A Banshee is a female spirit from Irish mythology who wanders the countryside and whose wailing, shrieking, or keening is believed to be an omen of impending death, usually of a family member.
BACKGROUND, HISTORY AND LORE
A Banshee is a spirit, or fairy woman, from Irish folklore whose scream, called ‘caoine’ meaning ‘keening’ and often heard at night, is believed to be an omen of death. Her scream is said to be warning that there will be ‘an imminent death in the family’ and as Irish families ‘blended over time’ some reportedly believe that each family has its own Banshee.
Accounts of Banshees reportedly date back as early as the 1300’s ‘to the publication of the Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh’ (Triumphs of Turlough), by Sean mac Craith, which contains accounts of ‘three spirit women’. The women were ‘Sovereignty of Erin’ who was ‘of surpassing loveliness’, and two others called ‘Dismal’ and ‘Water Dismal’ who were ‘of loathsome hideousness’.
Reportedly the hags ‘probably survive’ while the Sovereignty ‘perished’ and Bronach (‘the sorrowful or dismal one’) ‘of Ceann Boirne’ was known as the ‘Hag of Black Head’ and was believed to be able to appear in ‘the dark before sunrise’ and ‘fortell destruction by words or hideous action’.
Supposedly, when the supporters of Prince Murchad O’Brien invaded the territory of his rival when approaching Lough Rasga (now known as Rask) ‘they looked on the shining mere, and there they saw the monstrous and distorted form of a lone, ancient hag, that stooped over the bright Lough shore’.
The woman was described as being ‘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’. She is also described as having ‘bleared, watery eyes peered with malignant fire between red inflamed lids’, a ‘great blue nose, flattened and wide, livid lips, and a stubbly beard.’ The writer reportedly also included detail ‘many too disgusting to copy’. The ‘hag’ was seen to be ‘washing human limbs and heads with gory weapons and clothes, till all the lake was defiled with blood, brains, and floating hair’.
Mentions of banshees can also be found in Norman literature from around that time as well. However, some sources say that historians have ‘traced the first stories of the Banshee’ back to the 8th century and that these were based on ‘a tradition where women sang a sorrowful song to lament someone’s death’.
Other sources claim that the ‘idea of generic banshee behavior and fictional tales about them’ seem to start around 1860-1870 after ‘the earlier firsthand encounter stories become well known across Europe in the Victorian era’.
The name of the Banshee is ‘connected to the mythologically important mounds that dot the Irish countryside’ and in Old Irish is called ‘ben síde’ or ‘baintsíde’ meaning ‘woman of the fairy mound’ or ‘fairy woman’.
In some parts of Leinster, Banshees are referred to as ‘The Bean Chaointe’ (meaning ‘keening woman’ or ‘crying woman’) whose wail ‘can be so piercing that it shatters glass’. In Scottish folklore there is a similar creature called the ‘Bean Nighe or Ban Nigheachain’ (meaning ‘little washerwoman’) or ‘Nigheag Na H-àth’ (meaning ‘little washer at the ford’) and is seen ‘washing the bloodstained clothes or armour of those who are about to die’. In Norse and American folklore, and in Welsh folklore a similar creature is reportedly known as the ‘Cyhyraeth’.
The Bean Nighe from Scottish folklore would, instead of ‘wailing and crying’ at to warn of someone’s death, ‘wash the bloody clothes of the person about to meet their doom in a local water source’, or her own bloody clothes, but her appearance is generally believe to be the same as the Banshee.
Banshees are believed to roam the countryside, usually at night, and to always appear as, sometimes ‘ghostly’ and sometimes ‘solid’, human females that are reportedly capable of ‘supernaturally disappearing’. It’s also believed by some that if a Banshee is spotted ‘she will vanish into a cloud of mist and this action creates a noise similar to that of a bird flapping its wings’.
“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.”https://www.claddaghdesign.com/history/irelands-best-known-spirit-the-banshee/ (Claddagh Design, 2018)
There are also several ‘Banshee Chairs’ around Ireland which are ‘wedge shaped rocks’ where it’s believed a Banshee would ‘sit and cry for general misfortunes if there was no death to be attended to’. If a Banshee’s family moved it was believed that their Banshee would follow or ‘stay at the family’s seat and lament their leaving there’.
Reportedly, in Leinster it is believed that a Banshee’s cry is so shrill that it shatters glass, in Tyrone it’s believed that she sounds ‘more like two boards being struck together, and in Kerry her call is thought to be ‘low, pleasant singing’. Some say that her cry ‘rises and falls and lasts for at least a few minutes, varying in intensity’.
All seem to agree however that she can ‘be heard from a great distance’ and some reportedly hear 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’.
They are said to appear in many differing forms from ‘a young beautiful woman, a stately matron or as an ugly frightening hag’ and ‘usually dressed in a grey or white hooded cloak’ or a ‘grave robe of the dead’, and usually has eyes ‘red from crying’.
They can appear as a ‘beautiful woman wearing a shroud’, as a ‘pale woman in a white dress with long red hair’, a woman wearing a ‘long silver dress’ and having ‘silver hair’, a ‘headless woman carrying a bowl of blood that is naked from the waist up’ or an ‘old woman with frightening red eyes’ and a ‘green dress and long white hair’. She is sometimes described as an ‘old woman with a veil covering her face, dressed all in black with long grey hair’. Those who claim to have seen a Banshee also reportedly describe her ‘long hair which she runs a comb through, similar to tearing the hair out in anguish’.
Reportedly, this is why some people would never pick up a comb ‘lying on the ground for fear of being taken away by fairies’ and some believe that she can ‘take on any of the above forms and change from one to the other as she pleases’.
It was also believed by some that the Banshee could take the form of a ‘crow, stoat, hare or weasel’, which were animals typically associated with witchcraft in Ireland.
“Who sits upon the heath forlorn,
With robe so free and tresses torn?
Anon she pours a harrowing strain,
And then–she sits all mute again!
Now peals the wild funereal cry–
now–it sinks into a sigh.”
Originally the Banshee was believed to have ‘appeared to people who were about to suffer a violent and painful death, such as murder’ and in later stories ‘wailed outside their door at night (usually around wooded areas close by) but was rarely seen’.
Some believe that Banshees are the spirits of women who ‘had reasons to hate their families and appear as distorted and frightening apparitions filled with hatred’, that ‘the howls emitted by these Banshees are enough to chill you to the bone’ and that these Banshees are ‘celebrating the future demise of someone they loathed’. Others believe that the screams and wails ‘must be that of ghosts, perhaps of former members from the families of the doomed people’.
Others believe that a Banshee was once ‘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’ and was ‘seemingly very weary of mortals and would disappear at the first sign of any human activity’. This Banshee was also thought to ‘not enjoy the company of anyone, mortal or not, and travelled as a solitary fairy’.
Other Irish lore and stories relating to the Banshee say that ‘she is the ghost of a young girl that suffered a brutal death and her spirit remains to warn family members that a violent death is imminent’ This Banshee is believed to appear as ‘an old woman with rotten teeth and long fingernails’ wearing ‘rags and has blood red eyes that are so filled with hate that looking directly into them will cause immediate death’ and with a mouth that is ‘always open as her piercing scream torments the souls of the living’. Others say that she is the ghost of a murdered woman or a woman who died in childbirth.
Other sources describe the Banshee as 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’.
Reportedly, according to some tales, there are also ‘evil Banshees that derive pleasure from taking a life and they actively seek out their victims and wail at them to the point where the person commits suicide or goes insane’ and there are even Banshees that can ‘tear people to shreds’.
However not all Banshees are ‘hate-filled creatures’, some believe that Banshees are ‘fairy women’ who ‘care about the doomed people and some Banshees reportedly had ‘strong ties to their families in life and continued to watch over them in death’ and when they ‘manifest themselves’ they appear as beautiful enchanting women and sing a ‘sorrowful, haunting song which is filled with concern and love for their families’. This song is believed to only be heard ‘a few days before the death of a family member’ and ‘in most cases’ can only be heard ‘by the person for whom it is intended’.
It was also believed that Banshees also like to cry at ‘the crowning of a true king’, such as at the crowning of ‘legendary Brian Boru who overthrew the O’Neills and began the O’Brien dynasty’.
There have also been alleged incidents where a Banshee cried for a person who was in ‘perfect health’ but who was then found dead ‘within a week from some freak accident’.
‘Common legend’ reportedly also claims that Banshees only sing for members of the ‘five oldest Irish families’ (the O’Gradys, the O’Neills, the O’Briens, the O’Conners, and the Kavanaghs) but there are stories that tell of Banshees singing for other families too and it is also ‘generally believed’ that ‘people of great status in Ireland may have banshees, no matter who their family is’. The list of families she haunts reportedly varies however, ‘depending on who is telling the story’.
Reportedly, many books on Irish fairy stories also say that Banshees were particularly associated with families whose names had ‘Ó’ or ‘Mac’ at the start. The great O’Briain (or ‘Ua Briain’) family were said to be ‘frequented by a Banshee’ named ‘Eeevul’ (or ’Aibell’). This Banshee was believed to rule twenty-five other banshees that followed her wherever she went and were ‘always be in attendance’. This story also gave rise to the belief that ‘if several banshees were heard at once, it meant the imminent death of someone very powerful’.
“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.”http://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/folklore/folklore_survey/chapter2.htm (Johnson Westropp, 2020)
The O’Donnell family Banshee was believed to live on a rock ‘overlooking the sea at Dunluce Castle’ and cried ‘not specifically for one death, but for all the misfortunes the family had ever had and ever will have’.
The O’Neill family Banshee, named Maeveen, would ‘cry out from the Coile Ultagh (Ulster Wood) and could be heard from the other side of Lough Neagh’ and reportedly ‘even had a special room set aside for her in the castle’.
No one seems to be sure where Banshees get their knowledge of a person’s death from however but one theory reportedly suggests that ‘each family member has his own personal observer who follows him around and reports back to the Banshee’.
During funerals in medieval Ireland, a woman would take on the role of ‘keener’ and would sing sad songs called ‘caoineadh’ (the Irish word for ‘crying’ – at the graveside).
Women could reportedly find ‘good business’ as a keener as families would pay very well for a talented keener and the ‘best known’ always attended the funerals of the ‘biggest and most well-known people and were much sought after’ as it was believed that the more people there were mourning at a funeral, the greater the person was said to be.
Some still know Banshees as ‘keeners’ and they are believed to ‘accept alcohol as payment’, as the original keeners were often paid in alcohol, and are believed to be ‘sinners’ and ‘punished by being doomed to become Banshees’.
It also used to be a ‘common belief’ that the ‘most powerful families’ had a or ‘fairy woman’ who would come to ‘keen at the grave’ and the name for them, ‘Bean Sidhe’, became ‘anglicised’ to ‘Banshee’ and, over time, the stories ‘developed and morphed into what we know today’.
Reportedly, in May of 1318, Richard de Clare ‘leader of the Normans’ was marching to what ‘he supposed would be an easy victory over the O’Deas of Dysert’ when the English came to the ‘glittering, running water of fish’. There they saw a ‘horrible bedlam washing armour and rich robes till the red gore churned and splashed through her hands’.
De Clare called on ‘an Irish ally to question her’ and heard that ‘the armour and clothes were of the English, and few would escape immolation’, that she was ‘the Water Doleful One’ who lodged ‘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’.
The next day de Clare, his son, and ‘nearly all his English troops lay dead upon the fields near the ford of Dysert for miles over the country in their flight’.
“The belief of the early eleventh and fourteenth centuries is still extant, for local legend near Dysert tells how Aibhill and twenty-five banshees washed blood-stained clothes in Rath Lake before ‘Claraghmore’ (de Clare) fell, and that they still do so when mischief is afoot.”http://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/folklore/folklore_survey/chapter2.htm (Johnson Westropp, 2020)
In the ‘Memoires [recte Memoirs] of Lady Fanshawe’, in 1642 a story is reportedly told of Lady Fanshawe’s encounter with a banshee. While staying with ‘some of the O’Briens’ Fanshawe was sleeping in a room ‘of which the window overhung water at some height, at a castle, perhaps Bunratty or Castle Lake’ and was ‘awakened by a horrible scream, and saw a girl outside the window’.
The apparition was reportedly ‘pale, rather handsome, and with her reddish hair hanging dishevelled over her shoulders’ and, ‘after some time the unwelcome visitor vanished, with other gastly shrieks’.
In the morning while Lady Fanshawe was telling her tale they were reportedly told of the death of a ‘relative of the family whose illness had been concealed from her’ and the spirit was supposedly that of the ‘peasant wife of a former owner of the castle, drowned in the moat by her husband and of evil omen to his descendants’.
In another reported encounter, Englishman Mr. Ross Lewin had gone to Dublin on business which at the time took about five days, and in his absence the ‘young people’ went to a friend’s house for the evening. The road they used passed an old ‘unenclosed’ church which stood in an open field and as the party returned ‘under bright moonlight’ they were ‘startled by loud keening and wailing from the direction of the ruin’.
Reportedly, when they came into sight of the church all ‘clearly saw a little old woman with long white hair and a black cloak running to and fro – clapping her hands and wailing’.
Some of the young men of the group, ‘leaving the girls together on the road’, went to watch ‘each end of the building’ and the rest of them ‘entered and climbed up on the wall’. However the apparition ‘vanished as they approached the church’. After a ‘careful search’ they found no one and the ‘thoroughly frightened’ group hurried home and found their mother in ‘even greater terror’.
She had reportedly been sitting in the window when a ‘great raven flapped three times at the glass’ and while she told them about this the bird ‘again flew against the window’. Some days later news reportedly arrived from Dublin that Ross Lewin had ‘died suddenly on the very evening of the apparition and omen’.
“It is curious that an English family, no matter how long settled in Ireland, should have acquired the ministration of a banshee, but, besides the Ross Lewins, both the Stamers and the Westropps were so endowed in Clare.
The Westropps had also death warnings in the shape of a white owl and the headless coach. This bird last appeared, it is said, before a death in 1909, but it would be more convincing if it appeared at places where the white owl does not nest and fly out every night.
The banshee has been conspicuously absent of late years, although on the death of my father, the late John Westropp, at Attyflin, in 1866, keening and weird lamentation, (probably of some of the country folk who held him in deep affection), were heard the same night by the servants and some of the family.”http://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/folklore/folklore_survey/chapter2.htm (Johnson Westropp, 2020)
When Mrs. Stamer died at Stamer Park, in Ennis, in January of 1883 the banshee and ‘death coach’ were also reportedly heard and Mr. Casey of Ruan also reportedly heard a banshee ‘cry at the death of his father’. The ‘Corofin banshees’ and reportedly, at least one ‘used to sit near the cross road leading to the workhouse and foretell the deaths of the poor inmates’.
“The most recent visit of a banshee told to me was in 1905, and is sadly tame with the stories of MacCraith and Lady Fanshawe. Some scattered cottages form a sort of suburb to Newmarket-on-Fergus at a temporary lake (or turlough) called Lough Gaish. The inhabitants were greatly alarmed by the loud and ghastly wailing of some unknown being on several successive nights. Local panic spread, and few ventured out after dark. Had any tragedy happened, the reputation of the banshee would have rested on a rock of belief for another generation; but nothing occurred, and it is now doubted ‘whether it was a banshee at all, at all.’”http://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/folklore/folklore_survey/chapter2.htm (Johnson Westropp, 2020)
One source claims to have ‘heard of an O’ Connor who had a brush with the banshee’ who was ‘cycling between Ballylongford and Tarbert in Co.Kerry’ when he heard the cries of the banshee ‘by the ruins of Lislaughtin Abbey’.
Another reported encounter on Your Irish Culture tells the following story:
“I remember being told as a young child of an Uncle who was walking home on a cold and blustery night. He was probably three sheets to the wind after partaking of a snifter to keep the cold out. On arriving home he told my grandmother that he had tried to comfort an old woman he had met along the way.
Describing her, he said, ‘the old woman was dressed in black with a veil over her face, was crying and wailing outside the house.’ Every time he went over to her she moved away but all the while kept pointing at the house.
My Grandmother, with all her knowledge of the old Irish Mythology & Legends, knew straight away what this old lady represented and hurried my Uncle to bed reassuring him that she, herself, would have a look for the old woman. Needless to say, she didn’t dare do such a thing.
Then, sure enough, only three days after this strange encounter, my Grandmother’s brother died peacefully in his sleep. As children, we used to plague my uncle to recount the story of the night he tried to invite the Banshee in for tea!”https://www.yourirish.com/folklore/banshees-in-ireland (Your Irish Cuture, 2020)
According to another source, in 1801 a Banshee paid a visit to the Commander in Chief of the British forces in Ireland who had attended a party at Dublin Castle and then invited a some of the other guests, including Sir Jonah Barrington and his wife, back to his home in Mount Kennedy, Colorado.
Reportedly, at 2.30am, the guests, Barrington and his wife, and their maid, woke up to what Barrington described as ‘plaintive sounds’ coming from outside his window. They claimed that the sound later turned into the name ‘Rossmore’ being ‘screeched three times’ and the next morning they were told that a servant who had ‘heard odd sounds from Rossmore’s room at 2.30am’ had entered to ‘find him dying’. Spooky!
On April 8th 1893 a letter was sent in to the Weekly Irish Times, titled ‘Where has the Banshee gone?’ and told that:
“I do not believe that the banshee’s cry is not now heard in Ireland. I most distinctly heard it about five years ago, previous to the death of my dear brother; he was ailing at the time.
It was 12 o’clock at night. I was up with him watching in case he required a drink, when suddenly I heard an indescribably mournful cry. My father heard the banshee cry forty years ago for a great aunt of mine, or, I should say, before the death of my great aunt,” wrote Minnie McKeown from Co Armagh the following week. “It was at an early hour of the morning.
The banshee was then said, or supposed, to be a little woman. However, she has never been seen or heard of since that time… I hear old Irish people say that there are no witches now; so the banshee and witches must all be gone to the same country.”https://www.irishtimes.com/news/offbeat/ireland-s-banshee-a-delusion-of-peasants-or-a-spirit-with-a-mournful-wail-1.3881517 (The Irish Times, 2019)
The cry of a banshee was reportedly heard in Wicklow as well, as a writer named ‘Ovoca’ claimed that ‘she was distinctly heard, on a hill in Ovoca, County Wicklow, about 8 o’clock one-night last month, by my sister and her husband. The next morning they heard of the death of a friend’.
Also written in to the Irish Times was that ‘Pip the Fiddler’s’ uncle had died and the letter writer was ‘sure the dying man himself had addressed the spirit’.
“An uncle of mine being very ill, my father and some country neighbours were staying up with him all night. About 12 o’clock my uncle suddenly sat up in the bed, and, pointing towards the window, exclaimed: ‘Ah, you’re there, poor thing, you are.’ Just then they all distinctly heard the mournful wail of the banshee.”https://www.irishtimes.com/news/offbeat/ireland-s-banshee-a-delusion-of-peasants-or-a-spirit-with-a-mournful-wail-1.3881517 (The Irish Times, 2019)
The letter writer’s uncle reportedly died the next day.
In response Patrick Farrell ‘spun his own Kildare banshee yarn’ and claimed that on a ‘beautiful moonlight night in December’ he had decided to ‘have a short stroll’ and on his return was ‘astonished’ to find his greyhound ‘trembling violently – the cold sweat actually dripping off him’.
Farrell ‘sought in vain for a solution of this strange occurrence’ and wrote:
“After some time I heard coming from a bush in the middle of a small paddock at the back of my house a long, low wail and after some time the most piteous sobbing I have ever heard. Being then a disbeliever in banshees, ghosts, goblins, fairies, leprechauns and company, I was glad of an opportunity to test once for all their genuineness.”https://www.irishtimes.com/news/offbeat/ireland-s-banshee-a-delusion-of-peasants-or-a-spirit-with-a-mournful-wail-1.3881517 (The Irish Times, 2019)
Farrell claimed to have had trouble ‘stirring the terrified dog’ and set out alone with his stick to investigate and, among the shrubs, saw a deer ‘milk-white’ and ‘sobbing in the most heartrending manner’. He claimed to have watched the deer for five minutes and then ‘took a swing at the animal’ but ‘the stick passed through space’ and he heard ‘such a scream as I hope and pray shall never fall on my ears again’. Farrell fled the scene to reportedly later discover that his cousin, in Australia, died the same night.
THEORIES AND EXPLANATIONS
Some people theorise that when people hear what they think is a Banshee they are actually hearing a barn owl or vixen and that the cry of these animals may actually be partly responsible for the origin for the Banshee myth.
ALSO KNOWN AS
- Keening woman
- Crying woman
- Bean Chaointe
- Bean Nighe
- Ban Nigheachain
- Nigheag Na H-àth
- Little washerwoman
- Little washer at the ford
- Washer of the ford