Across cultures, one persistent tale of the paranormal is that of various phantoms and entities that roam the world of the living heralding the approach of death. We have always had a fear of death, and have through traditions and myths come up with myriad ways to predict it, to receive omens and portents of doom that warn us to the inevitable. There are countless spirits, ghosts, demons, and other less definable entities that have been associated with being omens of death, and one prominent and persistent one comes to us from Ireland. Here there is a long traditions of screaming specters that come to bring in announcements of coming malady, and far from mere stories from fairy tales there have been stories of actual encounters with the wailing ghosts known as banshees.
Holding a very prominent place in the spooky lore of Ireland is the mysterious 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 flocks of 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.
An early account of a supposed encounter with a banshee comes from 1649, and involves a Sir Richard Fanshawe and his wife, Ann, Lady Fanshawe. The two were living in Cork, Ireland, towards the end of the English Civil War when they had to escape the town when Cork rose up against the King, to whom they were loyal. They fled towards Spain and along the way stayed at the castle of Lady Honara O'Brien, and it was here that they would have their brush with the paranormal. On the very first evening of their stay, Lady Fanshawe heard a sound at the window like a voice, and when she went to investigate she saw lurking in the darkness beyond the glass a woman with red hair, very pale skin, and dressed in all white. This mysterious stranger then made a series of piercing wails that sounded like “Ahone,” from the ancient Irish “ochón,” which roughly translates as "alas," and is traditionally a cry of great despair, repeated over and over again, before letting out a sighing sound “more like wind than breath” and vanishing into thin air. It would turn out that at the exact time the woman had appeared, Lady Honara O'Brien’s cousin, who had also been staying there, had died in his sleep. It would later be found that the house had a long history of the spirit of a murdered woman appearing there just before a death in the family. In 1766 there was a case related by an Alicia LeFanu concerning her grandmother, a famous writer named Francis Sheridan. In her book Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mrs. Francis Sheridan LeFanu writes:
Like many Irish ladies, who resided during the early part of her life in the country, Miss Elizabeth Sheridan was a firm believer in the Banshi, or female demon, attached to certain ancient Irish families: she firmly maintained that the Banshee of the Sheridan family was heard wailing beneath the windows of Quilca (the family residence) before the news arrived from France of Mrs. Frances Sheridan's death at Blois, thus affording them a preternatural intimation of the impending melancholy event. A niece of Miss Sheridan's made her very angry by observing, that as Mrs. Frances Sheridan was by birth a Chamberlaine, a family of English extraction, she had no right to the guardianship of an Irish fairy, and that therefore the Banshi must have made a mistake!
From a few years later we have a case from 1770 concerning a Reverend Charles Bunworth, of Cork County, Ireland. In that year the Reverend would fall ill, and from there a strange series of events would unfold. One evening a noise “like the shearing of sheep” had been heard at the door, shortly after which a servant who had been sent to get medicine returned in quite the agitated state. He claimed that he knew the Reverend was going to die, as he had witnessed a banshee following him during his errand while “keening and singing the whole way” and shouting out the Reverend’s name. This apparition had then moved off to sit under a tree that had recently been struck by lightning, where her screaming and crying became almost ear-splitting in intensity and volume. Not wanting to scare anyone, Miss Bunworth implored the servant to not speak of the encounter with anyone and they tried to put the whole thing behind them.
As the week wore on and the Reverend’s health steadily deteriorated, he drew about himself a large contingent of friends, family, and other well-wishers to attend to him in his last hours. On one evening as many people were gathered at the castle, a tree in the garden was supposedly seen to be pushed aside by an unseen force with such power that it smashed against the castle walls. At that very instance, the sound of clapping hands and a low, mournful wailing could be heard. When some men went to investigate, they could see the tree still pushed aside by some invisible force, but they could see no one there, and the whole time the wailing, moaning, and clapping was echoing about within the castle. The horrific sounds increased in intensity until they reached a crescendo and the Reverend suddenly expired just before sunset, after which all of the screaming and wailing and clapping suddenly stopped to send silence crashing down on the stunned onlookers. What was going on here?
Another case revolves around the Irish judge, lawyer, and politician Sir Jonah Barrington, who in 1801 lived with his wife lived in Dunran, County Wicklow, Ireland. One evening they went to stay with a friend by the named of Robert Cuninghame, who was also widely known as the 1st Baron Rossmore, a retired General who had served as the Commander-in-Chief of Ireland from 1793 to 1796. On that evening, Barrington was awoken in the dark, early hours of morning by a strange sound just outside, and he would describe what happened next:
I listened; it occurred first at short intervals; it resembled neither a voice nor an instrument; it was softer than any voice and wilder than any music, and seemed to float in the air. I don't know wherefore, but my heart beat forcibly: the sound became still more plaintive, till it almost died away in the air; when a sudden change, as if excited by a pang, changed its tone: it seemed descending. I felt every nerve tremble; it was not a natural sound, nor could I make out the point whence it came.
Barrington’s wife heard I as well, and they both surmised that it was coming from the garden directly under their window. After about a half an hour of this unsettling noise, there was a “deep, heavy, throbbing sigh,” followed by a sharp, high-pitched cry and then the words “Rossmore -- Rossmore -- Rossmore!” wailed out over and over again. The night then went quiet again and the couple tried to put the whole odd incident out of their heads. When they woke the next morning, they were informed that Lord Rossmore had died fairly suddenly during the night, even though he had been in good health, and the time of death coincided with the appearance of that wailing voice in the garden. Creepy to be sure. One popular banshee 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.
Moving into later years, in 1941 Dublin was on high alert with World War II and the streets were dark and deserted. One evening a doctor was called to the house of a sick man, and after making his way through the quiet, desolate streets, he arrived at the house and could see that he was likely going to have to be there most of the night tending to the patient. As the doctor worked he heard a mournful wailing through the window as the sick man gasped for breath, and the man’s wife immediately knew that it was a banshee. She then pleaded with the entity to leave her husband alone, and began desperately splashing holy water all over the place in an effort to drive the wraith away. The doctor, not believing in such superstitious nonsense, told her it was just a cat, and when he finished his work he made his way back home through the darkened abandoned streets. When he arrived home, he was startled to see an old hag with a “horrific countenance” sitting on his doorstep, wailing loudly and combing her filthy, matted hair. The old woman then pointed at the doctor and at that instant three Bomber aircraft passed overhead and the woman vanished. A bomb then was dropped nearby to engulf the area in an enormous explosion, and although the doctor somehow managed to survive, his mother in law, wife and three children were all killed in the blast.
Another tale from the 1940s supposedly happened at Fulton Place, once a side street running off old Howard Street and backing onto one of the graveyards of St Columba’s Church, in Dublin. It is said that one winter, an elderly man fell ill and was bedridden, and during this time crows began to congregate around his residence. As the night wore on, the man’s health deteriorated further, and friends and family gathered at his bedside. As they did so there was a loud knock at the door, followed by a low moaning sound. One of the visitors went to the door to see who it was, and when she did she screamed and fainted on the spot. When she came to, she described seeing “an old hag-like woman with long white hair and a long white dress” wringing her hands and crying and moaning. The hag had then started to come towards the door before vanishing into thin air. Shortly after this, the old man expired. From the same time in the same area is the case of a man who had been suffering painfully from what he thought was a toothache for several days. He told his wife and son about it, and discussed perhaps going to see a dentist, and the story would get weird from there. One version of the tale goes:
While discussing with his wife about visiting a dentist he happened to mention that he had seen a large white sheet hanging from one of their neighbour’s upstairs windows. His wife, knowing the particular neighbour well, was very surprised to hear that she was apparently drying her washing in the front street. The next day her son approached her, somewhat agitated, and recounted a strange experience from the previous night. He had heard a peculiarly mournful wail coming from near the bottom of the street. When he looked he noticed what appeared to be a young child sitting under a windowsill, crying. He walked down the street and there, sitting hunched up under the sill, was a small wrinkled old woman, shriveled and dried up with age. She was moaning inconsolably. He put out his hand to her but she immediately shied away, stood up and ran off. He was startled by how her small childlike figure contrasted so horrifically with her grotesque appearance. He was convinced he had seen a banshee and urged his mother to get a doctor to examine his father straightaway. Unfortunately, his father was beyond medical assistance and a few nights after the incident he died. To this day, the family re-main adamant that their grand-father saw his own burial shroud and the banshee encountered by his son foreshadowed the impending death.
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.
Here we have looked at only a few of the many stories of banshees that populate the realm of supernatural portents of death. Is there anything to any of this, or is it all merely legend and myth that have gone on to take on a life of their own? Or is there more to it than that? Whatever the case may be, these are all damn strange accounts just the same.