The Banshee – Celtic Messengers of Death

Few places in the world can match Ireland for folklore and tales of paranormal events and/or supernatural creatures. Irish history is full of legends of leprechauns and fearsome warrior kings. It may be unfair for the Irish to become more well-known these days for shamrocks, lucky clovers or brewing Guinness. While there are similar legends from the Scottish Queen of Winter, Beira, to the Welsh Dreigiau (Dragons) and the Norse Fylgja, there can be few that match the appeal of the revered Celtic Messengers of Death – better known as The Banshee.


The Bunworth Banshee.

Occasionally referred to as Bean Sidhe, the Irish Banshee is a fairy-like creature that often manifests itself in the body of a female with either flowing long hair red as fires and pale skin or as a more senior woman with gray hair, rotting teeth, and fiery eyes. One common denominator between all descriptions is a comb wedged into the hair. Many Irish still consider it bad luck or an ill omen to find a discarded comb on the ground. The scream of the Banshee, known locally as caoine or keening, was firmly believed to be a harbinger of impending death – particularly among the five most prominent families within Ireland: the O’Neills, O’Briens, O’Conors, Kavanaghs, or the O’Gradys. Over several generations, many of these families blended and it was eventually believed that the Banshee ‘evolved’ to become a part of the majority of Irish families. Tactics such as emigrating did little to offset the spirit, as it would often travel the world to be with them.

While it isn’t known for certain, there is evidence that the origin of the Banshee can be placed in the early 8th century. An Irish tradition of the time saw women lament the passing of a warrior or soldier with a mournful song. These women were reputedly given or offered alcohol as a method of payment. At this time the Irish Church considered this bartering system as contradictory in the eyes of God and that these women were punished for their activities by forever becoming Banshees. Another popular idea for the origins of the superstitious cry is a notion that the humble barn owl was responsible. Ireland wasn’t always the welcoming place that it is known for today. In ancient times, barn owls would often notice an invading force and alarm a defending army with a piercing screech and take flight.

Sightings of a Banshee have been reported infrequently. Part of the legend of the Banshee does claim that if one is seen, or thinks it has been seen, then it will vanish inside a cloud of smoke or mist and the only evidence that it was ever there is the flapping of wings. As scary as the cry of the Banshee is said to be, the Irish do not strictly believe that a Banshee is ever actually responsible for a death that could follow shortly afterward. There are reports from the Middle Ages that a Banshee would actually serve to protect individuals that were pure or noble if death were to claim them.

One of the best-known cases of a Banshee appearance actually occurred to a non-Irish individual. On 21 February 1437 King James I of Scotland was approached by an Irish seer who predicted the monarch’s assassination. Not long after this approach, the King found himself trapped inside a sewer tunnel where he was fatally injured. The seer was strongly rumored to have been a Banshee. It isn’t just people or dignitaries that hear the wail of a Banshee. Eerie wailing has been reported focusing on trees, fauna, rivers and standing stones. The so-called Banshee’s Chairs are wedge-shaped rocks that can be found in numerous places in and around Waterford, Carlow, and Monaghan.

Reports of Banshee sightings are still being made to this day. One reported sighting occurred in the early hours June 2014. What began as an apparent cat call in the middle of one night quickly developed into an apparent terrifying sighting of a Banshee. The sound metamorphosed into a shrill scream that seemed to be coming closer and closer. The witness involved investigated from within the relative safety of indoors and reported a woman standing out in the open, head back, screaming loudly enough to cause irritation to the ears of the witness. After several more minutes, a single police patrol car arrived on the scene but whatever was seen outside had disappeared. The attending police officers actually suggested the possibility of a Banshee sighting. On the same night, a death in the family of the sole witness was recorded.

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Les Hewitt

Les currently resides in London and is a freelance writer with a long standing passion for the unexplained and paranormal. In his spare time he enjoys astronomy and Xboxing. It's a big Universe full of wonders.

Historic Mysteries