The Bean Sidhe/Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger
My mother is from Ireland; a little village in County Cavan, so I have a personal interest in this individual. I recall when I was a wee thing, how she mentioned the Banshee, briefly and in faux credulous tones. What was this woman/spirit/death herald all about, I wondered. And where does she ‘live’? I lay in bed at nights with my covers pulled up to my nose, in equal measures hoping to hear and not hear her caoine.
A dictionary definition tells us that – A banshee (/ˈbænʃiː/ BAN-shee; Modern Irish bean sí, from Old Irish: ban síde, pronounced [bʲan ˈʃiːðʲe], “woman of the fairy mound” or “fairy woman”) is a female spirit in Irish mythology who heralds the death of a family member, usually by shrieking or keening. Her name is connected to the mythologically-important tumuli or “mounds” that dot the Irish countryside, which are known as síde (singular síd) in Old Irish.
So first, let’s get our pronunciations sorted.
Bean – is Irish Gaelic for woman. You don’t say bean; like baked bean, you say ban.
Sidhe – also Irish Gaelic is a little more problematic, hence the slight variation of meanings given to the word Beansidhe. A Sidhe can be a mound or hill in which fae live. Or a fae singular. Or, the race of fae. You don’t say sid-hee, you say shee.
Note that I did not use the word fairy; which has modern associations with tiny, pretty, winged things. The association of fairies typically refers to the genre of folk stories printed by the Brothers Grimm, then made saccharine and popularized for modern audiences by Disney. Fae, on the other hand, refers to the otherworldly, unpredictable, and dangerous creatures that appear in the folk-tales and myths of England and Ireland. They are both from the same origin, yet the spellings have deviated for slightly different connotations. The Banshee, in that case, fits the second usage – Fae.
Status. Mythology, folklore, or the supernatural.
What is it? A figure from Irish folklore; they enjoy the same mythical status in Ireland as fairies and leprechauns. The Irish Banshee is in turns said to be malevolent and benevolent. The Banshee is female, there is no male counterpart and she, peculiarly amongst the fae folk, is always alone (however, later versions have it that when several Banshees appear at once, this heralds the death of someone great or holy). Contrary to what some believe, she is not a ghost, she is of the fae folk. Their main purpose is to warn of a death by beginning to wail if someone is about to die. So in that respect; we have to agree, I think, that she is neither malevolent, nor benevolent (don’t kill the messenger), she is merely the harbinger of a death – she does not cause death. The fact that people have heard her caoine at the time has given rise to the idea of her causing the death, or even that she is evil; she is neither of those things. There are many tales of people having not only heard the wail, or scream, of the Banshee, but who have seen her! There are those too, that believe if you catch a Banshee, she has to tell you the name of the person whose death is forthcoming. Some believe her cry warns loved ones that a death is near which then gives the family a chance to prepare. Some believe that she acts as an escort to ensure that their loved one passes safely to the other side.
Origins. Written reports record the existence of the Banshee right back to the 12th century; it is quite possible that supposed connections with the Morrígan date it back to the 8th century. It is probable that in the time of Druidism, she may have originally been a house spirit, like the Roman Lares; household gods. There is some speculation that the origin of the Tuatha Dé Dannan may be found in ancestor worship; as our Bean Sidhe is connected to the mounds, the origin of the Bean Sidhe may have been a sort of ancestor worship, later mutated into “fairies” or supernatural gods. Female figures baring similarity to the Banshee crop up in all sorts of Irish myths and legends.
For whom the bell tolls? Now here’s the interesting bit – there is not just one Banshee! The Irish Banshee, though a solitary figure, is connected to a single family. Each family – and not all families – has its own Banshee! Traditionally, only the oldest families; of pure Irish descent, are said to have banshees; spirits that forewarn of death. The high Milesian race are said to be the true Irish and many believe that only they have a family Banshee. Originally it was said that the Banshee only keened for the five great Gaelic families; O’Grady, O’Neill, O’Brien, O’Connor and Kavanagh. However, there are stories from various sources that she particularly favours those with an ‘O’ or a ‘Mc’ in the surname such as O’Brien or McNeill for example. Some families have even named their Banshees (or maybe she revealed her name to them!). Aiobhill is the Banshee of the Dalcassians of North Munster, and Cliodna is the Banshee of the McCarthy’s and other families of South Munster.
Reported events. The Bunworth Banshee, from County Cork, was apparently heard by the Reverend Charles Bunworth when he became ill. After a short recovery, the wailing; accompanied by clapping, was heard by other members of the household throughout the night – by dawn, the Reverend was dead. King James I of Scotland claimed to have had a visitation from a ‘seer’ in 1437, who foretold his death. This seer was later understood to have been a Banshee. Multiple Banshees are said to have cried at the death of Brian Boru; 11th century King of Ireland. There are a number of reports of sightings of weeping or wailing women throughout history, seen alone in the dark, usually wearing a head covering; shawl or veil. When approached she either does not respond or seems to move away. Unfortunately, most of these ‘sightings’ seem to have been made by lone males on their way home from a late night tipple at the local pub!
What does she sound like? The Banshee’s wail has been described variously as, like a howling wind, a screeching of an owl, screaming, moaning, a chilling screech, thin screeching sound somewhere between the wail of a woman and the moan of an owl, a wail so piercing that it shatters glass, low pleasant singing of a song, a sound resembling two boards being struck together,(huh?!) constant weeping, a long melancholy keening, a wail of pity rage and frustration.
What does she look like? The Banshee, it is agreed, is a humanoid female – an ugly scary looking hag or old woman, a young beautiful woman, wearing grey or white gowns with long pale hair, almost human like, tall with wispy grey hair and blood red eyes from an eternity of sorrow, she has long streaming hair and is dressed in a grey cloak over a green dress, an old woman dressed in rags, a washer woman ringing out bloody clothing, she wears either a grey, hooded cloak or the winding sheet or grave robe of the dead, she has long, flowing silver/white or sometimes red hair, other tales portray banshees as dressed in green, red or black with a grey cloak, However, some regions of Ireland believe she can take other forms – appeared in anamorphic forms such as a stoat, hare, hooded crow, or weasel. Constants are – long hair, grey or pale clothing and wailing, the variants probably arise from different counties and/or the Irish love of storytelling and embellishment –OR – as each family has its own Banshee, then it makes sense that they look different!!
Where she ‘lives’. Ireland – and only Ireland; she will not ‘follow your family’ overseas, she belongs in the Emerald Isles. When not wailing outside people’s homes, the Banshee is, according to Irish folk lore, to be found in the woods, bogs, or forests. Washing linens next to pools, or in the forest or along the banks of a spring or river.
Explanations debunked! Two points – It is claimed that the legend arises from the practice of “keeners,” women who wail in mourning at funerals, sometimes professionally. Okay, let’s look at this, pretty much everyone in Ireland was and is familiar with paid and unpaid mourners/wailers, this tradition goes back centuries. But, these women attend the wake or funeral – the person concerned is already dead – so why invent a story of a supernatural being that announces an impending death? Second, the barn owl has been cited as the real banshee by many ‘non-believers’. The screech is quite disturbing and when the bird flies, one can imagine seeing the white underbelly in the dead of night as it swoops low and fancy it is a ghost, or banshee. Really? Are you telling me that people living out in the countryside in Ireland would not be familiar with the screech of an owl, that farmers would not regularly see that pale, swooping form and know it for what it is? Go and take a listen to the horrid sound of a barn owl, it sounds nothing like the wail of a woman. I don’t buy it. There is something else going on here!!
Postscript; My marital name is McDonough, my mother’s maiden name was McIlwaine, so I imagine I have extra reason to hear the curiously terrifying, blood-curdling scream of the Banshee – I’m still waiting…with the bedcovers pulled up to my nose.
Twas the banshee’s lonely wailing
Well I knew the voice of death,
On the night wind slowly sailing,
O’er the bleak and gloomy heath.
By ‘O’ or ‘Mac’, you’ll always know
True Irishmen they say,
But if they lack an ‘O’ or ‘Mac’
No Irishmen are they!
Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland, by T.C Croker.
- Bean Sidhe – (Pronunciation: ban-shee) meaning, woman of the mound/hill, or faerie woman.
- Milesian – From the Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland), 11th century, regarded by scholars as medieval Irish Christian pseudo-history, the Milesians were the final race to settle in Ireland. They represent the Irish people; having battled the Tuatha de Dannan for the land.
- Caoineadh – or caoine (Pronunciation: keen) meaning “to weep, to wail”.
- Aiobhill – also anglicised as Aeval (pronunciation: ah-veel) meaning ‘beauty’ or ‘burning fire’, known as a Queen of the Sidhe, a Banshee or guardian spirit of particular family.
- Cliodna – (Pronunciation: clee-o-na), is a principal goddess in Ireland, a Queen Banshee of the Tuatha de Dannan.
- Tuatha de Dannan – supernatural race of beings in Irish mythology.
- Morrígan – The Morrígan is most well known as an Irish Goddess who often appears in crow or raven form, and is associated with battle, warriors, sovereignty, prophecy, and Otherworld power.
‘Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland’ by Thomas Crofton Croker, 7th Edition, 1906.
Article “Bean Sidhe” by Michal F. Lindemans created on 03 March 1997; last modified on 05 December 1999 (Revision 2)
‘Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry’, Edited and Selected by W. B. Yeats, 1888,
‘A Lamentation, For the Death of Sir Maurice Fitzgerald, Knight, of Kerry, who was killed in Flanders’, by Clarence Mangan, 1642,.
Alexandra Peel is a visual artist turned author. She has a Degree in Fine Art, Sculpture and has been a freelance community artist, painter, graphics tutor and book seller; she currently works as a Learning Support Practitioner in a F.E/H. E college.
She is the author of ‘Sticks & Stones’; a collection of nine short stories about witches, and ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’; a pirate adventure for children. She has several short stories published including, ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’, which appears in the horror anthology Game Over by Snowbooks. ‘Spinning Jenny’, in The Singularity magazine and ‘ZIP’, in Rambunctious Ramblings. She has also created a series of Steampunk/Penny Dreadful style stories under the heading, ‘The Life and Crimes of Lockhart & Doppler’, about a pair of miscreant treasure hunters.
Born and raised in Liverpool, Alexandra came to live on the Wirral after five years spent in Staffordshire, where she lives with her husband and teenage daughter. She is a member of Wirral Writers and can be found at the following assorted locations: