Banshees are among the oldest Fairy folk of Ireland, associated as strongly as shamrocks and potatoes. Banshees, also known as Bean-Sidhe, were appointed to forewarn members of Irish families of impending death. Her presence alone brings no harm or evil, but to hear a Banshee in the act of keening is to have witnessed the announcement of the death of a loved one. The Banshee’s wail pierces the night and its notes rise and fall like waves over the countryside.
It is said that Banshees never appear to the one who is to die but to their loved ones. In times gone by she was seen washing human heads, limbs or bloody clothing until the water was dyed with blood. Over the centuries this image changed. The Banshee now paces the land, wringing her hands and crying. Sometimes she is known as the Lady of Death or the Woman of Peace, for despite her wails she is graced with serenity.
A Banshee won’t cry for just anyone. According to legend, each Banshee mourns for members of one family. Some say only the five oldest Irish families have their own Banshees: the O’Neills, O’Briens, O’Gradys, O’Connors and Kavanaghs.
The Banshee is a solitary Fairy creature who loves the mortal family she is connected to with a fierce, unearthly care and will pace the hills in sorrow when she knows a death is looming.
She will follow her family’s members right across the world – her keening can be heard wherever true Irish are settled, because just like them she never forgets her blood ties. Unseen, she will attend their funerals and her wails mingle with those of the mourners.
Famous tales of Banshee sightings are plentiful. One dating back to 1014 AD tells of a Banshee attached to the kingly house of O’Brien who haunted the rock of Craglea above Killaloe. Legend has it that Aibhill the Banshee appeared to the aged King Brian Boru before the Battle of Clontard, which was fought in the same year.
A recounting from the 18th century concerns a group of children who on an evening walk saw a little old woman sit on a rock beside the road. She began to wail and clap her hands and the children ran away in fear, only to later discover that the old man who lived in the house behind the rock died at that very moment.
A little girl in the mid- 19th century, standing at the window in her house in Cork, saw a figure on the bridge ahead. She heard the Banshee’s wails and the figure disappeared but the next morning her grandfather fell as he was walking and hit his head, never to wake up. The same little girl was an old lady by 1900 and one day when she was very ill her daughter heard wailing round and under her bed. The mother didn’t seem to hear, but sure enough it portended her death.
A party on a yacht on an Italian lake told its owner they witnessed a woman with a shock or red hair and a hellish look in her eyes. The owner, Count Nelsini , formally known as O’Neill, became anxious that the Banshee was announcing the death of his wife or daughter, but within two hours he was seized with an angina attack and died.
Descriptions of the Banshee vary but she appears in one of three guises: young woman, stately matron or raddled old hag.
A Banshee as a beautiful young girl appears with red-gold hair and a green kirtle and scarlet mantle, traditional dress of Ireland.
As matron she is said to be tall and striking, contrasting sharply with the dark of night. She is pale and thin, her eyes red from centuries of crying, her silver-grey hair streaming all the way to the ground as her cobweb-like grey-white cloak clings to her body.
In the hag guise she usually wears grey, hooded cloaks or the grave robe of the unshriven dead. She may appear as a washer-woman or be shrouded in a dark, mist-like cloak.
The Banshee can also appear in other forms, such as a stoat, crow or weasel – animals associated in Ireland with witchcraft.
One of the most notorious tales of a Banshee comes from the memoirs of Lady Fanshaw. Along with her husband, in 1642 she visited a friend in an ancient baronial castle surrounded by a moat.
At midnight she was woken suddenly by a ghastly, supernatural scream. Leaping upright in bed, she was a young, handsome woman hovering outside the window in the moonlight. The woman was pale with disheveled, loose red hair and wearing a dress in the style of the ancient Irish. The apparition stayed for some time and then disappeared with two loud shrieks.
When morning came, Lady Fanshaw, not without some trepidation, told her host what she had seen. Her friend looked at her gravely and explained that she had seen the family Banshee, the ghost of a woman of inferior rank who married one of his ancestors, but he drowned her in the moat to atone for the shame he had brought on his family. She had come that night, as she always did, to announce a death in the family – one of his relations passed away in her sleep.
Always appearing as a woman, there is no shortage of legends of Banshee sightings. Stretching back for more than a millennium, the Banshee, continues ringing a death knell for the witness’s loved ones.