Of all Ireland’s monster and ghost exports the banshee is the most famous (aside from leprechauns). And surprisingly it remains one of the most underused creatures and yet one of the most terrifying.
There are many cheap horror movies that use the legend such as Banshee, Cry of the Banshee and even the X-Men have their very own version as seen in X-Men: First Class. In Terry Prachett’s Reaper Man, banshees are employed while the crew of the Firefly face an enemy known only as the Banshees. But in Irish myth, to hear or see the banshee means someone is about to die.
Legend has it that the banshee heralds deaths in six families, the O’Connaghs, the O’Briens, O’Neills, the O’Gradys, the Kavanaghs and the O’Connors. But with inter-marriage over the centuries this has greatly expanded the base. Heard but not always seen, the bean-sidhe ( woman of the fairy mounds) has been reported as recently as 1948 and has versions in both Welsh and American mythology but Ireland remains the best known of them all.
The Disney movie Darby O’Gill and the Little People (trailer below) portrays not only the most famous version of the banshee but also the closest to the actual legend. In that movie, Darby O’Gill’s daughter, Katie, is injured when a horse runs away and the banshee appears to take her to the next life. Darby manages to drive it off but cannot stop her summoning the Death Coach to take his daughter’s soul. However, he makes a deal to put himself in her place and only the intervention of the leprechaun King Brian, does he manage to escape. I saw this movie on the big screen when I was a kid and vividly remember the kids screaming as this golden screeching faceless woman swooped down towards us… and that was without 3D. That moment began a life long fascination with the creature and I found there was more to the legend than I thought.
It is said that she is the ghost of a young woman brutally murdered that was condemned to walk the Earth for eternity warning her family members of imminent death. There are several versions that have been seen; a crone in rags with red eyes, bad teeth and long fingernails that can cause instant death upon seeing her. Her scream emits from a permanent open mouth that tortures the living.
Next, the serial killer banshee will actively track down victims and tear them apart. Then the old woman weeping with her face covered in a black veil has also been reported and mistaken for an actual person who was once mistaken for someone needing help and invited indoors for tea! Death always follows within three days.
Other versions have had long red hair or silver white hair as in the Superman comics (left) and is always combing its long hair while emitting her deadly scream. Sometimes she is seen as a washing woman weeping as she washes the blood stained clothes of those about to doe and on the battle fields of other cultures has been seen crying as she cleans the armor of the fallen. I personally know relatives that have heard it and I have never seen someone so scared after the experience. Some put it down to cats or foxes but anyone that has heard it will say there is no mistaking the wail of the banshee.
There has been reports of a banshee appearing in human form. In 1437 King James 1 of Scotland was approached in his own court by a woman claiming he would die at the instigation of the Earl of Atholl. Although these could be down to prophets of doom and seers. In some parts of Ireland she is known as the keening woman. Keening is the name given to her scream which can apparently shatter glass. In Kerry it is reported as a low pleasant singing and on Rathlin Island, it is said to be a cross between the screech of an owl and wail of a woman. In certain stories she can appear in animal form but this is more connected with the practice of dark magic and witchcraft.
As I said earlier, the classic banshee combing its long flowing hair and shimmering long robes, screaming as it hovers in the air, is the one people automatically associate with the legend. Hence the old saying that you should never lift a comb in the street as it may have been left behind by a banshee as a trap to steal you away to the spirit world. Although this is more an old wives’ tale to prevent the spread of head lice and of basic hygiene. She doesn’t take life, she weeps beneath their windows or around the house, merely warning families that a loved one will soon be departing this life. This is the version Darby O’gill used, however, she has a hood covering her face where only shadow lay which made her even more frightening. What under that hood could make such a terrifying scream?
In real Irish tradition it was customary to have a keener when a person passed away; that is a woman who would sing a lament for the family and would be very much in demand. In America, South Dakota, the banshee is said to sit upon a hill near Watch Dog Butte where it would wail and cry but unlike her Irish cousin , she is not associated with a particular death. In Wales she is the Hag of the Mist and in Scotland she is the ban nigheachain or Washer at the Ford, who, if you can sneak up on and make a claim to be her foster child, will gain you a wish she has to grant but no matter what they call her, she will always be Irish, immortalized by an old man who told tall tales and sacrificed himself to save his daughter and for everyone in the cinema that day she was real and had truly come to life…