THE BANSHEE: history and meaning of the Irish ghost

Did you know that the banshee is Ireland’s most significant spirit? Read on to learn about the infamous, unsettling, and formidable Irish banshee.

Halloween originated in Ireland over a thousand years ago in the form of the Celtic festival of Samhain. So, it makes sense that Ireland has its very own ghost.

The Irish banshee is a supernatural being in Irish folklore who is said to foretell death with a mournful wail. The banshee, a female spirit, appears in lament to announce the forthcoming death of a family member.

Ireland Before You Die’s favourite figures from Irish folklore and mythology

  • Fairies are another mystical creature rooted in Celtic folklore, known for their alluring charm that often brings humans misfortune. There are many places in Ireland where people have claimed to spot fairies.
  • The Pooka is a figure from Irish folklore believed to be a shape-shifter who often plays pranks on humans.
  • In Irish mythology, the Leprechaun is a small, mischievous fairy often depicted as a shoemaker and known for his pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
  • The Children of Lir is a tragic tale from Irish mythology about a king’s children who get turned into swans by their jealous stepmother and forced to roam the land for 900 years.
  • Finn MacCool, also known as Fionn mac Cumhaill, is a legendary warrior and leader of the Fianna in Irish mythology. He is known for his strength and bravery and is often associated with the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
  • Dagda’s Harp is a magical harp from Irish mythology that was said to have the power to control the seasons and emotions of those who heard it.
  • The Fear Gorta is a ghostly figure from Irish mythology who is said to appear as a starving man begging for food. Those who offer him food are said to be blessed with good fortune. You can read all about this terrifying creature here.

A brief history – 1000 years of folklore

Irish banshees are famous figures in Irish folklore.

The Irish banshee has been documented since the Middle Ages, over 1000 years ago. Banshee translates to Bean Sidhe in Irish, meaning fairy woman.

Irish banshees are connected to the mythologically significant tumuli, a type of burial ground that rises up from the earth into a mound. These mounds have dotted the Irish countryside for hundreds of years.

Descriptions of banshees vary. However, a common theme shows them having long, flowing hair and dressed in black or grey.

They are always noted as taking a form resembling a woman. Lady Fanshawe, a 16th-century writer, claimed to have had a firsthand encounter. Her account describes the banshee as having red hair and a “ghastly” complexion.

READ ALSO: IB4UD’s Irish mythological Creatures: An A-Z guide

The appearance of an Irish banshee – what they look like

Banshees are described in many different forms.
Credit: Flickr / SolanoSnapper

Lady Wilde, writing in the 19th-century in Ancient Legends of Ireland, states, “The size of the banshee is another physical feature that differs between regional accounts.

“Though some accounts of her standing unnaturally tall are recorded, the majority of tales that describe her height state the banshee’s stature as short, anywhere between one foot and four feet.

“Her exceptional shortness often goes alongside the description of her as an old woman, though it may also be intended to emphasize her state as a fairy creature.”

In Irish folklore, the appearance of the banshee has been widely speculated across the years. Some reports have seen a woman with grey hair, white hair, black hair, or even red hair.

She has been reported as being old and ugly, as well as young and beautiful. One thing that is consistent is that the banshee always takes on the form of a woman.

READ ALSO: Celtic Gods and Goddesses: top 10 explained

A history of banshee visits – a terrifying tale

Irish banshees are famous figures in Irish folklore and are often omens of death.

Originally, many believed that the Irish banshee only visited those coming from a noble, powerful family, or “pure” Irish families.

Traditionally there were only five major Irish families: the O’Neills, the O’Briens, the O’Connors, the O’Gradys, and the Kavanaghs. However, it is believed that intermarriage has long since extended this selective list.

According to folklore, a banshee arrives at night at your house with an anguished scream to let you know that a relative will soon die.

A visit from a banshee is not a good sign, but is often considered a 'fairy privilege'.
Credit: Instagram / @thescentedstoryteller

Although a visit from an Irish banshee may not seem the most welcome of encounters, the appearance of the Irish banshee was seen as a ‘fairy privilege’.

There is a wider Celtic tradition, too. People have documented similar spirits in Wales (the gwrach y Rhibyn or witch of Rhibyn) and Scotland, in the highlands in particular.

Accounts of banshees have also been found in Norman literature! Yet, it is the Irish banshee that has become the most famous.

Keening – a vocal lament for the dead

Keening was something Irish banshees would do to lament the dead.

Many aspects of death culture have remained present in Ireland to this day, such as the wake. However, keening is much more unusual in modern times.

Keening is a form of vocal lament for the dead. Reports of keening at Irish funerals appear in written form from the 16th-century in both Ireland and Scotland. “Keen” comes from Celtic Gaelic ‘caoineadh’, meaning to cry or to weep.

Keening would take place over the body during the funeral procession. It was always women who carried out this role. Keeners often received payment for this service.

It is probable that this practice has its roots in the Irish banshee. If several banshees appear together, this indicates the death of someone great or holy.

The Irish banshee in popular culture – the legacy lives on

Banshees made their way to American pop culture in 1959.

Nowadays, belief in the Irish banshee is not common. But the Irish banshee continues to capture the imagination globally.

There is an especially strong influence in North America. The Irish banshee first appeared in pop culture in the United States in the 1959 Disney movie Darby O’Gill and the Little People.

Other appearances in TV and film include The Real Ghostbusters, Spongebob Squarepants, and Star Wars.

READ MORE: From Banshees to Dullahan: 5 DARK creatures of IRISH mythology

The Irish banshee also appears in other shows and video games.

The Irish banshee appears many times in video games and comics. Examples include ‘Halo’ and ‘The X-Men’. Siouxsie and the Banshees were also an influential British rock band.

Finally, Ireland’s entry in the Junior Eurovision Song Contest 2019 was ‘Banshee’ by Anna Kearney.

For more, see this thorough and detailed article on What is a Banshee? The meaning of Ireland’s terrifying spirit.

Do you believe in the Irish banshee? Have you ever seen one or any other ghost in Ireland? Let us know in the comments!

Other notable mentions

They date as far back as the supernatural race of tuatha de danann.

Brian Boru: There was one reported sighting of a banshee at the crowning of the legendary old Irish King, Brian Boru.

Tuatha Dé Danann: The screaming banshee dates back to the days of the Tuatha Dé Danann, a supernatural race in Irish mythology.

READ ALSO: The 10 most famous myths and legends from Irish folklore

Your questions answered about the Banshee

If you still have questions about the Banshee, we have you covered! In this section, we’ve compiled some of our readers’ most frequently asked questions about this topic.

An Irish banshee will screech near your house as an omen of death.
Credit: Instagram / @delilah.arts

What is a banshee?

The banshee is a female spirit. She will make a loud screech near your house, as an omen of death.

What does a banshee look like?

She can appear in a number of forms. Some reports say she has grey hair, others say she has silver hair.

These include a beautiful woman, an ugly, scary old hag, and a stately matron. Many reports say the banshee is an old woman with long white hair and a green dress.

Where did the banshee come from?

The roots of the Irish banshee come from Celtic mythology. Celtic mythology has always feared an array of evil forces, monsters, and demons. This also includes the Irish headless horseman.

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