Banshee: Narratives from Ireland

by Lara Henry

This paper is property of the Northern Virginia Folklife Archive. Users are required to cite NVFA, paper ID number, and author.




Name: Lara Henry
Birthplace: Dublin, Republic of Ireland


Name: Mary Merrigan (nee Bugler)
Birthplace: Co. Galway, Republic of Ireland

The Supernatural Legend and its context

These legends were told to me many times by Mary Merrigan. Mary was my child-minder in Ireland from the time I was two years old. I used to spend weekends with Mary and her husband, John. Mary and I have a mother-daughter relationship, and I used to go on summer vacations with them to the farm where Mary grew up. The legends were set near that farm.

When I used to spend the week-end with Mary and John, we would normally spend Saturday night watching television or talking. Mary is a great cook and always makes apple-pie or cake, and she would tell stories while we were eating cake and drinking tea. One winter evening when it was dark and raining outside, Mary told these supernatural legends and she said they were true; I believed them too. She would entertain us with stories and would tell us about her life on the farm when she was a child, and John would tell us all about his completely different childhood in the inner-city of Dublin.

I remembered the theme of these legends but not the exact details so it was necessary to telephone the Informant and ask for the legends again. I called Mary and asked her permission to use the Banshee legends that she used to tell me. She was delighted but at first she insisted that she could not remember them. Then she said, "Ah yes, sure I remember this one well..."

" father told me this story, you know, Tim Bugler.

Lara: yes.

I was only little then.
A man, Michael Clark, from across the field down home.
You remember Looscaun? Sure you do.

Lara: oh sure, yes.

Well, my mother had gone across the field to see them,
His wife was alive then too. I suppose she must have been helping or
Well, you know Tom Joe, he was only young, must have been about 12 or something.
He died there a few years back, you remember? God rest his soul.
He was out in the field and he came into my father and said
"Come here, come here, I hear someone crying in the field. I hear someone roaring and wailing!"
My father went out to the field and said "Michael must be very bad!"
They thought it might have been Mrs. Clark crying.
My father noted the time when he came in; wondering when my mother would be back.
It was about a quarter to nine in evening then.
The crying kept getting louder and louder, They thought it was Mrs. Clark crying.
But the sound kept moving up the field, you know, all the time getting closer.
Well my father went to meet my mother, or she came home, I don't know exactly.
And hadn't poor old Michael Clark died. My father asked my mother at what time he had died.
She told it was about a quarter to nine when he passed on.
That was the very same time Tom Joe had heard the wailing and roaring.
They knew it must have been the Banshee crying for poor old Clark.
Now that's a true story. My father used to tell it. We were all scared by that story of the wailing of the Banshee. I was only young them, I was Mary Bugler then of course.

Lara: Thanks for that Mary, that's it exactly. That's great and will really help me with my paper.

It was a common thing years ago to hear about Banshees. They used cry for certain families. It was a warning. If you heard a Banshee you knew you would hear of someone dying.
Oh sure over at Powers Cross, beside the shop, sure you were there many a time.

Lara: Oh yes, we used to cycle up on the old black bikes.

Yes. A man, Aberton was his name, I forget his Christian name though. Anyway, it must have been summer time cause he got up early to cut hay. You remember Timmy used to have a field up there? You went cutting hay there one time with them.
This Aberton needed some bog for the fire to make breakfast, for the tea you know.
He went up to the bog, with the pony and cart I suppose.
Up in the bog didn't he hear bawling crying. He knew it was the sound of the Banshee.
He thought to himself that he would soon hear of a neighbor or friend having died - he know someone would be dead. So anyway, he went home with some turf from the bog and set the fire. There were two of them living in the house that time, himself and his brother. He went in to give his brother a cup of tea and sure wasn't he dead!
There you have it. That's true too. You do not hear much of the Banshee anymore.

2. Informant's source
Mary's father told her these two legends. It must have been 60 years ago or more when she heard them from him in Galway, Ireland. Mary says that they used to talk a lot and tell stories when she was a child because they did not have television.

3. Informant's discussion of the legend
After finishing the legends Mary discussed the Banshee as follows:
She used to cry for certain families. It was said she would often sit in a tree, combing her long hair.
If you found a comb back then you were never to pick it up in case it belonged to her.
It would have brought bad luck to you. She was a warning.
But not everyone would hear or see her and she did not cry for everyone.
She also said that these legends were true and she was sincere when she wondered why one does not hear them anymore.
4. Collector's Appraisal of Informant's use of Folklore

I have heard the informant tell these legends before. The telling was always in her own house. She did not tell these legends in front of strangers. It was usually winter when we would hear Mary telling stories when we were stuck inside because of the weather.
Other stories Mary told me are about warts and their removal. One method Mary talked about is to cut-up a turnip and rub the wart with it, then you bury the turnip and the wart will disappear. Another method is to have someone buy the wart from you, and it will go away.

5. Collectors Appraisal of the Storytelling Event and the Story

Banshee legends always occur in a rural setting and in these legends it is in farm land in rural Co. Galway, Ireland. The esoteric group are farmers and their families; in both legends elements of farming were mentioned. These legends do not apply to city dwellers, the exoteric group. I am part of that exoteric group, but the function of Mary telling these legends was not to exclude me. Rather the function of the original telling was primarily to entertain us. In addition, I believe, Mary used to tells us these legends to let us see into her life as a child. She did not like living in the city and retired to the same area she grew-up in about ten years ago. I believe these legends reminded Mary of her home and entertained her as much as they did us. Part of the function was to show me her esoteric group.

Banshee legends function as a discussion of death with the effect of upholding the mysticism and scariness associated with death. The Banshee is similar to the "Grim Reaper Death" who comes knocking on the door. The theme of the Banshee legend is that Death warns friends and/or family of those who are about to die. A Banshee is female as opposed to the male "Grim Reaper." Ireland has mythology entrenched in her storytelling and in Ireland's early mythology the earth was female. When a person dies it is believed that they are returned into the female earth. As noted above, these stories relate to farmers who work the land and it is symbolic that when they die they will be returned to the land.
The meaning can be that death is predestined and when the Banshee cries it is someone's turn to die. It is said that the Banshee only cried for certain families, perhaps this was a way of adding a special importance to someone's death because the Banshee cried for them. People have many superstitions and fears about dying and the Banshee crying gives a warning and a sign that someone special is about to die. When a person dies many people react by saying they knew it would happen, that they had a feeling, and other such remarks. The Banshee comes from this desire to be in control of the uncontrollable event of death.

As can be noted from the Informant, these legends are not told much anymore which suggest the meaning and function are no longer valid. With the age of television children are entertained without adults having to tell them stories. Science and technology have eroded the mysticism and uncertainty of medical illness and death.
6. Collector's Comments on the Fieldwork Process

Although I had heard the legends before, I was nervous telephoning the Informant to ask her to re-tell them. I was not sure if she would understand why I needed the story after so many years after her telling me. I explained that I was doing a paper for college and that I always remember the stories she used to tell. I reminded her of the Banshee legends in particular. Mary laughed and thought it was funny that I would remember them after such a long time. Contrary to my feelings that she would think it was silly, she was actually delighted to recount them and said she should write them down for me some time. I hope she does.

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