Banshees, and Other Death Warnings
by St John D. Seymour
True Irish Ghost
Of all Irish ghosts, fairies, or bogles, the Banshee (sometimes called
locally the "Boh[-e][-e]ntha" or "Bank[-e][-e]ntha") is the best known to
the general public: indeed, cross-Channel visitors would class her with
pigs, potatoes, and other fauna and flora of Ireland, and would expect
her to make manifest her presence to them as being one of the sights of
the country. She is a spirit with a lengthy pedigree—how lengthy no man
can say, as its roots go back into the dim, mysterious past. The most
famous Banshee of ancient times was that attached to the kingly house of
O'Brien, Aibhill, who haunted the rock of Craglea above Killaloe, near
the old palace of Kincora. In A.D. 1014 was fought the battle of
Clontarf, from which the aged king, Brian Boru, knew that he would never
come away alive, for the previous night Aibhill had appeared to him to
tell him of his impending fate. The Banshee's method of foretelling death
in olden times differed from that adopted by her at the present day: now
she wails and wrings her hands, as a general rule, but in the old Irish
tales she is to be found washing human heads and limbs, or bloodstained
clothes, till the water is all dyed with human blood—this would take
place before a battle. So it would seem that in the course of centuries
her attributes and characteristics have changed somewhat.
Very different descriptions are given of her personal appearance.
Sometimes she is young and beautiful, sometimes old and of a fearsome
appearance. One writer describes her as "a tall, thin woman with
uncovered head, and long hair that floated round her shoulders, attired
in something which seemed either a loose white cloak, or a sheet thrown
hastily around her, uttering piercing cries." Another person, a coachman,
saw her one evening sitting on a stile in the yard; she seemed to be a
very small woman, with blue eyes, long light hair, and wearing a red
cloak. Other descriptions will be found in this chapter. By the way, it
does not seem to be true that the Banshee exclusively follows families of
Irish descent, for the last incident had reference to the death of a
member of a Co. Galway family English by name and origin.
One of the oldest and best-known Banshee stories is that related in the
Memoirs of Lady Fanshaw. In 1642 her husband, Sir Richard, and she
chanced to visit a friend, the head of an Irish sept, who resided in his
ancient baronial castle, surrounded with a moat. At midnight she was
awakened by a ghastly and supernatural scream, and looking out of bed,
beheld in the moonlight a female face and part of the form hovering at
the window. The distance from the ground, as well as the circumstance
of the moat, excluded the possibility that what she beheld was of this
world. The face was that of a young and rather handsome woman, but pale,
and the hair, which was reddish, was loose and dishevelled. The dress,
which Lady Fanshaw's terror did not prevent her remarking accurately,
was that of the ancient Irish. This apparition continued to exhibit
itself for some time, and then vanished with two shrieks similar to that
which had first excited Lady Fanshaw's attention. In the morning, with
infinite terror, she communicated to her host what she had witnessed,
and found him prepared not only to credit, but to account for the
superstition. "A near relation of my family," said he, "expired last
night in this castle. We disguised our certain expectation of the event
from you, lest it should throw a cloud over the cheerful reception which
was your due. Now, before such an event happens in this family or castle,
the female spectre whom you have seen is always visible. She is believed
to be the spirit of a woman of inferior rank, whom one of my ancestors
degraded himself by marrying, and whom afterwards, to expiate the
dishonour done to his family, he caused to be drowned in the moat." In
strictness this woman could hardly be termed a Banshee. The motive for
the haunting is akin to that in the tale of the Scotch "Drummer of
Cortachy," where the spirit of the murdered man haunts the family out of
revenge, and appears before a death.
[Footnote 9: Scott's Lady of the Lake, notes to Canto III (edition of
Mr. T.J. Westropp, M.A., has furnished the following story: "My maternal
grandmother heard the following tradition from her mother, one of the
Miss Ross-Lewins, who witnessed the occurrence. Their father, Mr.
Harrison Ross-Lewin, was away in Dublin on law business, and in his
absence the young people went off to spend the evening with a friend who
lived some miles away. The night was fine and lightsome as they were
returning, save at one point where the road ran between trees or high
hedges not far to the west of the old church of Kilchrist. The latter,
like many similar ruins, was a simple oblong building, with long
side-walls and high gables, and at that time it and its graveyard were
unenclosed, and lay in the open fields. As the party passed down the long
dark lane they suddenly heard in the distance loud keening and clapping
of hands, as the country-people were accustomed to do when lamenting
the dead. The Ross-Lewins hurried on, and came in sight of the church, on
the side wall of which a little gray-haired old woman, clad in a dark
cloak, was running to and fro, chanting and wailing, and throwing up her
arms. The girls were very frightened, but the young men ran forward and
surrounded the ruin, and two of them went into the church, the apparition
vanishing from the wall as they did so. They searched every nook, and
found no one, nor did anyone pass out. All were now well scared, and got
home as fast as possible. On reaching their home their mother opened the
door, and at once told them that she was in terror about their father,
for, as she sat looking out the window in the moonlight, a huge raven
with fiery eyes lit on the sill, and tapped three times on the glass.
They told her their story, which only added to their anxiety, and as they
stood talking, taps came to the nearest window, and they saw the
bird again. A few days later news reached them that Mr. Ross-Lewin had
died suddenly in Dublin. This occurred about 1776."
Mr. Westropp also writes that the sister of a former Roman Catholic
Bishop told his sisters that when she was a little girl she went out one
evening with some other children for a walk. Going down the road, they
passed the gate of the principal demesne near the town. There was a rock,
or large stone, beside the road, on which they saw something. Going
nearer, they perceived it to be a little dark, old woman, who began
crying and clapping her hands. Some of them attempted to speak to her,
but got frightened, and all finally ran home as quickly as they could.
Next day the news came that the gentleman, near whose gate the Banshee
had cried, was dead, and it was found on inquiry that he had died at the
very hour at which the children had seen the spectre.
A lady who is a relation of one of the compilers, and a member of a Co.
Cork family of English descent, sends the two following experiences of a
Banshee in her family. "My mother, when a young girl, was standing
looking out of the window in their house at Blackrock, near Cork. She
suddenly saw a white figure standing on a bridge which was easily visible
from the house. The figure waved her arms towards the house, and my
mother heard the bitter wailing of the Banshee. It lasted some seconds,
and then the figure disappeared. Next morning my grandfather was walking
as usual into the city of Cork. He accidentally fell, hit his head
against the curbstone, and never recovered consciousness.
"In March 1900, my mother was very ill, and one evening the nurse and I
were with her arranging her bed. We suddenly heard the most extraordinary
wailing, which seemed to come in waves round and under her bed. We
naturally looked everywhere to try and find the cause, but in vain. The
nurse and I looked at one another, but made no remark, as my mother did
not seem to hear it. My sister was downstairs sitting with my father. She
heard it, and thought some terrible thing had happened to her little boy,
who was in bed upstairs. She rushed up, and found him sleeping quietly.
My father did not hear it. In the house next door they heard it, and ran
downstairs, thinking something had happened to the servant; but the
latter at once said to them, 'Did you hear the Banshee? Mrs. P—— must
A few years ago (i.e. before 1894) a curious incident occurred in a
public school in connection with the belief in the Banshee. One of the
boys, happening to become ill, was at once placed in a room by himself,
where he used to sit all day. On one occasion, as he was being visited by
the doctor, he suddenly started up from his seat, and affirmed that he
heard somebody crying. The doctor, of course, who could hear or see
nothing, came to the conclusion that the illness had slightly affected
his brain. However, the boy, who appeared quite sensible, still persisted
that he heard someone crying, and furthermore said, "It is the Banshee,
as I have heard it before." The following morning the head-master
received a telegram saying that the boy's brother had been accidentally
[Footnote 10: A.G. Bradley, Notes on some Irish Superstitions, p. 9.]
That the Banshee is not confined within the geographical limits of
Ireland, but that she can follow the fortunes of a family abroad, and
there foretell their death, is clearly shewn by the following story. A
party of visitors were gathered together on the deck of a private yacht
on one of the Italian lakes, and during a lull in the conversation one of
them, a Colonel, said to the owner, "Count, who's that queer-looking
woman you have on board?" The Count replied that there was nobody except
the ladies present, and the stewardess, but the speaker protested that he
was correct, and suddenly, with a scream of horror, he placed his hands
before his eyes, and exclaimed, "Oh, my God, what a face!" For some
time he was overcome with terror, and at length reluctantly looked up,
"Thank Heavens, it's gone!"
"What was it?" asked the Count.
"Nothing human," replied the Colonel—"nothing belonging to this world.
It was a woman of no earthly type, with a queer-shaped, gleaming face, a
mass of red hair, and eyes that would have been beautiful but for their
expression, which was hellish. She had on a green hood, after the fashion
of an Irish peasant."
An American lady present suggested that the description tallied with that
of the Banshee, upon which the Count said:
"I am an O'Neill—at least I am descended from one. My family name is, as
you know, Neilsini, which, little more than a century ago, was O'Neill.
My great-grandfather served in the Irish Brigade, and on its dissolution
at the time of the French Revolution had the good fortune to escape the
general massacre of officers, and in company with an O'Brien and a
Maguire fled across the frontier and settled in Italy. On his death his
son, who had been born in Italy, and was far more Italian than Irish,
changed his name to Neilsini, by which name the family has been known
ever since. But for all that we are Irish."
"The Banshee was yours, then!" ejaculated the Colonel. "What exactly does
"It means," the Count replied solemnly, "the death of some one very
nearly associated with me. Pray Heaven it is not my wife or daughter."
On that score, however, his anxiety was speedily removed, for within two
hours he was seized with a violent attack of angina pectoris, and died
[Footnote 11: Occult Review for September, 1913.]
Mr. Elliott O'Donnell, to whose article on "Banshees" we are indebted for
the above, adds: "The Banshee never manifests itself to the person whose
death it is prognosticating. Other people may see or hear it, but the
fated one never, so that when everyone present is aware of it but one,
the fate of that one may be regarded as pretty well certain."
We must now pass on from the subject of Banshees to the kindred one of
"Headless Coaches," the belief in which is widespread through the
country. Apparently these dread vehicles must be distinguished from
the phantom coaches, of which numerous circumstantial tales are also
told. The first are harbingers of death, and in this connection are very
often attached to certain families; the latter appear to be spectral
phenomena pure and simple, whose appearance does not necessarily portend
evil or death.
"At a house in Co. Limerick," writes Mr. T.J. Westropp, "occurred the
remarkably-attested apparition of the headless coach in June 1806, when
Mr. Ralph Westropp, my great-grandfather, lay dying. The story was told
by his sons, John, William, and Ralph, to their respective children, who
told it to me. They had sent for the doctor, and were awaiting his
arrival in the dusk. As they sat on the steps they suddenly heard a heavy
rumbling, and saw a huge dark coach drive into the paved court before
the door. One of them went down to meet the doctor, but the coach swept
past him, and drove down the avenue, which went straight between the
fences and hedges to a gate. Two of the young men ran after the coach,
which they could hear rumbling before them, and suddenly came full tilt
against the avenue gate. The noise had stopped, and they were surprised
at not finding the carriage. The gate proved to be locked, and when they
at last awoke the lodge-keeper, he showed them the keys under
his pillow; the doctor arrived a little later, but could do nothing, and
the sick man died a few hours afterwards."
Two other good stories come from Co. Clare. One night in April 1821, two
servants were sitting up to receive a son of the family, Cornelius
O'Callaghan, who had travelled in vain for his health, and was returning
home. One of them, Halloran, said that the heavy rumble of a coach roused
them. The other servant, Burke, stood on the top of the long flight of
steps with a lamp, and sent Halloran down to open the carriage door. He
reached out his hand to do so, saw a skeleton looking out, gave one yell,
and fell in a heap. When the badly-scared Burke picked himself up there
was no sign or sound of any coach. A little later the invalid arrived, so
exhausted that he died suddenly in the early morning.
On the night of December 11, 1876, a servant of the MacNamaras was going
his rounds at Ennistymon, a beautiful spot in a wooded glen, with a broad
stream falling in a series of cascades. In the dark he heard the rumbling
of wheels on the back avenue, and, knowing from the hour and place that
no mortal vehicle could be coming, concluded that it was the death coach,
and ran on, opening the gates before it. He had just time to open the
third gate, and throw himself on his face beside it, when he heard a
coach go clanking past. On the following day Admiral Sir Burton Macnamara
died in London.
Mr. Westropp informs us that at sight or sound of this coach all gates
should be thrown open, and then it will not stop at the house to call for
a member of the family, but will only foretell the death of some relative
at a distance. We hope our readers will carefully bear in mind this
simple method of averting fate.
We may conclude this chapter with some account of strange and varied
death-warnings, which are attached to certain families and foretell the
coming of the King of Terrors.
In a Co. Wicklow family a death is preceded by the appearance of a
spectre; the doors of the sitting-room open and a lady dressed in white
satin walks across the room and hall. Before any member of a certain
Queen's Co. family died a looking-glass was broken; while in a branch of
that family the portent was the opening and shutting of the avenue gate.
In another Queen's Co. family approaching death was heralded by the cry
of the cuckoo, no matter at what season of the year it might occur. A
Mrs. F—— and her son lived near Clonaslee. One day, in mid-winter,
their servant heard a cuckoo; they went out for a drive, the trap jolted
over a stone, throwing Mrs. F—— out, and breaking her neck. The ringing
of all the house-bells is another portent which seems to be attached to
several families. In another the aeolian harp is heard at or before
death; an account of this was given to the present writer by a clergyman,
who declares that he heard it in the middle of the night when one of his
relatives passed away. A death-warning in the shape of a white owl
follows the Westropp family. This last appeared, it is said, before a
death in 1909, but, as Mr. T. J. Westropp remarks, it would be more
convincing if it appeared at places where the white owl does not nest
and fly out every night. No doubt this list might be drawn out to much
A lady correspondent states that her cousin, a Sir Patrick Dun's
nurse, was attending a case in the town of Wicklow. Her patient was
a middle-aged woman, the wife of a well-to-do shopkeeper. One evening the
nurse was at her tea in the dining-room beneath the sick-room, when
suddenly she heard a tremendous crash overhead. Fearing her patient had
fallen out of bed, she hurried upstairs, to find her dozing quietly, and
there was not the least sign of any disturbance. A member of the family,
to whom she related this, told her calmly that that noise was always
heard in their house before the death of any of them, and that it was a
sure sign that the invalid would not recover. Contrary to the nurse's
expectations, she died the following day.
Knocking on the door is another species of death-warning. The Rev.
D. B. Knox writes: "On the evening before the wife of a clerical friend
of mine died, the knocker of the hall-door was loudly rapped. All in
the room heard it. The door was opened, but there was no one there.
Again the knocker was heard, but no one was to be seen when the door
was again opened. A young man, brother of the dying woman, went into
the drawing-room, and looked through one of the drawing-room windows.
The full light of the moon fell on the door, and as he looked the knocker
was again lifted and loudly rapped."
The following portent occurs in a Co. Cork family. At one time the lady
of the house lay ill, and her two daughters were aroused one night by
screams proceeding from their mother's room. They rushed in, and found
her sitting up in bed, staring at some object unseen to them, but which,
from the motion of her eyes, appeared to be moving across the floor. When
she became calm she told them, what they had not known before, that
members of the family were sometimes warned of the death, or approaching
death, of some other member by the appearance of a ball of fire, which
would pass slowly through the room; this phenomenon she had just
witnessed. A day or two afterwards the mother heard of the death of her
brother, who lived in the Colonies.
A strange appearance, known as the "Scanlan Lights," is connected with
the family of Scanlan of Ballyknockane, Co. Limerick, and is seen
frequently at the death of a member. The traditional origin of the lights
is connected with a well-known Irish legend, which we give here briefly.
Scanlan Mor (died A.D. 640), King of Ossory, from whom the family claim
descent, was suspected of disaffection by Aedh mac Ainmire, Ard-Righ of
Ireland, who cast him into prison, and loaded him with fetters. When St.
Columcille attended the Synod of Drom Ceat, he besought Aedh to free his
captive, but the Ard-Righ churlishly refused; whereupon Columcille
declared that he should be freed, and that that very night he should
unloose his (the Saint's) brogues. Columcille went away, and that night a
bright pillar of fire appeared in the air, and hung over the house where
Scanlan was imprisoned. A beam of light darted into the room where he
lay, and a voice called to him, bidding him rise, and shake off his
fetters. In amazement he did so, and was led out past his guards by an
angel. He made his way to Columcille, with whom he was to continue that
night, and as the Saint stooped down to unloose his brogues Scanlan
anticipated him, as he had prophesied.
[Footnote 12: Canon Carrigan, in his History of the Diocese of Ossory
(I. 32 intro.), shows that this legend should rather be connected
with Scanlan son of Ceannfaeladh.]
Such appears to be the traditional origin of the "Scanlan lights." Our
correspondent adds: "These are always seen at the demise of a member of
the family. We have ascertained that by the present head of the family
(Scanlan of Ballyknockane) they were seen, first, as a pillar of fire
with radiated crown at the top; and secondly, inside the house, by the
room being lighted up brightly in the night. By other members of the
family now living these lights have been seen in the shape of balls of
fire of various sizes." The above was copied from a private manuscript
written some few years ago. Our correspondent further states: "I also
have met with four persons in this county [Limerick] who have seen the
lights on Knockfierna near Ballyknockane before the death of a Scanlan,
one of the four being the late head of the family and owner, William
Scanlan, J.P., who saw the flames on the hill-side on the day of his
aunt's death some years ago. The last occasion was as late as 1913, on
the eve of the death of a Scanlan related to the present owner of
In front of the residence of the G—— family in Co. Galway there is, or
formerly was, a round ring of grass surrounded by a low evergreen hedge.
The lady who related this story to our informant stated that one evening
dinner was kept waiting for Mr. G——, who was absent in town on some
business. She went out on the hall-door steps in order to see if the
familiar trot of the carriage horses could be heard coming down the road.
It was a bright moonlight night, and as she stood there she heard a child
crying with a peculiar whining cry, and distinctly saw a small childlike
figure running round and round the grass ring inside the evergreen hedge,
and casting a shadow in the moonlight. Going into the house she casually
mentioned this as a peculiar circumstance to Mrs. G——, upon which, to
her great surprise, that lady nearly fainted, and got into a terrible
state of nervousness. Recovering a little, she told her that this crying
and figure were always heard and seen whenever any member met with an
accident, or before a death. A messenger was immediately sent to meet Mr.
G——, who was found lying senseless on the road, as the horses had taken
fright and bolted, flinging him out, and breaking the carriage-pole.
But of all the death-warnings in connection with Irish families surely
the strangest is the Gormanstown foxes. The crest of that noble family is
a running fox, while the same animal also forms one of the supporters of
the coat-of-arms. The story is, that when the head of the house is dying
the foxes—not spectral foxes, but creatures of flesh and blood—leave
the coverts and congregate at Gormanstown Castle.
Let us see what proof there is of this. When Jenico, the 12th Viscount,
was dying in 1860, foxes were seen about the house and moving towards the
house for some days previously. Just before his death three foxes were
playing about and making a noise close to the house, and just in front of
the "cloisters," which are yew-trees planted and trained in that shape.
The Hon. Mrs. Farrell states as regards the same that the foxes came in
pairs into the demesne, and sat under the Viscount's bedroom window, and
barked and howled all night. Next morning they were to be found crouching
about in the grass in front and around the house. They walked through
the poultry and never touched them. After the funeral they disappeared.
At the death of Edward, the 13th Viscount, in 1876, the foxes were also
there. He had been rather better one day, but the foxes appeared, barking
under the window, and he died that night contrary to expectation.
On October 28, 1907, Jenico, the 14th Viscount, died in Dublin. About 8
o'clock that night the coachman and gardener saw two foxes near the
chapel (close to the house), five or six more round the front of the
house, and several crying in the "cloisters." Two days later the Hon.
Richard Preston, R.F.A., was watching by his father's body in the above
chapel. About 3 A.M. he became conscious of a slight noise, which seemed
to be that of a number of people walking stealthily around the chapel on
the gravel walk. He went to the side door, listened, and heard outside
a continuous and insistent snuffling or sniffing noise, accompanied by
whimperings and scratchings at the door. On opening it he saw a
full-grown fox sitting on the path within four feet of him. Just in the
shadow was another, while he could hear several more moving close by in
the darkness. He then went to the end door, opposite the altar, and on
opening it saw two more foxes, one so close that he could have touched it
with his foot. On shutting the door the noise continued till 5 A.M., when
it suddenly ceased.
[Footnote 13: New Ireland Review for April 1908, by permission of
the publishers, Messrs Sealy Bryers, & Walker.]