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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Please log in again. The login page will open in a new tab. After logging in you can close it and return to this page.