An Irish supernatural being of the wraith type. The name derives from the Gaelic bean si and implies "female fairy." She is usually the possession of a specific family, to a member or members of which she appears before the death of one of them.
T. F. Thistleton Dyer, writing on the banshee in his book The Ghost World (1898), states:
"Unlike, also, many of the legendary beliefs of this kind, the popular accounts illustrative of it are related on the evidence of all sections of the community, many an enlightened and well-informed advocate being enthusiastic in his vindication of its reality. It would seem, however, that no family which is not of an ancient and noble stock is honored with this visit of the Banshee and hence its nonappearance has been regarded as an indication of disqualification in this respect on the part of the person about to die. 'If I am rightly informed,' writes Sir Walter Scott, 'the distinction of a Banshee is only allowed to families of the pure Milesian stock, and is never ascribed to any descendant of the proudest Norman or the boldest Saxon who followed the banner of Strongbow, much less to adventurers of later dates who have obtained settlements in the Green Isle.' Thus, an amusing story is contained in an Irish elegy to the effect that on the death of one of the Knights of Kerry, when the Banshee was heard to lament his decease at Dingle—a seaport town, the property of those knights—all the merchants of this place were thrown into a state of alarm lest the mournful and ominous wailing should be a forewarning of the death of one of them, but, as the poet humorously points out, there was no necessity for them to be anxious on this point. Although, through misfortune, a family may be brought down from high estate to the rank of peasant tenants, the Banshee never leaves nor forgets it till the last member has been gathered to his fathers in the churchyard. The MacCarthys, O'Flahertys, Magraths, O'Rileys, O'Sullivans, O'Reardons, have their Banshees, though many representatives of these names are in abject poverty.
" 'The Banshee,' says D. R. McAnally [in his book Irish Wonders (1888)], 'is really a disembodied soul, that of one who in life was strongly attached to the family, or who had good reason to hate all its members. Thus, in different instances, the Banshee's song may be inspired by different motives. When the Banshee loves those she calls, the song is a low, soft chant giving notice, indeed, of the close proximity of the angel of death, but with a tenderness of tone that reassures the one destined to die and comforts the survivors; rather a welcome than a warning, and having in its tones a thrill of exultation, as though the messenger spirit were bringing glad tidings to him summoned to join the waiting throng of his ancest[o]rs.' To a doomed member of the family of the O'Reardons the Banshee generally appears in the form of a beautiful woman, 'and sings a song so sweetly solemn as to reconcile him to his approaching fate.' But if, during his lifetime, the Banshee was an enemy of the family, the cry is the scream of a fiend, howling with demoniac delight over the coming death agony of another of his foes.
"Hence, in Ireland, the hateful 'Banshee' is a source of dread to many a family against which she has an enmity. 'It appears,' adds McAnally, 'that a noble family, whose name is still familiar in Mayo, is attended by a Banshee of this description— the spirit of a young girl deceived, and afterwards murdered by a former head of the family. With her dying breath she cursed her murderer, and promised she would attend him and his forever. After many years the chieftain reformed his ways, and his youthful crime was almost forgotten even by himself, when one night, as he and his family were seated by the fire, the most terrible shrieks were suddenly heard outside the castle walls. All ran out, but saw nothing. During the night the screams continued as though the castle were besieged by demons, and the un-happy man recognised in the cry of the Banshee the voice of the young girl he had murdered. The next night he was assassinated by one of his followers, when again the wild unearthly screams were heard exulting over his fate. Since that night "hateful Banshee" has, it is said, never failed to notify the family, with shrill cries of revengeful gladness, when the time of one of their number has arrived.'
"Among some of the recorded instances of the Banshee's appearance may be mentioned one related by Miss Lefrau, the niece of [Richard] Sheridan, in the memoirs of her grandmother, Mrs. Frances Sheridan. From this account we gather that Miss Elizabeth Sheridan was a firm believer in the Banshee, and firmly maintained that the one attached to the Sheridan family was distinctly heard lamenting beneath the windows of the family residence before the news arrived from France of Mrs. Frances Sheridan's death at Blois. She added that a niece of Miss Sheridan made her very angry by observing that as Mrs. Frances Sheridan was by birth a Chamberlaine, a family of English extraction, she had no right to the guardianship of an Irish fairy, and that therefore the Banshee must have made a mistake. Then there is the well-known case related by Lady Fanshawe who tells us how, when on a visit in Ireland, she was awakened at midnight by a loud scream outside her window. On looking out she saw a young and rather handsome woman, with dishevelled hair, who vanished before her eyes with another shriek. On communicating the circumstance in the morning, her host replied, 'A near relation of mine died last night in the castle, and before such an event happens, the female spectre whom you have seen is always visible.'
"This weird apparition is generally supposed to assume the form of a woman, sometimes young, but more often old. She is usually attired in a loose white drapery, and her long ragged locks hang over her thin shoulders. As night time approaches she occasionally becomes visible, and pours forth her mournful wail—a sound said to resemble the melancholy moaning of the wind…. Oftentimes she is not seen but only heard, yet she is supposed to be always clearly discernible to the person upon whom she specially waits. Respecting the history of the Banshee, popular tradition in many instances accounts for its presence as the spirit of some mortal woman whose destinies have become linked by some accident with those of the family she follows. It is related how the Banshee of the family of the O'Briens of Thomond was originally a woman who had been seduced by one of the chiefs of that race—an act of indiscretion which ultimately brought about her death."
The banshee is not confined to Ireland, since she is also the subject of folktales in the highlands of Scotland, where she is known as bean-nighe, or "little-washer-by-the-ford." She is said to be seen by the side of a river, washing the blood from the clothes of those who will die.
(See also Fairies )
Lysaght, Patricia. The Banshee. Dublin, 1986.
O'Donnell, Elliot. The Banshee. London, 1919.
Yeats, W. B. Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. London: Walter Scott, .
ban·shee / ˈbanshē/ • n. (in Irish legend) a female spirit whose wailing warns of an impending death in a house: the little girl dropped her ice cream and began to howl like a banshee [as adj.] a horrible banshee wail.