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The Banshee In Irish Culture

The native Irish and Ireland’s visitors are often fascinated with tales from "the other side," and long to hear news from a loved one, friend, or neighbor who has passed on.

The Banshee of Irish legend is a wailing woman who brings an announcement of an impending death, and her cry is known all over Ireland. It has been said that once the cry of the Banshee is heard, the legend of her reality will never again be disbelieved. Many people all over Ireland claim to have seen or heard this wraith, but for the most part, the life of the “little people” and their associates are relegated to the isolated rural areas of the country and those centers where belief in the “otherworld” has been imbedded into families for centuries.

The word "Banshee" comes from two Irish words "bean,"(ban) meaning "woman," and "sidhe," meaning fairy. Supposedly from the mythical race of the fairy folk, the Banshee is believed to be the descendant of the ancient Celtic deities and is said to be present in Ireland to this very day.

The Banshee can make contact with the human world in several forms and apparitions. One version is that of a beautiful young woman combing her long, flowing hair while she wails for the soon-to-be-departed soul. Some claim to have seen the Banshee as an older, white-haired women in rags or shrouds, hovering around the house as the priest comes to dispense the last rites.

The Banshee makes her appearance usually in the dead of night, wailing with a high, piercing scream similar to the wind in a high gale on the northwest coast. Traditionally, when a citizen of an Irish village died, a woman would sing a lament at the funeral. These women singers were sometimes referred to as "keeners." Legend has it that, for five great Gaelic families the lament would be sung by a fairy woman having the power of prophecy, she would appear before the death and "keen." When several Banshees appeared at once, it indicated the death of someone great or holy. The tales sometimes recounted that the woman, though called a fairy, was really a ghost, often of a specific murdered woman, or a woman who died in childbirth.

Sometimes only one person in the house hears the cry of the Banshee, then at other times she is heard by all, even the neighbors. In all respects the Banshee is seen as a bearer of bad fortune or death, though many believe she is foretelling the inevitable and paying her respects, and preparing to accompany the unfortunate soul into the realms of eternity.

Banshees continue to appear in modern literature that deals with mythology, folklore or the supernatural (for example: Harry Potter). Sometimes the name "Banshee" is given to a character or object in a short story or comic book, usually when part of the character's or object's power is based upon making a loud, screaming noise.

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Content copyright © 2013 by Mary Ellen Sweeney. All rights reserved.
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