The Irish banshee: the history of this infamous 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.

A brief history – 1000 years of folklore

Banshees are significant in Irish folklore.
Credit: Flickr / SolanoSnapper

The Irish banshee has been documented since the Middle Ages – that is 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.

Credit: David Gearing / geograph.ie

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.

The appearance of an Irish banshee – what they look like

They are often depicted as old women.
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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.”

A history of Banshee visits – a terrifying tale

The Irish banshee would visit in the night.
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Originally, many believed that the Irish banshee only visited those coming from noble, “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 to your house, with an anguished scream to let you know that a relative will soon die.

The Irish banshee is a terrifying spirit.
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 common at funerals.
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Many aspects of death culture have remained as present in Ireland to this day, such as the wake. But keening is much more unusual in modern times.

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

Darby O'Gill and the Little People is a famous movie about Ireland.
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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.

The Irish banshee has made an appearance throughout pop culture.
Credit: Instagram / @delilah.arts

The Irish banshee appears many times across 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.

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

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