So today is St. Patrick’s Day and under normal circumstances I’d be celebrating Ireland’s patron saint by raising a pint or two at my local pub. But alas, the Covid-19 protocol has made that celebratory tradition impossible. So as an alternative I think I’ll sit here and write a little instead.
I can’t help but think back to the ritual in my childhood to celebrate St. Paddy’s Day, I would watch the movie “Darby O’ Gill and The Little People.” If you’ve seen the film you may recall the scene where Katie is lying on her deathbed with a banshee screaming outside her window. As a child, I found this intriguing and quite horrifying simultaneously and became fascinated with the idea of banshees as harbingers of death in Irish folklore.
The name baintsí, from which banshee is derived, is an Old Irish word that means “woman of the fairy mound.” The mounds, called tumuli, are commonly seen peppering the Irish countryside.
Known for screaming, wailing and keening these wild women of Celt mythology are depicted in multiple ways and you certainly don’t want to be within earshot of one as their cries are an omen of certain death. Many banshees are rendered as old aged and haggard while others are fair and beautiful. They can be exceedingly tall or dwarf and fairy like. Sometimes a banshee is illustrated in a horrifying fashion, crouching behind the mounds, wearing a long dark hooded cape and a green dress, her eyes bloodshot from her constant crying. Other times she’s a virginal beauty in a long white dress with a blaze of red locks.
Accounts of banshees date back as far as 1380 and featured prominently in Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh (Triumphs of Torlough) which is an historical account of Ireland in the 14th Century. I also found mentions of banshees in Norman literature as well as one source, associating the legend of the banshee as being inspired from the cries of owls. Specifically tying the pre-dawn flights of owls with the cries of banshees. As the owls were startled awake by marching soldiers, they would screech and fly over the approaching army, their womanly cries and screeches attributed to banshees, thus, impending doom.
So if you’re feeling a bit of “cabin fever” like me, when you raise you glass today, maybe, just for fun, scream like a banshee while you’re at it! Sláinte.
Mac Craith, Sean mac Ruaidhrí. mid-14th century. Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh. Gibson
Riggs, Katharine. 1976. An Encyclopedia of Fairies. Pantheon Books
Sullivan, Kerry. December, 24, 2016. Wailing Out the Lament-Filled Legends and Origins of Irish Banshees. Ancient Origins.
Wilde, Jane. 1887. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland (Vol. 1). Boston: Ticknor and Co.