Happy St. Patrick’s Day: The Banshee

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.

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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.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, friends!

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