The Banshee is a legend or myth from Ireland about a female ghost whose scream sounds like a wild animal. They say that if you hear her wailing, it is a warning that one of your loved ones is about to die. This is probably the most famous Irish ghost story.
The Banshee is a messenger of death. In Irish, she is called the “Bean Sidhe” which means “Woman of the Burial Mounds”. The scream of the Banshee foretells a death in the family. Whenever someone is about to die, she appears, piercing the still of the night with her screams and cries. The wailing of this fiendish ghost sounds like an unearthly demonic howling and it keeps growing ever louder until the unfortunate person passes away.
She usually wears either a hooded cloak or the winding sheet that the dead are wrapped in before burial. Sometimes she takes the form of a hideous old woman and at other times she appears as a beautiful young woman, just to trick you. She may also appear as a washer-woman, washing blood-stained clothes in the river. On a few occasions, she has been seen washing severed heads and dismembered limbs before an impending disaster. In this guise, she is known as the Bean Nighe (The Washing Woman).
I once heard tell of three teenage girls who went to a party one night. Their father had gone off to Dublin on business and left them to take care of themselves. As the sisters were walking home that night, along the dark country roads, they passed by an old church. In the bright moonlight, they were startled to see a hideous old woman with long white hair and a black cloak running back and forth on top of the churchyard wall. She was clapping her hands and wailing loudly. The apparition suddenly vanished and the frightened girls ran all the way home. The next morning, they got news that their beloved father had died suddenly the night before.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking the banshee is a kind and benevolent ghost, just because she warns of death. The scream of the Banshee is a cry of delight. She hates the living and wants everyone to die.
Growing up in Ireland, the older folks would delight in telling us tall tales about the strange and inexplicable spirits that haunt the fields and valleys. The most popular legend was the one about the Banshee.
I heard many stories of grown men and women scuttling off across fields and jumping over ditches if they thought they heard her lonesome, mournful keening echoing in the darkness.
My parents had a small farm out in the country and as anyone in Ireland will tell you, strange things are known to happen at twilight, out in the back of beyond. Strange and eerie things, the like of which you wouldn’t be able to explain.
When I was ten years of age, myself and my little sister, Mairead, were out playing in the fields. Out of the watchful eye of our parents, we would always be up to some devilment or other. On this particular day, we strayed out further into the wilds than we had before.
It was late in the afternoon and twilight was fast approaching. We were playing a game of hide and seek, running back and forth between the ditches and the trees. My sister was hiding in the tall grass and I was trudging through it on my hands and knees, searching for her.
All of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a black shape lurking in the ditch. At first, I couldn’t make out what it was, but when I took a closer look, it seemed to be some kind of canvas material. The only way I can describe it is that it looked like a sack of old bones, slumped in the ditch.
Just then, the wind started to blow and I heard a faint sound carried on the breeze. I stopped in my tracks and listened intently. It sounded like a sort of wailing, very faint and very distant. The noise was somehow unnerving and it filled me with a strange sense of fear and foreboding.
I crouched there listening for a while, until I noticed some movement in the tall grass to the left of me. The black shape I had seen was now creeping slowly through the grass, coming towards me. As it got closer, the eerie wailing became louder and louder.
I stood there, mouth open in terror, watching this ominous bundle of rags come slinking towards me. The black shape looked like some sort of tattered robe which was torn and stained with something that resembled blood.
I almost jumped out of my skin. My heart began pounding so hard i thought it might leap out of my mouth. Sweat was pouring off of me and I could hear the blood pumping in my ears. Standing bolt upright, I called out to my sister.
“Mairead!” I shouted. “Run home to Mammy!”
My sister must have heard the fear in my voice, because I saw her head appear over the grass.
“Now, Mairead!” I shouted. “Run!”
I didn’t need to tell her again. She took off through the fields, running back towards our house. I took off running too, but there was a barbed wire fence up ahead. I looked to my left and saw the black bundle speeding up. It seemed to be trying to overtake me and cut off my only route of escape. I ran like the wind.
I ran as fast as I could and the thing still kept pace with me. Fear was creeping up my spine like a sack full of spiders. As it came closer and closer, I reached the fence and with a desperate effort, I leaped over it. The bundle of rags rose from the ground and emitted a blood-curdling shriek.
In a panic, I realized I had become snagged on the barbed wire. When I chanced to look back over my shoulder, I caught sight of the hideous face of an old woman, poking her nose out through the tall grass. tall and thin, pale and hollow, she looked, with long white hair flowing out from under the hood. She was like a thing that hovered between life and death. For a moment, our eyes met and she pointed at me with her long, skeletal finger. Then, she let out a piercing scream that deafened me.
Trembling with fear, I ripped my clothing free of the barbed wire and kept running towards home. When I reached the back garden, I collapsed in the bushes and caught my breath. I lay there in the dirt, panting and sweating like a scaulded dog and staring at the bloodstains on my hands.
It was then I realised what I had just seen. It was the Banshee. The messenger of death. It was warning of impending doom.
Stumbling to my feet, I eventually managed to find the strength to get through the back door. I found my little sister standing in the kitchen. She was deathly silent and there were tears in her eyes.
Our mother was lying dead on the floor.