Of all Irish ghosts, fairies, or bogles, the Banshee (sometimes called
locally the "Boh[=ee]ntha" or "Bank[=ee]ntha") is the best known to the
general public: indeed, cross-Channel visitors would class her with
pigs, potatoes, and other fauna and flora of Ireland, and would expect
her to make manifest her presence to them as being one of the sights of
the country. She is a spirit with a lengthy pedigree--how lengthy no man
can say, as its roots go back into the dim, mysterious past. The most
famous Banshee of ancient times was that attached to the kingly house of
O'Brien, Aibhill, who haunted the rock of Craglea above Killaloe, near
the old palace of Kincora. In A.D. 1014 was fought the battle of
Clontarf, from which the aged king, Brian Boru, knew that he would never
come away alive, for the previous night Aibhill had appeared to him to
tell him of his impending fate. The Banshee's method of foretelling
death in olden times differed from that adopted by her at the present
day: now she wails and wrings her hands, as a general rule, but in the
old Irish tales she is to be found washing human heads and limbs, or
blood-stained clothes, till the water is all dyed with human blood--this
would take place before a battle. So it would seem that in the course of
centuries her attributes and characteristics have changed somewhat.
Very different descriptions are given of her personal appearance.
Sometimes she is young and beautiful, sometimes old and of a fearsome
appearance. One writer describes her as "a tall, thin woman with
uncovered head, and long hair that floated round her shoulders, attired
in something which seemed either a loose white cloak, or a sheet thrown
hastily around her, uttering piercing cries." Another person, a
coachman, saw her one evening sitting on a stile in the yard; she seemed
to be a very small woman, with blue eyes, long light hair, and wearing
a red cloak. Other descriptions will be found in this chapter. By the
way, it does not seem to be true that the Banshee exclusively follows
families of Irish descent, for the last incident had reference to the
death of a member of a Co. Galway family English by name and origin.
One of the oldest and best-known Banshee stories is that related in the
_Memoirs_ of Lady Fanshaw.[F] In 1642 her husband, Sir Richard, and she
chanced to visit a friend, the head of an Irish sept, who resided in his
ancient baronial castle, surrounded with a moat. At midnight she was
awakened by a ghastly and supernatural scream, and looking out of bed,
beheld in the moonlight a female face and part of the form hovering at
the window. The distance from the ground, as well as the circumstance of
the moat, excluded the possibility that what she beheld was of this
world. The face was that of a young and rather handsome woman, but pale,
and the hair, which was reddish, was loose and disheveled. The dress,
which Lady Fanshaw's terror did not prevent her remarking accurately,
was that of the ancient Irish. This apparition continued to exhibit
itself for some time, and then vanished with two shrieks similar to that
which had first excited Lady Fanshaw's attention. In the morning, with
infinite terror, she communicated to her host what she had witnessed,
and found him prepared not only to credit, but to account for the
superstition. "A near relation of my family," said he; "expired last
night in this castle. We disguised our certain expectation of the event
from you, lest it should throw a cloud over the cheerful reception which
was your due. Now, before such an event happens in this family or
castle, the female specter whom you have seen is always visible. She is
believed to be the spirit of a woman of inferior rank, whom one of my
ancestors degraded himself by marrying, and whom afterwards, to expiate
the dishonor done to his family, he caused to be drowned in the moat."
In strictness this woman could hardly be termed a Banshee. The motive
for the haunting is akin to that in the tale of the Scotch "Drummer of
Cortachy," where the spirit of the murdered man haunts the family out of
revenge, and appears before a death.
Mr. T.J. Westropp, M.A., has furnished the following story: "My maternal
grandmother heard the following tradition from her mother, one of the
Miss Ross-Lewins, who witnessed the occurrence. Their father, Mr.
Harrison Ross-Lewin, was away in Dublin on law business, and in his
absence the young people went off to spend the evening with a friend who
lived some miles away. The night was fine and lightsome as they were
returning, save at one point where the road ran between trees or high
hedges not far to the west of the old church of Kilchrist. The latter,
like many similar ruins, was a simple oblong building, with long
side-walls and high gables, and at that time it and its graveyard were
unenclosed, and lay in the open fields. As the party passed down the
long dark lane they suddenly heard in the distance loud keening and
clapping of hands, as the country-people were accustomed to do when
lamenting the dead. The Ross-Lewins hurried on, and came in sight of the
church, on the side wall of which a little gray-haired old woman, clad
in a dark cloak, was running to and fro, chanting and wailing, and
throwing up her arms. The girls were very frightened, but the young men
ran forward and surrounded the ruin, and two of them went into the
church, the apparition vanishing from the wall as they did so. They
searched every nook, and found no one, nor did any one pass out. All
were now well scared, and got home as fast as possible. On reaching
their home their mother opened the door, and at once told them that she
was in terror about their father, for, as she sat looking out the window
in the moonlight, a huge raven with fiery eyes lit on the sill, and
tapped three times on the glass. They told her their story, which only
added to their anxiety, and as they stood talking, taps came to the
nearest window, and they saw the bird again. A few days later news
reached them that Mr. Ross-Lewin had died suddenly in Dublin. This
occurred about 1776."
Mr. Westropp also writes that the sister of a former Roman Catholic
Bishop told his sisters that when she was a little girl she went out
one evening with some other children for a walk. Going down the road,
they passed the gate of the principal demesne near the town. There was a
rock, or large stone, beside the road, on which they saw something.
Going nearer, they perceived it to be a little dark, old woman, who
began crying and clapping her hands. Some of them attempted to speak to
her, but got frightened, and all finally ran home as quickly as they
could. Next day the news came that the gentleman near whose gate the
Banshee had cried, was dead, and it was found on inquiry that he had
died at the very hour at which the children had seen the specter.
A lady who is a relation of one of the compilers, and a member of a Co.
Cork family of English descent, sends the two following experiences of a
Banshee in her family. "My mother, when a young girl, was standing
looking out of the window in their house at Blackrock, near Cork. She
suddenly saw a white figure standing on a bridge which was easily
visible from the house. The figure waved her arms towards the house, and
my mother heard the bitter wailing of the Banshee. It lasted some
seconds, and then the figure disappeared. Next morning my grandfather
was walking as usual into the city of Cork. He accidentally fell, hit
his head against the curbstone, and never recovered consciousness.
"In March, 1900, 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 round and under her bed. We
naturally looked everywhere to try and find the cause, but in vain. The
nurse and I looked at one another, but made no remark, as my mother did
not seem to hear it. My sister was downstairs sitting with my father.
She heard it, and thought some terrible thing had happened to her little
boy, who was in bed upstairs. She rushed up, and found him sleeping
quietly. My father did not hear it. In the house next door they heard
it, and ran downstairs, thinking something had happened to the servant;
but the latter at once said to them, 'Did you hear the Banshee? Mrs.
P---- must be dying.'"
A few years ago (_i.e._ before 1894) a curious incident occurred in a
public school in connection with the belief in the Banshee. One of the
boys, happening to become ill, was at once placed in a room by himself,
where he used to sit all day. On one occasion, as he was being visited
by the doctor, he suddenly started up from his seat, and affirmed that
he heard somebody crying. The doctor, of course, who could hear or see
nothing, came to the conclusion that the illness had slightly affected
his brain. However, the boy, who appeared quite sensible, still
persisted that he heard some one crying, and furthermore said, "It is
the Banshee, as I have heard it before." The following morning the
head-master received a telegram saying that the boy's brother had been
accidentally shot dead.[G]
That the Banshee is not confined within the geographical limits of
Ireland, but that she can follow the fortunes of a family abroad, and
there foretell their death, is clearly shown by the following story. A
party of visitors were gathered together on the deck of a private yacht
on one of the Italian lakes, and during a lull in the conversation one
of them, a Colonel, said to the owner, "Count, who's that queer-looking
woman you have on board?" The Count replied that there was nobody except
the ladies present, and the stewardess, but the speaker protested that
he was correct, and suddenly, with a scream of horror, he placed his
hands before his eyes, and exclaimed, "Oh, my God, what a face!" For
some time he was overcome with terror, and at length reluctantly looked
up, and cried:
"Thank Heavens, it's gone!"
"What was it?" asked the Count.
"Nothing human," replied the Colonel--"nothing belonging to this world.
It was a woman of no earthly type, with a queer-shaped, gleaming face, a
mass of red hair, and eyes that would have been beautiful but for their
expression, which was hellish. She had on a green hood, after the
fashion of an Irish peasant."
An American lady present suggested that the description tallied with
that of the Banshee, upon which the Count said:
"I am an O'Neill--at least I am descended from one. My family name is,
as you know, Neilsini, which, little more than a century ago, was
O'Neill. My great-grandfather served in the Irish Brigade, and on its
dissolution at the time of the French Revolution had the good fortune to
escape the general massacre of officers, and in company with an O'Brien
and a Maguire fled across the frontier and settled in Italy. On his
death his son, who had been born in Italy, and was far more Italian than
Irish, changed his name to Neilsini, by which name the family has been
known ever since. But for all that we are Irish."
"The Banshee was yours, then!" ejaculated the Colonel. "What exactly
does it mean?"
"It means," the Count replied solemnly, "the death of some one very
nearly associated with me. Pray Heaven it is not my wife or daughter."
On that score, however, his anxiety was speedily removed, for within two
hours he was seized with a violent attack of angina pectoris, and died
Mr. Elliott O'Donnell, to whose article on "Banshees" we are indebted
for the above, adds: "The Banshee never manifests itself to the person
whose death it is prognosticating. Other people may see or hear it, but
the fated one never, so that when every one present is aware of it but
one, the fate of that one may be regarded as pretty well certain."
At Old Man Eckert's Banshees, And Other Death-warnings