The Legend of the Banshee is one that won’t be strange to anyone who harks from the Emerald isle. We’ve all heard stories of someone who has claimed to hear her haunting cry before the death of a loved one. My own introduction to the banshee was through my aunt where in summer evenings (charmed by warm twilight skies as memories from our childhood frequently are) we would sit with her on the farm gate and she’d proceed to scare the wits out of us with tales of the banshee. Now, this might sound a bit much for children’s ears, but we loved the safe terror of it.
The banshee or bean sidhe/bean chaointe is a ghost or apparition that is said to appear to forewarn the death of someone close and in some reports of the person who hears her cry. Her appearance is described as an old hag or sometimes a beautiful young woman, with eyes rimmed red for the thousands of tears she has shed. The legend goes that she appears to those who are descendent of the five ancestral Irish families, however some accounts do vary. The tales I’ve heard personally have never involved seeing the banshee herself but more of hearing her bone-chilling cry.
She is ultimately a harbinger of death, that is, not a ghost that is out to harm and is said to be the spirit of a long forgotten ancestor that weeps for every loss to her clan. In this light, the banshee may be seen as less of a demon and more of a bereaved family member – a terrifying bereaved family member, but on our side none-the-less.
However…there are, as with all tales of The Sidhe, some warnings that surround the banshee. I do recall being told by my grandparents, never to pick up a lost hair-comb from the ground – you might be wondering why I’d be picking filthy combs from the ground, if I told you I once collected snails, you might understand what kind of child I was – anyways, the reason for this advice was that these combs belonged to the banshee and if you touched it, the banshee would then be free to whisk you ‘away with the faeries’ (yes that’s where that saying comes from!). At one time in Ireland, faeries were constantly trying to whisk you away and once they returned you to the land of the living, you would never be right again.
As you can tell, I’ve always had an ear out for various reports of the banshee and the legend shapes one of the major plotlines in my novel, Dawn Solstice. When researching through various historical reports, I have my favourites. The reports that Brian Ború saw the family banshee, Aibhill, the night before the Battle of Clontarf in 1014AD and another report from the Memoirs of Lady Fanshawe when in 1642, she stayed with Lord and Lady O’Brien, where she was woken by the banshee’s blood curdling cry. When she looked out her bedroom window, she saw a terrifying but beautiful young woman wailing in the garden below. Lady Fanshawe was so perturbed by the vision that she writes on how there was no further sleep for her that night. The following morning, she reported the unnerving experience to her host, Lady O’Brien, who at once looked sorrowful, explaining that there had been a dying relative in one of the other rooms, who had passed away the night previously and that they had not disclosed it to her so as not to disturb her visit.
The banshee, in this instance, was reported as being the spirit of a young woman who had been murdered by the previous owner of the house, a married man whom after having an affair with the young woman killed her then threw her in the moat surrounding the grounds. The spirit had since wailed at every death connected with the family.
There are many, many more tales out there on others who have heard the banshee’s mournful cry, how many can you gather?
Can you hear the sound of death on the wind?
The sigh of sorrow over your skin
For beyond the walls of the dying man
The banshee cries, to mourn her kin.