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Ireland’s Swans

Ireland’s  Swans –  A graceful and myth rich creature, John Keane discusses the swan in Ireland

Mute Swans on the Grand Canal

A large flock of Mute swans, approximately 50, arrives at Inchicore in September and is present during the winter on the Grand Canal at Davitt Road. This flock consists of young non-mated birds.  Mute swans can be found all along the canal, in small groups and mated pairs.

Swans are not welcome on other swans’ territories and young swans leave their parents in the autumn. They are chased off the territory of mature swans, which are in monogamous pairs, and form winter flocks from October onwards. They will stay in these flocks for several years before, at the age of four or five years old, they find a mate and find their own territory. Cities and towns are attractive for swans because the water tends to be warmer and also because people feed them. This extra food is important because natural food is scarcer in the winter.

Their staple diet is water plants which they graze from the bottom of waterways and also cereals such as wheat which they graze on from agricultural land but they will also eagerly feed on bread and porridge which people give to them.

Swan Species and Behaviour

Mute swans can be distinguished from the two other swan species found in Ireland by their prominent orange bills and noticeable curved necks and are the most commonly found species of swan in Ireland. The Whooper swan has a yelllow bill and according to the International Swan Census in January 2020, more than 14,000 were recorded in Ireland. The Bewick swan has a dark bill with a yellow triangular patch at its base and is an extremely rare winter visitor from Siberia. Only 12 specimens were recorded in Ireland, in county Wexford, according to the International Swan Census in January 2020. This is a drastic fall in numbers from more than 2,000 in the 1980’s and has been caused by changing climate patterns.

Of the three species of swan which are found in Ireland, the Mute swan, so-called because they are less vocal than other swan species, is the only one which is found all year round. The other two species, the Whooper Swan and the Bewick swan are migratory and arrive in Ireland from colder regions such as Iceland and Siberia in the autumn and overwinter here before returning north in the spring.

Male mute swans (known as cobs) are larger than females (known as pens) and have a larger black knob at the base of their beak. Their young, known as cygnets, have a fluffy, dark down, which is replaced by the characteristic white feathers as they mature.

Mute swans are very protective of their nests and young and will attack other swans or even dogs which intrude and threaten them or their young. They will peck ferociously at intruders, beat them with their powerful wings and get on their backs and try to drown them.

Swans in Irish Legend

Apart from the natural beauty of these birds, swans also have held a deep emotional attachment for generations of Irish people because of the role they play in ancient Irish legends. Within the tales of the Children of Lir, the Wooing of Etain and the Dream of Oenghus, the transformation of the central characters into swans provides an insight into the importance of swans to the ancient people of Ireland.

The most famous and well-known legend is the Children of Lir, in which four siblings, a girl and three boys, are transformed into swans by their wicked stepmother and have to spend nine hundred years as swans before finally returning to their human form, although old and wizened. After being baptized by a monk named Malachi, they die and are buried together. Today a large bronze sculpture in the Garden of Remembrance in Parnell Square commemorates this tale.

Cygnus: The Swan Constellation

There is another reason why swans were important to the ancient Irish. That reason is the presence of the star constellation known as Cygnus in the northern winter sky. Erastosthenes, a scholar and chief librarian  at the Library of Alexandria, writing in the 3rd  century BC wrote that the Greeks named this constellation Kyknos (the Swan) but it was also known as Ornis (the Bird).

Furthermore, this constellation appears to be represented within the structures of two of Irelands most significant megalithic monuments; the Fourknocks mound and the world famous mound at Newgrange, both of which are in County Meath.

The inner chamber of Fourknocks chamber has three internal recesses, which when viewed from above, give it a cross shape, much like the much larger internal chamber at Newgrange. Anthony Murphy, author of Island of the Setting Sun, speculates that the cruciform shape of both of the inner chambers of the mounds is related to the cruciform shape of the Cygnus constellation. In addition to this, the asymmetrical shape of the cruciform passage at Newgrange appears to mimic the asymmetrical shape of the cross of the Cygnus constellation.

In addition to this, someone positioned at the end recess of Fourknocks, when Fourknocks was constructed between 3,000-2,500 BC, and looking out of the entrance of the structure in the direction of Newgrange, would see the rising of Deneb (which means ‘tail’ in Arabic), the brightest star of the Cygnus Constellation and tail of Cygnus ,’the swan’, on the night before the winter solstice event at Newgrange. At dawn on December21st, the rising sun penetrates into the interior of the Newgrange mound.  Ancient astronomers would have been able to track the movements of the sun below the horizon by tracking Deneb through the Fourknocks passageway.

More about the Irish legends mentioned in this article can be found at the Bard Mythologies website Bard Mythologies – Discovering Ireland’s Deep Forgotten Wisdom and further exploration of Irelands prehistoric monuments can be done at Anthony Murphy’s Mythical Ireland website Mythical Ireland | New Light on the Ancient Past.

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