aoife spares the four children’s lives that doesn’t mean she just let them run back home to their father. No, she casts a spell on the children turning them into white swans and says that they must spend 300 years on Lake Derryvaragh, 300 years on the Straits of Moyle (between Ireland and Scotland), and 300 years on the Atlantic by Erris and Inishglory.
Just to recap Aoife’s wicked ways, she is jealous of her four stepchildren because of the love they receive from their father, so she tries to kill them and when that doesn’t work, she turns them into swans and forces them to remain that way for 900 years. I would say that the children of Lir would trade Aoife for Cinderella’s stepmother in a heartbeat. When the children do not arrive at Bōv’s palace he questions Aoife about their whereabouts and when he learns what she did to them he turns her into a demon of air and flies away shrieking. What is a demon of air? Your guess is as good as mine but what I do know is that is the last we hear about her in this tale. So, after Aoife ruined four children’s lives and probably Lir’s life she is just turned into some demon and allowed to fly away. For all we know she could be out there torturing every stepchild in Ireland. If you’re a stepchild that lives in Ireland, I am sorry. Because of all of these horrendous things she does to her stepchildren Aoife should win the award for the evilest evil stepmother whose story has ever been told.
Even though Aoife’s story stops here I am going to tell you the rest of the story because I couldn’t leave you wondering how it ends now could I? Now that Aoife has been turned into some sky demon Bōv and Lir set out to find the children. As we know they are in Lake Derryvaragh, where they will be for 300 years, but they are not normal swans. The children/swans are capable of human speech and still have the characteristic Danaan gift of making beautiful music (Danaan deities were known for their musical skill). The time at Lake Derryvaragh was not bad to the children, people came from all parts of Ireland to hear the music and it was a time of peace for the land. These 300 would be the best of their time spent as swans and the worst was yet to come. After the first 300 years was over, they had to move on to the Straights of Moyle. Here they suffered immensely of loneliness, the cold, and storms. At times their feathers would freeze to the rocks on the cliff and they would be separated during storms. It is safe to say that this trial had a lot more hardship than the first. Once the second set of 300 years was finished the children/swans moved to the shores of Mayo where they also suffered greatly, in this place is where they met a farmer named Evric who is said to be the one who told and preserved their story. The story takes a very odd turn here, but it is basically over. In this place they meet a hermit who essentially converts them to Christianity, and they sing the offices of the Church together. Under the Hermit’s care a man tries to steal the children/swans for his soon to be wife because she had her of their great beauty and song. During this attempted kidnapping is when they change from their swan form however, they do not change into Danaan divinities but withered, very old humans on the brink of death. The Hermit baptizes them then they die and are buried together in the same grave and that is the end of this tale.
The next time you watch Cinderella or any other story that involves an evil stepmother, before you feel sorry for the stepchildren ask yourself “Has this evil stepmother tried to kill her stepchildren then turn them into swans to face 900 years of suffering just to be stripped of your deity status and die a shriveled old human?” If the answer is no then they are probably better off with their stepmother than the children of Lir were with theirs.