The Banshee Sang of Death: 1850s

The Wail of the Banshee, Clifford Boucher James, Burton Art Gallery and Museum

The Wail of the Banshee, Clifford Boucher James, Burton Art Gallery and Museum

A case of Banshee haunting that is somewhat unusually pathetic was once related to me in connection with a Dublin branch of the once powerful clan of McGrath. 

It took place in the fifties, and the family, consisting of a young widow and two children, Isa and David, at that time occupied an old, rambling house, not five minutes’ walk from Stephen’s Green. Isa seems to have been the mother’s favourite–she was undoubtedly a very pretty and attractive child–and David, possibly on account of his pronounced likeness to his father, with whom it was an open secret that Mrs McGrath had never got on at all well, to have received rather more than his fair share of scolding.

This, of course, may or may not have been true. It is certain that he was left very much to himself, and, all alone, in a big, empty room at the top of the house, was forced to amuse himself as he best could. Occasionally one of the servants, inspired by a fellow-feeling–for the lot of servants in those days, especially when serving under such severe and exacting mistresses as Mrs McGrath, was none too rosy–used to look in to see how he was getting on and bring him a toy, bought out of her own meagre savings; and, once now and again, Isa, clad in some costly new frock, just popped her head in at the door, either to bring him some message from her mother, or merely to call out “Hullo!” Otherwise he saw no one; at least no one belonging to this earth; he only saw, he affirmed, at times, strange-looking people who simply stood and stared at him without speaking, people who the servants–girls from Limerick and the west country–assured him were either fairies or ghosts. 

One day Isa, who had been sent upstairs to tell David to go to his bedroom to tidy himself, as he was wanted immediately in the drawing-room, found him in a great state of excitement.  

“I’ve seen such a beautiful lady,”he exclaimed, “and she wasn’t a bit cross. She came and stood by the window and looked as if she wanted to play with me, only I daren’t ask her. Do you think she will come again?” 

“How can I tell? I expect you’ve been dreaming as usual,” Isa laughed. “What was she like?”  

“Oh, tall, much taller than mother,” David replied, “with very, very blue eyes and kind of reddish-gold hair that wasn’t all screwed up on her head, but was hanging in curls on her shoulders. She had very white hands which were clasped in front of her, and a bright green dress. I didn’t see her come or go, but she was here for a long time, quite ten minutes.”  

“It’s another of your fancies, David,” Isa laughed again. “But come along, make haste, or mother will be angry.”  

A few minutes later, David, looking very shy and awkward, was in the drawing-room being introduced to a gentleman who, he was informed, was his future papa.  

David seems to have taken a strong dislike to him from the very first, and to have foreseen in the coming alliance nothing but trouble and misery for himself. Nor were his apprehensions without foundation, for, directly after the marriage took place, he became subjected to the very strictest discipline. Morning and afternoon alike he was kept hard at his books, and any slowness or inability to master a lesson was treated as idleness and punished accordingly. The moments he had to himself in his beloved nursery now became few and far between, for, directly he had finished his evening preparation, he was given his supper and packed off to bed.  

The one or two servants who had befriended him, unable to tolerate the new regime, gave notice and left, and there was soon no one in the house who showed any compassion whatever for the poor lonely boy.  

Things went on in this fashion for some weeks, and then a day came, when he really felt it impossible to go on living any longer.  

He had been generally run down for some weeks, and this, coupled with the fact that he was utterly broken in spirit, rendered his task of learning a wellnigh impossibility. It was in vain he pleaded, however; his entreaties were only taken for excuses; and, when, in an unguarded moment, he let slip some sort of reference to unkind treatment, he was at once accused of rudeness by his mother and, at her request, summarily castigated.  

The limit of his tribulation had been reached. That night he was sent to bed, as usual, immediately after supper, and Isa, who happened to pass by his room an hour or so afterwards, was greatly astonished at hearing him seemingly engaged in conversation. Peeping slyly in at the door, in order to find out with whom he was talking, she saw him sitting up in bed, apparently addressing space, or the moonbeams, which, pouring in at the window, fell directly on him. 

“What are you doing?” she asked, “and why aren’t you asleep?” 

The moment she spoke he looked round and, in tones of the greatest disappointment, said: “Oh, dear, she’s gone. You’ve frightened her away.”  

“Frightened her away! Why, what rubbish!” Isa exclaimed. “Lie down at once or I’ll go and fetch mamma.”  

“It was my green lady,” David went on, breathlessly, far too excited to pay any serious heed to Isa’s threat. “My green lady, and she told me I should be no more lonely, that she was coming to fetch me some time to-night.”  

Isa laughed, and, telling him not to be so silly, but to go to sleep at once, she speedily withdrew and went downstairs to join her parents in the drawing-room.  

That night, at about twelve, Isa was awakened by singing, loud and plaintive singing, in a woman’s voice, apparently proceeding from the hall. Greatly alarmed she got up, and, on opening her door, perceived her parents and the servants, all in their night attire, huddled together on the landing, listening. 

“Sure ’tis the Banshee,” the cook at length whispered. “I heard my father spake about it when I was a child. She sings, says he, more beautifully than any grand lady, but sorrowful like, and only before a death.” 

“Before a death,” Isa’s mother stammered. “But who’s going to die here? Why, we are all of us perfectly sound and well.” As she spoke the singing ceased, there was an abrupt silence, and all slowly retired to their rooms.  

Nothing further was heard during the night, but in the morning, when breakfast time came, there was no David; and a hue and cry being raised and a thorough search made, he was eventually discovered, drowned in a cistern in the roof.

The Banshee, Elliott O’Donnell, 1920

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The author, Mr O’Donnell, who helpfully apends his lengthy Irish pedigree in an appendix, says that his clan, like so many others, has its own unique banshee. Mr O’Donnell tells us more about this supernatural entity:

The name Banshee seems to be a contraction of the Irish Bean Sidhe, which is interpreted by some writers on the subject “A Woman of the Faire Race,” whilst by various other writers it is said to signify “The Lady of Death,” “The Woman of Sorrow,” “The Spirit of the Air,” and “The Woman of the Barrow.”

It is strictly a family ghost, and most authorities agree that it only haunts families of very ancient Irish lineage. Mr McAnnaly, for instance, remarks (in the chapter on Banshees in his “Irish Wonders”): “The Banshee attends only the old families, and though their descendants, through misfortune, may be brought down from high estate to ranks of peasant farmers, she never leaves nor forgets them till the last member has been gathered to his fathers in the churchyard.”

Mr O’Donnell further states that each clan has its own, unique banshee, each with its own peculiar manner of expression:

As a rule, however, the Banshee is not seen, it is only heard, and it announces its advent in a variety of ways; sometimes by groaning, sometimes by wailing, and sometimes by uttering the most blood-curdling of screams, which I can only liken to the screams a woman might make if she were being done to death in a very cruel and violent manner. Occasionally I have heard of Banshees clapping their hands, and tapping and scratching at walls and window-panes, and, not infrequently, I have heard of them signalling their arrival by terrific crashes and thumps. Also, I have met with the Banshee that simply chuckles–a low, short, but terribly expressive chuckle, that makes ten times more impression on the mind of the hearer than any other ghostly sound he has heard, and which no lapse of time is ever able to efface from his memory.

For another Banshee story at the Haunted Ohio blog see this link.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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