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Screaming like a banshee: Some Irish folklore

By Staff | Feb 26, 2020

I first heard the term “screaming like a banshee,” when I was a young girl. I remember thinking that this must be a sound that no one wants to hear and, oh, how right I was. The word banshee comes from the Gaelic language and bears several definitions, mostly identifying with a female messenger or spirit alerting us of death.

Other phrases describe the entity as the Lady of Death or the Woman of Sorrow. In Scottish mythology, she is known as the bean nighe or the “little washerwoman” or bain seade meaning “woman of the hills or mound.” Sounds kind of cute and harmless, right? Think again. This is one creature you don’t want to encounter.

Banshees are frequently described as being dressed in white or gray and often having long hair, which they brush with a silver comb. Their hair can be copper colored, white as a ghost, dark blood red or even raven black. As a rule, however, most Banshees are only heard and not seen. These wraith-like spirits can wail, moan or scream. Occasionally, tales are told of banshees clapping their hands or tapping and scratching at windows. Some banshees kneel and wail while others sit astride white horses with their long locks blowing in the wind as they gallop past.

One old timer told me years ago that if she is washing a shroud along a creek or river when you see her, she may merely signal a major life changing event in your future. The way to determine this is to go home and burn a homemade beeswax candle after seeing her. If it burns in the shape of a shroud, her appearance foretells death. I’m not sure if I would want to know this or not but I do keep some beeswax candles aroundjust in case. Hey, you never know!

The Mid-Ohio Valley (as well as West Virginia) was settled predominantly by people of Irish and Scottish ancestry, the Scots Irish. Along with the French and the Welsh, they shard ancient Celtic ties and are descended from clans or family groupings. The Celts believed in unique forms of mysticism, such as witches, leprechauns, banshees and faeiries.

According to many old Celtic sources, there are particular families who are believed to have banshees attached to them, and whose cries herald the death of a member of that certain family. Most, though not all, surnames associated with banshees have an O’ or Mac in them. In other words, if your ancestors lived in Ireland for a couple of generations, your family has its own banshee. The following is a list of surnames I have compiled while researching:

Adamson, Ahren, Barry, Bowe, Brady, Brennan, Browne, Caldwell, Carrol, Cartwright, Carey, Cassidy, Coady, Colahan, Conroy, Conway, Cooney, Coughlin, Cox, Cullen, Culleton, Cuskelly, Daly, Dawson, Dempsey, Dewan, Dillon, Doyle, Dowd, Duggan, Dwyer, English, Ennis, Fallon, Faris, Flanagan, Flynn, Fogarty, Fox, Gaffney, Gallagher, Galligan, Gannon, Gavigan, Geoghan, Geraghty, Gill, Glennon, Griffin, Griffith, Halton, Hanley, Hannon, Hayden, Hayes, Healy, Hegarty, Higgins, Holohan, Jennings, Jordon Keane, Keany, Keating, Keegan, Kehoe, Kenny, Kirwin, Lacey, Lawrence, Lee, Lonergan, Lynch, Lyster, Madden, Malone, Manning, Martin, Meehan, Miller, Monohan, Moran, Morrissey, Mullen, Mulligan, Murphy, Murry, MacBride, MacCarthy, MacCormack, MacDermott, MacDonnell, MacEntee, MacGoldrick, MacGovern, MacGrath, MacGuinness, MacGuire, MacKenna, MacMahon, MacManamon, MacNally, MacNamara, MacNiff, MacPartlan, MacQuaide, Naughton, O’Brien, O’Byrne, O’Connor, O’Donnell, O’Donovan, O’Gready, O’Hanlon, O’Keefe, O’Leary, O’Malley, O’Neill, O’Reilly, O’Rourke, O’Sullivan, Peters, Potterton, Power, Quin, Roche, Roe, Rehill, Ryan, Rynne, Scally, Scott, Shanahey, Sherlock, Sinnot, Smith, Stafford, Steward, Strong, Sullivan, Sutton, Sweeney, Tully, Wall, and Walsh.

Keep in mind this is not a complete list of names. The legends and tales of banshees dot the very fabric of folklore both here in America and in Europe. Authors and poets have lamented and composed prose over this mysterious entity.

According to the Irish poet Yeats, important people often have an entire chorus of banshees to sing upon their death.

If you head home tonight and pass by the river, watch for a woman along the banks. If she is kneeling and washing a shroud, count your blessings and continue on. A major life change is just around the bend and you will live to see the sunrise again.

Sherri Brake is a paranormal researcher, author and Haunted Heartland Tour owner. You may email her at SherriBrake@gmail.com or visit her website at www.HauntedHistory.net