Banshees





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

before morning.[H]



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."





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