Cover art by Howard Johnson
“At Lord O’Neil’s residence, Shane’s Castle, there is a room appropriated to the use of the Banshee, and she often appears there ; sometimes shrouded and muffled in a dark, mist-like cloak. At other times, she is seen as a beautiful young girl, with long, red-gold hair, and wearing a green kirtle and scarlet mantle, brooched with gold… There is no harm or fear of evil in her mere presence, unless she is seen in the act of crying; but this is a fatal sign, and the mournful wail is a sure and certain prophecy that the angel of death is waiting for one of the family.”Lady Wilde, Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages of Ireland, 1890
She is called bean sí in Old Irish or ben síde, “woman of the fairy mound”, bean nighe, ban nigheachain or nigheag na h-àth ”little washer” in Scots Gaelic and cyhyraeth in Welsh. Her name connects her with the burial mounds that dot the landscape where Otherworldy energies inhabit and guard, known as the sídhe. She was and is described most often as a woman dressed in white with a ghostly complexion and long white, gray or red hair, sometimes with a veiled face and red eyes from crying. She can often be seen crouched beneath trees or in a river washing the dying person or deceased clothing or armor. Sometimes she is seen very specifically brushing her hair with a comb. She may be any age, although often described as elderly and may be seen but definitely heard… keening, moaning, crying bitterly or screaming which was said to be a lamentation for someone that is dying soon or had died recently. Sometimes her keen was known in Old Irish as the olagón, a lament or wail. (1) In folk tradition, the means at which her cry was distinguished from normal animal sounds had to do with the liminal time of day in which she appeared (midnight, dusk and dawn) as well as the repetition, melody or emotional impact on who was hearing her cries. It would be a scenario where there was a ‘knowing’, a feeling in our gut or an ancestral recognition. There are over 750 transcripts in the Irish Folk Duchas alone that include the word ‘banshee’.
It’s worth mentioning there was also a possible phenomenon of the fershees, a possible male version of the banshee at least regarding prophecy. They were said by P.W. Joyce to have both…
“…often kept the company of mortals, and became greatly attached to them. Every Samain a banshee used to visit Fingin Mac Luchta, king of South Munster in the second century, and bring him on a round of visits to the shees, to see all the precious things therein. A banshee follower of a mortal was usually calledalennan-shce (‘fairy-lover’), and instances of such attachments are innumerable. Fiachna, king of Ulster, had a familiar or ‘who used to tell him fer-side, fairy-man,’ future events.”
She lets family members know if someone has died regardless of whether they are dying or had died locally or from great distances or even countries away. People today still witness banshee women, often interpreted to be an ancestor, usually appearing in a protective manner when they were very ill or again, just before or when a relative passed on. It’s often said the bean sí had some connection to the family she was mourning and that could see or hear her. Any surname that included the last name beginning with O’ or Mac were said to be particularly associated with the banshee woman phenomenon. From this lens, she or he may have been the remnants or have similarities of a patron and sovereignty goddess or god of specific families or Túatha. It was said that descendants of certain families who had long emigrated were also gifted her presence for this reason such as in a tale told by Lady Wilde…
“…space and time offer no hindrance to the mystic power which is selected and appointed to bear the prophecy of death to a family. Of this a well-authenticated instance happened a few years ago, and many now living can attest the truth of the narrative. A branch of the ancient race of the O’Gradys had settled in Canada, far removed, apparently, from all the associations, traditions, and mysterious influences of the old land of their forefathers. But one night a strange and mournful lamentation was heard outside the house.
No word was uttered, only a bitter cry, as of one in deepest agony and sorrow, floated through the air. Inquiry was made, but no one had been seen near the house at the time, though several persons distinctly heard the weird, unearthly cry, and a terror fell upon the house- hold, as if some supernatural influence had overshadowed them. Next day it so happened that the gentleman and his eldest son went out boating. As they did not return, however, at the usual time for dinner, some alarm was excited, and messengers were sent down to the shore to look for them.
But no tidings came until, precisely at the exact hour of the night when the spirit-cry had been heard the previous evening, a crowd of men were seen approaching the house, bearing with them the dead bodies of the father and the son, who had both been drowned by the accidental upsetting of the boat, within sight of land, but not near enough for any help to reach them in time. Thus the Ban-Sidhe had fulfilled her mission of doom, after which she disappeared, and the cry of the spirit of death was heard no more.”
At the famous battle of Clontarf in 1014, it was said that the sovereignty figure Aoibheall of Craglea, County Clare foretold that Brian Ború would be killed in the conflict. In the Folk Duchas it was fascinatingly mentioned that “…the banshee comes to the O’Briens always since the days of Brian Boru”. (2) In the Táin Bó Fraích, Fraoch mac Idath’s death was foretold by the cries of otherworldly women. One of the earliest mentions of a banshee comes from the Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh, Triumphs of Torlough written by Seán mac Ruaidhrí Mac Craith (the chief historian to the Uí Bhriain dynasty) in approximately 1350. It was said that an army approaching Lough Rasga or Rask…
“…looked on a shining mere, and there they saw the monstrous and distorted form of a lone, ancient hag, that stooped over the bright Lough shore. She was thatched with elf locks, foxy grey and rough like heather, matted and like long sea-wrack, a bossy, wrinkled, ulcerated brow, the hairs of her eyebrows like fish hooks; bleared, water eyes peered with malignant fire between red inflamed lids. The hag was washing human limbs and heads with gory weapons and clothes, till all the lake was defiled with blood, brains and floating hair. Donchad at last spoke.
“What is your name and race, and whose kin are those maltreated dead?” She replied, “I am Bronach of Burren of the Tuatha Dé Danann. This slaughter heap is your army’s heads; your own is in the middle.” The angry men raised their javelins, but she rose on the wind, yelling more and more words of woe till she vanished. “Heed her not,” said Donchad, ” She is a friendly Bodbh of Clan Torlough.” (His opponents)”… So this was to assure his countrymen that she was their friendly banshee and fortelling their deaths instead of his own. Before the evening was out, Donchad and his kindred were all slain as the woman fortold.
What is interesting about the exchange here is the name Bodbh that it is very similar to Badb, an aspect of the great queen Morrígan but also her mention of association to the Tuatha Dé Danann. Many scholars make some connections with this role to the Morrígan, which she fulfills in her role as Badb for the Tuatha Dé Danann as a battle crow flying over battlefields shrieking and prophesying death. However, of course many varied sídhe women maintain this role for their related kin. Other goddesses often related to or said to be banshees were Aine, associated with Knockainy hill in County Limerick as well as Clidna of Carrigcleena and Aebinn or Aibell of Craglea. Clidna was especially said to be the queen over all of the fairies in South Munster. (3) Again, we are harkened to the idea of patron or sovereignty goddesses and gods specific to places and families fulfilling or overlapping similar roles or functions.
“Mrs. McKenna had a sister who was dying and one night “they” were sitting around the fire bewailing. Mrs. McKenna was unmarried at the time and was young. Her sister who died was only 18 years. As they sat at the fire they heard a car pass by and immediately afterwards they heard the most awful screams. They all jumped up and opened the door and looked out thinking “a child or someone” had fallen out of the car. Her brother Johnnie went out on the road but the car had gone on and the screaming ceased. After waiting a considerable length he returned to the house and shut the door. Immediately the crying, wailing, and screaming started again, but this time quite close to the house. He went out again, but it ceased again. On returning again it began again and a third time he went out. After that “it” went round and round the house getting worse and worse and they at last knew it was “The Banshee”. No one was brave enough now to open the door or go it. It went on at intervals during the night. Towards morning it seemed weaker and farther away and finally ceased. The next day the girl died.”J. Mason, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0803, Page 046
In Ireland and Scotland, a traditional part of mourning the dead was and is somewhat related to what the banshee does called caointeoireacht, caoining or keening in Ireland and coronach in Scotland. A bean chaointe, keening woman, sang in deep grief, who was sometimes a family member but other times someone hired. If we go back far enough, this would have been the Druid or bard that would have traditionally filled this role accompanied by other members of the Túath. It is a tradition thought to be related to Irish Sean-nós singing that is not always scripted but typically sung in Irish Gaeilge whether the words are a repeated song or organic and improvised. They would wail and lament over the departed at their funeral as a means of honoring them and to give voice to the deep emotion felt when loved ones pass away. There are very few recordings of these personalized songs but this is in many cases purposeful as it wouldn’t have been or even currently be seen as appropriate to record something so spiritual and personal.
Sometimes incantations were said to avoid the banshee and ultimately, avoid the inevitable call to death such as one recorded by Alexander Carmichael in the Carmina Gadelica (1900)…
“This is for the purpose of keeping away the brownie, the banshee, the ‘peallan,’ and all evil spirits and malign influences from disarranging the thread and the loom. And all this is done with loving care and in good faith, and in prayer and purity of heart…
Bless, O Chief of generous chiefs, My loom and everything a-near me, Bless me in my every action,
Make Thou me safe while I live.
From every brownie and fairy woman,
From every evil wish and sorrow.
Help me, O Thou helping Being,
As long as I shall be in the land of the living.”
There is a similar phenomenon in Brittany as well as Portugal. She is called the kannerezed noz in Brittany. In Iberia and Portugal, she is known as Las Lavanderas, Lavandeiras or Bruxas Lavadeiras. In both lands, the “washerwomen” appear at midnight to wash the clothes of people about to die. They were also typically older women dressed in white.
The banshee was in essence a very personal otherworldly entity with nuanced representation throughout folklore. There are an incredible amount of folkloric aspects surrounding her belief that could be expanded upon. This is merely a scratching of the surface. Her haunting lamentations served as a mournful warning, were undoubtedly respected and feared but not necessarily in a way of being true horror content seeing that often, she was merely sharing in grief. Similarly, ghosts are feared, even when it is an ancestor or possibly, benevolent energy.
- Koch, John. The Celts: History, Life and Culture. ABC-CLIO, 2012. Pg. 86.
- Irish Folk Duchas, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0597, Page 339.
- Joyce, P. W. A Social History of Ireland Vol. 1, Longmans, Green and Co, 1903. Pg. 263.