Irish mythology and folklore are famed for its richness of detail, its abundance of memorable characters and its meaningful fables. From the most well-known tales, such as the Banshee and the Children of Lir, to lesser-known gems, such as the warrior-queen Carmán, Ireland can lay claim to an abundance of folkloric wonders.
So, What Exactly Is the Banshee?
The Roots of the Legend
Sin and Superstition
The Many Faces and Forms of the Banshee
Origins of the Banshee
A Quick Overview of Fairies
Tales of Unhinged Banshees
Scottish Bean Nighe
Somewhere Between Past and Present
A Fireside Monster Story
The Banshee is a female spirit who lives by the river. They usually have the appearance of an old hag but are capable of making themselves as young and beautiful as they choose. The Banshee is seen as the omen of death and foreboding from certain ancient Irish families, with names such as Fitzgerald, O’Neil’s, O’Connor’s, and O’Grady. In Ireland and Scotland, it is traditional for women to wail or keen at funerals, so if you hear the keen of the Banshee, she is alerting you that death is nearby.
Alleged sightings of Banshee ghosts are as old as 1948 and existed in Welsh, Norse, and American Folklore. 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 woman spirit who would act as the harbinger of death; having foresight, she would appear before the death, weeping. It was believed that the banshee sang such a sad song because she was a friend of the family.
Sometimes a Banshee will perch on a windowsill like a bird, where she’ll 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, many believe that the banshees are birdlike creatures.
The Banshee also wails in other areas such as in woods, rivers, and rock formations. In Waterford, Monaghan, and Carlow, there are wedge-shaped rocks which are referred to as “Banshee’s Chairs.”
In Ireland, The Banshee is also called Banshie, Bean Si, Bean Sidhe, and Ban Side among other names dialectally popular. Most of the still-known-and-heard tales and lore of the Banshee comes from outside Ireland, however. In Scotland, the Banshee may be referred to as Ban Sith or Bean Shith.
Since the Otherworld of Irish mythology can be interchangeable in certain texts as either the realm of the fairy folk or the dead, what precisely the Banshees were had not been determined. However, the belief that they were women who died prematurely seems to be the most widespread belief, possibly to create an atmosphere of sorrow and grief around the spirits.
But in mythology, the Banshee was linked to the fairies as being part of the mystical race, Tuatha De’Dannan, which the fairies descended from. It just shows that though the Banshee is a commonly known figure, the familiar specter remains steeped in mystery, and there are many theories to account for Banshee sightings.
Yet, 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, written down only in the last five hundred years, are the most common place to find the banshee, such as the fourteenth century Chogaidh Gaeil are Gall. Such traditions changed over time to include poems, limericks, nursery rhymes, and superstitions that have carried on to the twentieth century, although actual belief in such creatures is scarce at best.
In the Middle Ages, the Irish truly believed in the presence of such creatures, who were thought to watch over the families of the Emerald Isle. A Banshee would stay close to each family until all of its members passed away and were safely buried.
Sin and consequences are also under the domain of the mythical spirit; 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 contented. The Banshee would make sure of that.
It was also a common belief in Ireland that a particular Banshee would tie herself to one individual family, and serve as a singular warning. Thus, it was thought that if a group of Banshees were heard howling, it meant that someone in a wealthy Irish clan was about to succumb to death’s fatal charms.
Each devilish Banshee has her own mortal family. 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 blending 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 where the Banshee still grieves for the family member near the traditional family home even in that person’s absence.
These deeply-rooted superstitions kept the legend of the Banshee alive through the centuries. As the myth of the Banshee took hold, more 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 see a beautiful woman.
In some cases, the Banshee was reported to look like a simple washerwoman or laundress. Only the clothes she tended to were blood-stained. Another portent of impending doom for an unlucky Irish man or woman. 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 are commonly associated with witchcraft in Ireland.
The Banshee is often seen to be dressed in white or grayish white gown while brushing their long pale hair with a comb. According to a romantic Irish legend, the comb is used by the Banshee (and also Mermaids) to lure innocent souls into their doom. That’s why people in Ireland never pick up any comb that is lying on the ground even until this day. Others who have seen this creature described her as wearing a green, red, and sometimes black dress hidden under a grey cloak.
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, however, rarely seen or heard by daylight. Night is the time generally chosen by her for her visits to people.
One version on the origin of the Banshee tells 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 decides the fate of warriors during the Germanic battles.
A Banshee is similar to the Morrigan, the crone aspect of the Celtic triple goddess, the representative of death. Sometimes encountered in the guise of an old woman washing clothes by a warrior on his way to death, the Banshee is more often seen as a spirit keening a death in the night. Like the washerwoman, the banshee’s appearance precedes death.
The Irish death bringer is considered to be a fairy or elemental spirit, but the Banshee seen in the Americas are depicted to be more of a ghost or any ghoulish apparitions that are commonly mistaken by people to be the Irish messenger of death.
Irish history is full of legends of leprechauns and fearsome warrior kings. It may be unfair for the Irish to become more well-known these days for shamrocks, St. Patrick’s Day or brewing Guinness. While it isn’t known for certain, there is evidence that the origin of the Banshee can be placed 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 given or 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 that these women were punished for their activities by forever becoming Banshees.
Sightings of a Banshee have been reported infrequently. Part of the legend of the Banshee does claim that if one is seen, or thinks it has been seen, then 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 strictly believe that a Banshee is ever actually responsible for a death that could follow shortly afterward. There are reports from the Middle Ages that a Banshee would actually serve to protect individuals that were pure or noble if death were to claim them.
Technically the Banshee is considered to be part of the Fae (fairies) family, though banshees are not actually fairies. The term fairy is used commonly in old Irish myths to describe supernatural, yet human-like figures. In modern definitions though, the Banshee is its own creature with some ties to the fairy world.
A fairy (fey or fae; collectively wee folk, good folk, people of peace, among others) is a spirit or supernatural being, based on the fae of medieval Western European (Old French) 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 are told of 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 contributed fairies to a folkloric belief concerning the dead. This noted many common points of belief, such as the same legends being told of ghosts and fairies, the Sidhe mounds in actuality being burial mounds, it being dangerous to eat food in both Fairyland and Hades, and both the dead and fairies living underground.
You might want to check a full article written on fairies here.
An Eerie Memoir
One of the oldest and best-known stories is that related in the Memoirs of Lady Fanshaw (Scott’s – Lady of the Lake) As the story goes in 1642 when her husband, Sir Richard, and she chanced 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 northeastern 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 and gives 1722 as the exact date. The O’Neills then in possession of the castle were descended from the great Shane O’Neill, who becomes The O’Neill Mór around 1562 and ruled or controlled most of Ulster. After his death, his many sons were known as the McShane, the sons of Shane, and predictably the Christian name Shane was popular among his descendants. So, the name Shane’s Castle has many resonances and potential origins.
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 affront 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 are sacred to the sidhe (see: wishing trees) and so the fairies now regarded the cow as their property. Foolishly, he freed the animal and incurred the anger of the fey. When he 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), he found that the fairies had taken his daughter to the bottom of the lough (which lough is not specified, but the waters of Lough Neagh were said to have healing properties associated with the little folk). 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 by keening. This source names her as Kathleen, which is of Anglo-Norman origin and so would seem to be of much more recent provenance than the ancient legend. Maeve is a very old Irish name, found in the oldest sagas, and appears more in keeping with the apparent antiquity of the Banshee myth. The ending -een is a common diminutive in Irish, an affectionate twist on a name that would seem to reinforce the story that the Banshee was originally a daughter of the house.
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 the 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 sumptuousness 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, studded with cannon salvaged from an English man-o-war, stands guard over the shoreline, and an interesting family tomb and statues can be seen on the grounds.
The castle boasted an impressive series of vaults and basement chambers, connected to a long underground passage, 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 of the O’Neill’s followed the family into exile. However, the family line of the O’Neills is often unclear, and 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 Maeveen, the White lady of Sorrow, the banshee of the O’Neills remained at Shane’s Castle, and 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 got you covered.
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, 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.”
The Scottish Bean Nighe is described in some tales as having one nostril, one big protruding tooth, webbed feet, long hanging breasts, 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. A mortal who is bold enough to sneak up to her while she is washing and suck her breast can claim to be her foster child, and as a result, gain a wish from her.
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.
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 is not used frequently in literature or art. Certain pop-cultural activities, however, such as role-playing and video games, include the Banshee among their mythical creatures.
Thankfully, Ireland has never suffered much from the interference of modern ways when it comes to Irish stories, folklore, legends, and myths. Stories of the Banshee have been, and 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 the Irish.