IRISH BANSHEE (BEAN SIDHE)
The name banshee or bean sidhe comes from the Gaelic
words ban (bean) which means 'woman', and
shee (sidhe) fairy (combined form 'woman of the
fairy'). She is also known as 'The Lady of Sorrow'.
The banshee is an ancestral solitary fairy 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, O'Briens,
O'Connors, O'Gradys and the Kavanaghs. Intermarriage has since
extended the list. Some claim that any names starting in 'Mc',
'Mac' or 'O' are included in the list.
The banshee appears mainly in one of
three quises: a young beautiful woman, a stately matron, and a
scary old hag. She usually wears either a grey, hooded cloak
over a green dress or the winding sheet or 'grave sheet' of the dead. Others
claim that banshees are frequently dressed in white and often
have long, fair hair which they brush with a silver comb. She may
also appear as a washerwoman and is seen washing the blood
stained clothes of those who are about to die.
Many have seen her as she goes wailing and clapping her
hands. The keen (caoine), the funeral cry of the
peasantry, is said to be an imitation of her cry.
She visits a household and by wailing she warns them that a member of their
family is about to die. When a Banshee is caught, she is
obliged to tell the name of the doomed.
Each Banshee has her own mortal family and out of love she follows
the old race across the ocean to distant lands. Her wails or keen
can be heard in America and England, wherever the true Irish have
It is believed that the banshee is the spirit of a deceased
relative who died young.
When multiple Banshees wail together, it will herald the death of
someone very great or holy.
When a member of the beloved family is dying, she paces the dark hills
about his house. She sharply contrasts against the night's
blackness, her white figure emerges with silver-grey hair streaming
to the ground and a grey-white cloak of a cobweb texture clinging to
her tall thin body. Her face is pale, her eyes red with centuries of
crying. In Cornwell she is said to flap her cloak against the window
of the person who is dying and in Scotland she squats next to
the door of the one who is doomed.
The banshee may also appear in a variety of other forms, such as
that of a hooded crow, stoat, hare and weasel - animals
associated in Ireland with witchcraft.
The Scottish version
of the banshee is the bean nighe.
The Irish have many
names for her (perhaps they feared invocation of her true name may
invoke her presence). They included: Washer of the Shrouds,
at the Banks, Washer at the Ford and the Little Washer of Sorrow.
The Scottish called her cointeach, literally "one who keens." To the
cornish she was cyhiraeth and to the Welsh either
gwrach y rhibyn, which translates as Hag of the Dribble (to the
Welsh she sometimes appear as a male). In Brittany her name is
As her other names might
suggest, she frequently appears as a washerwoman at the banks of
streams. In these cases, she is called the bean nighe (pronounced "ben-neeyah").
The clothing she washed takes different forms depending upon the
legend. Sometimes it is burial shrouds, others it is the bloodstained
clothing of those who will soon die. This particular version of the
bean sidhe is Scottish in origin and unlike the Irish version,
who is very beautiful, she is
extremely ugly, sometimes described as having a single nostril, one
large buck tooth, webbed feet and extremely long breasts, which she
must throw over her shoulders to prevent them getting in the way of
her washing . Her long stringy hair is partially covered with a hood
and a white gown or shroud is her main wardrobe. The skin of the bean sidhe is often wet and slimy as if she had just been pulled from
a moss covered lake. They are rumored to be the ghosts of women who
died in childbirth and will continue to wash until the day they
should have died. The keening music of Irish wakes, called caoine, is
said to have been derived from the wails of the bean sidhe.
bean sidhe (Irish), bean nighe or cointeach(Scottish), cyhiraeth
(Cornish), cyoerraeth or gyrach y rhibyn (Welch), eur-cunnere noe
'Twas the banshee's lonely wailing
Well I knew the voice of death,
On the night wind slowly sailing,
O'er the bleak and gloomy heath.