It is interesting how tales of ghosts and spirits differ across cultures. Every country seems to have its own version of ghouls and wraiths that seem to be embedded within their own unique psyche and lore, but which are claimed to be seen by numerous witnesses and which are taken to be as quite real by the people who embrace these tales. One very rich vein of spooky lore that has entwined itself with very real accounts is the tale of the Irish spirit called the banshee. It is a shrieking, horrific entity that one would not want to meet, and by all accounts it seems to be far from confined to mere myth and legend.
Holding a very prominent place in the spooky lore of Ireland is the entity known as the banshee. The word comes from the Old Irish ben síde, baintsíde, meaning roughly “fairy woman” or “woman of the fairy mound,” and describes a sinister female spirit known to herald the approach of death through her unearthly screaming, sobbing, wailing, or keening. In the lore banshees are always female, but can take many forms, names, and powers depending on the particular local tradition. In some tales she is depicted as a filthy old hag, whereas in others she is conversely said to appear as a young maiden of exceptional beauty, and still others she is more animalistic or monstrous, with the head of a bird or hare. One old description of a banshee sighting reads:
It was a woman of no earthly type, with a queer-shaped, gleaming face, a mass of red hair, and eyes that would have been beautiful but for their expression, which was hellish. She had on a green hood, after the fashion of an Irish peasant.
The clothing, eye color, and hair differ depending on the tale, and likewise, the size of the banshee can range wildly, from towering 8 feet or more, down to a diminutive 3 or four feet. They are often said to have their arrival preceded by crows, screeching cats, or howling dogs. Yet, no matter what form she takes she is always considered to be a grim harbinger of imminent death, piercing the night with her ominous howls. Of course this all sounds like scary stories confined to lore, but there have actually been numerous accounts of real encounters with the wailing banshee, or at least something very much like it, going all the way up to modern times. One popular account mentioned in the book True Irish Ghost Stories supposedly occurred back in the early 1900s, when a member of a family in Cork told of how her esteemed family had been plagued by a banshee. She says of these incidents:
My mother, when a young girl, was standing looking out of the window in their house at Blackrock, near Cork. She suddenly saw a white figure standing on a bridge which was easily visible from the house. The figure waved her arms towards the house, and my mother heard the bitter wailing of the Banshee. It lasted some seconds, and then the figure disappeared. Next morning my grandfather was walking as usual into the city of Cork. He accidentally fell, hit his head against the curbstone, and never recovered consciousness.
In March 1900, my mother was very ill, and one evening the nurse and I were with her arranging her bed. We suddenly heard the most extraordinary wailing, which seemed to come in waves round and under her bed. We naturally looked everywhere to try and find the cause, but in vain. The nurse and I looked at one another, but made no remark, as my mother did not seem to hear it. My sister was downstairs sitting with my father. She heard it, and thought some terrible thing had happened to her little boy, who was in bed upstairs. She rushed up, and found him sleeping quietly. My father did not hear it. In the house next door they heard it, and ran downstairs, thinking something had happened to the servant; but the latter at once said to them, ‘Did you hear the Banshee? Mrs. P—must be dying.’
Such accounts clearly illustrate the disturbing habit for the banshee to appear as an omen of doom, and another earlier report also mentioned in the book True Irish Ghost Stories further shows this trend. The account comes from 1894, and concerns the odd experience of a boy at a boarding school. It is written:
A few years ago a curious incident occurred in a public school in connection with the belief in the Banshee. One of the boys, happening to become ill, was at once placed in a room by himself, where he used to sit all day. On one occasion, as he was being visited by the doctor, he suddenly started up from his seat, and affirmed that he heard somebody crying. The doctor, of course, who could hear or see nothing, came to the conclusion that the illness had slightly affected his brain. However, the boy, who appeared quite sensible, still persisted that he heard someone crying, and furthermore said, “It is the Banshee, as I have heard it before.” The following morning the head-master received a telegram saying that the boy’s brother had been accidentally shot dead.
From the 1940s we have two spooky accounts of what seem to be banshees, or something very similar. The first happened along a dark cemetery road called Old Howard Street, in the town of Fulton Place. It was here that an elderly man was suddenly bedridden by some mysterious debilitating disease, after which scores of squawking crows began to congregate around the home for reasons no one could fathom. One evening when the man had visitors over to see him in what seemed to be his last hours there was apparently a knock at the door, and when one of the visitors opened the door she saw “an old hag-like woman with long white hair and a long white dress, who was wringing her hands and sobbing,” only to turn to come rushing at the house with an ear splitting scream before vanishing into thin air. According to the story, the old man died just a few hours later.
The other account comes from a woman in the town of Bogside, who claimed the encounter had been witnessed by her grandfather and his son. The grandfather had been having severe pain in his tooth at the time, but had been putting off seeing a dentist about it. One evening the son was walking along when he heard a wailing sound coming from down the street, which seemed to be coming from a hunched over figure he took to be a crying child, but as he drew closer soon saw was actually a hideous, wizened old woman. As the son approached, the ancient-looking woman cried out and vanished. The son was sure that the lady had been a banshee, and tried to warn his father to go see a dentist, but he died before he could. Such strange reports continue all the way up to more modern times. One poster on Reddit says that her mother once relayed a terrifying experience to her. She says of her family’s experiences with the banshee:
Some people believe in Banshees and only some families get them. I live Ireland, my Mother comes from a very old Irish Family with written history going back centuries. They get visited by paranormal spirits in numerous ways. But one of those is a banshee. She had heard about them, like when her uncle died and her father was visited that night. It first visited her after she got married. In the middle of the night, it started wailing at the top of stairs at her bedroom. My father got up and noticed the bedroom door ajar.
He went out to the stairs and caught a glimpse of it before it disappeared and the wailing stopped. Before morning she got a phone call her father had died. I believe it’s appeared twice more over the years. The last time in January this year as she walked her dog a howl came from nearby. She knew what it was and ran back home. Our very close friend and neighbour drop dead suddenly the next morning. Most don’t believe and it seems people don’t get these death warnings anymore. So most joke about it. I’m naturally skeptical person about anything but in our family the even mention of a banshee will send a shiver up our spine. We don’t question it and we don’t joke about it.
Another report from YourGhostStories is from a witness that says her family was haunted by a banshee when she was a young girl in Ireland, and that it would follow her into more present day. It started one day years ago when her grandfather had fallen ill and a very strange visitor would come a knocking. She says:
As a child I remember my Grandmother telling me that my Grandfather had taken ill in the back room of their house, she was attending him when she heard a loud banging on the front door and left my grandfather to go and answer it. She told me that as she approached the door she could hear a sobbing noise coming from outside but on opening the door there was no one on the other side. She immediately went back to my Grandfather finding him stone dead in the bed. Fast forward to November 2001, I was in my Grandmothers house. She had only been given a few days to live and my Father thought it was a good idea to come out and say my last Goodbyes.
Rather unfortunately she was going through a slow painful death. I remember going to her bed room and feeling very cold I knew that the few days were more realistically a matter of hours at the most. As my Grandmothers breathing became more shallow, my dad said it was probably better that I sit in the front room. He called my Aunt’s boyfriend and asked him to come and pick me up. While I was waiting I heard a Knock on the door. I assumed it was my Aunt’s boyfriend. As I approached the door I could hear crying. As I touched the lock to open the door I suddenly felt a chill down my spine. There was no one there. Almost instantaneously I heard a mixture of prayers and sobbing coming from the back room. I knew she was gone. As I closed the door I saw a glimpse of what can only be described as a tall thin woman sitting crying on the neighbour’s wall. The experience has stayed with me forever.
Equally frightening is an account from True Ghost Tales, from a woman who said this happened at a place in Ireland called Bean Nighe. The witness says she had gone down to the cliffs by the river one day to contemplate life and unwind. As she sat there gazing out across the countryside she caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a woman in a white dress with flowing white hair washing something in the water at the river side. Focusing in on this stranger, the witness could see that it appeared that the woman was washing rags soaked with blood, and that the water turned crimson every time she wrung the cloth out. She says of what happened next:
At first, I was rather annoyed that there was a stranger on our property and almost called out to ask what she was doing here trespassing. Then a freezing chill hit me. It surrounded me and it felt like the coldness of death. There was not a sound. No birds sang, not a leaf rustled. I continued to watch the woman in spite of the fact that fear was creeping up my spine like a sack full of spiders. She seemed to be young, but I could not really tell for certain because I could not see her face. And, she seemed to be very sad. Then, to my amazement, she vanished before my eyes! Fading like a mist. I sat there dumbfounded for a moment, and the realization hit me that I had seen some kind of a ghost! I was still feeling that freezing cold, and even though it was around 80 degrees, I was shivering. I decided that I’d had enough contemplation at my quiet spot for today and ran back to the house, my mind racing crazily with what I had seen.
An interesting part of banshee lore is that they are not even necessarily confined to Ireland at all, and that they may follow families across the globe far and wide, grabbing onto them with their talons, and there are reports from other places as well. One witness on Reddit claims that his family moved to New York City back in the 1950s from Ireland, and he says that they were mostly strictly Catholic but that they would often speak of the banshee of their homeland. At darker times they would claim that not only was the banshee real, but that one had long stalked their family for generations. It apparently did not stay in Ireland when they had moved, because the witness had a rather unnerving experience one evening in New York, of which he says:
I was standing next to my bedroom window. We lived in an apartment that was on the 5th floor. The window faced out into an alley way. It was dusk when the crying started. First, it sounded like a newborn or a cat crying. Now I knew my neighbors and did not know of anyone that had a newborn but it was an alleyway and so I thought it was probably a cat. But the crying changed into a young child crying or sobbing and it was the saddest cry I have have ever heard. I tried to lift up my window to call out to the person crying. I thought it was Tommy Kavanaugh next door. I yelled out because I could not see anything because there was no light and it was dark by now. There was no answer just crying. I yelled out, “Tommy, is that you? Are you ok? Do you need help?” No answer just more crying.
The sobbing changed again to a woman’s sobs. Again, heartbreak sounding sobs coming from an unknown source. My mom came into my room and the crying stopped. I said to my mom, Don’t you hear that crying? It sounds like someone is really hurt?” She said,”I don’t hear anything.” She was in the living room. The apartment was not that big. She should have heard the crying. She looked at me very funny and shook her head. When she left the room, the crying started. This was not a crying that was from someone being physically hurt. This was a crying that someone was just told the worst news possible and her heart was broken. That’s the only way I can describe it. The crying stopped and I went about my business. Three days later at 5:30 in the morning, my father’s sister called to tell him their sister Kathleen died. She had leukemia.
Another portent of doom. Another case from New York was relayed on Your Ghost Stories, from a witness of Irish descent, who says that her whole life she has heard that the women on her side of the family have had experiences with banshees. Although she says that she herself has not experienced it, her retelling of her family’s encounters is chilling indeed. She says:
See, every woman in my family has experienced the “Cry of the banshee” except me. Apparently there is an awful howling that just radiates through the entire house, and even outside that is so loud and terrifying it makes you want to flee. It’s supposed to be the banshee howling over someone’s soon to be demise from what she told me. My great grandmother, grandmother, and mother have all experienced it at some point in their life. When my mother experienced hers, she was home alone at the time, and she said it was almost like a horrible wolf howling and it was so loud and in any room of the house it seemed to follow you. She told me how she went throughout the house, the basement, even outside to try and find where it was coming from. Finally after an hour or so, right before my grandmother came home, it stopped. My mom waited outside for her, terrified, and explained to my grandma what happened. My grandmother was very calm about the whole situation, and explained to her how our family is “cursed” with the cry of the banshee. A few days later my great grandmother died.
Is this all just spooky lore or is there anything else to it? Do these wailing spirits from Irish lore exist beyond the confines of legend, and do they actually occasionally stalk out from the darkness to frighten and terrify? Are these reports imagination, hoaxes, ghostly encounters merely mixed up with banshee lore, or the real deal? Whatever the answers may be, the banshee has a prominent place in the beliefs of these people, is ingrained within the paranormal landscape, and there will most likely be more reports to come for some time, these strange entities screaming in the night, bringing mayhem with them.