The Bean-Sidhe (woman of the fairy) may be an ancestral spirit appointed to forewarn members of certain ancient Irish families of their time of death. According to tradition, the banshee can only cry for five major Irish families: the O'Neills, the O'Briens, the O'Connors, the O'Gradys and the Kavanaghs. However, there have been some others; intermarriage has since extended this select list.
Whatever her origins, the banshee chiefly appears in one of three guises: a young woman, a stately matron or a raddled old hag. These represent the triple aspects of the Celtic goddess of war and death, namely Badhbh, Macha and Mor-Rioghain. She usually wears either a grey, hooded cloak or the winding sheet or grave robe of the unshriven dead. She may also appear as a washer-woman, and is seen apparently washing the blood stained clothes of those who are about to die. In this guise she is known as the Bean-Nighe (washing woman). Although not always seen, her mourning call is heard, usually at night when someone is about to die.
In 1437, King James I of Scotland was approached by an Irish seeress or banshee who foretold his murder at the instigation of the Earl of Atholl. This is an example of the banshee in human form. There are records of several human banshees or prophetesses attending the great houses of Ireland and the courts of local Irish kings. In some parts of Leinster, she is referred to as the Bean-Chaointe (keening woman) whose wail can be so piercing that it shatters glass. 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".
The banshee may also appear in a variety of other forms, such as that of a hooded crow, stoat, hare and weasel - animals associated in Ireland with witchcraft. Ireland is a country filled with myths, legends and traditions. The Banshee is said to be an Irish death spirit, and when several wail together it foretells the death of someone who is very great or holy.
So what (or who) is the Banshee ? Well, Irish tradition describes the Banshee as having long streaming hair and a grey cloak over a green dress. Her eyes are firery red which continually weep. In the book 'The Memories of Lady Fanshawe', who lived from 1625-76, there is a first hand account of a Banshee, that appeared to her when she was staying with Lady Honor O'Brien (no relation I think !) She stayed there for three nights. This is her account......
"On the first night I was awaken at about 1.00 a.m. I heard a voice that woke me. I drew the curtain back and in the casement of the I saw by the light of the Moon, a woman leaning into the window, through the casement, in white, with red hair and a pale and ghastly complexion. She spoke loud and in a tone I had never heard. 'A Horse' she spoke and with that she took a sigh, more like the wind than breath she vanished, and to me the body looked more a thick cloud than substance. I was so much frightened that my hair stood on end and my night clothes feel from my body".
It turned out that around 2.00 a.m. a cousin of the owner (O'Brien) had died. Also, sometime later it was learnt that the so called Banshee resembled a woman who was murdered by the previous owner of the house and flung down the garden well after her being found to be pregnant. Some 200 years later Lady Wilde wrote a chapter in her book, 'Ancient Legends of Ireland' on the beliefs about the Banshee. She writes :-
"Sometimes the Banshee assumes the form of some swift singing virgin of the family who died young and, has been given the mission by the invisible powers to become the harbinger of coming doom to her mortal kindred; or she may be seen at night as a shrouded woman, crouched beneath the trees with a veiled face; or flying past in the moon-light, crying bitterly with a cry so mournful beyond all other sounds on Earth, and betokens certain death to some member of the family. She is often heard during the silence of night".
In Ireland different accounts of the Banshee have been handed down from generation to generation. In fact, two different accounts have been handed down to myself by my father. When I first heard these stories I was more than a little sceptical of their authenticity, but some years later my grand-father told me exactly the same stories on a visit to Ireland. The first is as follows :-
My father was brought up in Co. Cork in Ireland and lived his early years in a little village called Aghada until he moved to England in 1956. He was a farmer, like his father before him, (my grand-father), and every Friday night he would visit his uncles house in a village not far from Aghada called Farsid. Every Friday there would be my father, grand-father, his brother and my fathers cousin Tom O'Brien and a few of the other local farmers would go and play cards to the early hours of the morning. On one particular night, about 1.30 a.m. they were all playing cards. My father was the first to hear it.....
The sound of a Banshee. He heard the sudden shriek outside the house, he described it as a cross between a cat crying and a baby screaming. Everyone in the room heard to tremendous sound and the hair on the back of their hands and neck stood on end. They were all terrified. The card game came to an abrupt halt just before a second cry. This time coming from just outside the front door. Their fears were justified when at that very moment there was a loud knocking on the front door accompanied by yet another terrifying shriek. For some profound reason, Tom O'Brien got up to answer the door when my grand-father screamed out 'Don't answer the Bloody door for God's sake'! My grand-father was a no nonsense man and a hardy soul. It turns out that this was not the first time he had encountered a Banshee and was the only one who seemed unimpressed with the whole episode.
Needless to say, the door was never opened that night, not until the morning sun crept under the door. Everyone had stayed the whole night rather than braving a brisk walk home in the darkness. Sure enough... Two days later, my father heard that his uncle had died......
The other account concerns a friend of my fathers who was also a farmer from the same village. Almost every farm back then had a well somewhere on the land. My fathers friend had a well conveniently right outside his back door. One day, in the early hours of October 1951, he went out to the well to get some water for a sick calf which he was attending throughout the night. As he approached the well he could see that someone was already there. As he got closer he saw that it was a woman sat on the steps. She was combing her hair and was dressed in what seemed like a silk gown of grey and she seemed to be humming a tune. Of course, this was a strange sight at this time of the morning. He cried out 'What the Devil are you doing here' ? At that, the woman stood up and struck him across the face with an almighty blow. He cowered for a moment and lifting his hands from his face he noticed that the woman ha simply vanished.
Then all of a sudden he heard a terribly loud shriek. For the rest of his life he had been blinded in one eye, which was coincidentally the same side of his face that was struck. As you can well imagine, I never believed the story,...... well, not until I met the gentleman whilst visiting relatives in Ireland. The story was confirmed with accuracy. My fathers friend, John O'Driscoll was in fact blind in one eye and was a fun character and liked a joke, that is, until he died in 1993.
John always use to say, 'If I'd said 'What in God's name are you doing here' ?, he may have ended up with excellent eyesight in both eyes.......
These two stories go to illustrate that if you ask any Irish family about the Banshee, you will here many similar tales. I don't know weather there is a messenger of doom in Ireland, nor if it is just in the hearts and minds of the Irish people which has been inbred with each generation. What I do know is that my grand-father died in September 1996 at the age of 93, and my aunt Mary O'Brien said that the night before he passed away, she heard the cry of the Banshee in the distance.......?
Memories are the dearest possessions a man can ever have!
Compiled by Noel O'Brien.