The most well known Irish ghost, and perhaps the best known ghost in the world, is the banshee. The spectral woman who wails the cry of the dead is possibly one of the most popular types of ghost ever. While the name and general characteristics are well known, there are many facets to the legend of the banshee, and many different versions of the wailing ghost of the emerald isle.
The name “banshee” comes from the ancient Celtic language and is made of up the words ban (bean) which means woman, and shee (sidhe), which means fairy or spirit. The banshee is known for its ghostly wail, known as a keen (caoine), which in some legends can strike a person deaf, dumb, or even dead on the spot. In almost every tale, the banshee is a death omen, appearing when someone is about to die. She appears either before the person who will die or their close relations. She doesn’t actually usually keen until the death occurs except to the family members as a warning, and it’s not usual for the banshee to cause the death herself. Only in rare cases does the banshee do more than follow the family members and bring her frightening warning.
Banshees are almost always tied to single families, usually through direct bloodlines to the ancient peoples of Ireland, especially the O’Neills, the O’Briens, the O’Connors, the O’Gradys and the Kavanaghs. It’s exceedingly rare for more than a single banshee to ever appear, and if more do appear, it’s usually to signify the death of a great leader or holy person. Unlike other ghosts, the banshee doesn’t have anything binding it to the mortal realm other than the family. It’s assumed that the banshee is the spirit of a young woman who died in childbirth, but the ghost may be many centuries old, especially those who have followed the eldest bloodlines. The banshee associated with the O’Briens is named Eevul, and is actually the ruler of a court of banshees who follow the various sub-bloodlines of the family.
Usually a banshee is described as a young woman, or Bean Si, strikingly beautiful, with long flowing hair. Despite modern depictions, her hair is usually red, not white, and she wears a gray cloak over a dress of vibrant red, green, or white. She will not appear much different than any other traveler on the road, but when she faces the family member in question, she will open her mouth and the high pitched wail will begin. Despite the frightening nature of her cry, the banshee herself does not usually appear very frightening, and will vanish into nothingness after her warning is delivered. She often will carry a silver comb which she uses to comb her long hair.
There is another aspect, a darker aspect, to the banshee known as the Bean Nighe or “little washer by the ford”. This version of the banshee appears as an ugly, snaggle-toothed old woman washing bloodstained clothing in a stream or creek. This banshee is very violent if approached and will wail her funeral song while slaying whomever was foolish enough to disturb her. This version of the banshee exists in both Ireland and Scotland.
Through the ages, the idea of the banshee, and the stories surrounding these female ghosts, has given rise to a number of variations on the above original forms. In many cases the banshee is described as having a skeletal head or white flowing hair. Often she flies through the air, and in many ways it is the banshee that inspired the wailing nature of the modern stereotypical ghost. Her voice can paralyze or kill and her touch is the icy touch of death itself.
The banshee also doesn’t usually travel alone. Often times a phantom black coach will appear with her, pulled by headless horses and crewed by a similarly headless coachman. These dullahans will be described in a future installment, but they are not pleasant ghosts. Anyone who tries to enter the coach unbidden will receive a face full of blood, and will be attacked by the angry coachman. Sometimes the banshee is described as riding in the coach, which always carried a long black coffin atop it.
A banshee can also change forms, becoming a crow, hare, or weasel. In some cases, the banshee has been considered to be a form or avatar of the Celtic goddess the Morrigan.
One famous incident involving a banshee occurred in 1437, when a banshee appeared to King James I of Scotland and warned of his impending murder. The king did not listen, to his own peril.
While traditionally an Irish ghost, the banshee is also well known in Scotland and even further south in Welsh mythology, where her “little washer by the ford” aspect is known as the Gwrach-y-Rhibyn or “hag of the mist”. These ghosts have also migrated to the New World, following the immigrant families as they made their way from Ireland to the United States. There are numerous legends of banshee like apparitions along the Tar River valley in South Carolina, for example, and Appalachian folklore also contains a number of examples of the ancient banshees appearing in the woods and hollows of the mountains.