Sinéad Brennan goes in search of banshee folklore in her native county of Mayo. Exploring various accounts, she looks at the evolution of the legends that have shaped popular beliefs for generations and left a lasting imprint in the oral tradition.
For centuries, the word “banshee” was an everyday utterance in the Irish vernacular, often invoked for spine-tingling stories at Halloween time. Last year, Martin McDonagh’s darkly comedic tale of friendship and loss, The Banshees of Inisherin, introduced international audiences to the word, and the concept of, the banshee. The visually stunning melodrama, filmed on location in Achill and Inis Mór, has ensured that the uniquely Irish banshee will be forever enshrined in the annals of movie history.
Taken from the Gaelic “bean sídhe” or “bean sí”, the term “banshee” translates as “fairy woman”. A malevolent being from the otherworld, the banshee is said to be a foreteller of death – those who hear her mournful cries will soon suffer the loss of a family member. Stories of the banshee have long been rooted in Irish folklore and mythology, and no more so than in Co. Mayo.
The banshee in Mayo
Published in 1888, David R. McAnally’s Irish Wonders recounts an old legend of a “noble family, whose name is still familiar in Mayo”. According to the tale, the head of the clan, in his youth, deceived and murdered a young woman. With her dying breath, the woman cursed her aggressor and promised to “attend him” and all his descendants forever more.
Many years passed, and the chieftain’s youthful crime was all but forgotten. But one night, he and his family were seated by the fire when, suddenly, the most horrible shrieks were heard outside the castle walls.
“All ran out, but saw nothing. During the night the screams continued … the unhappy man recognized, in the cry of the Banshee, the voice of the young girl he had murdered. The next night he was assassinated by one of his followers, when again the wild, unearthly screams of the spirit were heard …”
From that day forward, the vengeful spirit never failed to notify this noble family of an impending death, with her shrieking cries.
This story aligns neatly with the late medieval notion that banshees were solely associated with powerful families of Gaelic descent bearing the “Mac” or “Ó” prefix in their surnames. As time passed, she became more rooted in the oral tradition and could be heard by anyone, regardless of their station in society – though she remained most commonly linked with those who bore Mac / Ó surnames.
A story from south Mayo was recalled by C.S. Boswell in The Fairy Mythology of Ireland, published in 1890. About a generation or so previous, a doctor was sitting at the bedside of a sick man one night. Satisfied that his patient was in no grave danger, the doctor retired to another room to rest. It was not long before a young servant girl rushed in, crying, “Och, the poor masther – the poor masther!” “Hold your tongue”, the irritated doctor replied, “the master’s better, and will be doing well enough if you don’t wake him with your keening”.
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“Och, doctor dear, don’t ye hear the Banshee?” exclaimed the girl, who was evidently scared out of her senses. “Banshee, indeed!” snapped the medic. Undeterred, the girl dragged the doctor to the master’s room, where, sure enough, he was met with “a faint, mournful sound borne upon the wind”.
The doctor flew to the window and peered out into the night, as if expecting to find some logical explanation, when “from out of the midst of the moonlight could be heard a wild, plaintive note, rising and sinking, and rising again”. Startled out of his scepticism, the doctor rushed to the bedside of his patient, who he found to be in the last breath of life.
It is said that in some parts of Mayo, the banshee was called “an bhean chaointe” (meaning “the keening woman”). Her role was not to forewarn death but rather to lament the passing of souls. She could often be seen sitting on a rock at sea, dressed in a grey cloak, combing her long hair.
In 1851, the Connaught Telegraph reported on the “extermination” of Cloggernagh – a small village between Castlebar and Westport – which had been all but ravaged in the Great Famine. Bemoaning the destruction of the once beautifully scenic and prosperous village, the Telegraph commented:
“Well indeed may the Banshee weal over the ruins of Ireland – and more particularly those of Mayo – whose glory is forever fled!”
The Schools’ Collection
The National Folklore Commission’s “Schools’ Collection” is an invaluable treasure trove of Ireland’s rich oral tradition. Founded in 1935, the commission was tasked with preserving stories, songs, poems, remedies, piseógs and placenames for future generations. Each national school in the 26 counties was invited to contribute to the ambitious project. Schoolchildren were asked to transcribe information from older neighbours and relatives. The result is a unique collection, which offers the modern reader a window into the past.
It will come as no surprise that various tales of the banshee feature heavily in the contributions from Mayo schools.
Annie Browne, a student of Loch Measca school in Caherrobert, in the barony of Kilmaine, collected a detailed description of the banshee from her relative, 68-year-old Kate Browne. It referred to her custom of rapping on the doors of homes she visited:
“She usually has a light in her hand, and is seen coming on the road from the dead person’s house, and always crying. She is dressed in white and comes to the house where the person is dead. She makes a great noise and sometimes knocks at the door making a great rattle.
When she is heard the people put their backs to the doors till the noise is gone away… If there is a “Bean Sidhe” seen, it is said that the person is going to Purgatory.”
Seventy-five-year-old Margaret Gardiner of Newtownwhite – a townland between Ballina and Killala – told a young William Jackson of her relative’s direct encounter with the banshee:
“… my great-grandfather caught the sheet [cloak] from off the banshee. Each night she came outside the door crying for the sheet. One night the man of the house stood inside the door and asked in the Irish tongue “Cé tá ag buaidhreadh ort?” [Who is troubling you?] She said she wanted the sheet that she could not do without it. He put the sheet out the window with the fork and she left the track of her fingers in the prongs of the fork. Then he told her to go out to the rock in the midst of the sea and she replied why don’t you send me to a churchyard where I will have shelter.”
Schoolboy Thomas Gaughan learned of the shape-shifting abilities of the banshee from 80-year-old Bridget O’Hara of Killgellia in Attymass:
“There is a bird called the Bean Sídhe that cries when a person dies. He comes to the house in the night and cries around it… If you want to hunt him away from the house you should make the sign of the cross three times.”
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James Burke, aged 65, of Ballyholla, The Neale, told a banshee tale with an unexpected twist to a pupil of Loch Measca school, Joan Daly:
“This bean-sidhe would steal everything she could find from the people of the village [of Cross]. Every night she used to go to the graveyard wailing. The people of the village were very much afraid of her [and] … would be indoors before twelve o’clock at night. One of the men of the village said he would go to the graveyard and see was it the bean-sidhe, who was stealing the things from the people. When he went to the graveyard who was the bean-sidhe but one of the women of the village. She was making them afraid by her crying, and was stealing all the things from the people.”
Tales of the banshee have somewhat diminished in recent times. The mere utterance of her name does not appear to strike fear among younger generations, as it once did. But, there are many who firmly believe she has never gone away.
Who knows, perhaps she will make herself known again this Halloween!
Sinéad Brennan is an educator, researcher and writer from Ballina, Co. Mayo. A graduate of Maynooth University and Trinity College Dublin, her work focuses primarily on the history and heritage of her hometown and county, as well as the experiences of ordinary people in key moments of Irish history.
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