Many of the great Irish families in Ireland have attached to them their own personal Banshee. Banshee is Gaelic meaning ‘fairy woman,’ bean: woman, and sídhe: fairy. A Banshee’s job is to foretell of impending death either natural or tragic.
Hollywood’s version is usually an old woman with dirty grey hair, long fingernails and rotten teeth, whose blood red eyes are filled with such sorrow and hatred to look into them one would go instantly insane and die. She would stalk her victims wailing and screaming, and if confronted can rip a brave man to death with her claw like hands. Such is Hollywood’s Banshee.
Sometimes a Banshee is only heard 'keening' (wailing) at night whose cry can be so piercing that it shatters glass. In some parts of Leinster, she is referred to as the 'bean chaointe' (keening woman). In Kerry, the keen is experienced as a "low, pleasant singing;” in Tyrone as "the sound of two boards being struck together;” and on Rathlin Island as "a thin, screeching sound somewhere between the wail of a woman and the moan of an owl." When she decides to appear it is usually in one of the aspects of the Celtic goddess of war and death known as 'Radhbh' (young woman), 'Macha' (stately matron), and 'Mor-Rioghain' (raddled old hag), appearing in one of the following forms:
- An old woman with long white hair, red eyes and dressed in a green dress.
- A deathly pale woman with long red hair dressed in a white dress sometimes a shroud.
- A beautiful woman wearing a shroud.
- A beautiful woman with silver-white hair wearing a long shimmering silver dress.
- A headless woman naked from the waist up and carrying a bowl of blood.
The Banshee may also appear washing the blood stained clothes of those who are about to die and is known as the bean-nighe/washing woman, or in one of the animals associated with witchcraft in Ireland such as a hooded crow, stoat (short haired weasel), hare or weasel.
There is a tale titled the Banshee’s Three, that tells almost the same story of the O’Neill Banshee, the O’Donnell Banshee and the O’Brien Banshee being wailing women of great beauty, who act as harbingers of death in the said families.1
Before the baptism of King Cairthinn, (first Christian Prince of his House, about A.D. 430), the ancestors of the Dalcassians may have worshipped Aibhinn on her holy hill, and her equally lovely sister Aine, crowned with meadowsweet, on the tamer mound of Knockaney. Whether, if so, they found her already enthroned at Craglea on their conquest of the district, or whether the conqueror Lugad consecrated the mountains to his patroness, it is now impossible to guess. Aibhill, as banshee, held her own. She is found usurping the place of the ‘Sybil’ in a translation of the Dies Iræ, in unwanted companionship with King David, and she was a commonplace of local threnodies during the eighteenth and even the nineteenth century. In the lake below Rathblamaic in Inchiquin she has been seen in recent years (late as 1943), with the twenty-five other banshees of Clare that call her their queen, washing clothes before any impending disaster.3
High-King Brian Boru’s son, Murrough, consulted Aibhill before the battle of Clontarf, and Aibhill appeared to King Brian during the night of 22 April 1014, and informed him that he would never come away from the battle at Clontarf on the morrow. Of this we are told by Westropp that “News came that his brave son’s standard had fallen, and his page entreated him to ride back to the camp. ‘Oh, God! thou boy,’ cried Brian, ‘retreat becomes us not, and I myself know that I shall not depart alive, for Aibhill of Crag-Liath came to me last night, and she told me that I should be killed today.”4
Irish are not the only people the Banshee foretells doom for. In May, 1318, Richard de Clare, leader of the Normans, was marching to what he supposed would be an easy victory over the O’Brien-O’Deas at Dysert. The English came to the ‘glittering, running water of fish-containing Fergus,’ when they saw a horrible bedlam washing armour and rich robes till the red gore churned and splashed through her hands. Calling an Irish ally to question her, de Clare heard that ‘the armour and clothes were of the English, and few would escape immolation.’ "I am the Water Doleful One. I lodge in the green fairy mounds (sidh) of the land, but I am of the Tribes of Hell. Thither I invite you. Soon we shall be dwellers in one country." Next day de Clare, his son, and nearly all his English troops lay dead upon the fields near the ford of Dysert and for miles over the countryside laid they’re lifeless bodies as they fled.5
For nearly 300 years there is no other Clare Banshee tale, till the famous one of 1642 in the Memoires of Lady Fanshawe, (published in 1665): The Lady Anne Fanshawe was visiting from Scotland the Lady Honora O’Brien who was daughter of the Earl of Thomond, She woke up one night, disturbed by the sound of a voice. She was in a four-poster bed. Drawing aside its curtains she found she was looking straight at the window. There she saw a woman’s face, pale and with huge sad eyes, looking in at her.6
Lady Fanshawe woke her husband she had slept through all of it and then told him on what she had witness. He did not mock her story and told her that such apparitions were well known in Ireland. In the morning, Lady Honora informed her guests that a cousin of hers had died that night in the castle, at about two o’clock in the morning.
She herself had been up all night, but hoped that nothing had disturbed her visitors. Her reasons for concern was that whenever a member of the O’ Brien family was at the point of death, the shape of a woman appeared. She appears in the very room where she had inadvertently lodged her guests. According to Lady Honora, the banshee was the phantom of a woman who had been seduced and then murdered long ago by the castle’s lord. The body had been buried in the grounds beneath the window.
In 1437, King James I of Scotland was approached by an Irish Banshee who foretold his murder at the instigation of the Earl of Atholl.
In 1776, one Harrison R. Lewin went to Dublin on business and was gone a week. In his absence the ‘young people’ went to a friend’s house for the evening. The road passed an old church (Kilchrist), which was unenclosed, standing in an open field. As the party returned under bright moonlight, they were startled by loud keening and wailing from the direction of the ruin. Coming in sight, all clearly saw a little old woman with long white hair and a black cloak running to and fro on the top of the side wall, clapping her hands and wailing. The young men, leaving the girls together on the road, sent some of their number to watch each end of the building, and the remainder entered and climbed up on the wall. The apparition vanished as they approached the church, and, after a careful search, could not be found. The party, thoroughly frightened, hurried home, and found their mother in even greater terror. She had been sitting in the window when a great raven flapped three times at the glass, and, while she told them, the bird again flew against the window. Some days later, news arrived from Dublin that Ross Lewin had died suddenly on the very evening of the apparition and omen.7
Not only the Scot’s king and marauding Normans were visited by Banshees, but the Stamers and Westropp families of English origin as well.
Near Quin, there were numerous ‘authentic instances’ recorded. The Corofin Banshees, however, did not lag behind the age by maintaining aristocratic prejudices, for one, at least, used to sit near the cross road leading to the workhouse and foretell the deaths of the poor.8
The popular belief in Clare, writes Westropp, is that each leading Irish race had a Banshee, Eevul (Aibhill/Aibhinn), the Banshee of the royal O’Briens, ruling over twenty-five other banshees always attendant on her progresses. The stream from Caherminaun to Dough, (the Daelach), was called the ‘Banshee’s Brook,’ and when, as sometimes happens after an unusually dry summer, the water gets red from iron scum, everyone is on the alert to hear the rustling flight of the banshee, (not apparently Eevul), and her attendants through the air. In the prevailing suspense someone generally succeeds, and then there is unrest and fear until a death removes the uncertainty.9
No-one wishes a visit from a Banshee no matter how alluring she is but she does serve a purpose to the family by letting them know that they should start making preparations for a funeral.
2 http://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/folklore/folklore_survey/chapter2.htm ;Thomas Johnson Westropp, A Folklore Survey of County Clare. Hereafter noted as Westropp.
4 St. John D. Seymour and Harry L. Neligan, True Irish Ghost Stories, , at sacred-texts.com