Ireland’s Best Known Spirit – The Banshee
Since its Halloween week I decided to look at Ireland’s best known and most feared spirit, the banshee following on from our article on Did Halloween originate in Ireland? The banshee is a female spirit and is considered to be an omen of death.
The banshee roams the countryside and can be heard wailing when she predicts a death. The word banshee comes from the Irish bean sí (pronounced ban-shee) which translates as woman of the fairy mounds. She can appear in a number of guises, as a young beautiful woman, a stately matron or as an ugly frightening hag. She is usually dressed in a grey or white hooded cloak. While not always seen, her mourning cries can be heard usually at night when someone is about to die. Those who claim to have seen her describe long hair which she runs a comb through, similar to tearing the hair out in anguish.
It is believed by many that she only appears to select number of families, namely the main Irish families the O’ Neills, O’ Connors, O’ Briens, O’ Gradys and Kavanaghs although this list varies depending on who is telling the story!
Coincidentally, I heard of an O’ Connor who had a brush with the banshee. He was cycling between Ballylongford and Tarbert in Co.Kerry when he heard the cries of the banshee by the ruins of Lislaughtin Abbey.
While the banshee will not harm the person she encounters there is another Irish female spirit who isn’t nearly as benign! The Lianhan Sídhe (pronounced lan-hawn shee) is a beautiful woman who attracts men but this love will lead to their downfall.
W.B. Yeats described her in his book Fairy and Folklore of the Irish Peasantry
The Leanhaun Shee (fairy mistress) seeks the love of mortals. If they refuse, she must be their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding another to take their place. The fairy lives on their life, and they waste away. Death is no escape from her. She is the Gaelic muse, for she gives inspiration to those she persecutes. The Gaelic poets die young, for she is restless, and will not let them remain long on earth – this malignant phantom.
Mythology is a complex and fascinating part of Irish culture that has always been of interest to us. Some of the fairy stories and legends are so complicated they’re practically a historical dynasty! There are leprechauns, púcas and fairies that make up countless children’s stories as well as a host of more sinister creatures. In every part of the country there are different variations, omens and tales (some more believable than others) about each creature, particularly ways to keep them away or cause them to do harm to others (known as piseogs). Certain fairies were associated with certain powerful families throughout the country and their appearances have made their way into Gaelic folklore.
The Banshee is one of the more intimidating fairies. She is a fairy woman who appears at the site of an imminent death in the middle of the night and lets out a chilling, high pitched wail. As with all mythological stories and figures, she also appears in Scottish, Welsh, Norse and even American folklore in many different forms and doing many different death related things. Occasionally she is also known as the ‘Bean Chaointe’, or ‘crying woman’.
Origins of the Banshee
The origin of the Banshee is really quite ordinary compared to the tales that surround her. In medieval times, during funerals a woman would take on the role of ‘keener’. Keeners sang sad songs, called ‘caoineadh’ – the Irish word for ‘crying’ – at the graveside. There was good business to be made as a keener, as families would pay very well for a talented one. The best known ones always attended the funerals of the biggest and most well known people and were much sought after, as the more people mourning at a funeral, the greater the person was said to be. For the most powerful families it was a common belief that a ‘bean sidhe’, or ‘fairy woman’ would come to keen at the grave; fairies presumably being more talented singers than any human. The Irish phrase became anglicised to ‘Banshee’ and over time the stories developed and morphed into what we know today. The fact that the keeners were paid in alcohol and often ended up as elderly alcoholic women that were banished from towns and villages also adds to the myth. The first known written record of a Banshee story is Sean MacCraith’s ‘Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh’, or ‘Triumphs of Turlough’.
Originally the Banshee appeared to people who were about to suffer a violent and painful death, such as murder. In later stories, she wailed outside their door at night (usually around wooded areas close by) but was rarely seen. Cynics and realists who claim the story to be nothing more than an old wives’ tale say that the wails are actually just barn owls or vixens calling in the night. If you’ve ever heard either animal, they do sound remarkably similar to a woman screeching! The Banshee was usually described as ugly elderly women dressed in white or grey with long silver hair, and occasionally took the form of a crow, stoat, hare or weasel – typical animals associated with witchcraft in Ireland.
Appearance and Behaviour
The Banshee comes in three possible guises depending on who you talk to or where the stories come from. More often that not she is a crouching hag with a horrible wrinkly face, although in other stories she is a beautiful, ethereal young woman or a stately matron type. In yet more stories she is referred to as the ghost of a murdered woman or a woman who died in childbirth. The three typical guises of the Banshee may respresent the three aspects of the Celtic goddess of war and death; Badhbh, Macha and Mor-Rioghain.
In almost all cases, the Banshee has long silver hair that she is sometimes seen brushing with a comb. For this reason, some people would never pick up a comb lying on the ground for fear of being taken away by fairies. She wears a grey hooded cloak or the white sheet or grave robe of the dead, and her eyes are red from crying. Many believe that she can in fact take on any of the above forms and change from one to the other as she pleases.
Her cry seems to be the subject of much debate; in Leinster, it is said to be so shrill that it shatters glass. Further north in Tyrone she sounds more like two boards being struck together, while in Kerry her call is ‘low, pleasant singing’. Whatever she sounds like, everyone agrees that she can be heard from a great distance. Some report hearing her cry for several nights in a row before a death occurred, while others say they heard her just once, on the night of the death. Her cry rises and falls and lasts for at least a few minutes, varying in intensity.
There have been alleged incidents when the Banshee cried for a person who was in perfect health, but was found dead within a week from some freak accident. The majority of her visits are paid at night, with a small few taking place at noon. The Banshee was usually thought to have once been a normal woman who enjoyed life, was incredibly beautiful and radiated happiness, but some great sorrow overcame her at some point in her life and she became a haggard old woman. She was seemingly very weary of mortals and would disappear at the first sign of any human activity. In fact, she didn’t seem to enjoy the company of anyone, mortal or not, and travelled as a solitary fairy.
When the Banshee moved from place to place, witnesses have heard a fluttering sound similar to birds flying. When she disappeared, all that would be left behind was a cloud of mist. There are several purported ‘Banshee Chairs’ around Ireland; wedge shaped rocks where she would sit and cry for general misfortunes, if there was no death to be attended to that is! When a family emigrated, legend has it the Banshee would follow, or if she didn’t, she would stay at the family’s seat and lament their leaving there.
The Banshee was relatively harmless. Apart from the dread people felt at hearing her cry, the only other fearsome activities she seemed to get up to were knocking on doors or windows. However, there is a legend that her sister spirit, the Lianhan Sidhe or ‘sweetheart fairy’, was somewhat more malicious. She sought the love of mortal men, and their desire for her was so intense that they were driven to madness and ultimately destroyed.
There was also a similar manifestation of the Banshee known as the Bean Nighe, or ‘washing woman’, although this is more attributed to Scottish folklore than Irish. Instead of wailing and crying at night to warn someone of a death, she would instead wash the bloody clothes of the person about to meet their doom in a local water source. Her appearance was generally thought to be the same, although she was sometimes washing her own bloody clothes instead of someone else’s.
Many books on Irish fairy stories say that Banshees were particularly associated with families whose names had Ó or Mac at the start. However, this doesn’t tell us much since practically every family name in Ireland at that time was an Ó or a Mac! On the other hand, some legends claim that she could only cry for five major families; the O’Neills, O’Briens, O’Connors, O’Gradys and Kavanaghs.
The great O’Briain family were said to be frequented by a Banshee with the name of ‘Eeevul’ (sounds a bit too much like ‘evil, doesn’t it?), who ruled 25 other banshees that followed her wherever she went. This gave rise to the belief that if several banshees were heard at once, it meant the imminent death of someone very powerful.
The O’Donnell family’s Banshee apparently lived on a rock overlooking the sea at Dunluce Castle. She cried not specifically for one death, but for all the misfortunes the family had ever had and ever will have. The O’Neill’s Banshee would cry out from the Coile Ultagh (Ulster Wood) and could be heard from the other side of Lough Neagh, where their castle stood. Her name was Maeveen and she even had a special room set aside for her in the castle.
There are two contradictory reasons why the Banshee followed these great families; some believe that she did so purely to bring misery on them with her incessant wailing, while others believe she was a friend of the family who was utterly distraught at their having lost someone they loved.
As well as warning families of an upcoming death, the Banshee also liked to cry at the crowning of a true king. One reported case of this happening was at the crowning of legendary Brian Boru who overthrew the O’Neills and began the O’Brien dynasty. Possibly the only example of a human Banshee appearance was in 1437, when a woman purporting to be a ‘seer’ approached King James I of Scotland and correctly predicted his murder at the instigation of the Earl of Atholl.
In 1801 the Banshee paid a visit to the Commander in Chief of the British forces in Ireland. He had attended a party at Dublin Castle and invited a few guests back to his home in Mount Kennedy, Co. Wicklow, afterwards. These guests, Sir Jonah Barrington and his wife, woke up at 2:30 am to what he described as ‘plaintive sounds’ coming from outside his window. His wife and a maid were also awoken by it, and the sound later turned into the name ‘Rossmore’ being screeched three times. The next morning, they were told that a servant, having heard odd sounds from Rossmore’s room at 2:30am, entered to find him dying. Spooky!