Of all Ireland’s ghosts, fairies, or demons, the Banshee (sometimes called locally the ‘Boheentha’) is, probably, the best known to those living outside the country. I am often amused by the number of visitors from across the Channel who think that they are as common as the pigs, potatoes, and other fauna and flora of Ireland, and expect her to make an appearance on demand just like one of the many famous sights of our country. They ignore the fact that the Banshee is a spirit with a lengthy pedigree that no man can measure because its roots extend back into the dim and mysterious past of Ireland.
Without a doubt, the most famous Banshee of ancient times was that which attached itself to the royal house of O’Brien. She was called ‘Aibhill’, and she haunted the rock of Craglea that stands above Killaloe, near the old palace of Kincora. In 1014 A.D. the battle of Clontarf was fought against the Danes, and the aged king, Brian Boru, who led the Irish forces was fully aware that he would never come away alive. The night before the battle, ‘Aibhill’ had appeared to him and told him of his impending fate. The Banshee’s method of foretelling a person’s death in those olden times differed from that which she adopts in the present day. Now she, generally, wails and wrings her hands, but in the old Irish tales she is often found washing human heads and limbs, or blood-stained clothes, until the water is all dyed with human blood, and this would take place before a battle. So, it appears that over a course of centuries her attributes and characteristics have changed somewhat.
Reports from eyewitnesses give very different descriptions about what she looks like. Sometimes, she is pictured as a young and beautiful woman, and at other times appears as an old and fearsome hag. One witness described her as “a tall, thin woman with uncovered head, and long hair that floated around her shoulders, attired in something which seemed either a loose white cloak or a sheet thrown hastily around her, uttering piercing cries.” Another witness, who saw the banshee one evening sitting on a stile in the yard, appeared as a very small woman, with blue eyes, long light hair, and wearing a red cloak. There are numerous other descriptions available, but one surprising fact about the Banshee is that she does not seem to exclusively follow families of Irish descent. At least one incident refers to the death of a member of a County Galway family, who were English by name and origin.
At this point, we should relate one of the oldest and best-known Banshee stories, namely the story contained in ‘Memoirs of Lady Fanshaw’. The good lady states that in 1642 her husband, Sir Richard, and she chanced to visit a friend, the head of an Irish clan, who resided in his ancient baronial castle, surrounded with a moat. At midnight, she says, she was awakened by a ghastly and supernatural scream, and looking out of the bed, she saw in the moonlight a female face and part of a form hovering at the bedroom window. The height of the window from the ground and the position of the moat around the castle convinced her ladyship that this was a creature of the spirit world. She did notice, however, that the pale face she saw was that of a young and rather beautiful woman, and her reddish coloured hair was loose and dishevelled. This ghostly form, Lady Fanshaw recollected, was dressed much in the style of ancient Ireland and continued to appear to her some considerable time before vanishing with two shrieks that sounded like those that first attracted attention.
In the morning, still shaking with fear, Lady Fanshaw told her what she had witnessed. Surprisingly, she found that not only was he able to confirm the existence of such a being, but he was ready to explain to account for its presence in his castle. He told her quite candidly, “A near relation of my family expired last night in this castle. But we decided not to tell you that we were expecting such a visitation, in case it would throw a cloud over the cheerful welcome we had prepared for you. However, before any event of this kind happens in this family or castle, the female spectre that you have seen always appears. We believe this spirit to be a woman from a lower class, with whom one of my ancestors degraded himself by marrying. In an effort expiate the dishonour done to his family, he subsequently drowned the poor woman in the moat.”
If one was strictly applying traditional terms to such a vision, then this woman would not normally be called a Banshee. The motive for the haunting is like other tales that are on a par with this one, in that the spirit of the murdered person haunts the family out of revenge, and always appears before a death.
There was nothing special about this ruined Church. It was a simple oblong building, with long side-walls and high gables, and an unenclosed graveyard that lay in open fields. As the group of people walked down the long dark lane, they suddenly heard a distant sound of wailing voices and clapping hands, like you would hear at a country wake where neighbours and friends lament the passing of one of their own. The group of young people hurried along the lane, and they came in sight of the church ruins, There, on the side wall, a little grey-haired old woman, who was clad in a dark cloak, was running to and fro, chanting and wailing, and throwing up her arms like a crazy person. The girls now became very frightened, but the young men in the group ran forward and surrounded the ruin. Then, two of the young men went into the church and, as they did so, the apparition vanished from the wall. Nonetheless, they searched every nook, and found no one, nor did any one of them become unconscious. All the young people were now well scared, and they made their way home as fast as they possibly could.
When they finally reached their home, their mother opened the door, and immediately she began to explain that she had become terribly concerned about their father. Their mother told them that she had been looking out of the window in the moonlight when a huge raven with fiery eyes landed on the window-sill, and it tapped three times on the glass. When the young ones told her their story it only added the anxiety that they were all now beginning to feel. As they stood talking among themselves, taps came to the nearest window, and they all saw the bird again. A few days later news reached them that their Father had died.
For the most part, the eye-witnesses to these events were people of good character, including the sister of a former Roman Catholic Bishop related a story about an incident that occurred when she was a little girl. She said that she went out one evening with some other local children for a walk, and going down the road, they passed the gate of the parkland near the town. On a large rock that stood beside the road, they suddenly saw something very strange and moved nearer to get a better look. Before them, they saw that the strange object was a little dark, old woman, who began to cry and clap her hands noisily. Some of the girls tried to speak to the old woman, but they became very afraid, and all of them chose to run home as quickly as they could. Next day there came news that the gentleman near whose gate the Banshee had cried, was dead, and had apparently died at the very hour when the children had first seen the spectre.
A Certain, well-respected lady from County Cork stated that she had two experiences of a Banshee within her family. She said, “My mother, when a young girl, was standing looking out of the window in their house at Blackrock, near Cork. Suddenly, she saw a white figure standing on a bridge which was clearly visible from the house. The figure waved its arms towards the house, and my mother heard the bitter wailing of the Banshee. The wailing lasted several seconds before the figure finally disappeared. But, the next morning, her grandfather was walking as usual into the city of Cork. He stumbled, fell, and hit his head against the kerb. The poor man would never recover consciousness.”
In her second story, she states, “… my mother was very ill, and one evening the nurse and I were with her arranging her bed. We suddenly heard the most extraordinary wailing, which seemed to come in waves around and under her bed. We naturally looked everywhere to try and find the cause of the wailing but in vain. The nurse and I looked at one another but said nothing since it appeared that my mother did not hear it. My sister, who was downstairs sitting with my father, heard it and thought something terrible had happened to her little boy, who was in bed upstairs. When she rushed up to his bedroom, however, she found him sleeping quietly. While my father did not hear it, in the house next door they had heard it, and ran downstairs, thinking something had happened to their servant. But the servant immediately called out to them, ‘Did you hear the Banshee? Someone must be near death.’”
There is another story, handed down to us from the last years of the nineteenth century. This records a curious incident that occurred in a public school and includes the presence of the Banshee. When one of the boys became ill, he was immediately quarantined in one of the many bedrooms by himself, where he used to sit all day. On one occasion, as he was being visited by the doctor, he suddenly jumped up from his seat, declaring that he had heard somebody crying. But the doctor had heard nothing and concluded that his illness had slightly affected the boy’s brain. Nonetheless, the boy, who appeared to be quite sensible, still insisted that he had heard someone crying, and said, “It is the Banshee, for I have heard it before.” The following morning the headmaster of the school received a telegram saying that the boy’s brother had been accidentally shot dead.
There is a mistaken belief that the Banshee is confined to the geographical limits of Ireland. In fact, there are several incidents that show how the Banshee can follow the fortunes of a family abroad, and there foretell their death. The following story clearly shows that such an event can occur. A party of visitors was gathered together on the deck of a private yacht that was sailing one of the Italian lakes, and during a lull, in the conversation, one of them asked the owner, “Count, who’s that queer-looking woman you have on board?”
The Count replied that there was only those invited ladies and the stewardesses present. nobody ladies present except those who had been invited and the stewardess. The speaker, however, protested that there was a strange woman present, and suddenly, with a scream of horror, he placed his hands before his eyes, and exclaimed, “Oh, my God, what a face!” For quite a while the man was shaking with fear and dared not remove his hands from his eyes. When he finally did so, he cried out “Thank Heavens, it’s gone!”
“What was it?” asked the Count.
“It was nothing human,” stammered the man. “It looked like a woman, but not one from this world. She had on a green hood, like those worn by the Irish peasantry, framing an oddly shaped face that gleamed unnaturally. She also had a mass of red hair, and eyes that were somewhat attractive but for their hellish expression.”
An American lady guest suggested that the description reminded her of what she had heard about the Banshee. The Count turned to her and told her, “I am an O’Neill. At least I am descended from one of them. As you know, my family name is Neilini, which, just over a century ago, was O’Neill. My great-grandfather had served in the ‘Irish Brigade’, and on its dissolution, at the time of the French Revolution, he had the good fortune to escape the general massacre of officers. In the company of an O’Brien and a Maguire, he fled across the frontier and settled in Italy. When he died, his son, who had been born in Italy, felt himself to be much more Italian than Irish. He changed his name to Neilini, and the family has been known by this name ever since. But for all that we are Irish.”
“The Banshee was yours, then! So, what exactly does it mean?”
“It means,” the Count replied solemnly, “the death of someone very close to me and I pray earnestly that it is not my wife or daughter.” The Count’s anxieties were soon removed when he himself was seized by a severe angina attack and died before morning.
As a last note to readers, the reports of encounters with Banshees tell us that this spirit never shows itself to the person whose death it is heralding. While other people are able to see or hear the banshee, the one fated to die never does. So, when everyone that is present, but one, is aware of the Banshee, the fate of that one person can be regarded as being certain.