Happy St. Patrick’s Day: The Banshee


When I was little, I would watch the film Darby O’Gill and the Little People every St. Patrick’s Day. My favorite scene (of course) was the one with the banshee. A beautiful lass Katie is sick and on her death bed. The banshee is flying and screaming outside her window. Because of Irish folklore, the audience knows this means Katie may die. The banshee calls forth the cóiste-bodhar, a death coach that will carry her to the land of the dead. I don’t want to give away the ending, but her father Darby breaks the curse. Katie survives and they sing a sweet Irish song.

The famous banshee scene from Darby O’Gill

The banshee is a complex death omen and, like most folklore characters, has many variations. Both Scotland and Ireland claim the banshee. In Irish folklore, the banshee can appear as a young woman, an old hag or matron. When I was growing up I was told that if you hear a banshee, someone in your family will die. If you see a banshee, you are going to die. The banshee’s sound is a scream, a song, or three knocks on the door. She may wear all red or green. She might have fiery eyes. She may fly. Some even say she might appear as an animal associated with witches in Irish folklore: a hooded crow, a stoat, a hare, or a weasel. Either way, you don’t want to see or hear her (source).

Irish folklore says that the banshee attaches itself to 5 families (although intermarriage expanded the list): O’Briens, O’Neils, O’Grady’s, O’Connors, and the Kavanaghs.

Another version of the banshee (and my favorite) is most commonly associated to Scottish folkore: the Bean Nighe or the “Washer at the Ford.” Said to be the spirit of a woman that died during childbirth, the Bean Nighe wanders around streams and washes the blood-stained clothes of those about to die. As Wikipedia explains, she is a very interesting creature.

A bean nighe is described in some tales as having one nostril, one big protruding tooth, webbed feet and long-hanging breasts, and to be dressed in green. If one is careful enough when approaching, three questions may be answered by the Bean Nighe, but only after three questions have been answered first. A mortal who is bold enough to sneak up to her while she is washing and suck her breast can claim to be her foster child. The mortal can then gain a wish from her. If a mortal passing by asks politely, she will tell the names of the chosen that are going to die. While generally appearing as a hag, she can also manifest as a beautiful young woman when it suits her, much as does her Irish counterpart the bean sídhe.

While I have Irish blood, I thought I might be safe from any banshee since I live in the United States (unless she can fly long distances). But, she has appeared in American folklore. Today I leave you with a tale of a banshee in America’s South: a banshee that doesn’t want you messing with our nation’s corn.

From The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits (pgs 30-31)

“According to the tale, a banshee haunted the muddy Tar River near Tarboro in Edgecombe County, North Carolina. She arose on misty nights when there was no moon, and flitted from shore to shore crying like a loon, her long yellow hair streaming behind her.

The Tar River mill was run by a large, rough man named David Warner, a Whig who hated the British and aided the revolutionaries by giving them wheat and corn ground at his mill. One hot August noon-day, Warner was warned that British soldiers were coming and was urged to flee, lest he be killed. He stubbornly refused to leave.

Warner was grinding grain when five British soldiers arrived. He pretended not to see them and loudly announced to his assistant, “Try to save every precious ounce of it, my lad, and we’ll deliver it to General Greene. I hate to think of those British hogs eating a single mouthful of gruel made from America’s corn.”

With that, the enraged soldiers seized Warner, beat him and announced they were going to drown him in the river. Warner told them to go ahead and do so, but the banshee would get them in return.

The soldiers hesitated, but one who had evil eyes and a cruel mouth egged them on. He and two others tied Warner’s hands behind his back, tied large stones to his neck and feet, and cast him into the river. As Warner sank beneath the water, a piercing, agonizing woman’s scream arose form somewhere along the river banks. The frightened soldiers fled back to the mill.

That night, the soldiers’ commander and his officers arrived, and they all bedded down. A new moon rose in the sky and a rain crow (cuckoo) called out, presaging rain. Suddenly the air was pierced by the banshee’s cry. The Commander and officers rushed out of their tent and saw a cloud of mist over the river take on the shape of a woman with long, flowing hair and a veil. She disappeared, and her cry could be heard farther downstream.

The three soldiers confessed their crime. The commander sentence them to remain at the mill, grinding, for the rest of their lives. Every day, the men ground grain, and at night they are tormented by the banshee’s cry. One night, she appeared in the doorway of the mill and drew aside her veil. She lured two of the men down the river, where they fell in; they were never seen again. The soldier with evil eyes went insane and began wandering the woods and calling out Warner’s name. He was answered by the banshee. One day, his body was found floating in the river, at the spot where Warner drowned.

On August nights when the moon is new and the rain crow calls for rain, the banshee is still said to rise up out of the mist where Warner drowned, and cry into the night.”

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