Beware the Wail of the Banshee – This Irish fairy isn’t as scary as you think

Updated On: November 08, 2022

Banshee Fairy Tree

Irish mythology is famed for its richness of detail, its abundance of memorable characters and its meaningful fables. From the most well-known tales including the Cattle Raid of Cooley and the Children of Lir, to lesser-known gems involving the warrior-queen Carmán or the fierce warrior Scáthach, Ireland can lay claim to an abundance of folkloric wonders.

In this article we will explore the legend of the banshee spirit. The banshee ghost is often seen and portrayed as an evil entity due to her association with death, but in Irish mythology this isn’t the case. The banshee doesn’t create or cause death, they simply mourn it and alert certain families of the death of a loved one.

This article is not discussing Martin McDonagh’s film, though don’t worry we do have a full guide to the Banshee’s of Inisherin, one of the best Irish movies to come out in recent times, starring Irish actors and filmed on Achill island off the coast of Mayo.

The true legend of the banshee has been obscured and misunderstood. There is much more to this ghost story than meets the eye.

Contents

So, What Exactly Is the Banshee?

The Banshee fairy is a female spirit who lives by the river. They can have the appearance of an old hag or a young and beautiful woman. The Banshee was seen as the omen of death and only cried for certain ancient Irish families, (with names such as O’Neil, O’Connor, and O’Donnell) often staying near the home a particular lineage for generations. In Ireland and Scotland, it was once traditional for women to wail or keen at funerals or Irish wakes, which was inspired by the keen of the Banshee. Hearing her cry signalled that death was nearby.

Alleged newspaper reports of hearing Banshee ghosts are as old as 1893, but they existed in Celtic folklore long before this. According to legend, the six noteworthy families of Ireland—the O’Neills, O’Donnells, O’Connors, O’Learys, O’Tools, and O’Connaghs—each had a female spirit who would act as the harbinger of death for their family. Having foresight, she would appear before the death occurred, weeping the loss in the family. It was believed that the banshee fairy sang such a sad song because she was a friend of the family, she was not anything evil, she was simply mourning an unavoidable and tragic death.

If you are interested in the darker side of Celtic mythology, check out our guide to evil monsters in Irish folklore!

According to folklore, a Banshee ghost would sometimes perch on a windowsill in the form of a bird, where she’d remain for several hours or even days until death comes to call. Often, as the Banshee escapes into the darkness, witnesses have described a bird-like fluttering sound. Thus, some believe that the banshees are birdlike creatures.

The Banshee spirit also wails in other areas such as woods, rivers, and rock formations. In Waterford, Monaghan, and Carlow, there are wedge-shaped rocks which are referred to as “Banshee’s Chairs.”

Etymology

The word Banshee derives from the Irish language known as Gaelic. She is also called Banshie, Bean Si, Bean Sidhe, and Ban Side among other name variations. Banshee is comprised of two words in Irish, ‘bean’ and ‘sídhe’ which literally means ‘female fairy’ or more generally, ‘woman of the otherworld’.

Some of the surviving tales and lore of the Banshee comes from outside of Ireland, however. In Scotland, the Banshee may be referred to as Ban Sith or Bean Shith.

Irish folklore was passed down from word of mouth from generation to generation. It wasn’t until centuries later that Irish myths were transcribed by Christian monks who altered and left out details to make them suitable for Celtic Christianity. As a result many parts of Irish folklore are murky and mysterious in comparison to other mythologies, which some people may find annoying. However, this ambiguity allows people to draw their own conclusions about how the myths came to be and create connections to other parts of the folklore.

Essentially every community and family in Ireland had their own version of popular tales that had evolved naturally over time. There is no one correct or truly complete version of Celtic mythology in Ireland and this leads to many interesting variations of common tales.

The Roots of the Legend

Since the Otherworld of Irish mythology can be interchangeable in certain texts as either the realm of the fairy folk, the land of youth (known as Tír na nÓg) or the afterlife (land of the dead), the origin of the Banshees are hard to determine. However, the belief that they were women who died prematurely, tragically or unjustly is a widely agreed upon, possibly to create an atmosphere of sorrow and grief around the spirits and to make their wailing even more devastating.

In mythology, the Banshee spirit was linked to the fairies and was a part of the mystical race, the Tuatha De Dannan. The Tuatha de Danann were the Celtic Gods and Goddesses of Ireland. They were driven underground by the Milesians and over time they descended into all the fairies in Irish myth.

It just shows us that even though the Banshee is a commonly known figure, the familiar specter remains shrouded in mystery, and there are many theories to account for Banshee sightings.

The Banshee is still one of a handful of mythical creatures that, although widely known over a diverse geographical area, is not commonly seen outside of folklore. Gaelic oral traditions passed down for centuries, and written down only in the last five hundred years, are the most common place to find the banshee. She appears in the fourteenth century text  Chogaidh Gaeil are Gall. Such traditions changed over time to include poems, limericks, nursery rhymes, and superstitions that carried on to the twentieth century, although even actual belief in such creatures was scarce at best.

Banshee_Fairy trees_Connollycove
A Banshee by a river with a Fairy tree in the distance

Origins of the Banshee Spirit

Irish history is full of legends of leprechauns and fearsome warrior kings. These days the Irish are more well-known by shamrocks, St. Patrick’s Day and our love of brewing Guinness, but that is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our Irish traditions and culture.

While it isn’t known for certain, there is evidence that the origin of the Banshee fairy can be placed sometime in the early 8th century. An Irish tradition of the time saw women lament the passing of a warrior or soldier with a mournful song. These women were reputedly offered alcohol as a method of payment. At this time the Irish Church considered this bartering system as contradictory in the eyes of God and these women were punished for their activities by forever becoming Banshees.

This is could be the reverse pf what happened; keening was probably performed after the legend of the banshee arose.

Sightings of a Banshee ghost have been reported infrequently throughout history. Part of the legend of the Banshee does claim that if one is seen, or thinks it has been seen, it will vanish inside a cloud of smoke or mist and the only evidence that it was ever there is the flapping of wings. As scary as the cry of the Banshee is said to be, the Irish do not believe that a Banshee is ever actually responsible for a death that could follow shortly afterwards.

It was actually believed that the Banshee would serve to protect individuals that were pure or noble if death were to claim them. In contrast pop culture and horror movies usually portray them as nothing more a scary ghost, creating a new type of modern myth in and of itself.

Technically the Banshee spirit is considered to be part of the Fae (or fairies) family, though banshees are not actually considered fairies by modern standards, in Irish myth the term fairy is used to describe any supernatural, yet human-like figure. By modern definitions, the Banshee is its own creature with some ties to the fairy world.

As we discuss in more detail in our fairy tree article linked in the section below, fairies fell into two classifications, the first being the Aos Sí (people of the mounds) who were descendants of the almighty Celtic deities or the Tuatha de Danann. They were defeated by the Milesians and subsequently drove underground. They were were more similar to humans than traditional fairies such as the Banshee. The second type of fae were known as solitary fairies which were comprised of a number of sub categories of creatures including, leprechauns and other smaller more mischievous beings.

A great description of the Banshee that reflects the original depiction and true nature of the otherworldly woman.

A Quick Overview of Fairies

A fairy (fey or fae; collectively known as the wee folk, good folk and people of peace among other names) is a spirit or supernatural being, based on the fae of medieval Western European folklore and romance. Even in folklore that uses the term “fairy,” there are many definitions of what constitutes a fairy.

Sometimes the term is used to describe any mystical creature of humanoid appearance, including the Banshee, and at other times only to describe a specific type of more ethereal creature. Many folktales mention fairies, and they appear as characters in stories from medieval tales of chivalry to Victorian fairy tales, and up to the present day in modern literature.

Some scholars contributed fairies to a folkloric belief concerning the dead. This is noted in Celtic folklore by many common descriptions of fairies and the dead, such as the same legends being told of ghosts and fairies, the Sidhe mounds actually being burial mounds, the danger of eating food in both Fairyland and Hades, and both the dead and fairies living underground.

You may want to check a full article written on fairy glens or fairy trees and all of the different types of fairies in Irish myth to learn more!

Sin and Superstition surrounding the banshee ghost

In the Middle Ages, some Irish people truly believed in the presence of such creatures, who were thought to watch over the noble families of the Emerald Isle. A Banshee fairy would stay close to each family until all of its members passed away and were safely buried. It was believed the Banshee protected the descendants of the original Milesian families which may contradict their connection to the Tuatha de Danann. This is where things may get a bit confusing, but fear not we have an explanation!

The Milesians were the last race to settle in Ireland and are according to mythology, the group that modern Irish people originate from. The Milesians were in fact descended from Gaels, an older Irish race who sailed from Hispania (Spain) to Ireland after hundreds of years of travelling around the world.

According to some myths they never actually fought with the Tuatha de Danann, but instead agreed to split the land between them; the Milesians taking the natural world above ground and the Gods taking the land below, with fairy trees, water, and burial mounds being the entrance from one world to another. It is said that the Tuatha de Danann knew that they would lose the battle with the Milesians so they made a deal instead. They had the gift of prophecy, so why would they fight a battle they knew they would lose?

Fairy Trees - The Superstitious Fairy Trees in Ireland
Fairy Trees were an entrance to the Otherworld according to myth – The Superstitious Fairy Trees in Ireland

Sin and consequences fall under the domain of the mythical spirit of the Banshee; if a person lived a life of selfishness or decadence or committed cruel acts during their lifetime, it was believed that their soul would remain close to the earth, suffering in penance. The Banshee would always be there to make certain this punishment was carried out.

Conversely, if a person lived a life filled with kindness and selflessness and good deeds, their soul would dwell in peace and happiness for evermore. Although still tied to the earth, the soul would be content and the Banshee would make sure of this.

It was also a common belief in Ireland that a particular Banshee ghost would tie herself to one individual family, and serve as their singular warning of imminent death. If a group of Banshees were heard howling, it meant that someone very important or holy in a wealthy Irish clan was about to succumb to death’s fatal charms.

Each Banshee spirit has her own mortal family to watch over. Unseen, the Lady of sorrow attends the funerals and wakes of the beloved dead. Although, sometimes in the dark of night during the vigil, her voice blends in with the lamenting wails of the mourners.

Some of the Irish families that emigrated to the US, seem to have brought their family Banshee along with them. However, for the most part, Banshee sightings have been limited to Ireland and Scotland where the Banshee still grieves for the family member near the traditional family home, even in that person’s absence.

The Many Faces and Forms of the Banshee

The deeply-rooted superstitions surrounding her role in death and mourning kept the legend of the Banshee alive throughout the centuries. As the myth of the Banshee took hold, more contradicting details about the appearance of this ghostly apparition were revealed. Some would see the Banshee as a fearsome old hag, frightful to behold, while others would claim to see a beautiful woman.

In some cases, the Banshee fairy was reported to look like a simple washerwoman or laundress. The clothes she tended to wash were blood-stained and the armour she washed belonged to a soldier who would die in their next battle.

As mentioned, Banshee can manifest in many forms and disguises, the most common of which is the appearance of a beautiful or ugly woman. But they are also believed to appear as animals like the weasel, stoat, hare, or the hooded crow. These animals were commonly associated with witchcraft in Ireland in the past which probably explains the connection.

The Banshee is usually perceived as being quite fair, with long, pale hair that she grooms with a special silver comb. According to superstition, finding a comb on the ground and picking it up is extremely bad luck, because a Banshee has placed it there to lure the unsuspecting and lead them to ruin.

An old Irish poem refers to the appearance of the Banshee in the morning:

‘Hast thou heard the Banshee at morn,
Passing by the silent lake,
Or walking the fields by the orchard?
Alas! that I do not rather behold
White garlands in the hall of my fathers.’

While it is on record that the Banshee has been heard at noon, she is rarely seen or heard by daylight. Night is the time is generally chosen by her for her visits to people.

The Irish death bringer is considered to be a fairy or elemental spirit, but the Banshee as seen in the Americas is depicted to be more of a ghost that shares little other than appearance to the Irish messenger of death.

Irish tradition: The banshee was often portrayed as a mysterious woman washing armour at a river.
Irish tradition: The banshee was often portrayed as a mysterious woman washing armour at a river.

Tales of Unhinged Banshees around the world – Fireside stories of the Banshee fairy

An Eerie Memoir

One of the oldest and best-known stories of the banshee is told in the Memoirs of Lady Fanshaw (Scott’s – Lady of the Lake). As the story goes in 1642, Sir Richard and his wife Lady Fanshaw decided to visit a friend who happened to reside in a baronial castle. The regal lady was awoken by a ghastly and piercing cry. “Then she beheld in the moonlight a female face and part of her figure hovering at the window.

The apparition continued to exhibit itself for some time, and then vanished with two shrieks similar to that which she heard at first.” The following morning she related with terror in her voice the incident to her host who remarked, “What my dear Lady Fanshaw had witnessed and heard was a banshee and her wailing forecast of death came true as a near relation of my family expired last night in the castle.”

The Mysterious Castle

Set on the north-eastern shore of Lough Neagh, Shane’s Castle was a commanding presence for many centuries. Originally known as Eden-duff-carrick, the castle was reinstated to the O’Neill clan by King James in 1607. After this, it became known as Shane’s Castle. Mary Lowry, in her 1913 book The Story of Belfast and it’s Surroundings, cites Shane McBrien O’Neill as the owner who changed the name to Shane’s Castle and gives 1722 as the date of the change.

The O’Neills were at that time in possession of the castle that belonged to their ancestor, the great Shane O’Neill or the O’Neill Mór as he was also known as. In 1562 O’Neill Mór ruled or controlled most of Ulster. After his death, his many sons were known as the McShane, the sons of Shane, and soon after, the Christian name Shane became popular among his descendants. So, the name Shane’s Castle has many potential origins because of the popularity of the name.

Although the O’Neills held many castles, Eden-duff-carrick contains a stone carving of a head inset into one of the tower walls, known as the black head of the O’Neills, or the black brow on the rock. It’s thought that this stone carving pre-dates the castle by some centuries. It is said the line of the O’Neill’s will come to an end if the head ever falls from its position on the castle wall. Luckily for the O’Neills, the tower containing the head survived when their banshee burned the castle.

One source suggests that the origin of the O’Neill Banshee lies in an act of revenge by the fairies. One of the early O’Neills was returning from a raid when he found a cow with its horns tangled in a hawthorn tree. Single hawthorns (fairy trees) are sacred to the sidhe or fairy folk, and so the fairies now regarded the cow as their property. Foolishly, the man freed the animal and incurred the anger of the fay.

When O’Neill arrived at his home (which presumably was not Eden-Duff-Carrick, as that was built much later, but may have been where the black head of the O’Neills originally stood or an older building in the same location), he found that the fairies had taken his daughter to the bottom of the lough (the name of the lough is not specified, but the nearby waters of Lough Neagh were said to have healing properties associated with the little folk, so this is a good guess).

The girl was allowed to return to let her father know that she was safe in the fairy kingdom, but she could only return from then on in order to warn of impending death in the family in the form of keening. This source names her as Kathleen, which is of Anglo-Norman origin and so would seem to be a more recent alteration to the ancient legend. Maeve is a very old Irish name, found in the oldest of sagas, and appears more in keeping with the Banshee myth so it is sometimes believed to be the original name in the story.

The ending -een is a common diminutive in Irish; it is an affectionate twist added to a name that would seem to reinforce the story that the Banshee spirit was originally a much loved daughter of the house. This explains why the Banshee wants to warn families instead of harm them. Kathleen’s or Maveen’s death or forced journey to the Otherworld definitely fits the tragic origin of the Banshee.

The ruins of the castle today are unusual, as the castle was in the process of being rebuilt in a grander style by Richard Nash, architect of Buckingham Palace, among other famous buildings, when a fire broke out. The conservatory was already completed, and it survived the blaze while the main block of the castle was destroyed. Visitors can get a glimpse of the plans for the restored castle from the completed conservatory while touring the ruined remains of the main block, towers and curtain wall. A fortified esplanade (promenade), studded with a cannon salvaged from an English war, stands guard over the shoreline, and an interesting family tomb and statues can be seen on the grounds.

Shane’s Castle today

The castle boasted an impressive series of vaults and basement chambers, connected to a long underground passage, and was reputedly used as the servants’ entrance, but possibly originally intended as a refuge or escape route. To my knowledge, these vaults are now closed to the public.

The Banshee was said to be heard in Coile Ultagh, the “Great Wood of Ulster” which grew by the castle on the shores of Lough Neagh, and through which Shane O’Neill had marched his army in 1565 on his way to defeating the MacDonald’s at the battle of Glentaisie, which cemented his authority over Ulster. There’s still some of the great wood left in the grounds of Shane’s Castle, although much of it has gone to farmland and housing developments.

After the Flight of the Earls, in 1607, when the leaders of several Irish clans fled to the continent, thus ending the last vestiges of the Brehon laws and traditional governance in Ireland, some say that the Banshee ghost of the O’Neill’s followed the family into exile. However, the family line of the O’Neills is often unclear to trace.

Moreover Hugh O’Neill, the last Earl of Tyrone, was the offspring of an illegitimate son of the first Earl of Tyrone, and his father’s claim had been successfully contested by the great Shane O’Neill. So, perhaps Katleen or Maeveen, the White lady of Sorrow, the banshee of the O’Neills remained at Shane’s Castle, with the legitimate descendants of Shane O’Neill. After all, the black head of the O’Neills still stands on the tower wall at Shane’s Castle.

Want to know more about legendary Irish castles? No problem, we have got you covered.

Scottish Bean Nighe

Since the Scottish name Bean Nighe is derived from the Old Irish language, the fairy washerwoman of Scotland may well be related to the Irish banshee fairy, yet the two creatures are different in several details. According to John Gregorson Campbell, a folklorist working in Scotland in the latter half of the nineteenth century and whose work was published posthumously in 1900 and 1902: “A bean shìth is any otherworld woman; the bean nighe is a specific otherworld woman.” That would be to say a Bean Nighe is a type of Banshee.

The Scottish Bean Nighe is described in some tales as having one nostril, one big protruding tooth, webbed feet and as being dressed in green. As the “Washer at the Ford,” she wanders near deserted streams where she washes the blood from the grave-clothes of those who are about to die. It is said that Mnathan Nighe (the plural of bean nighe) are the spirits of women who died giving birth and are doomed to do this work until the day their lives would have normally ended.

In the ancient Celtic epic The Ulster Cycle, the Morrígan (a Celtic war goddess) is seen in the role of a Bean Nighe. When the hero Cúchulainn rides out to war, he encounters the Morrígan as a hag washing his bloody armor in a ford. From this omen, he realizes this battle will be his last.

Somewhere Between Past and Present – The Legend of the Banshee

Today, the best places to find stories of Banshees are in anthologies of Irish and Scottish lore. Some contemporary authors, such as Terry Pratchett in the novel Reaper Man employ Banshees, but on the whole, the Banshee fairy is not used frequently in literature or art. Certain forms of media, however, such as role-playing and video games, include the Banshee among their pantheon of mythical creatures and her presence in mythology has definitely inspired some haunting female spirits in horror movies.

In reality the banshee is usually employed as nothing more than a jump-scare, which is a shame as there is really interesting story to tell around her origin in myth.

Tuatha de Danann and the Banshee

Most Prominent Gods - Tuatha de Danann
Most Prominent Gods – Tuatha de Danann

The Goddess Brigid was a member of the Tuatha de Danann the first to wail or keen when her son died. In Cath Maige Tuired she is credited with creating the custom, which involves a combination of wailing and singing, creating an almost poetic, structured form of crying.

The banshee is a type of fairy commonly believed to be descended from the Tuatha de Danann in Celtic folklore. In general fairies can be classified into good and evil, the good are usually beautiful, creative and as tall as humans, while the evil are usually smaller with less human features, though the malevolent Dullahaun is an exception in terms of height.

Clíodhna and the Morrigan are also associated with the banshee for the reasons we will outline below.

The Queen of the Banshees

Clíodhna has received the title of the Queen of the Banshees and is mostly associated with the southern province of Munster in Ireland. Sometimes referred to as the goddess of love and beauty, Clíodhna is believed to have control over three otherworldly birds and is said to reside on an Otherworldly island.

  • Stories about Clíodhna in Irish myth

In one story Clíodhna comes to Ireland to be with her mortal lover, but is taken back to the Otherworld by a wave controlled by Manannán mac Lir, a sea god, member of the Tuatha de Danann and king of the Other world. He is depicted as her father sometimes and has many other notable children including his foster son Lugh Lamhfháda and his daughter Niamh Cinn Ór. Niamh is the same character that appears in Oisín i dTír na nÓg.

It is worth noting in the mythology, the Otherworld refers to any supernatural world. It sometimes describes the afterlife, while in this case it describes the Land of Youth where supernatural beings such as the Tuatha de Danann reside.

  • Clíodhna creating the Blarney stone

The origin of the Blarney Stone has many different variations, one of them involves the Queen of the Banshees. Cormac Laidir MacCarthy who built Blarney Castle found himself in a lawsuit. He pleaded with the goddess for help and Clíodhna told him to kiss the first stone he found on his way to court.

Cormac did this, and spoke his case eloquently actually winning in the process. This is just one of many versions, they all vary greatly but share the same sentiment; the stone provided the person with the ability to speak charmingly and almost deceptively without causing any offence. Other versions include Cormac convincing the Queen of England to let him keep his land or even a version where Robert the Bruce gifted the stone to the King.

Would you climb the narrow stairs of the castle to kiss the Blarney Stone?

The term ‘blarney’ means beguiling but misleading talk and so each case involves using the stone to deceptively get your way and overcome seemingly impossible tasks, with your words alone. You can learn more about the positive power of Irish stones and the darker side of stones in Irish myth in our article about Irish cursing stones.

Clíodhnas magic is unrelated to Banshees in this story, but it highlights the powers of the Tuatha de Danann. While each God was unique and the God of some thing or another, in general they all possessed the ability to do magic. Their abilities were not confined to one specific skill, rather they all could perform basic magic with no real difficulty.

The Banshee and the Morrigan

One version on the origin of the Banshee spirit tells us that the female apparition is later revealed to be the Morrigan, the Irish goddess of battles, sovereignty, and strife. The Morrigan is the Irish version of the Valkyries who decide the fate of warriors during the Germanic battles, but she is also more than that.

The Morrigan is comprised of a triple goddess, usually three sisters with many names who are mysterious in nature.

Badb or Bodb (a version of the word banshee in some parts of Ireland) was a goddess of war, who flew over battles as a crow, could change her appearance from anything to a beautiful lady or an old woman as well as many forms of animals. She could also predict the future and foretell prophecies and Cu Chulainn, the Irish hero saw the Morrigan washing his armour before entering the battle he died in.

Like the banshee, the Morrigan was often perceived to be evil due to her association with war and death, however in the mythos she actually helps and is part of the Tuatha de Danann, Ireland’s ancient heroes.

The Morrigan collected the souls of the dead on the battlefield and helped to bring them to the Otherworld, similarly the banshee was supposedly tasked with guiding souls in folklore.

A Banshee is similar to the Morrigan, the Celtic triple goddess and representative of death. They are both able to change their appearance, transform into animals (especially crows) and can foretell prophecies of death. They were both sometimes encountered in the guise of an old woman washing clothes by a river, but the Banshee is more often seen as a spirit keening death in the night. Like the washerwoman, the banshee’s appearance precedes death and unlike the Morrigan the Banshee mourns the death of someone she knows.

It is not hard to draw similarities between the Morrigana sisters and the Banshee, they literally both warn people of death and help them transition to the otherworld. It is more than possible that the Banshee is inspired by the triple deity. That is one of the charms of Celtic mythology; there is enough information to draw educated conclusions, but you also have enough ambiguity to think of other theories.

The Morrigan Tuatha de Danann
The Morrigan Tuatha de Danann

A logical explanation of the Banshee? Is the Ghost of the Banshee real?

Thankfully, Ireland has never suffered too much from the interference of modern ways when it comes to Irish stories, folklore, legends, and myths. Stories of the Banshee have been, and are still are told around the fire, usually with the storyteller enjoying a glass of Guinness to quench his thirst while he tells the tales of Irish heroes and epic battles.

Maybe the banshee was just a combination of the cry of barn owls combined with the real life practice of keening by professional mourners who tried to be mysterious by nature. It doesn’t really matter however, the legend of the banshee has survived the test of time and tells us a lot about the Celts and how they perceived death.

It is fascinating to see how the Banshee is now portrayed fulfilling the complete opposite of its original role in modern pop culture and horror lore; in traditional myth, she watches over a family and breaks tragic news to them, mourning by their side and helping their loved one to pass on to the otherworld.

Other myths from Ireland to consider reading include the Legend of Finn McCool, Irish Mythology, and of course – Irish Leprechauns.