My Aunt MaryMon tells the story: my Great-Great-Aunt Mary is standing, screaming, on land soft and spongy with the remains of the deceased—plants, that is. Decaying plants that compose Ireland’s most beloved type of wetland: the bog. She is screaming under attack by small, pesky insects known as midges.
“Screaming like a banshee,” MaryMon describes it, and I can almost hear it. A sound like currents of shivers down spines. Cracking silence to shards of sound that slither down eardrums near and far.
That’s what the banshee, the wailing woman of Irish folktale, is known for: the sound of her cry. Harrowing as it emerges from the darkness of night. Harrowing as it predicts death. Laughable as the sound shrieks out of Mary under pursuit by little bugs.
The more I learned about the banshee, the more I realized she was like the bog that Mary stood on. Bogs are fields of the dead and slowly decomposing, but, when harvested for peat, they have warmed centuries of Irish homes. The banshee is a death omen, but, when her stories are told, she casts light on centuries of Irish community—or, in my case, family.
I am a proud descendant of the O’Connors, a surname, according to folklore, Irish enough to claim a personal banshee—a family so Irish, our family stories about the banshee number approximately… one.
“In our time, when we lived in Currow, there was a banshee cry heard where our Auntie May used to live around Scart Cross, Killarney,” my Uncle John Joe tells me. An October 1957 edition of the Kerryman newspaper describes such an incident, with listeners attributing an “unearthly wail” alternately to foxes, owls, dogs, and, of course, the banshee. John Joe continues, “But that’s the only experience I have of it, and I didn’t hear it.”
While my family has suffered our share of losses, the O’Connor banshee has remained silent as of late. She is a creature that operates in the dark of night, but the night is becoming much less dark.
“Our people used to hear a lot of things at night, but there was no traffic and there was no lights,” says my Uncle Peter.
Nonetheless, even in the age of streetlamps, pixelated screens, and kitchen lights on late into the night, both of my uncles knew of the banshee.
“There’s stories about fairies and the banshees alright,” says Peter before acknowledging the “cynic” in him with a description of the jack snipe bird that has mastered the art of a sound eerily similar to the “waily howly” noise of the banshee. “I think that’s what an awful lot of drunken donkeys coming home from the pub heard, and they thought they heard the banshee.”
While they may be only stories to Peter, he knows others think differently. “Them stories are alive, and there are still people around that believe in them, and they would not take the chance to go doing any of those things that would upset them in any way.” These are the stories that terrified children in the old rambling houses of Ireland.
“[You’re] having a cup of tea, and everybody has entertainment with stories,” my Grandma Joanie describes. “We didn’t have TV yet.” The only box of entertainment her family had was the four walls of their neighbors’ house, a so-called “rambling house,” where the community would gather to ramble on in story or song—commercial free. “We didn’t have all of life’s luxuries, but that was a luxury, being able to go out and visit neighbors.”
“It’s amazing all the old stories, isn’t it?” MaryMon reflects. “Just when you start talking about them now, it brings them all back”—including ones about a wailing woman, told as the sky was deepening into a darkness undisturbed by television lights.
“The banshee,” she says. “Oh, God, yeah, we’d be scared.”
The Cry and the Comb
It is night, an Irish countryside night. Light cast down from the moon and stars is muddied to dark shadows as it rolls across the hills. Clouds preparing for another rainy day bleed across the sky. Foxes and birds chitter sounds that rattle around the darkness. Foxes and birds and…
Here, the written word fails. Here, the story is meant to be heard in a rambling house, knuckles whitening around a cup of tea, as the storyteller projects the full force of their vocal cords into an impression of her wail—the banshee’s wail.
Eddie Lenihan is working to preserve those stories once heard in rambling houses around Ireland. As an Irish storyteller, he has spent decades collecting and sharing folktales such as those of the banshee. If one thing is certain, it is that no story is told exactly like another.
“Some people would say it’s a lonesome, lonesome frightening cry,” Lenihan shares. Other times, however, it is heard as “a sweet cry, an undulating up-and-down-and-up-and-down cry.” From his home in County Clare, he told me the story of a banshee that was seen in the region, giving an impression of her wail that was an amalgamation of that sweetness and loneliness. No matter how the sound varies from story to story, “all of them make the point that it is not a wild animal,” Lenihan says.
The wailing death omen glides through the darkness, often culminating at the gates of the soon-to-be-deceased’s home. In the morning, the news every listener suspected is shared: there has been a death in the community.
Foreboding as her cry may be, her most terrifying feature it is not. Her wail serves as a warning of the inevitable, but her wrath is what many a fireside tale warns against.
One similar encounter of the banshee has been told of across Ireland, and it all revolves around a comb.
“Children here would be told never to pick up an old comb if they see it because it could be the banshee’s comb,” Dr. Kelly Fitzgerald explains. She is the head of Irish, Celtic Studies and Folklore at University College Dublin and an expert in Irish folklore and oral history. “Her most prized possession is her comb.”
The banshee will sit atop garden walls, running this prized possession through her long hair under the moonlight. However, should her comb be snatched from her, she erupts into a shrieking pursuit.
Variations of this story bear a similar end: a thief, gasping for the breath lost in his flight, quivers inside his house, only the walls standing between him and the banshee. The banshee continues her wailing, shrieking—unbearable screeching—rattling windows, doors, the very bones of both house and thief, until, recovering his senses, he slides the comb under the door on a spade. The banshee quiets and leaves, taking the comb and half the spade with her.
The cry and the comb—these are the tales most commonly told about the banshee. However, whether a death notification or an enthusiastic head-lice combatant, no clear origin story explains her actions. Her wail is imbued into the Irish night as if it has been there as long as the Irish people themselves. Perhaps it is because the banshee belongs to na daoine-maithe, “the good people” in Irish, some of the oldest residents of Ireland more universally known as fairies.
The Fairy Woman
The banshee is an anglicization of the Irish an bhean sí, her most common title across Ireland. Lenihan translates this to “the fairy woman,” but don’t think of wings and pixie dust.
A man Lenihan knew for thirty years once shared that he had seen the fairies. Lenihan was anxious to know what they looked like. The man hesitated. “I can still remember it very, very clearly,” Lenihan says. “He turned to me, and he said, ‘The person sitting beside you could be one of them, and you wouldn’t know it.’”
For the banshee, story to story, her appearance changes: she is an elderly woman, white hair and creased forehead; she is a youth with hair of silken silver strands. She clothes herself in white; she wears red down to the shoes on her feet. She is a tall woman; she is no larger than a child’s doll. After centuries of haunting Irish folktales, she has morphed into many forms, but she retains the dichotomy of her name: fairy and woman.
The banshee is often described as a “liminal” creature, roaming the bounds between woman and fairy, this world and the other. An bhean sí, at other times, can be translated to “the woman of the fairy mound [sídhe]” or “the woman of the Otherworld,” but these two worlds the banshee straddles may not be so very different.
When Lenihan visits schools, children ask for stories that are “horrible, bloody, gruesome, monsters.” “Irish folklore is full of things like that,” he says. “Why? Because folklore is people. And people are people from one extreme to the other, from the good to the bad. And the fairies are just like us, between good and bad.”
The banshee is a peaceful warner and mourner of death, and a terrifying woman should she be wronged—good and bad. Her wail is both an unearthly prophecy and in service of a human community—fairy and woman.
Whether heard sitting in the kitchen of a rambling house or perhaps at the local pub, but always with a cup of tea or glass of alcohol in hand, banshee stories are deeply personal to a community—a community conjured with perfect clarity in the banshee tale Lenihan told me. Lenihan may not have seen the banshee himself, but he saw the man, Seán, a rope tied around his waist in the area where Lenihan was married. He described the intricacies of a card game that fated night and the county’s great penchant for the game. He described where the banshee sat, a hill of bare rock that members of the community journey past to this day.
However liminal the banshee may be, her stories bear close connections to this world. We need only look at the history of a very much human woman—a keener.
The Keening Woman
Notices of death used to be passed through rambling houses. If you were to follow this mournful news from house to house, you might hear the banshee by many names: in the southeast of Ireland, the badhbh or bow in reference to a goddess (or triple goddess) associated with war and death; the bean-nighe or “washing woman” when she appears washing or beetling clothes at streams in warning; and, in parts of Limerick, Kilkenny, and Tipperary, a name with connections to the wake—an bhean chaointe, “the keening woman.”
Keening was a Gaelic Celtic ritual mourning, a wailing done by one or more women, often when the deceased was laid out in the family home during the wake. Raising their voices in an expression of loss, keeners would cry over the body, beating at their chests, tearing at their hair.
It was a common practice in Ireland from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century, but Fitzgerald recounts having friends who heard keening at wakes well into the 1970s.
“It would have been very strong here,” Fitzgerald explains. “There would have been known keeners in various areas and the kind of demonstrative way of expressing grief and crying and lamenting and really being able to express material that they wouldn’t normally be speaking.”
In Ireland, keening, whether at a wake or by a banshee, highlighted community. Both a banshee’s and a wake’s keening is an experience not intended for the dying or dead but for the community. Keening allowed the community to come to terms with the death: advanced warning through a banshee’s keening, communal expression of grief through a wake’s keening.
In the eyes of English colonizers, keening was reduced to a mere “howling.” Their practice of Christianity saw death as between God and the deceased, and Irish keening became a marker of Irish “inferiority.” Then, with Catholic Emancipation in 1829, keening faced scrutiny by Catholic beliefs and customs.
“When we start to see growth in such an overt manner in Ireland for Catholicism again, you see that they’re trying to bring the rituals back into the church,” Fitzgerald explains. “They would have difficulties because, what is the role of keening women? And why do people feel that they need this keening to prepare their loved ones for the next journey in their lifecycle?”
With these objections, keening died out. But the supernatural keener that lingered in nightly storytelling sessions remained not only with those who grew up with the stories but were even adopted by English settlers.
The O’s and the Macs
One of the Husseys in the town of Dingle was dying. As always, the banshee began her crying. On her way to the house of the dying, she passed through John Street, lined with small houses whose families were thrown into a fright when they heard her, mumbling to one another: “Is one of us to die?”
The banshee paused her crying and spoke to them in verse:
“Listen, listen, you hoarding traders,
You are not in danger…
A banshee has never keened your kind.”
She resumed her keening cry, and, in the morning, the news arrived: a Hussey had died.
To understand this tale, it is key to note that the Husseys—an anglicization of Ó hEodhusa—are among those often referred to as “the O’s and the Macs”: the oldest Irish families.
Each name in these old Irish lineages has its own banshee; the O’Connors, my ancestors, have a banshee that serves only our family. Though I have never met the O’Connor banshee, some families are on a first-name basis with theirs. The O’Brien banshee living in County Clare goes by the name Aoibheall.
The banshee establishes her family in Ireland, tying them to the land itself. She has been known to miss the forwarding address for those who are dying in a hospital or another country, instead wailing at the ancestral home of the soon-to-be-deceased.
When the English settled in Ireland, taking land for themselves, they began to tell stories of their very own banshees to justify their property.
“It was a very political thing to have a banshee,” Lenihan says. “It gave you status, so [the English] came to have a banshee as well. Very clever.”
Nonetheless, however much a family claims to have a banshee, it is community members, dispelling the growing darkness by the fireside or tracing worn paths home from the pub, who hear her mournful cries snaking through the night.
“It is hard to understand what interest a poor old Irish banshee could have in them,” said one Irishman of a family with English heritage, the community skeptical of those not deemed Irish enough to claim a banshee.
The banshee says you’re Irish. Or—it used to. Now, many a “banshee” isn’t even Irish at all.
The Bandon Banshee
Lenihan speaks with the urgency of stories that are slipping away. “I prefer to be out now talking to old people and recording them in their own house—the genuine article,” he says. “They’re there, and they won’t be there [forever].”
Inhabiting a time when “the nights were long and dark” was not only the banshee but places like rambling houses.
“Unfortunately, all of the rambling houses are all gone,” Lenihan says. “You see the nights are still long in Ireland, but there’s no darkness now because there’s television.”
A television flickers on at night, and, if it bothers to reflect the banshee that wails outside the window, it often reflects her as a creature of horror movies whose screams kill. “It’s just nonsense,” Lenihan says. “The amount of gobbledygook that is out there to be chosen from is phenomenal.”
In Scooby Doo! Abracadabra-Doo, the gangs sneak onto an island to steal a staff from a yellow-eyed banshee. “Just nonsense,” repeats Lenihan. “The real thing is very often hidden, and when people find out about [it], they say, ‘how different this is from the kind of stuff that is on Facebook and television and all the rest of it.’”
In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Gilderoy Lockhart told of his vanquishing of the Bandon Banshee—what’s sure to be a riveting tale. However, it is later revealed that Lockhart has replaced the name of the real woman who accomplished this with his own. Many stories of a modern banshee are similarly stripped of names—names of the people and places that interacted with the banshee, names of the people and places the original storyteller and listener knew, names that define the banshee not only as folktale but Irish folktale.
Fitzgerald sees the impact of modern conveniences on the oral tradition as well. “Nowadays you have other ways of entertainment, and where do you get these stories? Whether it’s through film, television, [or] fantasy novels.”
Technology, however, beyond casting the light the banshee shirks, can also cast the light that highlights her stories. Fitzgerald works with the resources of UCD’s National Folklore Collection. One of the largest folklore and oral tradition collections in the world, it has been inscribed into the UNESCO Memory of the World Register for its preservation of Ireland’s “oral traditions and cultural heritage.” Here, a wealth of banshee, fairy, and everyday-life stories of people across Ireland are preserved. Lenihan, meanwhile, is sharing the voices of older generations in his many books and on his podcast, Tell Me a Story with Eddie Lenihan.
Fitzgerald sees the potential of technology to keep these stories alive: “Aspects of the supernatural or things that we think of, they’re as strong today as they’ve ever been, but what mediums they’re carried in may be very different.” She sees how traditionally oral stories such as those of the banshee are evolving. “Telling and camaraderie and storytelling is still really important, but what those stories are may change.”
The Blasket Islands
“They’re leaving Blascèid Mór now,
But the island will never leave them.”
The poem “Blasket Flight,” picturing the 1954 abandoning of Ireland’s Blasket Islands when they became unsustainable to live on, is prefaced by this quote from Tommy O’Connor Sr.
A line in the poem reads:
“Malignant Ocean scrubs and tries to wash
The carvings of our history, savage
Wail so wild we cannot hear the banshee.”
Tommy O’Connor Sr. was my great-grandfather. The author of this poem was my Great-Uncle Tommy Frank O’Connor—though we’ve only ever called him Uncle Frank.
His writing adorns my family’s bookshelves. My mother, in her ancestry research, has marked with Post-Its each mention of family, each name and memory whose story she is trying to reconstruct—our family identity.
Uncle Frank passed away in 2016. I didn’t get to ask him about the banshee, but he left behind a piece of the banshee story in this poem from his book Attic Warpipes—the banshee story and my family story.
The “Malignant Ocean”—whether it be currents coursing through wires or the tides of time—may out-wail the banshee, but the stories hold strong whether it be in the podcasts of Irish storytellers, recordings in folklore collections, or, in my case, conversations with family that ask me, “Have you read this poem by your Uncle Frank?”
Delaney Marrs is a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a student at Kenyon College, where she is studying art history and English. She hopes to share some of the wit and wonder of Irish storytelling, and thanks her loving and mischievous family and all those who are working to keep these traditions alive.