Emerald Isle

The Banshee

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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from Irish Gods and Monsters

The Banshee, terror of the oldest families in Ireland

The Banshee or woman of the fairy folk as she is known in Ireland has many names, the Little Washerwoman, Hag of the Mist and the Hag of the Black Head. She takes three forms, that of a young and comely maiden, a matron of full and generous figure, or that of a wretched old crone, and is dressed in red or white or as the occasion calls for it, in the shrouds of the dead.

Some see similarities between her legend and those of the fabled battle-witches of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, the three who were one - Badbh, Macha, and Morrigan, although even as a creature of the fields, a stoat, hare, weasel or crow may she come..

Still, no matter what shape she takes her coming always foretells doom and death, disaster and dismay. Brian Ború, hero of Ireland and conquerer of the Viking scourge, although himself a Christian man, was said to have spent much of his last battle praying in his tent, for he had told his page that Aibhil of Crag Liath had come to him the night before and spoken to him of his death. And so indeed he died that day.

By tradition she appears before the death of one of the high Milesian race, the O'Gradys, the O'Neills, the Ó Longs, the McCnaimhíns, the O'Briens the Ó Conchobhairs, and the Caomhánachs, but she's not too dainty to feast upon the terror of others, as Richard de Clare found out in the fourteenth century!

As he marched towards his outnumbered enemies, full confident of a swift victory, his force came upon a grim and wizened old woman washing armour and fine robes, all stained with blood, in the swift running river. Calling one of his local men to speak to her, he heard that she was the woman of the waters of misery, who made her home in the misted mounds of the fairies - but she was of the tribes of hell, and invited him thence from the green earth upon which he walked! Soon, she said, they would dwell in the same land.

And sure enough de Clare perished in the battle and his men were scattered, and to this day the people of the area tell of Aibhil and her twenty five handmaidens who redden the water when trouble nears. Centuries before tales are told of another would-be conquerer, Prince Donchad O'Brien, who sought rulership of the land around Lough Rask.

They looked on the shining mere, and there they saw the monstrous and distorted form of a lone, ancient hag, that stooped over the bright Lough shore. She was thatched with elf locks, foxy grey and rough like heather, matted and like long sea-wrack, a bossy, wrinkled, ulcerated brow, the hairs of her eyebrows like fish hooks; bleared, watery eyes peered with malignant fire between red inflamed lids; she had a great blue nose, flattened and wide, livid lips, and a stubbly beard.

The hag was washing human limbs and heads with gory weapons and clothes, till all the waters were defiled with blood, brains, and floating hair.

Donchad at last spoke. "What is your name and race, and whose kin are those maltreated dead?" She replied, "I am Bronach of Burren, of the Tuatha Dé Danann. This slaughter heap is of your army’s heads - your own is in the middle!"

The angry men raised their javelins, but she rose on the wind, yelling more and more words of woe till she vanished. "Pay her no mind," said Donchad, "she is a friendly Bodbh of Clan Torlough". The army hurried on to the ridge of the Abbey, where Donchad and all his kindred, save one brother, were slain before evening.

In her other forms she is best known by her distinctive wailing, described in the south as a low, melodious song, in the north the clapping of two boards, and in the east the shriek of a woman or an owl.

Not that one should imagine the Banshee to be confined to Ireland, for she has been known to follow families abroad and dog their footsteps in other countries.

A party of visitors were gathered together on the deck of a private yacht on one of the Italian lakes in the nineteenth century, 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!" cried the Colonel. "What exactly does it mean?"

"It means," the Count replied solemnly, "the death of some one very closely associated with me. Pray Heaven it is not my wife or daughter."

He need not have worried, for he was struck dead by a heart attack within two hours.

The place known now as Loughrask in County Clare where Aibhil and her twenty five banshees are yet said to haunt the land is marked on the map below.


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