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.
Poor Sean Maguire died, just as Mr. Roche suspected he would, and the gold and the notes were found quilted into his wretched clothing. A search was then made for any of his relatives from in and about Moneygeran. in the West of the County, where his mother was known to have lived. Meanwhile, as much was taken from the hoard by ‘Big Peter’, in whose premises he died, as was necessary to buy a shroud and coffin, and some pipes, and tobacco, and snuff. Sheets were hung up in a corner of the barn, and the poor corpse was shaved and washed, and provided with a clean shirt, before he was laid on a table in the same corner and covered with a sheet.
Two or three large, roughly coloured wood prints of devout subjects were pinned on the sheets, and candlesticks, trimmed with coloured paper and furnished with candles, were provided. One or two persons relieved each other during daylight, to keep watch and ward off any evil. Of course, any poor neighbour who was cursed with a taste for tobacco smoke was only too ready for this duty, but the approach of darkness brought company enough, more indeed than were benefitted by the social duty.
The brave old patriarch Peter rested comfortably in his own chair and was talking intently to two or three of his neighbours, as old as himself, on the old chronicles of Castleton. We had paid little attention to his legends and tales, and we are now sorry enough for our inattention. On this occasion the hero of his story was a certain Squire Heaton, who, it appears, was the possessor of the Castleton demesne in some former age, and a terrible blackguard he must have been. He was employed in some fierce argument or other with his neighbours or tenants, we cannot now remember which, about a certain common, overgrown with furze bushes. It was, in fact, a large hill, which gave shelter to hundreds of hares and rabbits, and as the Squire would not give way to the demand made on him about the hill, the party collected and set fire to it on a fine summer evening.
Big Peter described, in a most graphic manner, the effect of the fire seen from the country round and about, all the poor hares and rabbits running for their lives, with their fur all scorched, and their eyes nearly burned out of their heads, and themselves falling into the hands of the crowds that kept watch at the edge of the burning mass. This reminiscence drew on others connected with matters that had taken place before the Rebellion, and while everyone was so engaged Eddie, Brian, and Charlie entered the room, reverently uncovering their heads, and reciting the ‘De Profundis’, verse and response. At the end they put their hats back on their heads and approached the elderly group.
A granddaughter of Peter’s and Mrs O’Brien’s servant girl, Joanna, a rattling young girl, came in with them, and after the psalm joined the ‘Big Peter’s’ womenfolk in the house, who occupied seats near the table. The older people, not willing to lose any of their usual hours of rest, began to leave, after having nearly exhausted all the interesting topics of the locality. But it was not long until a considerable amount of more lively conversation, of more interest to the younger portion of the company, began to develop itself among the various groups, two or three of the chief families keeping together near the table, as has been said.
At last a request came from a young woman in this group to Mr. Edmond, that he would entertain them with a song. Never being a man that was troubled with bashfulness, he immediately agreed, merely asking one of the little boys to bring a young cat from the kitchen to walk down his throat and clear away the cobwebs. He warned his audience that his song was useful to anyone thinking of paying a visit to the sites of Dublin.
” THE CONNAUGHT MAN AT THE REVIEW.
” With a neat house and garden, I live at my ease,
But all worldly pleasures my mind cannot please.
To friends and to neighbours I bid them adieu,
And I pegged off to Dublin to see the review.
Chorus – Laddly, ta ral lal, ta ral lal, lee.
” With trembling expectations, to the town I advanced,
Till I met with a soup-maker’s cellar by chance,
Where I saw hogs’ puddings, cows’ heels, and fat tripes.
And that delicate sight
” I stood in amaze, and I viewed them all o’er
The mistress espied me and came to her door.
‘ Step in, if you please, there is everything nice.
You shall have a good dinner at a reasonable price.’
“I tumbled downstairs, and I took off my hat.
And immediately down by the fireside I sat.
In less than five minutes she brought me a plate
Overflowing with potatoes, white cabbage, and meat.
” Says she, it was in Leitrim I was born and bred,
And can accommodate you to a very good bed.’
I thanked her, and straightway to bed I did fly,
Where I lay as snug as a pig in a sty.
“In less than five minutes my sides they grew hard,
For every feather it measured a yard.
A regiment of black boys my poor corpse overspread,
And insisted they’d tumble me out of the bed.
“I slept there all night until clear day-light,
And immediately called for my bill upon sight,
Says she, ‘as we both are come from the one town,
And besides old acquaintance, I’ll charge but a crown.’
” Oh, that is too much now, and conscience to boot;’
So, between she and I there arose a dispute.
To avoid the dispute, and to soon put an end,
She out for the police her daughter did send.
“In the wink of an eye I was sorely confounded
To see my poor body so sadly surrounded.
I thought they were mayors, or peers of the land,
With their long coats, and drab capes, and guns in their hands.
“‘Gentlemen,’ says I, ‘I’m a poor, honest man:
Before in my life I was never trepanned.’
‘ Come, me good fellow! Come pay for the whole,
Or else you will be the first man in the goal.’
“I paid the demand, and I bid her adieu,
And was off to the Park for to see the review.
Where a soldier he gave me a rap of his gun,
And bid me run home, for the white eyes were done.
“‘My good fella,’ says I, ‘had I you where I know,
I’d make you full Bore to repent of that blow.’
At the hearing of this, in a passion he flew,
And his long carving knife on me poor head he drew.
There were three or four verses more, but the readers are probably content with the quantity furnished. There was clucking of tongues against palates at the mention of the roguish tricks of the Dublin dealers. But a carrier in company cleared the city-born folk of some of the bad reputation alleged by the song and pronounced country people who had made good their standing in Dublin for a few years, to be the greatest cheats in the kingdom.
Mr. Edmond, having now a right to call someone up, summoned Joanna, the servant maid, previously mentioned, to show what she could do. Joanna, though very ready with her tongue at home, was at heart a modest girl, and fought hard to be let off. But one protested that she was a good singer, in right of a lark’s heel she had, but this was not the case, for Joanna had a neat foot. Another said that she was taught to sing by note when Tone, the dancing-master made his last round through the country, another said, that he heard herself and a young kid sing verse about one day when nobody was within hearing.
So, poor Joan, to get rid of the torment, asked what song they would like her to sing for them, and a dozen voices requested a love song about murder. So, after looking down, with a blushing face, for a while, she began with an unsteady voice, but she was soon under the influence of the subject and sung with a sweet voice one of these old English ballads, which we heard for the first time from a young woman of the Barony of Bardon, in the south.
There is another song on the same subject in some collection which we cannot at this remember at this moment. But Joanna’s version is evidently a faulty one. It has suffered from transmission through generations of negligent vocalists and now it is not easy to give it an original period of time.
“‘Come, comb your head, Fair Eleanor,
And comb it on your knee,
And that you may look maiden-like
Till my return to thee.’
“”Tis hard for me to look maiden-like,
When maiden I am none:
Seven fair sons I’ve borne to thee,
And the eighth lies in my womb.’
”Seven long years were past and gone.
Fair Eleanor thought it long.
She went up into her bower,
With her silver cane in hand.
“She looked far, she looked near,
She looked upon the strand.
And it’s there she spied King William a-coming,
And his new bride by the hand.
“She then called up her seven sons,
By one, by two, by three.
‘ I wish that you were seven greyhounds,
This night to worry me! ‘
“‘Oh, say not so our mother dear,
But put on your golden pall,
And go and throw open your wide, wide gates,
And welcome the nobles all.’
” So, she threw off her gown of green.
She put on her golden pall,
She went and threw open her wide, wide gates,
And welcomed the nobles all.
” ‘ Oh, welcome, lady fair! ‘ she said.
‘ You’re welcome to your own.
And welcome be these nobles all
That come to wait on you home.’
” ‘ Oh, thankee, thankee, Fair Eleanor!
And many thanks to thee.
And if in this bower I do remain,
Great gifts I’ll bestow on thee.’
” She served them up, she served them down,
She served them all with wine,
But still she drank of the clear spring water,
To keep her colour fine.
“She served them up, she served them down.
She served them in the hall.
But still she wiped off the salt, salt tears,
As they from her did fall.
” Well bespoke the bride so gay,
As she sat in her chair—
‘And tell to me, King William,’ she said,
‘ Who is this maid so fair?
” ‘ Is she of your kith, ‘ she said,
‘ Or is she of your kin,
Or is she your comely housekeeper
That walks both out and in’
” ‘ She is not of my kith,’ he said,
‘ Nor is she of my kin.
But she is my comely housekeeper
That walks both out and in.’
‘\’ Who then was your father,’ she said,
‘ Or who then was your mother 1
Had you any sister dear,
Or had you any brother 1 ‘
” ‘ King Henry was my father,’ she said,
‘ Queen Margaret was my mother,
Matilda was my sister dear,
Lord Thomas was my brother.’
” ‘ King Henry was your father,’ she said,
Queen Margaret, your mother,
1 am your only sister dear.
And here’s Lord Thomas, our brother.
” ‘ Seven lofty ships I have at sea,
All filled with beaten gold.
Six of them I’ll leave with thee,
The seventh will bear me home.’ “
The usual interruptions arising from new visitors entering had occurred several times during these relaxations, with the last visitor being a young giant of a man called Tom Sweeney. He was a labourer on the farm of young Roche, and an admirer of the songstress of Fair Eleanor, who, if she returned his affection, took special care to conceal the fact from the eyes of their acquaintance. Tom was as naïve a young man as there was anywhere in the county, and Peter O’Brien called on him to give a song. But the young man could think of nothing else to sing but the lamentation of a young girl for the absence of her lover.
” THE SAILOR BOY.
“‘Oh, the sailing trade is a weary life.
It robs fair maids of their hearts’ delight,
Which causes me for to sigh and mourn,
For fear my true love will ne’er return.
“’The grass grows green upon yonder lea,
The leaves are budding from ev’ry spray,
The nightingale in her cage will sing
To welcome Willy home to crown the spring.
“’ I’ll build myself a little boat.
And o’er the ocean I mean to float:
From every French ship that do pass by,
I’ll inquire for Willy, that bold sailing boy.’
“She had not sailed a league past three
Till a fleet of French ships, she chanced to meet.
‘ Come tell me, sailors, and tell me true,
If my love Willy sails on board with you.’
“‘Indeed, fair maid, your love is not here,
But he is drowned by this we fear.
‘It was your green island that we passed by,
There we lost Willy, that bold sailing boy.’
“She wrung her hands and she tore her hair
Just like a lady that was in despair.
Against the rock her little boat she run—
‘How can I live, and my true love gone? ‘
“Nine months after, this maid was dead,
And this note found on her bed’s head.
How she was satisfied to end her life,
Because she was not a bold sailor’s wife.
“‘Dig my grave both large and deep,
Deck it over with lilies sweet,
And on my headstone cut a turtledove,
To signify that I died for love.’ “
It is probable that the sentiments of this ballad will not produce similar feelings in our readers. It was not the case with the younger portion of Tom’s audience, for he sung it with much feeling. He was, indeed, a sincere young fellow, besides being a lover.
It would be a little boring, except to those with an interest in such things, if I was to let you read many more of the songs which were sung there. If truth be told, there were few that could be distinguished by them possessing genuine poetry or good taste. The people who were there were not so lucky and had to hear “The sailor who courted a farmer’s daughter, that lived convenient to the Isle of Man.” That was followed by the merry song called “The Wedding of Ballyporeen,” which caused the audience to laugh loudly, although they had heard it many times heard before. Then there were popular tunes such as, “The Boy with the Brown Hair,” “The Red-haired Girl,” “Sheela na Guira,” and “The Cottage Maid.” Laments and Ballads about lost loves and promising romantic futures, which were popular and encouraged the audience to join in. But, at last, some of those gathered began to demonstrate by their manner and gestures, that they had heard enough sweet singing, and O’Brien, and Roche, and Redmond, were invited to get up and perform the wake-house drama of ‘Old Dowd and his Daughters’, which would help them to hold out against the stale air in the room and the want of sleep.
The young men did not exhibit too good a sense of the moral fitness of things, since they were not normally disposed to vice, in private or in public. It was custom that influenced them to think that what was harmless at other times and in other places could be looked on as harmless at a wake. So, Charles at once assumed took his place as stage manager and assumed the role of Old Dowd with a daughter he needed to dispose of. He set the blushing and giggling Joanna on a chair beside him, Tom Sweeney, and two or three other young men on a bench at his other side, cleared an open space in front, procured a good stick for himself and each of his sons, and awaited the approach of the expected suitor.
O’Brien and Roche had gone out, and on their return were to be looked on, the first as the suitor, a caustic poet, who makes himself welcome at rich farmers’ houses by satirizing their neighbours, and the second as his horse, whose forelegs were represented by the man’s arms, and a stool firmly grasped in his hands. Roche’s election to this role was determined by his size and great strength. Finally, amid the most profound silence the performance of “Old Dowd and his Daughters” began—
OLD DOWD AND HIS DAUGHTERS.
[Present: Old Dowd, his marriageable daughter, Sheela, and his six sons. Enter poetic suitor, appropriately mounted. Father and sons eye the pair with much contempt.]
Old Dowd: Who is this, mounted on his old carthorse, coming to disturb us at this hour of the night? What kind of a tramp or traveller are you? for I don’t think we can give you a lodging, sir, and you must go on farther.
Suitor:I’m not an honest man, no more than you are yourself, you old sinner, and I don’t want a room. I’m seeking a cure for life’s troubles. In plain words, a wife who can be with me for the rest of my life on this earth. Are you lucky enough to be able to help me, for you won’t ever get another chance to make a more high-bred connection as myself? My grandfather owned seven townlands, and let more property slip through his fingers than the whole seed, breed, and generation of the Dowds possessed since Adam was a boy. Come on, are you ready for me?
Father of Bride: Aye, and what property have you got?
Suitor:A lawsuit that’s to be decided on day before Christmas Eve. If I gain it, I’ll get fifty acres of land on the side of the mountain at a pound an acre. If I lose, they can only put me in the jail. Come on, now, let us see the bride. But, first, as they used to say at the siege of Troy, let us know your breeding and bloodline.
Father.Here I am, Old Dowd, with his six sons. Himself makes seven, four more would be eleven, and hurrah, brave boys.”
At this point of the conference the patriarch flourished his stick, and aimed a few blows at the steed and rider, more, however, in courtesy than resentment. The suitor warded the strokes with some skill and gave a tap or two to his father-in-law elect. He at last setting his weapon upright and the argument ceased.
Father: Come now, I see that you are not altogether unworthy to enter the family of the Dowds. What’s your profession? How do you earn your bread? I won’t send out my dear Sheela to live on the neighbours.
Suitor: I’m a poet and live by the weaknesses of mankind.
Father: Och, what kind of trade is that? Your coat is white at the seams. Is that some sort of vest or is it a real shirt you have on you? How many meals a day do you get? Everyone knows the saying, ‘as poor as a poet’.
Suitor:Then I think three-quarters of the people about here must be in the same trade. If you were to be a father-in-law to me, then learn to be mannerly, Old Dowd. I scorn a vest, except when my old shirt is worn out, and my new one has not come from the seamstress, and if I could find an appetite, I might eat seven meals a day. I stop at a gentleman- farmer’s and repeat a few verses that I said for against a neighbour for his stinginess to one of the old-stock of the Muldoons, and a poet besides. And don’t myself and my steed live like fighting cocks, and the man of the house not daring to sneeze for fear of getting into a new a bad verse about himself. Is this my bride? Oh, the darling girl, I must make a verse in her praise off the top of my head, for if I was Homer, that noble poet, I’d sing your praises in verses sweet. Or Alexander, that bold commander, I’d lay my trophies down at your feet.”
“Venerable head of the Clan Dowd, my intended looks a little hot. I hope it wasn’t with the pot-rag she wiped her face this morning. Old Dowd, you’ll have to shell out something decent for soap. The young lady’s name is Sheela, you say. She’s not the same Miss Sheela, I hope! You know that Pat Cox, the shoemaker, was lately courting?
Father:You vagabond of a poet, do you think I’d demean the old kings of Leinster, my forefathers, by taking into my family a greasy shoemaker?
Suitor: I only asked a civil question. Pat met his darling one day, as she was binding after the reapers, and asked when she’d let him take her measure for a pair of new shoes. “No time like the present time,” says she, and off she kicked her right foot pump. Her nails were a trifle long and her lovely toes were peeping out through the worsted stockings. If there was anything between the same toes it wouldn’t be polite to mention it. So bewildered was the love-sick fool by the privilege conferred on him, that he felt in his own mind, that a prolonged communication would not be good for the peace of heart. So, the shoes are not yet made, and Pat’s nearest residence is in the village of Derrymore.
Father: And do you dare, you foul-mouthed blackguard, to cast insinuations on the delicate habits of my dear child? Take this for your reward.
Sympathetic Sons:And this … and this.”
And now began a neat cudgel-skirmish between the main contracting parties. The angry father not only struck at the evil-tongued suitor, but also whacked at the inoffensive horse. The suitor warded the blows from his trusty horse as well as he could, but still one or two made impressions on the more sensitive portions of his body, and the sons with their wooden sticks added to his overall discomfort. So, the noble animal, feeling his patience rapidly diminishing, executed a half-jump, and applying the hoof of his off hind leg to the bench on which the old gentleman and his sons were sitting in state, he overturned them with little effort, and their heads and backs made sore acquaintance with the wall and floor.
This disagreeable incident, and the still unconquered difficulties, stopped the further prosecution of the suit, and amid rubbing of sore spots, scratching of heads, and howls of laughter from all parts of the room, they set about another match with Peter’s grand-daughter being obliged to sit for the next blushing bride. In this second act, Redmond came in as a wooer, bestriding Tom Sweeney, His cue was to have nothing of the poet or the vagrant hanging to his skirts. He was the miserly, careful tradesman of country life. O’Brien represented Old Dowd.
Thrifty Suitor:God save all here! Look here, I want a wife, and no more about it. Have you got one available?
Father:To be sure we have! Who are you if you please?
Thrifty Suitor: I’m not ashamed of my name nor of my business. I’m a brogue-maker to my trade, and my name’s Mick Kinsella, and I’m not short of a few pounds in my pocket, not like that scare-crow, Denny Muldoon, that’ll be obliged to throw his large cloak over his bride to keep her from freezing with the cold in the honeymoon. I won’t have Miss Sheela; you may depend on it.
Father:Indeed, I think you’re right, Mick-the Brogue. That dear girl was a little untidy, still she wasn’t without her good points. But she would persist in wiping the plates with the cat’s tail when the dishcloth was not at hand, and I’m afraid that her husband won’t be known by the whiteness of his shirt collar at the chapel. Well, well, we won’t speak ill of the absent. But here, you son of a turned pump, is the flower of the flock for you. Here’s one that will put a genteel stamp on your stand of brogues at a fair or market. By the way, the shoemakers don’t associate with you, men of the leather strip. They don’t look on you as tradesmen. What shabby pride! Begging your pardon, Mick, what property have you, and what do you intend to leave to your widow? After all, no one can say to your face that you married out of a frolic of youth. You’re turned fifty, I think.
Thrifty Suitor: No, I am not, Old Dowd! I am only pushing forty-five, and I have neither a red nose nor a shaky hand, Old Dowd. And I hope Mrs. Kinsella won’t be at the expense of a widow’s cap for thirty years to come, Old Dowd. But not to make an ill answer, I have three hundred red guineas under the thatch. And now tell me what yourself will lay down on the nail the day your daughter changes her name.
Father:Well, well, the impudence of some people stings! Isn’t it enough, and more than enough, to get a young woman of birth, that has book-learning and reads novels? And you, you big jackass, don’t you think but your bread will be baked the day she condescends to take the vulgar name of Kinsella? Why, man, the meaning of the word is “Dirty Head.” An old king of Leinster got it for killing a priest.
Thrifty Suitor: I don’t care a pig’s bristle for your notions and grand ideas. Give me an answer if you please.
Father: Oh, dear, dear, Old Dowd! Did you ever think you would live long enough to hear your genteel and accomplished daughter, Miss Biddy Dowd, called by the vile name of Biddy -the-Brogue?
Thrifty Suitor: Now, none of your impudence, you overbearing and immoral old toper! I want a wife to keep things snug at home, and make me comfortable, and not let me be cheated by my servants and workmen. You say that Biddy reads novels and, maybe when the ploughmen come in at noon, they’ll only find the praties put down over a bad fire, and the mistress crying over a greasy-covered book in the corner. To the Devil with all the novels in the world.
The Dowds (father and sons):This ignorant gobshite never went as far as the “Principles of Politeness ” in the “Universal Spelling-book.” Let us administer the youth a little of hazel-oil to make his joints supple and teach him some manners!”
Then another battle of arms took place, in which some skilful play was shown with the sticks, and several sound thumps were given and received, to the great delight and edification of the assembly.
Thrifty Suitor: Now that these few compliments are over, what is to be the fortune of Biddy, I beg a thousand pardons, Miss Biddy Dowd, I mean?
Father:Isn’t her face fortune enough for you, you vulgar man? Do you think nothing of the respectability of having her sitting on a pillion behind you going to fair or market to work after you, with her green silk gown and quilted purple petticoat, and her bright orange shawl? Ah, you lucky thief! Won’t you have the crowd of young fellows around you, bargaining for your ware, and inviting Mrs. Kinsella to a glass of punch? I think, instead of expecting a fortune, you should give a big bag of money for being let into my family.
Thrifty Suitor: Old Dowd, all your bluster isn’t worth a cast-off brogue. Mention a decent sum, or back I go to my work. I’m young enough to be married these fifteen years to come.”
Here the father and sons put their heads together, and finally the hard-pressed father named twenty pounds, but the worldly-minded suitor exclaimed against the smallness of the sum and insisted on a hundred. After a series of skilful thrusts and parries, they agreed to split the difference, and the candidate was asked whether he preferred to receive it in quarterly payments or be paid all at once. He inconsiderately named present payment and had soon reason to repent of his haste to become rich, for the dowry descended on himself and his charger in a shower of blows from the tough hazels and blackthorns of his new relatives. After receiving and inflicting several stripes, he shouted out that he was satisfied to give a long day with the balance. And so, with their shoulders and sides sore with blows and laughter, the play came to an end, and much appreciation was shown by the audience both with the action and dialogue, for many in the crowd knew the parties who were represented, and scarcely, if at all, caricatured. Denny Muldoon, and Mick Kinsella, and Biddy-the-Brogue, were well-known under other names.
When the enthusiasm had subsided a little, it being now about one o’clock in the morning, O’Brien, Roche, Edmond, Joanna, and Sweeney withdrew, but not before reciting some prayers before they left the room. When the vacated seats came to be filled, and lately bashful young fellows began to use the tobacco-pipes, which one but the older folk had meddled with before, the hitherto tolerably decent spirit of the society began to evaporate, and confusion and ill manners began to prevail. However, a young fellow, who felt a desire to hear himself sing in company, got some of his supporters to endeavour to quieten the noise, and request him to favour the assembly with a song. The noise did not entirely subside until the first notes were heard, and the dismal style in which the verses were sung needed to be restrained but indifferently.
” THE STREAMS OF BUNCLODY.
“Was I at the moss-house where the birds do increase,
At the foot of Mount Leinster, or some silent place,
At the streams of Bunclody, where all pleasures do meet,
And all I require is one kiss from you, sweet.
” The reason my love slights me, I do understand,
Because she has a freehold and I have no land.
A great store of riches, both Silver and gold,
And everything fitting a house to uphold.
“If I was a clerk who could write a good hand,
I’d write to my true love that she might understand,
That I’m a young man that’s deeply in love,
That lived by Bunclody, and now must remove.
” Adieu my dear father; adieu my dear mother.
Farewell to my sister, and likewise my brother.
I’m going to America, my fortune to try.
When 1 think on Bunclody, I’m ready to die.”
The general feeling at the time was too cynical to relish such a sad song. Several songs were sung, whose composers’ ghosts shall not have the gratification of seeing them here either in substance or name. At last, even the songs, such as they were, began to lose their charm, and games were introduced. The first was played in the following way –
The captain took five assistants, and arranged them in a semicircle, giving to each a name. He then began with a short stick to pound the palm of one to whom the mischance came by lot, keeping a firm hold of his wrist all the time, and naming the troop in this manner “Fabby, Darby Skibby, Donacha the Saddler, Jacob the Farmer, Scour-dish, what’s that man’s name?” He suddenly pointed to one of the group, and if the patient named him on the moment, he was released, and the fellow named was submitted to the handy discipline. If there was the slightest delay about the name, the operator went on as before—”Fibby Fabby, Darby Skibby,” etc., until the poor victim’s fingers were in a sad state.
In the second game a candle was placed on the ground, in the middle of a circle of lads, and all are told to keep their eyes fixed on it, and their hands behind their backs. The captain provided himself with a twisted leathern apron, or something equally unpleasant to be struck with, and walked on the outside of the ring, exclaiming from time to time, “Watch the light, watch the light.” Secretly placing the weapon into the hands of one of the men, he at last cried out, “Use the linger, use the linger;” and this worthy ran round the circle, using it to some purpose on the backs of his playmates. He then became the captain, and in due course delivered the instrument to someone else.
But the most objectionable trick of all was “shooting the buck.” Some person or persons who had not yet seen the performance were essential to its success, as it required a victim or two. The person acting the buck having gone out, the sportsman who was to shoot him required one to three unsuspicious persons to lie in wait inside the door, to catch the animal when falling from the effect of the shot, promising that they should see fine things. All became silent and watchful, and the retrievers were at their post, when the stag appeared in the doorway, a stool on his head, with the feet upturned to represent horns. The huntsman stooped, and squinting along a stick, cried out, “too-oo”! Back fell the animal, and down came the stool, and all the dirt with which the rogue had charged it outside, on the hats and clothes of the raw sportsmen, and great laughter rose from all the throats but theirs.
By this time, it is three or four o’clock, and time for anyone who dreads the terrors of an over-burdened conscience, while he lies passive and stretched out the next morning, to quit the scene of such frivolity. We might here moralize on the inherent evil of the institution, and the number of young men who became hardened in vice by attending wakes, and the number of young women who lost their character thereby, and everything with it, here and hereafter. The evil lay in visiting them at all, for more than a few minutes. It would be out of the question for the best-intentioned to remain in the foul room for the whole night and come out as innocent in the morning as they entered in the evening. Girls with any pretence to good conduct never remained in them beyond the early hours of the night and were always supposed to be there under the guardianship of a brother, cousin, or declared lover. We will say, for the honour of those districts of Ireland that were known to us, that it was rare to hear of a young woman, farmer’s, or cottager’s daughter, of bad character.
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.
The slow flowing waters of the River Blackwater form the border between the counties of Armagh and Tyrone in Northern Ireland. Along the banks of this river there lived a young man by the name of ‘Dinny’ Hughes, who was known for having a temper that was so terrible that they say the likes of it had never been seen before. He was a man who simply could not control his mouth or the venomous words that he spat out at all he met. People avoided crossing his path, fearing that he would bring his foul language and dark curses down upon them. But ‘Dinny’s’ greatest joy was to take his victims by surprise and devise new curses and oaths that could be added to his already large armoury of insults.
Such was the reputation that had grown up around ‘Dinny’ Hughes that there were virtually none of his neighbours who would talk to him, or converse with him at any time. In fact, most people dreaded the possibility of meeting him on a local road, for they were convinced that some dark demon had taken possession of him and that was why he enjoyed tormenting others with his cruel words. Yet, despite his villainous reputation and bad temper, ‘Dinny’ had forged a good friendship with another man of similar age, who was known to everyone as Jimmy Kelly. He had heard the stories and listened to the warnings of others that he would be better off if he was free of company such as ‘Dinny’ Hughes, but he chose to ignore them.
These two young men appeared to enjoy each other’s company and on many a day they could be seen wandering the local roads or roaming over the green fields of the parish but never straying too far from home. Then, one day, despite their remarkably close friendship, there were bitter words exchanged between the two men, which developed into bad tempered name calling and, finally, vicious blows. Beneath the warm summer sun punch followed punch, all made with great effort and in a way that could damage their opponent in the most painful way. As they fought, they perspired copiously, their breaths becoming increasingly heavier as their chests heaved wearily and they became unsteady on their feet. The fight continued with no man gaining mastery over the other and, after an hour of constant struggle, the battle ended with both men simply collapsing to the ground in exhaustion. Both men were wracked with pain and exhaustion and left enfeebled like two infant children, and although the pummelling with fists had ceased the tirade of vicious curses and words continued to pour from those breathless voices. ‘Dinny’ screamed aloud and uttered a terrible curse that was quickly followed by a dark oath, which saw him swear to have his vengeance and bring about the death of Jimmy Kelly. Even if he was himself dead, he made an oath to reach out from his grave and keep his promise like an avenging angel.
Quite unexpectedly, three days after the violent encounter that had taken place between the two men, ‘Dinny’ suddenly became extremely ill and despite the best efforts of other he died within hours. Jimmy Kelly, for one, was relieved at the news of his former friend’s passing. He had been deeply upset by ‘Dinny’s’ villainous oath against him and now that he was dead there was no longer any need to fear him. The oath, like ‘Dinny’ himself, was now buried six feet below the ground and there was no chance of him rising again from there. Death, Jimmy believed was the great equaliser, being the fate of all whether rich or poor, strong, or weak. From the grave the rich man no longer held power over the poor, and the strong man no longer had mastery over those who were weak.
Jimmy Kelly’s sense of contentment would only last a short time, however, and would be shattered like a broken mirror by a dream that brought with it a dire warning for his future. The dream shook Jimmy so much that all his new-found courage quickly left him, and his life became filled with a constant sense of menace. In this vision Jimmy had seen himself standing alone in a lush green field, where he was suddenly confronted with the terrifying image of a huge black bull charging down on him. As the beast’s great head stormed toward him, Jimmy could see the bull’s eyes glowing red like burning coals, which made the huge creature appear to be some unearthly horned demon. Jimmy was immediately frozen to the spot as fear and terror gripped his body and he now stood before the charging beast as if rooted to the ground. On three occasions that great black demon bull charged toward Jimmy, wounding him on each occasion with its long, sharp, and magnificently curved horns. Finally, panting breathlessly and sweating profusely, Jimmy awoke from his dream and called out, “What is happening?” as he arose in the bed. “Has the Devil allowed the dead to take the form of a huge black bull to attack and kill the likes of me? This is ‘Dinny’ at work, trying to bring me to that dark destruction he promised, and I have stared into those fierce, evil burning eyes of a demon summoned from Hell!”
The reality of his dream came to him only one short month later, when Jimmy did find himself alone in a lush green field and saw a great black bull come charging toward him. Just as in the dream, the great bull struck him three times and he felt the excruciating pain inflicted on his body by those sharp and massive horns. Almost as quickly as it had appeared this vision vanished without trace except for Jimmy, lying on the ground, writhing in pain but incredibly happy to be still alive. He was also grateful for the period of peace and quiet that followed this strange incident, allowing Jimmy to reflect on what had happened to him and how he had been lucky to escape the full wrath of ‘Dinny’s’ dark oath.
It wasn’t too long before Jimmy Kelly received a new warning that came to him, once again, as he slept and that cold deep fear that he had felt before now returned and filled his heart. On this occasion the warning came in the form of a great black goat that stood on its hind legs and, with satanic eyes glowing like the embers in a turf fire, it leaped forward to attack Jimmy. Once again, he awoke breathlessly panting and with his body soaked in sweat. “Maybe the Devil has given him less strength this time,” Jimmy told himself, “But I still have a dark encounter to face. This beast is big and strong, and, on this occasion, it will be attacking me with all its four feet off the ground,”
As before the vision that was presented to Jimmy quickly became a reality. In the green field the image a great black goat suddenly appeared before him and immediately threw its full weight and strength into a head-on charge. On this occasion Jimmy was to endure three separate attacks from the goat until he was finally left lying prostrate on the ground, wracked in agony with every bone in his body filled with pain. He could not move. He did not want to move because the terror that now filled his mind. But, after two or three weeks of rest and care his wounds began to heal and peace returned to him once more, just prior to a third visit of a dark dream.
This dream was different in that Jimmy saw himself standing in the lane that ran between his house and the green field when, suddenly, a large black Turkey cock flew down from above to attack him. Still sleeping, Jimmy let out a loud and hearty laugh that awoke him. Still laughing, Jimmy told himself, “Sure, that old devil mustn’t have much left to him when he thinks that I’ll be afraid of being overpowered and destroyed by a Turkey cock, especially after what I’ve been through. Does the fool imagine that a fine, stout-hearted man such as myself would ever be afraid of a bird?”
Several days later Jimmy began laughing aloud as he stood in the lane and saw the big black Turkey cock begin to sweep down toward him. His laughter ceased immediately when the big bird attacked him and, with one blow, split Jimmy’s skull with its large beak that looked more like a big, sharp knife. The second and third strikes that the Turkey made dashed Jimmy’s brains and scattered the grey matter onto the brown, dusty lane. This is how Jimmy Kelly suffered a terrible death, just as was promised by ‘Dinny’ Hughes when he uttered his dark oath. ‘Dinny’ had accomplished his evil curse and the grave had proven itself to be unable to protect Jimmy as he believed it would.
As we all travel through this world, we are very much aware of where we are and what we might expect. But about that place to which we travel after death we know absolutely nothing. The passing of our spirit from our dead body is probably the most mysterious and frightening event that we can contemplate. In an older time in Ireland the people held a belief that the spirit of a person passes from the body of the deceased through the join in their skull. Our mouths speak our evil to the world, while our eyes have seen the evil that has occurred, and our ears have heard the evil that is spoken of, and quite rightly the ancients asked what right and fitting passage would allow our spirit to leave our body without being exposed to evil. In a society ruled by men there were, of course, claims made that there were certain differences between the male and the female skull. The truth of this differences is alleged to be demonstrated by the fact that it is the female who endures the most painful departure from the flesh.