Those who have read some of my books of Irish Short Stories or have followed my stories will know that they contain several stories about “The Banshee”, which, of all Irish spirits, fairies, and ghosts, is the most widely known. Those people from other countries who visit Ireland usually read up on the customs and folklore of the nation, along with its flora, fauna, and wildlife. Indeed, some visitors arrive believing that ‘The Banshee’ is one of the sites of our country and they seem to expect it to manifest itself to them at some time during their stay.
The Banshee, however, is an Irish legend whose roots go way back to the dark days of pre-history, when there were all sorts of mystical and magical creatures that were said to roam the land. But the first recorded sighting of ‘The Banshee’ was the spirit that attached itself to the Clan of O’Brien, from among whose ranks came several High Kings of Ireland, and haunted their old Castle of ‘Kincora’, the ruins of which remain near Killaloe in County Clare. Then, at the great and bloody ‘Battle of Clontarf’, that was fought in 1014 A.D. between the Irish and the Danes, Ireland’s famous High King, Brian Boru, was killed at the very moment of his victory. It is rumoured, however, that ‘The Banshee’ appeared to the old King on the eve of battle to tell him of his future victory, while forewarning him that he would not survive the battle.
There is a story from more recent times, which is said to have occurred in the countryside of North County Armagh. Although there are no longer any surviving witnesses to what happened at that time, the story is accepted as fact by the local community. The story tells us that at a house, which still stands in this rural area, an old man lay upon his deathbed waiting for eternal sleep to overcome him. The man’s three grown-up sons had, in the meantime, sent for the local doctor and were anxiously awaiting his arrival just as the first light of dusk crossed the sky. They were having a smoke on the front steps of the cottage, and they quietly chatting among themselves when they first heard the heavy rumbling noise of coach wheels on a metalled road. They looked up and they saw a huge, black coach drive into their farmyard, which stretched out from the main door of the house. Nervously, one of the old man’s sons went down to meet the coach, believing that it was carrying the doctor, but the coach swept past him at speed and continued to move down the lane to a gate. Witnessing all this, the other two sons ran after the coach, which was became hidden from view by high hedges, but they could still hear the rumbling of the coach wheels. In their rush, the two young men almost crashed into the gate, which was closed across the lane and barring the exit. The rumbling of the coach had stopped by this time and the carriage itself had totally vanished, without leaving as much as a wheel rut in the ground. The large padlock on the gate remained completely intact and there was no sign at all that the gate had been tampered with. But, a short time later, the doctor arrived at the house and he quickly came to realise that there was nothing that he could do for the old man, who died quietly only an hour or so after the visit.
There is an older story, which relates to an event that took place one night in early spring, in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Two house servants had been instructed to await the arrival of a coach, which was bringing home the family’s eldest son. The young man had travelled to England, and further afield, seeking a cure to the illness from which he was suffering, but all his efforts had proved to be fruitless. One of the servants, who had been dozing in the hall, was suddenly awakened by the heavy rumbling noise of an approaching coach. Still half asleep, he immediately awakened his companion and they both went out of the house door and down the long flight of steps to open the carriage door. But, as the servant reached out his hand to turn the handle to the door, he was surprised and terrified to see a skull looking out of the window at him. In his terror, he screamed loudly and fell in a heap at the side of the coach and, when he finally awakened once more the servant slowly picked himself up from the ground, but he saw neither sight or sound of the coach. About ten minutes later the invalid eldest son’s coach arrived, and the servants carried him to his bed. Unfortunately, the young man’s illness had become very much worse and his suffering ended when he died in his sleep.
On a winter’s night, at the beginning of the last century, a coach was seen by a gamekeeper who was doing his rounds of a large property, which stood in a scenic wooded glen among the beautiful Glens of Antrim. It was a calm and frosty night as he made his patrol of the property, and he suddenly heard the loud rumbling of wheels on the avenue that ran up to the back of the house. But he knew that it was not possible for any vehicle to be arriving at the property so late at night, and all sorts of strange thoughts began to enter his head. Recalling ancient legends from the district, his thoughts quickly turned to the possibility that the noise could be the approach of the ‘Death Coach’. As this possibility dawned upon him, he ran to open the gates on the avenue before the ‘coach’ arrived, and he just about managed to open the last gate and throw himself on the ground beside it, when he heard the coach go past. With his head buried in the damp ground the man did not actually see the coach itself as it went past, but the next day he heard the news that the property owner’s uncle had died suddenly in London. But, in this story, there is a very important fact for the reader and uninitiated to learn, namely that at the sight or sound of a coach all gates that might bar its way should be immediately thrown open. It is only by doing this can a person ensure the ‘Death Coach’ will not stop at their house to call for a member of the immediate family, but it will only warn of the death of a relative who is somewhere else.
Despite the many stories and legends about the Banshee, we must remember that she is not always the harbinger of death in Irish families, because certain families have other strange and varied warnings that death is near to them. There was one local family that I recall, who believed a death in their family is foretold by a female ghost, dressed in a white satin dress and opening the door into the living area where she walks across the room and through the hallway. A friend once told me that his family believed that the breaking of a mirror is an omen of death, while a cousin related that he knew of a family who was convinced that the independent opening and shutting of the farm gate foretells the passing of a family member. Among Irish families, there are varied traditions concerning the fore-telling of death, including one that says the cry of a cuckoo, in any season of the year, is a herald of death. In another family, that warning of death may be the sound of a ringing bell, even when there is not a bell in the house. I can remember my uncle’s wife telling me, at one time, that a rat crossing their path is a warning of a death in her family, while a neighbour’s family are certain that seeing a large white owl is a certain sign of death among them.
This list is short, but I am certain that there are many people from various areas of Ireland who could add to my list and make it much more comprehensive.
Many long years ago there was a man living in the village of Derrytrask, whom many considered to be a bit of an ‘eejit’. To prove their view of the man, they would point to the way he was demonstratively fond of music but had never been able to learn to play more than one tune on his pipes, namely the “Black Rogue”. In the various bars and at the local festivities he used to make a few shillings from those who would make fun of him as he played his tune. The money helped both the man and his widow mother to pay the rent on their small holding and occasionally buy some luxuries, like snuff and a bottle of stout or two.
One night the Piper was walking home from a local house, where there had been a bit of a dance, and he was somewhat the worse for wear because of the whisky he had imbibed. As he walked along the the narrow cart track road he came up to a little bridge that was close by his mother’s house. He stopped for a moment, breathed into his pipe bag and squeezed it to begin playing that one tune that he knew so well, the “Black Rogue.” From behind him, in the darkness a ‘Puca’ came upon him, grabbed him and flung him on his own back. The ‘Puca’ is a spirit creature which takes on many forms and shapes. On this particular spirit creature there were long horns and the Piper had to take a good, strong grip of these. As he grabbed the horns he cried out at the creature, saying, “Damn you to hell, you evil creature. Let me go on my way home for I have a silver sixpence in my pocket for my mother, and she wants some snuff.”
“Never you mind your mother, or even what she wants” said the ‘Puca’, “but concentrate your mind on keeping your hold on those horns. If you should fall from my back you will surely break your neck and those pipes you carry.” Then, more softly, the ‘Puca’ asked him, “Why don’t you play for me the ‘The Blackbird?‘”
“But, I don’t know that tune,” replied the Piper.
“Do not concern yourself about whether you do or you don’t know the tune,” Puca snapped at him. “Just you begin playing those pipes and I’ll make certain you know the tune.”
Frightened, the Piper put wind in his bag and he began to play such fine music that it made him wonder how such a thing could happen. “Upon my word but you’re a fine music teacher,” says the Piper, adding, “now tell me where you are taking me with such speed.”
“Tonight there is a great feast being held in the house of the Banshee, which stands on the top of Croagh Patrick,” said the Puca. “I am now bringing you to the feast where you will play your music and have no doubt that you will be well rewarded for your trouble.”
“Sure isn’t that a great thing, for you’ll save me a journey, ” replied the Piper, “Father Tom has told me that I should make the pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick as a penance, because it was me who stole the big white goose from the Martins’ farmhouse yard.”
The Puca paid him no mind, put down his head and rushed the piper across hills, bogs and rough places, until he finally brought him to the top of Croagh Patrick. As they came to a halt the Puca struck three blows on the ground with his foot, and a great door opened before them. Unhesitatingly they both passed through the door and found themselves in a large, finely adorned room.
In the middle of the room the Piper saw a large golden table, around which sat hundreds of old women, and all were staring toward him. One of the old women stood up from her seat and greeted him, “A hundred thousand welcomes to you, Puca of November. Who is this mortal being that you have brought with you?”
“This mortal is the very best Piper in all of Ireland,” said the Puca, proudly.
One of the old women now struck a blow on the ground, which caused a door to open in the side wall of the fine room. Then, very much to the Piper’s surprise he noticed, coming out of the door, the big white goose, which he had stolen from Martins’ farmyard. “It’s a miracle to me,” says the Piper, “myself and my mother ate every last morsel of that goose, except for one wing. It was that one wing that I gave to old Red Mary, and it was her that told the priest I had stolen the goose..”
The goose now marched over to clean the table before carrying it away. The Puca now turned to the piper and urged him to, “Play your music for the enjoyment of these ladies.” The Piper put air into the bag and began to play. He played so well that all the old women took to the floor and began to dance, dancing so lively until they were too tired to dance any more. It was then that the Puca came forward to demand that they pay the Piper. Without complaint each and every old woman took out a gold piece from their pockets and gave it to him.
“By the staff of Patrick,” says the Piper, “sure I’m as rich as the son of any great lord.”
“Now come with me,” asked the Puca, “and I will bring you back to your home.”
They went out of the room and, just as the Piper was about to mount the back of the Puca, the goose waddled over to him and presented him with a new set of pipes. With the same speed as before the Puca set off and it did not take him long until he brought the Piper back to Derrytrask. They came at last to the little bridge again and the Piper dismounted the Puca, who quietly told him that he should go home. Before the Piper left the Puca told him, “You now have two things that you have never had before. You now have sense and music.”
Feeling on top of the world the Piper hurried home, and he knocked loudly at his mother’s door, calling out to her, “Mother, let me in. Your son is as rich as any lord, and I have become the very best Piper in the whole of Ireland.”
“You’re drunk again,” replied his mother in disgust.
“No,Mother, indeed I’m not,” insisted the Piper, “Not a single drop of liquor has passed my lips.”
The mother opened the door to him, and he gave her the gold pieces he had received from the old women. “Wait, now,” says he, “until you hear the wonderful music that I can play now.” He quickly buckled on the pipes and began to play, but instead of sweet music there now came a sound as if all the geese and ganders in Ireland were screeching together. The terrible noise that he made wakened all the neighbours, and they were all mocking him. Their mocking continued until the Piper put on his old pipes and, from that moment, he played the most melodious music for them. Now that they had heard his music the Piper told them all the great adventure that he had gone through that night and they listened to his story in disbelief.
The next morning, when Piper’s mother went to look at the gold pieces her son had given her, there was nothing there but the leaves of a plant. Shocked by this the Piper went to see the priest and related to him the adventure he had undertaken. But the priest would not believe a word that he uttered and the Piper decided to play the pipes for him. As he did so the screeching of the ganders and the geese began once again. “Leave my sight, you thief,” the angry priest roared at him. But the Piper would not move an inch until he put the old pipes on him to demonstrate to the priest that his story was indeed true. He buckled on his old pipes, and he began to played the most wonderful and melodious music. Such became his fame that it is said from that day until the day of he died there was never his equal as a Piper in all the west of Ireland.
The Banshee or ‘The White Woman’, famed in Irish folklore is sometimes called the ‘Shee Frogh’, ‘House-Fairy’. She is usually represented as a small, shriveled, old woman. Occasionally, however, she is pictured as being a young, beautiful woman with long, flaxen hair, and it is this long hair that she is often depicted as combing, while she freezes the observer’s blood with her wild and startling wail that sounds every bit a soul-piercing melody.
A Banshee is reputed to herald the immediate death of members of a particular ‘Old Irish’ family. But, she is always to be seen alone at these times, in a melancholy mood, when she is found near the home-place of the doomed person, which may be familiar to her. Some folklorists will inform us that the Banshee is most likely to be the spirit of some person who had suffered a violent death at the hands of an ancestor of the doomed family. Frighteningly unrelenting, the Banshee repeats her vengeful wails from a single place, fulfilling her designated role as the herald announcing the imminent death of at least one of the guilty ancestor’s descendants. In many cases, her cry appears to be coming from a water source, a spring, a river, or a lake, with which the Banshee’s name is connected. In most stories that concern her visitation, it appears to matter little if she is a friendly spirit or an enemy of the people to whom her wails are directed.
The famed, but now ruined, castle of Terryglass and its four circular bastions, which stood proud on the four corners of its once massive walls, overlooks the upper waters of Lough Derg that lies along the course of the River Shannon. The remnants of those walls are still immensely thick, although they are not even one-third of their original height. On a fine and breezy autumn day, the rough waters of the Lough roll along with every sweep of the cool winds, and the wavelets that are created break upon the shore, a short distance from the stout foundations of this once massive fort.
The people who live in this area call the runs ‘Old Court’. The gateway to the castle opens toward the wide Shannon and, near it, one of the corner bastions is open to all who wish to enter. Inside, a broken and winding, but quite wide, circular stone stairway leads the visitor to the upper level of the Terryglass Castle’s walls. Those adventurous visitors who have strong nerves could, possibly, walk above the remaining grass covered tops, especially if no strong winds are blowing. Then, from this height, the visitor can look down upon the ground-plan of the ruined building and see that it is almost quadrangular. They will also see that a thick dividing wall separates the interior of the castle into two almost equal parts. Then, as the visitor makes their way, they will reach each angle of the fortress and may see, in the ruin’s interior, the circular bastions beneath him. These remain ina tolerable condition even after all these years, with old elder or thorny shrubs growing in the lower soil, while the narrow, looped windows on the outside are splayed inward, dimly lighting various compartments.
The entire structure rests upon a limestone rock foundation, around which rich meadow pastures, corn-fields, and tangled thorn fences stretch, or slope gently down to the bright waters of the lough. Around the castle, the lower walls spread near the foundations, and incline inwardly to a certain height, which helps to strengthen their superstructure in what, at one time, must have been an accepted military structural technique. Weather-beaten and worn are these old ruins, and they are choked with briars and shrubs. But traces of their former grandeur and vastness remain, leaving the visitor with enough evidence to show that this was once a lordly fortress in former times, with its parapets raised high in the air and proudly looming over the lough and its surroundings.
In those remote, historical days the halls of the ‘Old Court’ were inhabited by an Irish Chieftain called O’Carroll and his armed retainers. Within those, many centuries before, an evening’s entertainment ended with singing and dancing. But, when the old Harper drew his last tones from the strings of his ‘Clairseach’ (Harp), everyone retired to their beds and the guards went to take up their posts on the highest tower, where they kept watch through the night.
O’Carroll had ordered his men to make his private lake-boat ready for the next morning, along with his forester, Huntsman, and two strong soldiers. After breakfast, he had proposed to have his men row the boat over to the lower shore of Thomond, where he could visit one of the O’Briens. That morning the sun rose bright over the lough and the day was perfectly calm as the boat and its passengers sliced gracefully through the glistening surface of the wide lake. Very quickly the boat became just a speck to those who were watching its departure from the castle, and with the strong, regular strokes of the oarsmen, the boat eventually landed on a distant foreland.
The chieftain was not expected to return until the evening of the next day. But, while the night-watch prepared for their duty on the tower, and before the people in the ‘Old Court’ had gone to bed, a loud, piercing and unearthly wail was heard, and it sounded as if it was coming from the nearby lough. The hearts of those who heard it felt their hearts stop in terror, while the castle’s servants rushed to every loop-hole window in the upper storey and even onto the roof, to determine who was making this frightful lamentation and from where was it coming. In the night sky, the moon had just appeared, spreading its mellow light over the surrounding landscape and illuminated every object of any significance. It did not take the look-outs long to see a beautiful female figure, clad in white, with long flowing locks streaming over her shoulders. She glided slowly over the clear surface of the lake, while the piercing mournful dirge became momentarily more feint until, at last, it died away in the distance.
The shimmering figure finally dissolved as if it too was just one of the passing shadows of the night. These people, who had heard and watched the strange apparition for some time, now looked at one another in silent astonishment or made exclamations of wonder and foreboding. “There is no doubt, it’s O’Carroll’s Banshee,” cried out one of the watchers, “and I am afraid that some sad accident will soon bring an end to our chieftain!”
The next morning everyone’s eyes were anxiously directed across the lake toward the far-off shores of Thomond. A boat had already been sent toward Thomond earlier that morning with news of the strange warning to be taken to the chieftain. Since just before midnight the previous evening an unfortunate misunderstanding had arisen between O’Carroll and men from the O’Brien clan. An insult was alleged to have been directed toward the O’Briens and nothing would satisfy them but to settle the matter by force of arms. Although mutual friends made every effort to persuade the two sides of the argument to put down their arms, it was in vain. Both combatants insisted that their difference could only be decided on the lawn at the front of O’Brien’s castle before the morning dawned. For quite a while the talented and gallant swordsmen wielded their sharp, trusty swords against each other with great vigour. The duel went constantly back and forward, defence and attacks, cut and thrust, with neither man giving any quarter. But, the wary O’Brien seized upon an unguarded moment by his opponent and, without hesitation, he ran his sword through the heart of his adversary. O’Carroll, the Lord of Terryglass Castle fell dead upon the ground which was dampened by the morning dew.
With sorrowful tears in their eyes, O’Carroll’s men carried their chieftain’s remains towards the boat and with deep sadness, in their hearts, they pulled on their oars and rowed back across the lake to their home. Almost as soon as the boat was seen upon the lake many people rushed to line the Terryglass shore and welcome home their chieftain, but they did not know then that he was dead. Their grief and lamentation were loudly and angrily wailed when they saw the lifeless body of O’Carroll and heard the cause of his untimely fate.
The body was taken into the castle, where mourners and the funeral ceremonies were arranged. Finally, the chieftain’s remains were taken with all honours to the neighbouring churchyard of St. Columba MacCruinthannan, where they were consigned to the earth with all honours that were due to him. All the while, an immense crowd of weeping relatives and servants surrounded the grave as the final rites were completed.
Of all Ireland’s ghosts, fairies, or demons, the Banshee (sometimes called locally the ‘Boheentha’) is, probably, the best known to those living outside the country. I am often amused by the number of visitors from across the Channel who think that they are as common as the pigs, potatoes, and other fauna and flora of Ireland, and expect her to make an appearance on demand just like one of the many famous sights of our country. They ignore the fact that the Banshee is a spirit with a lengthy pedigree that no man can measure because its roots extend back into the dim and mysterious past of Ireland.
Without a doubt, the most famous Banshee of ancient times was that which attached itself to the royal house of O’Brien. She was called ‘Aibhill’, and she haunted the rock of Craglea that stands above Killaloe, near the old palace of Kincora. In 1014 A.D. the battle of Clontarf was fought against the Danes, and the aged king, Brian Boru, who led the Irish forces was fully aware that he would never come away alive. The night before the battle, ‘Aibhill’ had appeared to him and told him of his impending fate. The Banshee’s method of foretelling a person’s death in those olden times differed from that which she adopts in the present day. Now she, generally, wails and wrings her hands, but in the old Irish tales she is often found washing human heads and limbs, or blood-stained clothes, until the water is all dyed with human blood, and this would take place before a battle. So, it appears that over a course of centuries her attributes and characteristics have changed somewhat.
Reports from eyewitnesses give very different descriptions about what she looks like. Sometimes, she is pictured as a young and beautiful woman, and at other times appears as an old and fearsome hag. One witness described her as “a tall, thin woman with uncovered head, and long hair that floated around her shoulders, attired in something which seemed either a loose white cloak or a sheet thrown hastily around her, uttering piercing cries.” Another witness, who saw the banshee one evening sitting on a stile in the yard, appeared as a very small woman, with blue eyes, long light hair, and wearing a red cloak. There are numerous other descriptions available, but one surprising fact about the Banshee is that she does not seem to exclusively follow families of Irish descent. At least one incident refers to the death of a member of a County Galway family, who were English by name and origin.
At this point, we should relate one of the oldest and best-known Banshee stories, namely the story contained in ‘Memoirs of Lady Fanshaw’. The good lady states that in 1642 her husband, Sir Richard, and she chanced to visit a friend, the head of an Irish clan, who resided in his ancient baronial castle, surrounded with a moat. At midnight, she says, she was awakened by a ghastly and supernatural scream, and looking out of the bed, she saw in the moonlight a female face and part of a form hovering at the bedroom window. The height of the window from the ground and the position of the moat around the castle convinced her ladyship that this was a creature of the spirit world. She did notice, however, that the pale face she saw was that of a young and rather beautiful woman, and her reddish coloured hair was loose and dishevelled. This ghostly form, Lady Fanshaw recollected, was dressed much in the style of ancient Ireland and continued to appear to her some considerable time before vanishing with two shrieks that sounded like those that first attracted attention.
In the morning, still shaking with fear, Lady Fanshaw told her what she had witnessed. Surprisingly, she found that not only was he able to confirm the existence of such a being, but he was ready to explain to account for its presence in his castle. He told her quite candidly, “A near relation of my family expired last night in this castle. But we decided not to tell you that we were expecting such a visitation, in case it would throw a cloud over the cheerful welcome we had prepared for you. However, before any event of this kind happens in this family or castle, the female spectre that you have seen always appears. We believe this spirit to be a woman from a lower class, with whom one of my ancestors degraded himself by marrying. In an effort expiate the dishonour done to his family, he subsequently drowned the poor woman in the moat.”
If one was strictly applying traditional terms to such a vision, then this woman would not normally be called a Banshee. The motive for the haunting is like other tales that are on a par with this one, in that the spirit of the murdered person haunts the family out of revenge, and always appears before a death.
There was nothing special about this ruined Church. It was a simple oblong building, with long side-walls and high gables, and an unenclosed graveyard that lay in open fields. As the group of people walked down the long dark lane, they suddenly heard a distant sound of wailing voices and clapping hands, like you would hear at a country wake where neighbours and friends lament the passing of one of their own. The group of young people hurried along the lane, and they came in sight of the church ruins, There, on the side wall, a little grey-haired old woman, who was clad in a dark cloak, was running to and fro, chanting and wailing, and throwing up her arms like a crazy person. The girls now became very frightened, but the young men in the group ran forward and surrounded the ruin. Then, two of the young men went into the church and, as they did so, the apparition vanished from the wall. Nonetheless, they searched every nook, and found no one, nor did any one of them become unconscious. All the young people were now well scared, and they made their way home as fast as they possibly could.
When they finally reached their home, their mother opened the door, and immediately she began to explain that she had become terribly concerned about their father. Their mother told them that she had been looking out of the window in the moonlight when a huge raven with fiery eyes landed on the window-sill, and it tapped three times on the glass. When the young ones told her their story it only added the anxiety that they were all now beginning to feel. As they stood talking among themselves, taps came to the nearest window, and they all saw the bird again. A few days later news reached them that their Father had died.
For the most part, the eye-witnesses to these events were people of good character, including the sister of a former Roman Catholic Bishop related a story about an incident that occurred when she was a little girl. She said that she went out one evening with some other local children for a walk, and going down the road, they passed the gate of the parkland near the town. On a large rock that stood beside the road, they suddenly saw something very strange and moved nearer to get a better look. Before them, they saw that the strange object was a little dark, old woman, who began to cry and clap her hands noisily. Some of the girls tried to speak to the old woman, but they became very afraid, and all of them chose to run home as quickly as they could. Next day there came news that the gentleman near whose gate the Banshee had cried, was dead, and had apparently died at the very hour when the children had first seen the spectre.
A Certain, well-respected lady from County Cork stated that she had two experiences of a Banshee within her family. She said, “My mother, when a young girl, was standing looking out of the window in their house at Blackrock, near Cork. Suddenly, she saw a white figure standing on a bridge which was clearly visible from the house. The figure waved its arms towards the house, and my mother heard the bitter wailing of the Banshee. The wailing lasted several seconds before the figure finally disappeared. But, the next morning, her grandfather was walking as usual into the city of Cork. He stumbled, fell, and hit his head against the kerb. The poor man would never recover consciousness.”
In her second story, she states, “…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 around and under her bed. We naturally looked everywhere to try and find the cause of the wailing but in vain. The nurse and I looked at one another but said nothing since it appeared that my mother did not hear it. My sister, who was downstairs sitting with my father, heard it and thought something terrible had happened to her little boy, who was in bed upstairs. When she rushed up to his bedroom, however, she found him sleeping quietly. While my father did not hear it, in the house next door they had heard it, and ran downstairs, thinking something had happened to their servant. But the servant immediately called out to them, ‘Did you hear the Banshee? Someone must be near death.’“
There is another story, handed down to us from the last years of the nineteenth century. This records a curious incident that occurred in a public school and includes the presence of the Banshee. When one of the boys became ill, he was immediately quarantined in one of the many bedrooms by himself, where he used to sit all day. On one occasion, as he was being visited by the doctor, he suddenly jumped up from his seat, declaring that he had heard somebody crying. But the doctor had heard nothing and concluded that his illness had slightly affected the boy’s brain. Nonetheless, the boy, who appeared to be quite sensible, still insisted that he had heard someone crying, and said, “It is the Banshee, for I have heard it before.” The following morning the headmaster of the school received a telegram saying that the boy’s brother had been accidentally shot dead.
There is a mistaken belief that the Banshee is confined to the geographical limits of Ireland. In fact, there are several incidents that show how the Banshee can follow the fortunes of a family abroad, and there foretell their death. The following story clearly shows that such an event can occur. A party of visitors was gathered together on the deck of a private yacht that was sailing one of the Italian lakes, and during a lull, in the conversation, one of them asked the owner, “Count, who’s that queer-looking woman you have on board?“
The Count replied that there was only those invited ladies and the stewardesses present. nobody ladies present except those who had been invited and the stewardess. The speaker, however, protested that there was a strange woman present, and suddenly, with a scream of horror, he placed his hands before his eyes, and exclaimed, “Oh, my God, what a face!” For quite a while the man was shaking with fear and dared not remove his hands from his eyes. When he finally did so, he cried out “Thank Heavens, it’s gone!“
“What was it?” asked the Count.
“It was nothing human,” stammered the man. “It looked like a woman, but not one from this world. She had on a green hood, like those worn by the Irish peasantry, framing an oddly shaped face that gleamed unnaturally. She also had a mass of red hair, and eyes that were somewhat attractive but for their hellish expression.“
An American lady guest suggested that the description reminded her of what she had heard about the Banshee. The Count turned to her and told her, “I am an O’Neill. At least I am descended from one of them. As you know, my family name is Neilini, which, just over a century ago, was O’Neill. My great-grandfather had served in the ‘Irish Brigade’, and on its dissolution, at the time of the French Revolution, he had the good fortune to escape the general massacre of officers. In the company of an O’Brien and a Maguire, he fled across the frontier and settled in Italy. When he died, his son, who had been born in Italy, felt himself to be much more Italian than Irish. He changed his name to Neilini, and the family has been known by this name ever since. But for all that we are Irish.“
“The Banshee was yours, then! So, what exactly does it mean?”
“It means,” the Count replied solemnly, “the death of someone very close to me and I pray earnestly that it is not my wife or daughter.” The Count’s anxieties were soon removed when he himself was seized by a severe angina attack and died before morning.
As a last note to readers, the reports of encounters with Banshees tell us that this spirit never shows itself to the person whose death it is heralding. While other people are able to see or hear the banshee, the one fated to die never does. So, when everyone that is present, but one, is aware of the Banshee, the fate of that one person can be regarded as being certain.
We Irish have the reputation of being very superstitious, but it is rather an exaggerated view. The truth is that we are no more superstitious than the country people of England, France, or Germany. In fact, it has been my experience that the people of the Scottish Highlands are much more attached to their superstitious beliefs and legends. What is unique about the Irish imagination is, however, that it is so vibrant that they can give Ireland’s legends an individuality that I have not found in the tales, myths and superstitions of most other peoples. Perhaps, it is our command of language that allows us to present the creatures of Irish imagination in a way that makes them appear to be so real and so original that they can become very startling to the imagination of others. The creatures born from within the Irish imagination, are often humorous, sometimes grotesque, and are regularly awe-inspiring and wonderful. In my mind the most fascinating creature of Irish legend is the weirdly-wailing Banshee, that sings her mournful cry at night, giving the family she attends a warning that one of their members is soon summoned into the world of spirits. This most dreaded spirit is called different things by different scholars of folklore, including the ‘Female Fairy’, the ‘Woman of Peace’, the ‘Lady of Death’, the ‘Angel of Death’, the ‘White Lady of Sorrow’, the ‘Nymph of the Air’, and the ‘Spirit of the Air’.
The ‘Banshee’ is quite different from the ‘Fear-shee’ or ‘Shifra’, (the Man of Peace), which brings good news and sings in a joyful mood near the house when unexpected good fortune is about to befall any or all members of the family. The Banshee, however, is really a disembodied soul of a person who, when alive was strongly attached to the family, or who had good reason to distrust and dislike its members. The Banshee’s song, therefore, may be different under different circumstances and can be inspired by opposite motives. For example, when the Banshee loves those whom she calls, the song is a low, soft chant. She is, of course, giving notice that the angel of death is near, but she is doing so with a tenderness of tone that will help reassure the one destined to die and comfort those who are left to mourn. It is more a welcome than a warning, and because its tones a are filled with celebration, it is as if the messenger spirit is bringing good news to the dying that he has been summoned to join those ancestors who are awaiting him. But, when she was alive, if the Banshee was an enemy of the family, her cry will be the scream of a fiend, howling in diabolical delight at the forthcoming death of another of her foes.
In some parts of Ireland there still exists a belief that the spirits of the dead are not taken from this world to another, and that they do not lose all their former earthly interests. It is thought that they enjoy the happiness of the saved, or endure the punishment imposed upon them for their sins, in the places where they lived while they had bodies of flesh and blood. At those times when people encounter certain problems, these disembodied spirits will display their joy or grief in a way that attracts the attention of living men and women. At weddings, for example, they are frequently unseen guests. At funerals they are always present, and sometimes, at both weddings and funerals, their presence is recognized by aerial voices or mysterious music which is almost of unearthly origin.
We believe that the good spirits wander with the living as their guardian angels, but the evil spirits restrained in their actions, and are compelled to do penance at or near the places where they carried out their bad deeds. Some are chained at the bottoms of the lakes, others are buried under ground, while others are confined in the mountain gorges. There are some that hang on the sides of precipices, while others are transfixed on the tree-tops, and others are left to haunt the homes of their ancestors, but all are waiting until their penance has been fulfilled and the hour of their release finally arrives. In County Antrim, the Castle of Dunseverick, is believed to be still haunted by the spirit of a chief, who is confined there to atone for a terrible crime he committed. Meanwhile, while the castles of Dunluce, of Magrath, and many others are similarly haunted by the spirits of the wicked dead. In the Abbey of Clare, the ghost of a sinful abbot walks and will continue to do so until his sin has been atoned for by the prayers that he unceasingly mutters in his tireless march up and down the aisles of the ruined nave.
As we have seen, the Banshee is one of those spirits who look with interest upon earthly things. They are deeply attached to the old families, or else regard all the family members with a strong hatred, and lingers about their homes to soften, or aggravate, the sorrow of the approaching death. The Banshee attends only the old leading families of Ireland, and although the descendants of those families may be brought down from their high position to the ranks of common people, through misfortune, she never leaves nor forgets them until the last member has been gathered to his ancestors in the churchyard. The MacCarthys, Magraths, O’Neills, O’Rileys, O’Sullivans, O’Reardons, O’Flahertys, and almost all the other old leading families of Ireland, have Banshees, though many representatives of these names are now in abject poverty. The song of the Banshee is commonly heard a day or two before the death of which it gives notice, although instances have been recorded of the Banshee’s song being heard at the beginning of an illness, or a course of conduct, which would result in death fatally. There is a story of a young girl who was engaged to a young man, and the moment she accepted his offer of marriage, they both heard the low, sad wail coming from above their heads. Later, the young man would desert her, she would die of a broken heart, and the night before she died, the Banshee’s song was heard, loud and clear, outside the window of her mother’s cottage. Another story records that one of the O’Flahertys, of Galway, marched out of his castle with his men on a raid, and, as his troops filed through the gateway, the Banshee was heard high above the walls of the fortress. The next night she sang again, and was heard no more for a month, at which time his wife heard the wail under her window, and on the following day his followers brought back his dead body. It is said that one of the O’Neills of Shane Castle, in Antrim, as he started out on a journey before daybreak, heard the Banshee’s cry and was accidentally killed some time after, while he was on that same journey.
Although the Banshee’s wail comes most frequently at night, there have been cases are reported of Banshees singing during the daytime, the song being often unheard by any person but the one for whom the warning is intended. This, however, is not usually the case since the notice of a death is meant for the family rather than just for the doomed individual. The Banshee is generally alone when delivering notice to a family, but on rare occasions it has been recorded that several banshees are heard singing in chorus. A lady of the O’Flaherty family, who was greatly loved by all for her social qualities, kindness, and piety, was taken ill at the family mansion near Galway. Nobody was overly concerned about the lady making a full recovery, as her illness seemed to be no more severe than a slight cold. But, after she had been lying in her bed for a day or two, several of her friends came to visit and cheer her up. Then, as the small group of friends were chatting merrily, strange sounds were heard, causing them all to tremble with fear and to turn pale as they recognized the singing from a chorus of Banshees. The lady’s illness developed into pleurisy, from which she passed away only a few days later and sweet, plaintive chorus was heard again as the spirit departed from her body. It is a great honour to be warned by more than one Banshee, and only comes to the purest of the pure.
The “Avenging Banshee” is a spirit that is greatly dreaded by members of a family against which she seeks revenge, and one noble Irish family, that I shall not name, is attended by a one of this type of Banshee. This Banshee, it is reported, is the spirit of a young girl who was deceived and afterwards murdered by a former head of this family. But, with her dying breath, she cursed her murderer and promised him that she would stay with him and his family forever. Many years passed, and the chieftain reformed his ways and the crime of his youth was almost forgotten, even by himself. Then, one night, he and his family were sitting by a huge fire when, suddenly, the most terrifying shrieks were heard outside the castle walls. They all ran out into the courtyard but could see nothing. During the night, however, the screams continued as though the castle was being besieged by demons, and the chieftain began to recognise, in the cry of the Banshee, the voice of the young girl he had murdered. The next night, the chieftain was assassinated by one of his followers, and again the wild, unearthly screams of the spirit were heard in celebration over the man’s fate. Since that night, this “Avenging Banshee” has never failed to notify the family, with shrill and happy cries of revenge, when the end-time for one of their number has arrived.
Banshees are not often seen, but those that have made themselves visible differ as much in personal appearance as in the character of their cries. The “Friendly Banshee” is usually a young and beautiful female spirit, with pale face, regular, well-formed features, hair sometimes coal-black, sometimes golden, with blue, brown, or black eyes. Her long, white clothing falls below her feet as she floats in the air, chanting her weird warning, and lifting her hands as if in tender pity, she was praying for the soul she has summoned. The “Avenging Banshee”, however, is a horrible hag, with angry and distorted features. They say that evil can be seen in every line of her wrinkled face, and her arms to call down every possible curse on the doomed member of that hated family.
Usually the only sign of a Banshee’s presence her cry, though a notable exception to this is found when it comes the O’Reardon family. The doomed member of this family is always notified of their death by a Banshee that appears in the shape of an exceedingly beautiful woman, and she sings a song so sweet and solemn as if to reconcile him to his approaching fate.
Though the Banshee does not follow members of a family that go to a foreign land, but if they die when abroad, she will give notice of the death to those who remain at home. It is said that when the Duke of Wellington died, a Banshee was heard wailing round the house of his ancestors, and during his campaigns against Napoleon, she frequently notified Irish families of the death in battle of Irish officers and soldiers. Furthermore, on the eve of the ‘Battle of the Boyne’ several Banshees were said to have been heard, singing in the air over the Irish camp, the truth of their prophecy being shown in the names of those who died the next day. How the Banshee obtains early and accurate information from foreign parts of the death in battle of Irish soldiers is yet unknown among those who study such things. One theory is that there exist, in addition to the two kinds already mentioned above, “Silent Banshees,” who attend members of old families, one to each member. It is thought that these silent spirits follow, watch, and bring back information to the family Banshee in Ireland, who then sings her sad refrain. The basis for such a theory derives from the fact that the Banshee has given notice at the family home in Ireland of those who have died in various battles fought in every part of the world. From every place where Irish regiments followed the call of British war drums, news of the prospective deaths of Irishmen has been brought home, each of which was preceded by the Banshee’s wail outside the ancestral home.
Among folklorists in Ireland this theory of the existence of the ‘Silent Banshee’ not widely accepted or well received. Going by the evidence that we have to date there are only two kinds of Banshee, and that, through supernatural means, they have knowledge of the immediate future of those in whom they are interested. At one time it was considered blasphemy to doubt the existence of the ‘Wild Banshee’ that was once alleged to have been heard in every part of Ireland. Now, in these modern times, it is recognised that the Banshee attends only the old families of Ireland and does not change to the new. The truth of this can be seen in the fact that with the disappearance of many old noble Irish names over the centuries so their Banshees appear to have gone. It seems to be in only a few remote districts in the West and North of Ireland that this dread spirit is still to be found, while in most other parts of this island the Banshee has become only a superstition. From being held with great respect and fear, this death-warning angel, has quickly sank to the level of the Fairy, the Leprechaun and the Pooka, which have become the subject for stories to amuse and terrify both the idle and the young.
Throughout Ireland’s history, and even in the present day, many have professed to have seen the Banshee as she goes wailing and clapping her hands in grief. On those rare occasions when more than one Banshee has been present, they have wailed and sang their haunting songs in chorus for the death of some great leader or holy man. There is, also, among the records of those who have seen the Banshee, reports that on some occasions she is accompanied by a large, black coach, upon which is mounted a coffin. This so-called “Death Coach” is drawn by huge, black, headless horses that are driven on by a headless coachman. From out of the darkening sky the coach will rumble its way to the door of your house, seeking to transport the souls of those who are dead to their final resting place. It said that if you open your door to the “Death Coach” a basin of blood is thrown into your face as a sign of purifying the house and dead person by removing evil spirits.
It is the way of the Banshee that not every Irish family can claim the honour of having one attend to them. According to custom the family must be respectably descended from a long and ancient line if it is to have a warning spirit of their own. At the same time, the Banshee does not appear to be influenced by any difference of creed. Providing there is no other impediment even Protestant families of Norman and Anglo-Saxon origin are able to boast of having their own Banshee. It is with some pride that even in our modern times several noble and distinguished families in Ireland can claim that this mysterious being continues to watch over them. Furthermore, it appears, she is not influenced by the circumstances of rank or fortune. In fact, the Banshee is more often found frequenting the homes of the lower classes than the homes of the rich and influential. It will interest you, therefore, to read that the following tale is one told by a member of a humble family that has claimed the honour of an attendant banshee for many years.
This story, then, is only one of many witness reports.
Not so many years ago there was a farmer, who lived in the vicinity of the beautifully scenic Glens of Antrim. At this stage of the story it is not necessary to disclose this man’s name, but we can tell the reader that he never saw the need to get married. In the same house lived the only child of his deceased sister, a son, and his elderly mother who acted as housekeeper in the home over which she was once mistress. The old woman and her grandson were both followers of the Roman Catholic Church, into which the farmer himself was baptised. For reasons best known to himself the man’s faith lapsed, and he was like a man in search of faith. As he grew older, however, the farmer’s search for a loving God to believe in appeared to waver and he became more a theistic in his outlook. He had no time for church going people, or the idea of sin, preferring to enjoy the fruits of life and not have to worry about accountability. He developed a rather dark, unattractive personality and kept himself aloof from others. He appeared sullen most of the time and showed himself to be a man of gloomy temperament. All of these personality imperfections, aligned with his well-known distaste of anything religious, only helped make him somewhat unpopular amongst his neighbours.
He may not have been well liked by his neighbours, but he was generally respected by them. In his dealings with them he never insulted or antagonised them, and was considered by most to be an honest, inoffensive man. More importantly he was a large and muscular man who, even when he was younger, had a reputation for toughness and being able to handle himself in a scrap. It comes as no surprise then that there were very few of his neighbours and acquaintances who desired to disturb him, even if they felt they had they cause to do so.
It was not only toward religion that this farmer’s hostility was directed. Having been well educated in modern science he was very much hostile to every kind of superstition, and he was constantly berating his old mother about all the superstitions she held to. The old woman was an extremely superstitious person, and she allowed others to believe that she was entirely conversant with everything concerning witchcraft, the spirits, and the fairy world which she was certain surrounded them.
Although his farm bordered the lands of several neighbours, he rarely set foot across the door of any of these. Moreover, he seldom asked any of his neighbours to enter his home and preferred to spend his leisure time reading books from a wide variety of genres. He also spent time in refurbishing his farm tools and equipment, which he viewed as vital to his livelihood. Occasionally he would spend time listening to and laughing at the wild, often blood thirsty stories told by his old mother, Mary. She was an endless repository of such stories and she enjoyed relating them to both her son and grandson.
This farmer had reached the age of forty years by the time our story takes place and old Mary had become extremely feeble with age. Her body was greatly stooped over and wracked with arthritis, while her face was made ugly by her dry and wrinkled skin. One cold November morning the farmer got out of bed before the first rays of daylight had broken through the darkness of the night. As he came out of his bedroom, he was somewhat surprised to find his aged mother in the kitchen, sitting over a fire she had raked-up in the hearth. She sat there in a serious and meditative mood, smoking an untipped cigarette. “Good morning, Ma,” he greeted her. “What are you doing up out of your warm bed so early in the day?“
“Ah sure I don’t rightly know what’s wrong with me,” she answered him. “I have had such a bad night, altogether. Sure, I never slept a wink and thought I would get up for a cup of tea and a smoke to see if it would help.”
“And what ails you, Ma? Are you sick, or what has come over you?”
“No, son. Thanks be to God I am not sick, but my heart seems that it is ready to burst, and there’s a such a heavy weight on my body that it makes me feel so weak.”
“Maybe it’s just a bad dream, Ma, or maybe a wee bug of some kind,” he said to her, in a tone that showed that he did not take her complaints too seriously. He was sure, from previous experience, that the old woman’s complaints could be put down to her simply feeling her age and not willing to admit it.
“A bad dream!” repeated old Mary, with a bitter sneer. “You think I’m imagining it; I wish to God that it was only my imagination, son. But, unfortunately, I am very much afraid that it is a lot worse than that. I have a notion that there is great trouble and misfortune hanging over lives at this moment.”
“And what makes you think such things, Ma?” he asked her with a half-suppressed smile on his face that demonstrated doubts. Mary, however, was well aware of his strong hostility toward every mention of superstitious beliefs and signs. She, therefore, chose to remain silent, but she bit her lower lip and shook her grey head despairingly.
“Why don’t you answer me, Ma?” the farmer again asked the old lady.
“Pay me no mind,” said Mary, “Sure I am just an old woman and don’t really want to tell you, because you will only laugh at me and think that I am going crazy. Nevertheless, you can mock and laugh at me, but I will tell you there is something bad hanging over this place. The banshee was about this house all through the night, and she has almost frightened me out of my wits with her shouting and bawling.”
Naturally, Mary’s son was fully aware of the banshee having been long supposed to haunt his family. In the past the man had sought the truth of the tale and was frustrated in his efforts. But, although he doubted the creature’s existence, and had not heard of her visiting the place in many years, he was totally unprepared for Mary’s announcement. He had not expected to experience the freezing sensation that moved so quickly up his spine. His complexion turned as pale as that of a corpse, and his body began to tremble excessively. It took several moments for him to gather himself together and with a forced smile he asked his mother, “And how do you know it was the banshee, Ma?”
She looked up at her son in disbelief that he would ask such a question. “How do I know?” Mary questioned him with a taunting sneer. “Sure, didn’t I see and hear her several times during the night? And more than that, didn’t I hear the cursed dead-coach rattling round the house, and through the yard, every night at midnight this last week. I was afraid that the house would be shaken so bad it would crumble around us!”
That forced smile was not yet gone from the man’s face. He was frightened by the prospect of the banshee’s presence, yet he was ashamed to show any fear to his mother. He asked her, “And did you ever see the banshee before, Ma?”
“Of course, I have,” Mary insisted. “I have seen her on many occasions. Didn’t I see her when your father died? Didn’t I see her when your sister and her man died? In fact, there is not one member of this family that has died in these last sixty years that I did not both see and hear the banshee.”
“Tonight, where did you see her? How did she look?” he questioned further.
“There was a sort of reddish light that lit up the entire house and caused me to waken,” she began. “It was then that I saw her at the little window over my bed. I could clearly distinguish her old, pale face and glassy eyes staring in at me, and she was rocking herself to and fro, clapping her tiny, withered hands, and crying out as if her heart was about to break in two.”
“Nonsense!” he told her. “It’s all in your imagination; go, now, and get the breakfast ready. I need to go into Ballymena to-day to get a few things. If I can get into town early enough, then I can ensure I will be home early.”
A sudden feeling of cold caused the old woman to tremble. She looked at him with a tear forming in her eye and implored him, “For Heaven’s sake, John, don’t go to-day. Please stay and go to Ballymena another day. I am afraid for you, son, I have a terrible feeling that should you go to town to-day there will be something bad happen to you on the road.“
“Nonsense, woman!” said John. “Don’t worry your head over such stupid things and get me my breakfast, please.“
Mary, with tears now flowing from her eyes, rose from her sea and began to get John’s breakfast ready for him. While she made his breakfast John washed, shaved, and began to dress for the journey to town. Finally, having completed his preparations in the bedroom, John returned to the Kitchen and sat down to a breakfast of porridge, followed with tea and toast. John enjoyed his food and quickly ate all that was set before. With breakfast concluded in silence John got up from the kitchen table and moved to put on his overcoat before leaving the house.
At this point Mary moved as quickly as she could toward the door. Flinging herself to her knees she cried out to him loudly, “John, John, please listen to me. Don’t go to-day! Please take heed of my warning. Although an old woman, I know more of the world than you do, and I can plainly see that if you go from here today you will never enter alive through this door again.”
John would not allow himself to be influenced by the drivel of wild superstitions from an old, doting woman. He gently pushed her out of his way with his hand, and proceeding to the farmyard, mounted his Yamaha motorbike and departed. With great sadness Mary watched him as he rode out of the yard, the tears still flowing from her eyes. When he went outside her range of vision, she turned back through the kitchen door, sat down by the fireside, removed her handkerchief from her apron, and she wept bitterly for her son.
The day was a bitterly cold one and John went about his business in town quickly. Then, as soon as his business was finished, and feeling the chill of the day, he decided to visit a local public-house. On entering the bar John immediately ordered a glass of hot whisky to help him remove the chill on his body. As he drank at the bar an old friend entered and greeted him warmly, insisting that John have another glass with him before he left. The friend had not seen John for over a year, and he was keen to catch up on any gossip and other things that John might know. As is always the case in such circumstances, one glass brought another, and it was late afternoon before John decided that he needed to get home. It was already getting dark outside and, having nearly ten miles to travel, it would be night-time before he would reach home again.
John’s friend, however, was not prepared to allow him to leave the bar when the craic was so good. The order for more hot whisky and Guinness was called and it was not until well into the night that the friends finally parted in a much-inebriated state. Of course, John was fully aware that he should not ride his motorbike while he was drunk. But good sense had long departed and having mounted his bike, John switched on the engine, turned the accelerator, and roared off from the space in which he had parked earlier. Somehow, he did not have any problems moving down the streets of the town and once outside its boundaries he dashed along at a rapid pace through the gloom and silence of the winter’s night. John had driven almost five miles from the town when, on arriving at a very desolate part of the road, a gunshot was fired from behind the bushes along the roadside. In that instant John was knocked of his bike, which crashed into a large oak tree. He was dead before he touched the ground, the victim of a stray shot fired by one of two poachers in nearby woodland. The two poachers rushed to John’s body, lying at the side of the road, and searched him for identity. They found and took his wallet full of money and, afraid of the consequences of their actions, the two men disappeared into the night before any other person came on the scene.
In the house Mary did not go to bed that night but sat at the fireside impatiently waiting for her son to return home. In the silence of the kitchen she listened for even the slightest sound that might indicate the arrival of his motorcycle. But all Mary’s listening and waiting was in vain. No sound met her ear except the sad wail of the night wind, which moaned fitfully through the tall bushes that surrounded the old house. Standing at the kitchen door Mary could hear the sullen roar of the narrow, dark river, which wound its way through the fields a short distance away. Overcome with tiredness; watching and listening for such a long period of time Mary finally fell asleep in the armchair that stood by the hearth. But the old lady’s sleep was not a restful one. She was constantly disturbed and awoken by frightful and appalling dreams that incessantly haunted her imagination.
At long last the greyness of early morning appeared, struggling through the wintry clouds, and Mary again opened the door to look out. She was dismayed to find no sign of her son’s motorbike, but her hopes were raised by the sound of a car engine as it entered the yard. Her hopes were quickly shattered, however, when she noticed two policemen get out of the vehicle. At that moment she knew that they were not bringing her good news and she expelled a great scream of grief as she fell to her knees. The two policemen rushed to her aid and several neighbours quickly gathered to see what was amiss. Working together they raised Mary to her feet and returned her to the comfort of her armchair in the kitchen. It was then that the policemen explained that her son had been shot and was dead. Mary was told that a few hours previously a police patrol had found his body lying at the side of the road, about five miles from town. John’s body had been found stretched on his back at the side of the road, immersed in a pool of blood that appeared to have its origin in a bullet hole to his head. The police further explained that when his body was examined at the scene no wallet or money was found on his person. The body was subsequently taken for a post-mortem and the enquiry declared John’s death to be unlawful killing by a person, or persons, unknown. After the inquest John’s body was returned home to be waked, as was traditional, before being committed to the family grave in the small rural graveyard next to the local church.
Having no legitimate children, the nearest heir to his property was his nephew. But he was too young to inherit and the old woman was considered too old to look after him properly. There was a nephew of Mary’s living in England who would be the ideal guardian and Mary immediately wrote a letter to him explaining what had happened. He was asked to help the family out and while they waited on him two young men from a neighbour’s family were appointed to take care of the place.
This is not a new thing in rural Ireland. Traditionally rural people help each other out at times of harvest and times of difficulty, and the two youths delegated to act as guardians had been well known and respected by John. Jack Donnelly was, like Mary, also a Roman Catholic and was a stoutly built, handsome fellow, who always had a pleasant word for everyone he met. He was full of life, energy and the bravado that is so typical of all young men and not just those who live in Ireland. Jack was considerably younger than John and was an active member of the local Parish, but very republican in his political outlook. He was a young man with the courage of a lion and was never afraid to stand up to any man. He was, however, extremely superstitious and would walk miles out of his road to avoid a “Fairy Tree”, or an ancient “Rath.”
Jack’s best friend, Harry Baker, on the other hand, came from a staunch, Loyalist and Protestant background. He was a tall, genteel-looking man with a proud and imperious manner, full of reserve and haughtiness. There were not many who could tolerate Harry, but Jack saw his friend’s manner as being a natural consequence of his political consciousness, religious background, and his superior intelligence and education. Just like his friend Jack, Harry also enjoyed a glass or two of good whisky and stout. Unlike Jack, however, he was of a more peaceful disposition and was utterly opposed to any superstitious beliefs. Considering himself to be better educated and more intelligent than most, Harry scornfully laughed at the very idea that such things as ghosts, goblins, and fairies existed.
It makes you wonder how Jack and Harry could be such good friends when they were diametrically opposed to each other in every point except their love of the gargle (Alcohol), and yet both men never failed to seize every opportunity of being together. There were occasions that they would physically fight each other, often blackening each other’s eyes when discussing their political and religious disputes. Despite this, their quarrels were always settled in an amicable way because they were never happy unless they were in each other’s company.
Both Jack and Harry had been staying in Mary’s house for about seven nights and they had been doing everything they could for her on the farm. As was usual the two men would sit in the kitchen at night, where they would share a few drinks before getting some sleep. The nights were getting colder and a large turf fire blazed brightly on the kitchen hearth, keeping them warm. Meanwhile, in her small adjacent bedroom old Mary was in a deep sleep, stretched out upon her good-sized bed and wrapped in warm blankets. Between the two friends, stood a small oak table, upon which was placed a large bottle of whisky, a kettle of boiled water, and a bowl of sugar. Knowing there was still a chance that cattle and sheep thieves might target the farm. But, to give them an added sense of security and comfort Harry had brought his shotgun and placed it on one end of the table. As they sat and talked both men constantly recharged their glasses from the bottle of whisky, laughing and chatting as they recounted stories of their youth. Although they tried to be as quiet as possible the house was filled with a sense of mirth that had not been seen for many a long day. It was during one conversation that Jack mentioned the story Mary had told about the Banshee’s appearance, and he expressed a sincere hope that she would not come that night to disturb their comfort.
“Banshee? Not that bloody nonsense again?” Harry shouted. “You papists are an awfully superstitious lot! I would like to see the face of any man, dead or alive, who would dare to make an appearance in this place to-night.” He reached over and put his hand on the double-barrel shotgun and with a wicked smile he told Jack, “By all that’s holy, Jack, I will let them have both barrels in one go if they annoy us tonight.”
“It will not help you to shoot your gun at a banshee,” laughed Jack.
“Rubbish!” said Harry and he gave Jack a contemptuous look across the table.
“Anyone that comes here tonight will be no spirit but a being of flesh and blood. I wouldn’t think twice about pulling the triggers on them, you can be sure of that.” As if to seal his oath Harry drained another tumbler of whisky-punch.
“But forget all that, Jack,” said Harry unexpectedly. “Now that we are in such good humour, give us one of your songs.”
“No problem,” replied Jack. “What song would you like to hear?”
“Anything you please; you choose the song but don’t sing it too loud and awaken old Mary,” answered Harry.
Jack put his hand to his mouth and, after coughing and clearing his throat, he began to sing softly. In quick succession he sang “The Orange Cat” and a prolonged version of the “Lakes of Killarney.” Both songs were not exactly poetic ballads, but Jack sung them because they expressed sentiments that were hostile to the British. They were songs that were popular among the more republican minded people of the North but antagonistic toward the Protestant, unionist population. Harry, however, just laughed at his friend’s foolish efforts to annoy him and quietly applauded when Jack had concluded his little concert. “Well done, Jack,” said Harry with a smile as soon as the singing ended, “You have a great singing voice but not much taste in songs.”
“Then you give us a wee song then,” said Jack.
Harry, without hesitation cleared his throat and began to run through his scales. Jack noticed a wicked smile on his friend’s face but sat back in his chair to listen to Harry’s song. With his deep, soft, and sonorous voice, Harry began to sing:
“It is old, but it is beautiful,
And its colours they are fine.
It was worn in Derry, Aughrim,
Enniskillen and the Boyne.
Sure, my father wore it in his youth,
In those by gone days of yore,
And on the twelfth I love to wear,
The sash my Father wore.”
Jack, from the beginning of Harry’s song, facially exhibited his aversion to the sentiments it expressed. But, when Harry began to repeat the song as a chorus, Jack lost all of his patience. He jumped up from his seat and bent over the table toward his friend. He swore vehemently at him and threatened to “break his gob” if he didn’t stop singing his song immediately.
“Cool the jets, Mate,” said Harry laughing. “I didn’t take the bait when you sang your songs just a while ago. Besides, sure it is only a bit of craic and nothing to get irritated about.”
Jack was quickly pacified, and Harry continued with a new song.
“Of all the money that ere I had, I spent it in good company.
And of all the harm that ere I’ve done, alas was done to none but me.
And all I’ve done for want of wit, to memory now I cannot recall.
So, fill me to the parting glass.
Goodnight and joy be with you all.”
“Of all the comrades that ere I had, they’re sorry for my going away, And of all the sweethearts that ere I had, they wish me one more day to stay,
But since it falls unto my lot that I should rise while you should not,
I will gently rise, and I’ll softly call,
Goodnight and joy be with you all!”
“Oh, if I had money enough to spend and leisure time to sit awhile
There is a fair maid in this town that sorely has my heart beguiled
Her rosy cheeks and ruby lips, she alone has my heart in thrall.
So, fill me to the parting glass.
Goodnight and joy be with you all”
Jack was so pleased with the surprise of Harry singing his favourite song that he joyfully stretched out his hand, and even joined in chorus to the concluding stanza.
It was getting really late by this time and the fire had now almost died away on the hearth. More importantly, the whisky-bottle was almost emptied, and the two friends were getting very drowsy. Jack turned off the lamp and laid his head down on the sofa to sleep. Harry, in the meantime, settled himself down in the big armchair at the side of the hearth. The singing and the laughter were now hushed, and no sound was to be heard in the house but the incessant “tick, tick,” of the clock on the wooden dresser that stood in the kitchen. Jack and Harry did not know how long they had slept when, suddenly, the old woman awakened with a wild shriek that swept through the entire house. In a panic Mary jumped out of bed, ran into the kitchen and on to the sofa beside Jack. While Harry fell out of the armchair in a state of shock, Jack struggled to remove Mary’s terrified grip from around his neck. “What the hell has happened?” he shouted from beneath the sprawled figure of the old woman.
“It’s her!” she screamed in answer. “The banshee, the banshee! Lord have mercy on us! she has come again, and I have never heard her wail so wildly.”
Jack, of course, immediately believed old Mary’s explanation. Harry, however, was not so easily convinced and thought it might be some person who was trying to play a not too funny joke on the old woman. Both men listened attentively, but they could hear absolutely nothing. They opened the kitchen door, but all outside the house was still in that fine, calm night, under deep, blue-black sky filled with myriads of twinkling stars. As they went around the hay-sheds, all was calm and lonely, and the only sound that greeted their ears was the shrill barking of some neighbouring dog in the distance. It was so quiet, indeed, that the sluggish murmuring of the little tortuous river could be clearly heard nearby. Finally satisfied that everything was alright, the two men decided to return to the kitchen of the house, where they would replenish the still glowing embers of the fire. Now that they had been awakened again both agreed that it was a good opportunity to finish whatever still remained in the whisky-bottle that was left on the table. But they had not been sitting at the kitchen for many minutes when a wild, unearthly cry, originating from outside the house, broke the calm.
“It’s the banshee again,” Mary said in a faint voice. Jack’s blood drained from his body and with it much of his courage. Harry jumped up and grabbed hold of his shotgun.
When Jack saw what his friend was doing, he caught hold of his arm. “No, no, Harry, you can’t do this,” he said firmly but in a shaking voice. “Just sit down quietly, for there is nothing to fear. Nothing is going to happen us.“
Without a single word of protest Harry sat down again, but he still maintained a strong grip on the shotgun. Jack took a cigarette from a packet left on the table, lit it with a match, and took a long slow drag from it. Meanwhile, old Mary had gone down to the floor on her knees, striking her breast, and repeating a litany of prayers with great determination.
The sad wailing cry was again heard, though much louder and fiercer than before.
One moment it seemed to originate from the window, and the next moment it appeared to be coming from somewhere near the door. The men could see nothing but could hear everything. At times, the wailing seemed as if it was in the distance, then again it would appear as if it was coming down the chimney or springing up from the ground beneath their feet. Sometimes the wailing resembled the low, plaintive cry of a woman in great distress. Then, a moment later, it was more like a prolonged yell, loud and furious, and as if it being issued by a thousand throats. There were times when the sound resembled a low, melancholy chant, and then there were other times when it quickly changed to a loud, broken, and demoniacal laugh. This was how the noise continued, almost without a break, for about a quarter of an hour or more. The sound then died away to be succeeded by a heavy, creaking sound, as if from some large wagon that was approaching and, in the middle of this, the loud tramp of horses’ footsteps might be distinguished, which were accompanied by a strong, rushing wind. To their ears this new, strange noise appeared to travel around and around the house two or three times. Then, very suddenly, the sound seemed to make its way down the lane that led from the house to the road and was heard no more. Jack stood dumbfounded by the experience, while Harry, despite all his philosophy and scepticism, was completely astonished and frightened by what he had heard.
“This has been one hell of a night, Mary,” said Jack, at last.
“Indeed,” she replied. “That was the death-coach. I have often heard it before and have seen it once or twice.“
“Did you say that you had seen it?” asked Harry. “What was it like?”
Old Mary thought for a moment or two before telling Harry, “It’s just like any other horse drawn coach, but it is twice as big and is drawn by headless black horses. It is all hung over with black cloth, and there is a black coffin on the top of it.”
“God protect us!” exclaimed a frightened Jack.
“It is very strange phenomenon,” remarked Harry.
“But” continued Mary, “the coach always comes before the death of a person, and I wonder what brought it now, unless it came with the banshee.”
“Maybe it’s coming for you,” said Harry.
“No, no,” she said; “I am not one of the select.”
For a few minutes all three persons stayed silent awaiting for the sounds to return. They even began to believe that the banshee had now vanished, until once again the dreadful cry sounded loudly in their ears.
“Quick Jack, open the door and we will send out ‘Butch’,” said Harry, urgently.
‘Butch’ was a large and very ferocious Rottweiler that belonged to Jack, and always accompanied him wherever he went. Hurriedly Jack opened the door and attempted to coax the dog to go out, but the poor animal refused to go. When Jack attempted to grab him and force him out through the door, ‘Butch’ curled up and howled in a loud and mournful tone.
“Go get him!” urged Harry as he helped get hold of the dog and wrestle it out of the door. Almost immediately the dog was lifted up into the air by some invisible power and within seconds he fell again to the ground lifeless, and the doorstep was covered with his entrails and blood.
It was the final straw for Harry. He had lost all patience and he once again made a grab for his shotgun and called to Jack, “Come on, Big Lad, grab something heavy and follow me. This damn thing has really pissed me off now and I have to get a crack at it. By God it will rue the day it annoyed me.”
“I’ll follow you anywhere Harry,” said Jack, “but I would not tackle any banshee for a million pounds.“
Mary took a strong hold of Harry by the trousers and screamed at him, “Don’t you go out there! Just leave her alone while she leaves you alone! You can have no luck in this world or the next if you make any attempt to attack a banshee.”
“Hush, woman!” Harry snapped at her and he pushed her away contemptuously.
Jack now “bit the bullet” and followed Harry out of the door. The wild crying continued, and it seemed to come from somewhere near the big hay barn behind the house. The two men went around to the rear of the house and paused for a moment. Again, they heard the fearful cry, and, in response, Harry raised his shotgun.
“Don’t fire,” pleaded Jack.
Harry did not reply and gave Jack a scornful look as he placed his finger on the trigger and squeezed it. “BANG!” the gun exploded with a great thundering sound. An extraordinary scream now filled the night air, which was ten times louder and more terrifying than they heard before. Their hair stood erect on the two men and huge, round drops of sweat ran down their faces in quick succession. There was a glare of reddish-blue light that illuminated the entire hay shed and, at the same time, the rumbling of the death-coach could again be heard coming toward them.
The coach drove right up to the house, drawn by six headless black horses and the figure of a withered old woman encircled with blue flame was seen running floating across the yard. This spectral image entered that ominous carriage and they drove away with a horrible sound following. In an instant the coach swept through the tall bushes which surrounded the house and, as it disappeared, the old spectre let loose one last scream at the two men, while she waved her fleshless arms at them angrily. In moments it was lost to sight, but the unearthly creaking of the wheels, the tramping of the horses, and the appalling cries of the banshee continued to fill the night for quite a considerable time afterwards.
Their bravery tested, the two men quickly returned to the safety of the house, making sure that the door was once again made fast. They need not have worried because there was nothing that came to disturb them the rest of that night. In fact, they were not disturbed for the rest of the time they stayed there, which was only a couple of days more until the arrival of Old Mary’s nephew. Old Mary, however, did not live long after these events, for her health declined after that terrible night. She received all the sacraments of her faith and her remains were decently interred in the churchyard where her beloved family had all been buried.
The banshee has never returned since that night, although several members of that same family have since come to the end of their mortal existence. That fearful, warning cry was never heard again and, it is said that the spirit will never visit again until every one of the existing generation shall have gone to their eternal rest. Both Jack and his friend Harry lived on for many years after the events, their friendship undiminished by the years. Often, over the odd bottle of whisky, the two men would laugh as they recounted their strange adventure with the banshee. Sadly, however, it’s all over with them too and their tombstones stand tall in that lonely churchyard.