©1996 - 2004, by Fiona Broome
When someone mentions a ghost, most of us think of cemeteries,
haunted houses, and human-sized transparent figures draped in
sheets. Likewise, the word "faerie" is linked with cute little
figures with wings, and merry mischief.
However, mention a Banshee, and people squirm. The Banshee, like a
ghost, can represent death to many people, but that is not her
actual role in folklore, or in our lives.
She can appear transparent, and is the size of a living person.
Nevertheless, like her fae counterparts, she is associated with a
more magickal Otherworld. Perhaps she is the link which shows us
that the Otherworld is a vast place, inhabited by many kinds of
beings, including faeries and ghosts.
The Banshee, in Irish the Bean Sidhe (pronounced "bann-SHEE"),
means "spirit woman." She is usually described as a single being,
although there are many of them. According to legend, one Banshee
guards each Milesian Irish family; these are the families whose
names start with O' or Mac, though those prefixes have been dropped,
particularly by American families.
Nevertheless, there is a Banshee for each branch of these families,
and the family Banshee can follow the descendants to America,
Australia, or wherever the Irish family travels or emigrates.
The Banshee protects the family as best she can, perhaps as a
forerunner of the "Guardian Angel" in Christian traditions. However,
the time we are most aware of her is before a tragedy that she
Traditionally, the Banshee appears shortly before a death in "her"
family. The Banshee is almost always female, and appears filmy in a
white, hooded gown. The exception is in Donegal, Ireland, where she
may wear a green robe, or in County Mayo where she usually wears
However, if she is washing a shroud when you see her, she may merely
signal a major life-changing event in your future. The way to
determine this is to go home and burn a beeswax candle after seeing
her; if it burns in the shape of a shroud, her appearance foretells
The night before the death, the Banshee will wail piteously in
frustration and rage. Her family will always hear her, but many
others in the area will, too. For example, Sir Walter Scott referred
to "the fatal banshi's boding scream."
One of the largest reports of this wailing was in 1938, when the
Giants' Grave in County Limerick, Ireland, was excavated and the
bones were moved to a nearby castle. Those who heard the crying
throughout central Ireland, said that it sounded as if every Banshee
in Ireland was keening.
That wailing of many Banshees is unusual but not unique. There have
been other reports of several Banshees manifesting together. When a
group of Banshees are seen, it usually forecasts the dramatic
illness--and perhaps death--of a major religious or political
In Irish mythological history, the Banshee tradition may link to the
fierce Morrighan as the "Washer at the Ford," a legend of Cuchulain.
In this story, the Morrighan appeared as a young woman who prepared
for an upcoming battle by washing the clothing--or perhaps the
shrouds--of those who would fight and lose.
Despite her grim reputation, seeing or hearing a Banshee is not what
actually causes the death. In fact, the Banshee is traditionally a
very kind woman, as poet and historian W. B. Yeats commented, "You
will with the banshee chat, and will find her good at heart."
Perhaps her appearance and wailing before a death are efforts to
protect her family from a death or other tragedy that she foresees.
This is where we see the clearest link to what are popularly
called "ghosts." In many stories, the spirit appears to warn the
living about danger, illness, or death. Gothic novels often feature
a ghost whose appearance forecasts the death of a family member.
Likewise, in the Sherlock Holmes story, the Hound of the
Baskervilles howled before a family death.
In real life, my maternal grandmother and her siblings were
individually visited by the spectre of their mother, to warn them of
her imminent death in a hospital many miles away, and to say good-
This level of concern for the living is consistent with many ghosts,
as well as the Banshee.
Whether the Banshee is more correctly a "ghost" or a "faerie" is an
discussion that may never be resolved. However, we can see the
Banshee as the clearest evidence that the line between ghosts,
spirits, and faeries is vague at best.
For more information about the Banshee, one of the best studies
is "The Banshee: Irish Death Messenger," by Patricia Lysaght
(paperback,© 1986, Roberts Rhinehart Publishers, Colorado).
Cry of Banshee
have heard many people say that they have seen the other world or
seen loved ones from the other world, but have they heard the
The word Banshee comes from the Irish word "Bean-sidhe" ban
(bean), a woman, and shee (sidhe, a faery), (pronounced Bann
shee) . From the mythical race of the Tuatha de Dannan, or fairy
folk. But other sources say that 'Bean Sidhe' is translated
as "woman of the hills." . the Banshee is seen in many forms, from
a crow to an old hag. Truthfully, from all accounts, she is seen as
a woman. She is often described as a beautiful young woman with
streaming auburn hair, wearing a green woollen dress with gray
cloak clasped about her shoulders. She has also been seen wearing
either a grey, hooded cloak or the winding sheet or grave robe of
the unshriven dead.
A Banshee may also appear as a washer-woman, and is often seen at
rivers and waterfalls. On the battlefield she can be seen washing
the clothes of a solider who will soon be lost in battle. In this
guise she is known as the bean-nighe (washing woman).
Though she is not always seen, her mourning call is heard, usually
at night when someone is about to die. The only hint that this
beautiful Banshee is a messenger of doom comes from the fact that
her eyes are blood red from crying for her dead.
In all respects the Banshee is seen as a bearer of bad fortune or
death, but in actuality she is foretelling the inevitable and
paying her respects to the soon to be departed.
Many have seen her as she goes wailing and clapping her hands. The
keen (caoine), the funeral cry of the peasants, is said to be an
imitation of her cry. When a multiple Banshees wail together, it is
for the death of someone very great. When a member of the beloved
family is dying, she paces the dark hills about his house. Her
sharp, cries and wails piercing the night air.
Tradition and myth surrounds the function of the Banshee including
the families for which she is bound. Some have said that she owes
allegiance to the five major irish families — the O'Briens,
O'Neills, O'Connors, O'Gradys and the Kavanaghs. Along those lines
is the tradition of allegiance to all families starting with Mac,
or O. Each banshee has her own mortal family, she follows, And she
has been heard in America, England and other places where the Irish
have settled. In shadows and unseen the Banshee attends the funeral
of those families whom she is connected with, her voice blending in
with the cries of the other mourners.
A common myth is that if you catch her, she is obliged to tell the
name of the doomed — but would you really want to know?
Many stories have been told about the Banshee from localised fairy
tales to goulish hauntings. An omen that sometimes accompanies the
banshee is the coach-a-bower (coiste-bodhar) an immense black
coach, mounted by a coffin, and drawn by headless horses driven by
a Dullahan. It will go rumbling up to your door, and if you open the
doors a pail of blood will be thrown in your face.
In 1437, King James I of Scotland was approached by an Irish seeress
or banshee who foretold his murder at the instigation of the Earl
of Atholl. This is another example of a banshee but in human form.
There are records of several human banshees or prophetesses who took
part and were members of some of the great houses of Ireland and
the courts of local Irish kings.
In parts of Leinster, she is referred to as the bean chaointe
(keening woman) whose wail can shatters glass.
In Kerry, the keen is a soft enjoyable singing.
In Tyrone the sound is like two boards struck together.
And on Rathlin Island it is a screeching sound like a wail of a
Whether you believe in the Banshee, or the tradition which lies
behind it. I just wish you all a peaceful sleep, and the crying in
the night is just the wind knocking at your window pane, I
*Article courtesy of George Treanor, The Irish Heritage Group
===> Thx to Audriel