Otherwordly Claddagh Swans

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The west bank of the Corrib, by the old Claddagh fishing village, is home to a colony of mute swans and upwards of 100 may be seen in summer.

In the 1930s, a Claddagh fisherman told Father Leo Ward of Notre Dame University that the swans were newcomers: “they came here only a few years ago, there was just a pair at first, and now they are very numerous” and that “they say it is not luck to kill ‘wan’ of them.”

In Irish folk belief swans were thought to represent the souls of the dead so it was considered bad luck to harm or kill them. It was said that anyone who killed a swan would be dead within a year. In the 1940s, a local fisherman scolded a young boy who was throwing stones at the swans in the Claddagh Basin: “Do you know who those birds are? Well I’ll tell you. They are the souls of your ancestors. When the old fishermen died, their souls left their bodies, took the forms of swans and returned to the basin to watch over the boats”.

One widely-held belief was that the mute swan was a silent bird but that it sang sweetly just before it died, and so the word ‘swansong’ came to mean a final performance before retirement or death. In reality, mute swans are not silent – they grunt, whistle and hiss!

Swans also feature commonly in European mythology, folklore and fairy tales. In Greek mythological story of ‘Leda and the Swan’, the god Zeus takes the form of a swan to seduce Leda. The medieval Irish legend the ‘Children of Lir’ tells the story of the second wife of the sea-god, Lir, who turns her four stepchildren into swans. ‘The Six Swans’, a fairy tale collected by the German Grimm Brothers, and the ‘Wild Swans’ by Hans Christian Anderson are quite similar stories.

Visit “The Corrib: Myth, Legend & Folklore” exhibition at Galway City Museum, which has been beautifully illustrated by artist Sadie Cramer, to learn more fascinating tales from our town. Walking trails are also available to take away.

Please note that Galway City Museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday with four daily time-slots: 10am, 11.30am, 2pm and 3.30pm. Admission remains FREE but visitors require a ticket for their visit. Tickets can be booked online by visiting www.galwaycitymuseum.ie which will need to be presented either in printed format or on mobile phones at the main entrance to the Museum. The number of visitors will be strictly controlled and those attending will have to adhere to correct social distancing and health and safety protocols so that everyone can enjoy the exhibitions in a safe and comfortable environment. For any further information contact museum@galwaycity.ie or phone +353 (0)91 532 460.

Thank you to artist Sadie Cramer and especially to William Henry, who so kindly shared his stories. This project has received funding from Creative Ireland, through Galway City Council.

Brendan McGowan
11 September 2020


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