Welcome to Unreal, a podcast about Irish history, stories and tradition.
Halloween is upon us, and the time of Samhain – a changing of the season to a darker time, when the spirits of the night and those no longer with us mingle through the cold night air. It is a time for ghost stories, and monster stories, and there are a great many Irish creatures we could talk about, who bring a thrill and chill to a dark fireside tale. This time though, we are talking about just one. Can you hear her voice, rising on the wind? Listen, but don’t listen too hard. For when you hear the cry of the Banshee, your time on earth may not be long. I’m Ruth Atkins, and this is Unreal.
The Banshee is one of Ireland’s most famous folkloric figures. A supernatural woman with a cry that foretells of death and devastation to those who hear it, stories about banshees have been terrifying listeners for hundreds of years.
Like most legendary creatures though, it took a lot of time and retelling for the Banshee to take the shape that we recognize today. The word Banshee, in Irish, means woman of the fairies. In fact, its literal meaning is even simpler: it means woman of the mound or barrow. The Aos Sí in Irish folklore, were a fairy race that inhabited the hills and mounds throughout Ireland, and Ban Sí was just the term for a woman of this race. So, for a long time, the banshee title had no strong connection with wailing women or harbingers of death.
However, stories about these fairy women did often note that they had gift of prophecy. A 14th century text from County Clare, where Banshee stories have been especially prevalent, vividly describes three fairy women with prophetic talents. One was beautiful, with rosy lips and flowing hair, and her name was Ireland’s Sovereignty. The other two did not come out so well.
When an Irish warrior, Donough of clan Brian Rua, was marching with his army towards battle, they spotted a hideous old woman stooped by the edge of a lake. Her hair was grey and rough as heather, her forehead covered with ulcers, and she had a great blueish nose, lips white-rimmed and pustulous, that turned up toward her nose, and down towards a short and stubby beard. Beside the old hag was a pile of bones – skulls and arms and legs, which she was rinsing carefully in the lakewater, so that the whole surface of the lake was covered with a film of hair and gore.
Donough’s army watched her for a long while, until finally Donough spoke, and asked her who these people were, whose bones she was washing.
“Dismal of Burren is my name,” she answered, “of the tuatha dé Danann. And these are your armies’ heads – yours is there among them. Though you may still carry them on your shoulders, your heads are will not be yours for much longer. Proudly you are marching to the battlefield, but the time is not far when nearly all of you will be slain.”
The men were angry at the woman’s words, and would have thrown their spears at her, but she rose up on the rushing wind above them, and continued to crow her prophecy.
“Ill betide all who march here. There will be spears and swords shivered to the bone, sighs, moans and grief – and you, comely Donough, will not return alive.”
“Don’t listen to the daft thing’s rambling prophecy” cried Donough. “She is trying to turn us back.” So the group marched on – but, as you can probably guess, they would have been better off listening to her words. Before he too was slain, Donough saw his men cut up to pieces, and the text quite vividly describes how the warriors were left unrecognisable, with bodies lying next to heads other than their own, arms flung far from their native shoulders, fingers wandering off their rightful hands, and hair in spirals, fair locks and wavy tresses, ingrained with blood red whistled down the shrilly wind.
There are several stories like this, of strange female figures washing bones or bloodstained clothing beside the lake. Another story in that same text tells of a Norman Lord, Richard de Clare, who saw a similar hag washing armour and silk and satin clothing, and told him it belonged to him. “I am of the Tribes of Hell,” she said. “And soon, you will dwell there too.” Sure enough, the following day de Clare, his son and his English troops lay dead in battle. Such a figure is seen too in the tale of Cormac, who was to succeed Connor as King of Ulster – until he met a red woman washing his bloodstained harness and chariot in the lake, after which point misfortune plagued him until his untimely, violent death.
Even Ireland’s great High King, Brian Boru, was visited by a fairy woman who told him of his future, the Annals of Loch Cé record. On the eve of the Battle of Clontarf, Aibhinn, sometimes callied Aibhell, a fairy woman, visited Brian from the Sidh of Craigliath, and told him that the following day he would be slain. Brian asked her which of his sons would be king after him.
“The first son that you next see shall be king after you,” she answered.
So Brian sent at once for his favoured son Murchadh to speak with him. But Murchadh was changing and wouldn’t come until he was dressed. Then Brian’s other son Donnchadh, on hearing his father’s voice ran quickly to the tent and asked Brian what he needed him for.
Realizing what had happened, and that Donnchadh was the first son he had seen, Brian brushed him off angrily. “I care not what you do.” He said. “It wasn’t you I wanted.” And when Murchadh arrived, Brian sadly told him “Go to your bed, until the day comes, and what I had wished for God has not permitted to thee.” So it came to pass, as Aibhinn foretold, that the following day Murchadh was slain in the great battle, along with his son, and Brian himself was killed shortly afterwards, by a Dane who crept into his tent.
What’s missing from all of these early stories is perhaps the most distinctive feature of the banshee that we recognise today – her deathly cry. These fairy women were future seers, and were certainly frightening people to meet, but they were perfectly capable of expressing themselves through rational speech, of holding a conversation with the unfortunate people they came across.
But when we think of Banshees now, they tend to be much more primal, animalistic creatures – more monster than woman. It is the absence of speech we tend to imagine – her wail is the wordless and pitiful, and she herself is rarely seen. The piercing cry is something you hear echo around you, and you are forced to wonder – was that just the wind, whistling through the trees? Or was it the sound of a death soon to come?
The stories told about banshees changed as the centuries progressed. And the storytellers changed too – by the 18th and 19th centuries, banshee tales were no longer being recorded by Irish scribes in medieval manuscripts, but rather by the members of the aristocratic and ascendant classes. They took the tales they had heard among the common people of Ireland, and began to tell them in a new way, that better fit their own methods of telling. So the Banshee started to become much more of a ghost story – a tale that wouldn’t have been out of place in the gothic novels that were proving so popular among the wealthy gentry at this time.
Often these stories were recorded as though they were true events concerning real people – but it’s a little hard to tell how much their writers truly believed in them, and how much this was for dramatic impact, as ghost stories are usually at their best when told as though they are true.
Lady Ann Fanshawe, a 17th Century English memoirist, recorded her own unsettling experience while on a trip to Bunratty in Cork.
…about one o’clock, I heard a voice that awaked me. I drew the curtain, and in the casement of the window I saw by the light of the moon a woman in white, with red hair and ghastly complexion. She spake loud, and in a tone I never heard, thrice “Ahone”’ and then with a sigh more like wind than breath she vanished… About eight o’clock the lady of the house came to see us, saying she had not been a-bed all night, because a cousin of hers, whose ancestors had owned the house had died at two o’clock. … it is the custom of this place that when any die of this family, the shape of a woman appears in this window every night until they be dead. This woman was many ages ago got with child by the owner of this place, and he in his garden murdered her and flung her into the river under your window.”
The early 19th Century memoirs of Jonah Barrington, an Irish judge, tells a similar story of the sudden death of Robert Cuninghame, Lord Rossmore.
One of the greatest pleasures I enjoyed whilst resident at Drummon, was the near abode of the late Lord Rossmore, at that time commander-in-chief in Ireland. His lordship knew my father, and, from my commencement in public life, had been my friend, and a sincere one. He was a Scotsman born, but had come to Ireland when very young, had married an heiress; had purchased the estate of Mount Kennedy; built a noble mansion; laid out some of the finest gardens in Ireland. …This intimacy at Mount Kennedy gave rise to an occurrence the most extraordinary and inexplicable of my whole existence—an occurrence which for many years occupied my thoughts, and wrought on my imagination…
Jonah was invited to stay with Lord Rossmore at Mount Kennedy, and dine with him the following evening, when the strange event occurred.
We retired to our chamber about twelve; and towards two in the morning, I was awakened by a sound of a very extraordinary nature. I listened: it occurred first at short intervals; it resembled neither a voice nor an instrument; it was softer than any voice and wilder than any music, and seemed to float in the air. I don’t know wherefore, but my heart beat forcibly: the sound became still more plaintive, till it almost died away in the air; when a sudden change, as if excited by a pang, changed its tone: it seemed descending. I felt every nerve tremble: it was not a natural sound, nor could I make out the point whence it came.
At length I awakened Lady Barrington. We went to a large window in our bedroom which looked directly upon a small garden underneath: the sound, which first appeared descending, seemed then obviously to ascend from a grass-plot immediately below our window. It continued. The sounds lasted for more than half an hour. At last a deep, heavy, throbbing sigh seemed to issue from the spot, and was shortly succeeded by a sharp but low cry, and by the distinct exclamation, thrice repeated, of “Rossmore!—Rossmore!—Rossmore!” I will not attempt to describe my own sensations; indeed I cannot. Our maid fled in terror from the window, and it was with difficulty I prevailed on Lady Barrington to return to bed: in about a minute after the sound died gradually away, until all was silent.
At length, wearied with speculations, we fell into a sound slumber.
About seven the ensuing morning a strong rap at my chamber-door awakened me, and the past night’s adventure rushed instantly upon my mind. It was light: I went to the door, when my faithful servant, Lawler, exclaimed, on the other side, “Oh Lord, Sir!”—“What is the matter?” said I hurriedly: “Oh, Sir!” ejaculated he, “Lord Rossmore’s footman was running past the door and told me in passing that my lord had gone to bed in perfect health, but that about half-after two this morning, he was found in the agonies of death; and before anyone could be called, it was over!”
I conjecture nothing. I only relate the incident as unequivocally matter of fact: Lord Rossmore was absolutely dying at the moment I heard his name pronounced! Let sceptics draw their own conclusions.
It is so interesting to see how different these stories of Banshees were to their predecessors in Irish manuscripts. The wail of the banshee actually bears a lot of similarities to an Irish funeral tradition that was widely done by the Irish peasant classes at the time. This tradition was known as “keening.” Keening comes from the Irish word caoineadh, to cry. During the funeral stages – the wake, funeral procession and burial, a group of women known as the mná caointe were paid to wail and sing over the body with a poetic lamentation. The keen was the final goodbye to the person who had died, and it was sometimes believed by the Irish funeral-goers that the sound allowed the soul to leave the body, so it was a hugely important part of the funeral tradition.
This keening was not a wild, wordless wail. It was more like poem or song, composed spontaneously with repeated motifs and exclamations in Irish. And some of the famoust caoineadhs were passed on from woman to woman as a kind of oral literature. So this was actually quite a sophisticated ritual. But the records we have of the tradition at this time were mainly from English listeners, who could not speak or understand Irish, and so they were left with a very different impression of what was going on. They found it savage, and unsettling. Take for example, this account in the Dublin Penny Journal of 1833:
The first time I ever heard the funeral cry, I was greatly struck by it . . . A faint wailing sound, so wild and indescribable, that it seemed almost something unearthly, came floating on the light morning breeze, but so indistinct and so faint from distance, that it was repeated more than once before I could be quite certain that it was more than mere imagination. . . . From a sort of murmur it swelled out into a full tone, and then died away into silence; I know nothing it resembled so much as the sounds of an Eolian harp . . . It certainly struck me as the most singularly plaintive and mournful expression of excessive grief that could well be imagined.
I think this description of keening shows a lot of similarities to how the eloquent predictions of early Banshees was transformed into a wild and mournful wail in later stories. It reads like a misunderstanding – underestimating and oversimplifying a rich tradition of the native Irish, into something that was purely based on aesthetics – the look and sound without the rich cultural heritage that underpinned it.
By the mid-18th Century, Banshees had become firmly associated in literature with this image of a strange wailing woman. To read these stories almost feels at times like you are reading caricature of the peasant classes, who the aristocratic storytellers just couldn’t understand and found frightening. So it was no longer the woman fairy’s knowledge, or the words of prophecy she spoke that were important anymore – it was simply the sound she was making – that eerie cry that travelled along the breeze to the unfortunate people who heard it. There is also something quite interesting about how these later accounts from noble classes, that have come to define what we think of as Banshees today, so frequently associated them with aristocratic and wealthy families – the very fact that you could hear a banshee’s wail at all was supposed to mark you out as a person of nobler status than others. O’Brien’s Dictionary from 1768 described banshees as:
“woman-fairies, credulously supposed by the common people to be so affected to certain families, that they are heard to sing mournful lamentations about their houses by night, whenever any of the family labours under a sickness which is to end by death. But no families which are not of an ancient and noble stock are believed to be honoured with this fairy privilege.”
It is so fascinating to see it laid out like this – the banshee, a strange savage woman, with a voice that wailed in a language they couldn’t understand – who foretold their doom, but also gave them the nobility and status that they craved. It really seems to speak to the subconscious fears the landed gentry had about the peasant classes they controlled – the people who seemed similarly wild and unknowable to them, who were similarly reduced and had their words taken from them, who through their existence propped up the wealth and luxury of the noble classes, but as a result had the power to bring about their demise in the end. I think these parallels are easy to see now with hindsight, even if they weren’t clear to the storytellers at the time. It makes me wonder about the stories we tell today, and what they will reveal about us in years to come.
So perhaps, this Halloween, it’s time to change our story and song. Instead of being frightened by Banshee’s haunting wail, perhaps it is time we tried to listen to her words once again – to see if understanding brings us more happiness than fear.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Unreal. You can find links to the sources, script and music from today’s episode on my website UnrealPodcast.com. If you enjoyed this show, please consider subscribing, and leaving a rating or review on social media or wherever you get your podcasts. I’ll be back soon with another story, and until then, Happy Halloween – Oíche Shamhna shona duit, and go néirí an bóthar leat.