Bean Sídhe, the O’Neill Banshee
By Mac and O
You'll always know
True Irishmen they say'.
But if they lack
The O and Mac,
No Irishmen are they'.
The Banshee is believed to be an unearthly attendant on the ancient families of Ireland, the true descendants of the noble Gaelic race - which those who have the Mac and O to their names. The banshee from the Irish bean sídhe ("woman of the side" or "woman of the fairy mounds") is a female spirit in Irish mythology and folklore, usually seen as an omen of death and a messenger from the otherworld.
Her Scottish counterpart is the bean shìth (also spelled bean-shìdh).The aos si (people of the mounds, people of peace) are variously believed to be the survivals of pre-Christian Gaelic deities, spirits of nature, or the ancestors.
The story of the bean-sidhe began as a fairy woman keening at the death of important personages. In later stories, the appearance of the banshee could foretell death. Traditionally, when a member of an Irish village, townland, or a prestigious clan died, a woman would sing a lament (in Irish: caoineadh, or “caoin" meaning "to weep, to wail") at the individuals funeral.
These women singers were sometimes referred to as "keeners" and the best keeners would be in much demand. Therefore there may be a connection between these attributes and the legend of the Banshee.
As mentioned above Banshees were said to appear for particular Irish families. As, an ancestral spirit appointed to forewarn members of certain ancient Irish families of their time of death.
According to tradition, the banshee can only cry for five major Irish families: the O‘Neills, the O’Briens, the O’Connors the O’Gradys and the Kavanaghs. Intermarriage has since extended this select list.
The banshee can appear in a variety of guises. Most often she appears as an ugly, frightening hag. The hag may also appear as a washer-woman, or bean-nighe (washing woman), and is seen washing the blood stained clothes and at times the arms, limbs, heads and armour of those who are about to die in battle.
But she can also appear as a stunningly beautiful woman of any age that suits her. Some theolopist and adherents of the Celtic Christians even believe that the Banshee figures are angels who fell and were trapped on earth.
However, most believe that the three forms of women represent the triple aspects of the Celtic goddess of war and death, namely Badhbh, Macha and Mor-Rioghain.)In some tales, the figure who first appears to be a "banshee" is later revealed to be the Irish battle goddess, the Morrigan.
There is also a strong belief that the Banshee and her legned represents Ireland itself. Hence Ireland is always seen as as women or mother figure and is always protected by her sons or its most Royal clans. Therefore the Banshee weeps at the loss of her very flesh and blood year after year day after day, forever.
Banshees are frequently described as dressed in white or grey, hooded cloak or the winding sheet or grave robe of the unshriven dead and often with a silver comb.
Ancient tradition and stories state that, if you ever see a comb lying on the ground in Ireland, you must never pick it up, because the banshee/banshee’s having placed it there to lure unsuspecting humans, will spirit such gullible humans away.
Although not always seen, her mourning call is heard, usually at night when someone is about to die and usually around woods. So that the wailing of the banshee was the first warning the household had of the death. In Irish legend, a banshee wails or laments, nearby if someone is about to die.
In the old Gaelic legends, music and poetry were said to be fairy gifts and the possession of these was said to show a fatal kinship with the 'Duine Shee', or people of the spirit race. Therefore the skill of the lament or the song is a gift that a fairy women or Banshee should surely have of course.
The wail of the Banshee is a peculiarly mournful sound that resembles the melancholy sound of the hollow wind, and having the tone of the human voice, and is distinctly audible at a great distance. The wail depending on the area can also vary greatly and there are numerous descriptions regarding its sound.
At times it can be so piercing that it shatters glass, in Co Kerry in the southwest of Ireland, the sound is experienced as a "low, pleasant singing"; in Tyrone in the north, as "the sound of two boards being struck together"; and on Rathlin Island as "a thin, screeching sound somewhere between the wail of a woman and the moan of an owl".With her mournful and melancholy cry, bewails the misfortune about to fall on the family she loves.
If more than one Banshee appears simultaneously then it indicates those who died was a hero or a saint. However, the singing of the Banshee will vary depending on the relationship of the Banshee with the dead person or his family.
When you have a good relationship and she will sing a song softly suggestive to entertain the family left. The Banshee will proclaim the death of someone who does not like passing a horrible scream! However it has been stated by some writers that the Banshee was actuated by a feeling inimic to the person lamented. This however was not the opinion of the people of an earlier day in Ireland.
The general belief was that the Banshee was the friend of the family she followed, that she at one period enjoyed life and walked the earth in the light and shadow of loveliness and immortality. The very fact of the unearthly creatures always crying their sweet, sad song of sorrow at some misfortune bears this out, for if otherwise than a friend, why should her song not be one of rejoicing instead of lamentation?
When the caoine or keen of the Banshee was heard in the vicinity of the house of any old Gaelic family, it was at once felt that misfortune or death awaited some member of it. Instances have been quoted of every member of a family having been in vigorous health when the cry of the Banshee was first heard, but before a week had elapsed someone had been accidentally drowned or killed or had met sudden death in some fashion.
In Ireland, those persons who have the gifts of music and song are, it is said, watched over by the spirits; one the Spirit of Life, which is prophecy, such persons are said to be 'fey' and to have the gift of the second sight; the other, the Spirit of Doom, which is the reveler of secrets of misfortune and death, and for this the messenger of death is another name for the Banshee.
It is well to remember that the Banshee belongs exclusively to the Celtic race. She is never heard bewailing the approaching demise of any member of the other races composing the population of Ireland,Scotland and the other few remaining Celtic countrys.
'Hast thou heard the Banshee at morn,
Passing by the silent lake,
Or walking the fields by the orchard?
Alas! that I do not rather behold
White garlands in the hall of my fathers.'
According to legend when we are passed by a Banshee and greeted by very friendly tone, we as mere mortals can then gain their trust. Therefore she will tell us the name of family members who will die later, or to grant a request for us.
According to tradition in 1437, King James I of Scotland was approached by an Irish seer or banshee who foretold his murder at the instigation of the Earl of Atholl. This is an example of the banshee in human form. There are records of several human banshees or prophets attending the great houses of Ireland and the courts of local Irish kings.
By Lough Neagh's shore, hard by Edenduff-Carrick, the Black Brow of the Rock, the ruined walls of the Shanes Castle still sits above the grey lake water where once in all its pride of power and ownership dwelt one of Ireland's most powerful branches of the clan, the Clanaboy O’Neills and its Chieftains.
Here, from time immemorial, when any misfortune threatened one of the grand old race, the cry of the Banshee of the O'Neills would be heard throughout dark woods of Coile Ultagh away over the grey waters of Lough Neagh, and along the walls of the old castle echoing in the great vaults underneath and wailing over the graves of the great O'Neills.
Maeveen was the name that was on the Banshee of the O'Neills. She was some times seen as well as heard, and the form she usually assumed was that of a very old woman with long white locks falling down over her thin shoulders.The story of how Maeveen or (little- Mab) became a Banshee has always been described in the following maner
In ancient times one of the O'Neill Chiefs went to help the McQuillan chief in one of his warlike raids. On his arrival he saw a cow caught in a thorn tree. As this tree was considered sacred by the fairies, no one would cut a branch to release the poor animal.
However the O'Neill Chief did, when he and the McQuillan returned to Shanes castle. They found that the O'Neill Chieftans daughter had been dragged to the depths of Lough Neagh by the fairy folk. It was at this point that Maeveen took her unearthly position as the Clanaboy O'neills Banshee.
From then to the present day when evil threatened a member of the family. Her shriek was heard upon the shore and along the ruined walls of the castle. Legend also blames the banshee for the fire, which destroyed Shane’s Castle in 1816.
As an added note for Halloween at the time a party was being held in the castle. As the fire took hold the guest fled the building and gathered on the grounds outside.
One of the guests, a Captain Greer who was a country magistrate from Randalstown, recounted afterwards that he had seen a person dressed in armour pass by one of the upstairs’ windows several times. As the building had been evacuated by this time, there was no reasonable explanation for what the Captain saw.
The Banshee was also very shy of encountering the eye of a mortal. The slightest human sound borne on the breeze of twilight drove her from sight and caused her to disappear like a thing of the mist.
It should also be remembered that although Banshees are said to be solitary spirits. There is always meant to be more than one and each branch of the O'Neill clan is said to have its own Banshee.
Moore, in his beautiful song, asks:
'How oft has the Banshee cried
How oft has death untied,
Bright links that glory move,
Sweet bonds entwined by love.'