A Letter from Ireland:
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Have you heard of The Irish Banshee?

The season of Halloween, or Samhain in Ireland, is associated with early darkness, rising wind, falling leaves, and the fear of “spooks” on the prowl . In this letter we discuss the role of the legendary howling voice of Samhain, the Banshee.

The Bean Sidhe – or Irish Banshee

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to this week’s Letter from Ireland! We’ve entered real Autumn weather here in County Cork – with the bright-coloured leaves leaping off the trees in their droves. How are things in your part of the world today?

I’m having a nice cup of Barry’s tea as I write, and I do hope you will join me now with a cup of whatever you fancy yourself as we start into today’s letter.

So, not only are we coming to the end of Autumn here, but Halloween is just around the corner. The festival of Halloween has been known as “Samhain” (pronounced Sow-en) for many centuries in the Celtic world. It marked the time to bring the animals down from higher pastures. We entered into the darker half of the year – and it was a time that a doorway opened a little wider into the other world.

The View From Above.

Just last weekend, we returned from London where we visited our daughter, Rosaleen. As we descended to Cork Airport, the plane dropped beneath the clouds – and the green fields, houses and hedgerows came alive in a way that we can never appreciate from the ground.

However, among the regular shapes of the rectangular fields and straight-roads – small circles of land stood out in a way that was hard to ignore. These were just a few of the “fairy-mounds” or “fairy-forts” of Ireland.

Sometimes Forts were surrounded by water

These circles marked all that remained of iron-age, and early Christian forts – built by wealthy farmers to safeguard stock and family during times of unrest. They can also be old burial sites. Whichever they were, the took on a mystique over the centuries – and become the places where the “fairy-folk” lived. To upset one of these mounds would bring great misfortune on to the farmer’s family. And so, many of these forts remain – often a scrub-covered circle in the middle of a pristine field.

From the Fairy-Fort at Samhain – comes the Banshee.

It is a tradition in Ireland, that the festival of Samhain offers the residents of these “fairy-forts” an opportunity to come out and wander the land for a day and night starting at midnight on October 31st. One of these creatures, in particular has worked it’s way into Irish folklore in a way that has persisted well beyond the pagan years.

Stone Circles also had a special connection with the “Other World”.

This creature is known as the Bean Sidhe – woman of the Fairy mound – and anglicised as “Banshee”. Maybe you have a few Banshee stories in your family? Do share your comments below and let me know – I’d love to hear. I never heard my County Cork father talk about the Banshee – but it seemed to occupy the language of my east Galway mother quite a lot. She might point out how a certain person had a “voice like a Banshee” (not a compliment) – however, we were never threatened with the Banshee (that would be too close to the bone), that job was reserved for the “pooca”. Through her stories, she let us know that the Banshee was a figure to be treated with both awe and respect.

The Banshee was a creature that gave an eerie cry when members of certain families died. When the uninitiated asked what it sounded like – the answer was “you’ll know it when you hear it”. Over time, it was also said that both the cry and appearance of the Banshee foretold a death in certain families. Early writings tell of Banshees appearing for four important families in Ireland – the O’Connors of Connaught, O’Briens of Munster, O’Neills of Ulster and the Kavanaghs of Leinster. She is also on the appearance record for the McNeeve, O’Grady and O’Long families. In fact, many of these important families had their own personal Banshees! Are any of these names in your family tree?

What do you think of these myths and legends? Would you enter one of Ireland’s fairy-mounds during Samhain and cut down a shrub or two? For me, this side of Irish folklore plays an important role – it reminds us of the presence of the unknown and sacred all around us – that there is much that we have yet to discover. In fact, there is a fairy mound in the field right next to our house, and I must say, I don’t think I’d chance heading up there to cut a shrub or two. Certainly not at night – and certainly not during Samhain. That might be asking for a visit from the Banshee – or so I hear my mother whispering in my ear, even now.

How about you? What will you be doing this Halloween/Samhain – do you have traditions in your own family?  That’s it for today – as always, do feel free to leave your comments below and share any questions or stories you might have yourself.

We’ll see you next week! : )

Slán, Mike and Carina

  • June says:

    I can remember my Mom reprimanding us as kids for “screaming like a Banshee”. Her Grandparents were both from County Cork, so I’m assuming she picked that up from either her Grandmother or her Mother (she never met her Grandfather; he died before she was born).

    I also remember being in a school play in early elementary school – probably 2nd or 3rd grade. I don’t remember too much of what the play was about, but I had one line in the play and I still remember that line. It was “Silly girls to disobey, with the Banshee they must stay. Could not do as they were told …” And then someone else said “Gold, gold, gold!” I think that we were both Leprechauns.

    My son was born on Halloween, so for his growing up years we often celebrated the two “holidays” together. Now he has 4 children of his own and they all really get into Halloween costumes.

  • janice ward says:

    I have heard”howling like a banshee” used in my family. J

  • shirlee j mangan says:

    my dearest grangmother sarah agnes hurley, was born in county mayo. spoke so often of the banshee when the wind blew at night….my grandaughter and her husband are back from the navy here, and taking me to ireland , God willing, next year. soooo looking forward to seeing where my grandmother was born. love your letters…..Blessings to you and yours!

  • Nancy Holey says:

    Good evening to you all just wanted to say the banshee word was only used in our house in much same way as yours plus Australians really don’t celebrate Halloween I think it’s because of the way seasons are as compared to yours

    someone

    used in much the s
    Same way as your own house

  • Maaureen says:

    Somewhere in my readings I recall that banshees would go with their families if the families ever left Ireland. My mother (whose parents were from Ireland) also used the phrase “sounding like a banshee” when the five of us acted up. But where does the custom come from that you must leave out the same door you came in? Or that you should never visit another’s house “without one arm longer than another? (bringing a treat)? Or that pookah’s were to be feared? My dad’s family from the Appalachia area thought they were the bogeyman.

    • James says:

      Yes, Pookah’s are mischievous fairies. Today, people think of fairies as good. It’s best never to trust them and that’s why there was always a bowl of salt at Irish funerals. So when you left, you could take a pinch for your pocket to throw over your shoulder on your walk home should you hear a fairy behind you

  • Steve Landregan says:

    I often heard tales of the Bansher appearing as a premonitiab of desth, particurly concerning my uncle Gladstone Roche who, at the age of 18, told of awake ning in the night to ser a woman in black standing by his bed moaning with her arms extended over him.. within a week he was taken eith a ruptured apoendix and dued of blood poisoning. Incidentslly during the London Blitz of World War II, I often heard newsman Edward R. Murrow, on his broadcasts from London, refer to the air raid diren’s wail as the sound of the banshee.

  • Sandy Laferriere says:

    There is an old cemetary not to far from where I live that has a lighted pumpkin on or in front of every stone on Halloween. It is both a strange site and a lovely site to see on Halloween night.

  • Michael Cooney says:

    Yes, my father would talk of his parents telling stories of the Banshee whose howl would frighten the Holy Father himself!! We have our first snow here in the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan a seven inch dusting with promise of more to come!!

  • Marge says:

    My Irish (from Co. County Armagh) grandmother was said to have experienced the Banshee but my Scots mother didn’t know any details.

  • Jami says:

    in my home if one heard the Banshee they knew someone had died…

  • doreen keleher says:

    I love the info each week could you find info on the keleher clan from cork

  • Laura says:

    My grandmother’s family came from County Cork. I remember my mom using that expression quite a bit.

  • Rita says:

    My grandmother ( a Clare woman ), told of hearing the banshee when a neighbor died. She made me a believer at an early age !

  • James Gleason says:

    My family elders have always said that every family has a bean sidhe and to hear it’s wail brings a death upon the family.

  • Erlene Watts says:

    Just returned from my tour of Ireland with Collette Tour Group. Did not have opportunity for personal research, visit to National Library and that was sad. However, the trip and guided tour were Fabulous, Wonderful. I loved Ireland and would return in a heartbeat if able to. Favorites were Dingle Peninsula, visit to Irish dairy farm in County Kerry and our stay at Barberstown Castle. What a wonderful, first-time-ever trip to another country and first time flying. It was beyond my dreams.

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