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Banshee The Irish Death Messenger
The Banshee in Darby O Gill and the little people
The Banshee - Is she still among us in Ireland?
Here in Ireland we have a long tradition of folklore and spiritualism. I have to say that I myself have always had a particular fondness for our very own scary fairy lady, that being Ireland's Banshee. I have always loved hearing stories about her during the Halloween season. It was particularly poignant at this time when the emphasis was being placed on the reawakening of the dead and the night that evil spirits were given free reign to do whatever they liked to the people of this earth.
My own favorite Irish spirit can often still raise the hairs on the back of my neck. Some may be given the impression that our Irish Banshee is really just a a sweet fairy lady but here in Ireland we actually know that this red haired spirit, is the ultimate symbol of impending doom, gloom and eventually death.
Growing up I heard many stories of grown Irish men and women scuttling off across fields and jumping over ditches (our natural greenery such as trees and plants that separate one field from another) if they thought they heard the Irish Banshee's lonesome, mournful keening resounding throughout their farm. Most commonly through Irish folklore the Banshee is depicted as having long red hair, snow-white skin and piercing demonic eyes that would make you want to run to a safer place, like hell itself.
The Banshee as she is now most often known has definite roots in Celtic folklore and appears to have initially evolved from the Celtic Goddess of war i.e. the Morrigan. The Morrigan is a figure from Irish legend who was said to be a Celtic goddess of battle, strife and fertility. It is thought that the three different depictions of the Banshee coincide with this Celtic Goddesses trio of identities i.e. Badhbh, Macha and Mor-R. The Morrigan could transform herself into different animals the most common ones being a crow, a cow, a stoat or a serpent. She was not a lady to be messed with, she loved attacking people just on a whim and she never felt any grief or remorse for any of her wrong doings.
The many guises of the Irish Banshee – Death Messenger
Whereas though the Morrigan was a lady to be massively scared of as she could actually kill you, if the fancy took her. The Irish Banshee in comparison really was all noise and no action. She liked to howl, moan, keen and terrorize the families that she stalked consistently. She would target them and then spend hours letting out horrible screams and noises. Nobody ever really knew if she was actually saying anything of worth though, or whether it was just strange, eerie noises that were coming out of the Irish Banshee.
In the part of Ireland where I live that being County Kerry and throughout most of Munster the most common image of the Banshee appears to be a mature fairy woman who has long flowing red hair, pale skin, ruby red lips and eyes that would easily frighten any demon away. She would often be wearing a red or brown medieval dress. Alternatively Ireland's Banshee was also often described as being an old hag, with long straggling white hair, a sunken face, with eyes that are always red from crying and are the most terrifying ever witnessed. She would terrify the living daylights out of Satan himself it was said.
Is the Irish Banshee really anything to worry about though?
There is also a theory though that while the Irish Banshee prides herself on being an instrument of impending doom, gloom and death is she really such a scary lady really? Some people actually liked it when she appeared to their family. As here in Ireland we are known for our three day, social occasion funerals. It was an eventful time where old friends met and new ones were made, between people who hadn't met before. The Banshee did so in a way often bring people together for a common cause. Among the family's or groups of neighbours who were going to celebrate and try to overcome death itself. So while the Banshee/Keener wailed away in a corner, with no-one listening to her, other funeral attendees got on with the job of talking, celebrating and making plans for the future, as you do in life.
Origins of the Irish Death Messenger
The word Banshee originated from its gaelic version i.e. ‘Bean-sidhe,’ which when translated to English means faerie woman or a more literal translation is woman of the fairy mounds. There has always been much speculation as to why the Banshee only appeared to certain Irish families but the most usual explanation is that the Banshee only cries to warn of the death of a family member who is descended from one of the original ruling families of Ireland i.e. the O’Grady’s, O’Neills, O’Briens, O’Connors and the Kavanaghs. I myself am a descendant of the O'Connor's of Carrigafoyle, here in Kerry and really if I was to have a Banshee following me around I would do my best to make it a positive experience. It is always advisable though to say the Rosary's and hopefully then she might just drift off into the misty night and not return again for a long time. As really to have the attention of a Banshee means that you have some kind of status and that you are of royal descent and you have rebellious blood flowing your veins and are the type of person who likes to fight to free Ireland from tyranny.
Celtic Death traditions – A Keener
It also appears that through history when a Celtic burial took place it was common custom for a woman to be paid by unnamed sources, to come and keen (mourn and cry) at the wake of the recently deceased person. (A wake is an Irish custom where the evening before the funeral and burial of the dead person, people can view the body in its coffin and sympathise with family members). If the person who had died was of noble blood then it was believed that the keener would be a woman from the The Sidhe i.e. the fairy people. This is most possibly the origins of the Banshee. There could have been any number of family or friends or other sources who may have paid the keener to come and make a bit of noise in the corner and make it look good, while everyone else got on with the task at hand.
The Banshee in Wales
In Wales where there is also a strong Celtic ancestry their messenger of death is also described as being a Banshee type woman although she is most commonly seen washing the blood stained clothes of whoever is about to die at a river or lake. In gaelic she is described as being ‘Bean Nighe’ i.e. Washer woman translated. At other times the spiritual grim reaper might be combing her long auburn hair with a silver comb. Whatever guise the Banshee may appear in, she is always a terrifying sight to behold and her mournful incoherent cries sometimes have a menacing overtone. Which I suppose is meant to be a forewarning that there will soon be a death in your family. In Ireland the death will not be yours but rather somebody that you are closely related to. More often than not you may never see the Banshee, but you may only hear her cries resounding through the night. It is reported that these cries are long, deeply lonesome and sound spirit like as opposed to human.As of course the Irish Banshee has long since been established as being not human at all and is instead of the other world where human compassion and common decency are not understood in any shape or form.
It has also been reported that each Banshee has her own mortal family. And it is also suspected but unconfirmed that the Irish Banshee loves her own clan deeply and that she will even follow them abroad if they leave to try and get away from her. So therefore the Banshee’s plaintive mourning has also been heard in other countries, where the descendants of the five original Irish families may now have settled. Basically if you are of a certain heritage or from a certain family group, then there is just no escaping the haunting you will get from the Irish Banshee.
The cry of the Banshee
Apparently if you hear a Banshee keening it is a cry that resembles nothing human. The night before an imminent death in your family the Banshee’s hollow crying is said to sound like the wind in a human form. Still sometimes that's reassuring as really then the Banshee can be metaphorically depicted as being nothing more than a gust of wind that will soon blow over and disintegrate slowly into the night.
This is an ancient Irish poem that talks about seeing the Banshee in the morning. However this is considered to be very rare as usually the Banshee is only seen or heard in the dark of night.
..'Hast thou heard the Banshee at morn,
Passing by the silent lake,
Or walking the fields by the orchard?
Alas! that I do not rather behold
White garlands in the hall of my fathers.'
The Banshee mournful wails
In the midst of the silent, lonely, lonely night,
Plaining, she sings the song of death…
So while the stories of the Irish Banshee are many and diverse and to this day some Irish people maintain that she still exists. Also that they have seen her in a dark field, or outside the window of their house, in the dark of night. That she still terrorizes and relentlessly pursues the descendants of Ireland's royal families, here in Ireland and all over the world. Nobody knows for sure but without a doubt if you can avoid attracting the attentions of this auburn haired, Banshee, or otherworldly demon then you are likely to be much better off for it.
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