“Then Cuchulain went on his way, and Cathbad that had followed him went with him. And presently they came to a ford, and there they saw a young girl thin and white-skinned and having yellow hair, washing and ever washing, and wringing out clothing that was stained crimson red, and she crying and keening all the time. ‘Little Hound,’ said Cathbad, ‘Do you see what it is that young girl is doing? It is your red clothes she is washing, and crying as she washes, because she knows you are going to your death against Maeve’s great army.'”
-“Cuchulain of Muirthemne.”
From Cuchulain’s day, or it may be from a yet earlier time, that keening woman of the Sidhe has been heard giving her lamentable warning for those who are about to die. Rachel had not yet been heard mourning for her children when the white-skinned girl whose keening has never ceased in Ireland washed red clothes at the ford.
It was she or one of her race who told King Brian he was going to meet his death at Clontarf; though after the defeat of the old gods that warning had often been sent by a more radiant messenger, as when Columcille at the dawn of the feast of Pentecost “lifted his eyes and saw a great brightness and an angel of God waiting there above him.”
And Patrick himself had his warning through his angel, Victor, who met him on the road at midday and bade him go back to the barn where he had lodged the night before, for it was there he had to die.
Such a messenger may have been at hand at the death of that Irish born mystic, William Blake, when he “burst out into singing of the things he saw in Heaven, and made the rafters ring.”
And a few years ago the woman of a thatched house at the foot of Echtge told me “There were great wonders done in the old times; and when my father that worked in the garden there above was dying, there came of a sudden three flashes of light into the room, the brightest light that ever was seen in the world; and there was an old man in the room, one Ruane, and I leaned back on him for I had like to faint.
And people coming the road saw the light, and up at Mick Inerney’s house they all called out that our house was in flames. And when they came and heard of the three flashes of light coming into the room and about the bed they all said it was the angels that were his friends that had come to meet him.
” When Raftery died, the blind poet who wandered through our townlands a hundred years ago, some say there were flames about the house all through the night, “and those were the angels waking him.”
Yet his warning had not been sent through these white messengers but through a vision that had come to him once in Galway, when Death himself had appeared “thin, miserable, sad and sorrowful; the shadow of night upon his face, the tracks of the tears down his cheeks” and had told him he had but seven years to live.
And though Raftery spoke back to him in scornful verse, there are some who say he spent those last seven years in praying and in making his songs of religion. To some it is a shadow that brings the warning, or a noise of knocking or a dream.
At the hour of a violent death nature itself will show sympathy; I have been told on a gloomy day that it had darkened because there was a man being hanged; and a woman who had travelled told me that once at Bundoran she had “seen the waves roaring and turning” and she knew later it was because at that very time two young girls had been drowned.
I was told by Steve Simon:
I will tell you what I saw the night my wife died. I attended the neighbours up to the road, for they had come to see her, but she said there was no fear of her, and she would not let them stop because she knew that they were up at a wake the night before.
So when I left them I was going back to the house, and I saw the shadow of my wife on the road before me, and it was as white as drifted snow. And when I came into the house, there she was dying.
My cousin Mary that lives in the village beyond told me that she was coming home yesterday week along the road, and she is a girl would not be afraid to walk the whole world with herself. And it was late, and suddenly there was a man walking beside her, inside the field, on the other side of the wall.
And at first she was frightened, but then she felt sure it was her cousin John that was dying, and then she wasn’t afraid, for she knew her cousin would do her no harm. And after a while he was gone, and when she got near home and saw the lights she was frightened, and when she got into the house she was in a sort of a faint. And next day, this day week, her cousin was dead.
I heard the Banshee crying not long ago, and within three days a boy of the Murphy’s was killed by his own horse and he bringing his cart to Kinvara. And I heard it again a few nights ago, but I heard of no death since then. What is the Banshee? It is of the nature of the Hyneses. Six families it cries for, the Hyneses and the Fahys and I forget what are the others.
I heard her beside the river at Ballylee one time. I would stand barefooted in the snow listening to the tune she had, so nice and so calm and so mournful.
I would yield to dreams because of some things were dreamed to me in my lifetime and that turned out true. I dreamed one time that I saw my daughter that was in America dead, and stretched and a table laid out with the corpse. She came home after, and at the end of five months she wasted and died. And there I saw her stretched as in the dream, and it was on my own table.
One time I was walking the road and I heard a great crying and keening beside me, a woman that was keening, and she conveyed me three miles of the road. And when I got to the door of the house I looked down and saw a little woman, very broad and broad faced-about the bigness of the seat of that table-and a cloak about her. I called out to her that was my first wife – the Lord be with her – and she lighted a candle and I came in weak and lay upon the floor, and I was till 12 o’clock that night lying in the bed.
A man I was talking to said it was the Banshee, and it cries for three families, the Fahys and the O’Briens and another I forget which. My grandmother was a Fahy, and I suppose, father or mother, it follows the generations. I heard it another time and my daughter from America coming into the house that night. It was the most mournful thing ever you heard, keening about the house for the same term as before, till 12 o’clock of night. And within five months my daughter from America was dead.
There was a man near us that was ploughing a field, and he found an iron box, and they say there was in it a very old Irish book with all the knowledge of the world in it. Anyway, there’s no question you could ask him he couldn’t answer. And what he says of the Banshee is, that it’s like Rachel mourning still for every innocent of the earth that is going to die, like as she did for our Lord when the king had like to kill Him. But it’s only for them that’s sprung from her own tribe that she’ll raise her voice.
As for the Banshee, where she stops is in the old castle of Esserkelly on the Roxborough estate. Many a one has seen her there and heard her wailing, wailing, and she with a red petticoat put about her head. There was a family of the name of Fox in Moneen, and never one of that family died but she’d be heard keening them.
The Spinning Woman:
The Banshee is all I ever saw myself. It was when I was a slip of a girl picking potatoes along with the other girls, we heard crying, crying, in the graveyard beyond at Ryanrush, so we ran like foals to see who was being buried, and I was the first, and leaped up on the wall. And there she was and gave me a slap on the jaw, and she just like a countrywoman with a red petticoat. Often they hear her crying if any one is going to die in the village.
A Seaside Woman:
One time there was a man in the village was dying and I stood at the door in the evening, and I heard a crying – the grandest cry ever you heard – and I said “Glynn’s after dying and they’re crying him.” And they all came to the door and heard it. But my mother went out after that and found him gasping still.
Sure enough it was the Banshee we heard that evening.
And out there where the turf-boat is lying with its sail down, outside Aughanish, there the Banshee does always be crying, crying, for some that went down there some time.
At Fiddoon that strip of land between Tyrone and Duras something appears and cries for a month before any one dies. A great many are taken away sudden there; and they say that it’s because of that thing.
The Banshee cries every time one of the Sionnacs dies. And when the old Captain died, the crows all left the place within two days, and never came back for a year.
A Connemara Woman:
There was a boy from Kylemore I met in America used to be able to tell fortunes. He used to be telling them when the work would be done, and we would be having afternoon tea. He told me one time I would soon be at a burying, and it would be a baby’s burying, and I laughed at that, but sure enough, my sister’s baby, that was not born at the time, died about a month after, and I went to its burying.
Crying for those that are going to die you’d hear of often enough. And when my own wife was dying, the night she went I was sitting by the fire, and I heard a noise like the blow of a flail on the door outside. And I went to see what it was, but there was nothing there. But I was not in any way frightened and wouldn’t be if she came back in a vision, but glad to see her I would be.
There was a man that was Out in the field and a flock of stares (starlings) came about his head, and it wasn’t long after that he died.
There’s many say they saw the Banshee, and that if she heard you singing loud she’d be very apt to bring you away with her.
A Connemara Woman:
One night the clock in my room struck six and it had not struck for years, and two nights after – on Christmas night – it struck six again, and afterwards I heard that my sister in America had died just at that hour. So now I have taken the weights off the clock, that I wouldn’t hear it again.
It was always said that when a Lord died, a fox was seen about the house. When the last Lord – lay dying, his daughter heard a noise outside the house one night, and opened the hall-door, and then she saw a great number of foxes laying on the steps and barking and running about.
And the next morning there was a meet at some distant covert – it had been changed there from hard by where it was to have taken place on account of his illness – and there was not a single fox to be found there or in any other covert. And that day he died.
There was one Costello used to be ringing the bell and pumping water and such things at Roxborough, and one day he was at the fair of Loughrea. And as he started home he sent word to my grandfather “Come to the corner of the old castle and you’ll find me dead.” So he set out, and when he got to the corner of the castle, there was Costello lying dead before him.
And once going to a neighbour’s house to see a little girl, I saw her running along the path before me. But when I got to the house she was in bed sick, and died two days after.
Well, the time my own wife died I had sent her into Cloon to get some things from the market, and I was alone in the house with the dog. And what do you think but he started up and went out to the hill outside the house, and there he stood a while howling, and it was the very next day my wife died.
Another time I had shut the house door at night and fastened it, and in the morning it was standing wide open. And as I knew by the dates afterwards that was the very night my brother died in India.
Sure I told Stephen Green that, when he buried his mother in England, and his father lying in Kilmacdaugh. “You should never separate,” says I, “in death a couple that were together in life, for sure as fate, the one’ll come to look for the other.”
And when there’s one of them passing in the air you might get a blast of holy wind you wouldn’t be the better of for a long time.
I was in Galway yesterday, and I was told there that the night before those four poor boys were drowned, there were four women heard crying out on the rocks. Those that saw them say that they were young, and they were out of this world. And one of those boys was out at sea all day, the day before he was drowned. And when he came in to Galway in the evening, some boy said to him “I saw you today standing up on the high bridge.” And he was afraid and he told his mother and said
“Why did they see me on the high bridge and I out at sea?” And the next day he drowned. And some say there was not much at all to drown them that day.
A Man near Athenry:
There is often crying heard before a death, and in that field beside us the sound of washing clothes with a beetle is some-times heard before a death.
I heard crying in that field near the forth one night, and not long after the man it belonged to died.
An Aran Man:
I remember one morning, St. Bridget’s Eve, my son-in-law came into the house, where he had been up that little road you see above. And the wife asked him did he see any one, and he said “I saw Shamus Meagher driving cattle.” And the wife said, “You couldn’t see him, for he’s out laying spillets since daybreak with two other men.” And he said, “But I did see him, and I could have spoke with him.”
And the next day – St. Bridget’s Day – there was confessions in the little chapel below and I was in it, and Shamus Meagher, and it was he that was kneeling next to me at the Communion. But the next morning he and two other men that had set the spillets went on in their canoe to Kilronan for salt, for they had come short of salt and had a good deal of fish taken. And that day the canoe was upset, and the three of them were drowned.
My father and my mother were in the bed one night and they heard a great lowing and a noise of the cattle fighting one another, that they thought they were all killed, and they went out and they were quiet then. But they went onto the next house where they heard a lowing, and all the cattle of that house were fighting one another, and so it was at the next. And in the morning a child, one Gannon, was dead-or taken he was.
An Old Man in Aran:
When I was in the State of Maine, I knew a woman from the County Cork, and she had a little girl sick. And one day she went out behind the house and there she saw the fields full of those – full of them. And the little girl died.
And when I was in the same State, I was in the house where there was a child sick. And one night I heard a noise outside, as if of hammering. And I went out and I thought it came from another house that was close by that no one lived in, and I went and tried the door but it was shut up.
And I went back and said to the woman, “This is the last night you’ll have to watch the child.” And at 12 o’clock the next evening it died.
They took my hat from me one time. One morning just at sunrise I was going down to the sea, and a little storm came, and took my hat off and brought it a good way, and then it brought it back and returned it to me again.
An Old Midwife:
I do be dreaming, dreaming. I dreamt one night I was with my daughter and that she was dead and put in the coffin. And I heard after, the time I dreamt about her was the very time she died.
A Woman near Loughrea:
There are houses in Cloon, and Geary’s is one of them, where if the people sit up too late the warning comes; it comes as a knocking at the door. Eleven o’clock, that is the hour. It is likely it is some that lived in the house are wanting it for themselves at the time. And there is a house near the Darcys’ where as soon as the potatoes are strained from the pot, they must put a plateful ready and leave it for the night, and milk and the fire on the hearth, and there is not a bit left at morning. Some poor souls that come in, looking for warmth and for food.
There is a woman seen often before a death sitting by the river and racking her hair, and she has a beetle with her and she takes it and beetles clothes in the river. And she cries like any good crier; you would be sorry to be listening to her.
I heard the Banshee and saw her. I and six others were card playing in the kitchen at the big house, that is sunk into the ground, and I saw her up outside of the window. She had a white dress and it was as if held over her face.
They all looked up and saw it, and they were all afraid and went back but my-self. Then I heard a cry that did not seem to come from her but from a good way off, and then it seemed to come from herself. She made no attempt to twist a mournful cry but all she said was, “Oh-oh, Oh-oh,” but it was as mournful as the oldest of the old women could make it, that was best at crying the dead.
Old Mr. Sionnac was at Lisdoonvarna at that time, and he came home a few days after and took to the bed and died. It is always the Banshee has followed the Sionnacs and cried them.
There was a boy of the Naughtons died not far from this, a fine young man. And I set out to go to the burying, and Mrs. Burke along with me. But when we came to the gate we could hear crying for the dead, and I said “It’s as good for us wait where we are, for they have brought the corpse out and are crying him.”
So we waited a while and no one came, and so we went on to the house, and we had two hours to wait before they brought out the corpse for the burying, and there had been no crying at all till he was brought out. We knew then who it was crying, for if the boy was a Naughton, it is in a house of the Kearns he died, and the Banshee always cries for the Kearns.
There’s a boy I’m attending now, and the first time I went to him, the mother came out of the house with me and said “It’s no use to do anything for him, I’m going to lose him.” And I asked her why did she say that, and she said “Because the first night he took ill I heard the sound of a chair drawing over to the fire in the kitchen, and it empty, and it was the faeries were coming for him.”
The boy wouldn’t have had much wrong with him, but his brother had died of phthisis, and when he got a cold he made sure he would die too, and he took to the bed. And every day his mother would go in and cry for an hour over him, and then he’d cry and then the father would cry, and he’d say “Oh, how can I leave my father and my mother!
Who will there be to mind them when I’m gone?” One time he was getting a little better they sent him over on a message to Scahanagh, and there’s a man there called Shanny that makes coffins for the people. And the boy saw Shanny looking at him, and he left his message undone and ran home and cried out “Oh, I’m done for now! Shanny was looking at me to see what size coffin I’d take!” And he cried and they all cried and all the village came in to see what was the matter.
The Old Army man:
As to the invisible world, I hear enough about it, but I have seen but little myself. One night when I was at Calcutta I heard that one Connor was dead – a man that I had been friendly with – so I went to the house.
There was a good many of us there, and when it came to just before midnight, I heard a great silence fall, and I looked from one to another to see the silence. And then there came a knock at the window, just as the clock was striking twelve. And Connor’s wife said, “It was just at this hour last night there came a knock like that and immediately afterwards he died.”
And the strange thing is, it was a barrack-room and on the second story, so that no one could reach it from the street.
In India, before Delhi, there was an officer’s servant lodged in the same house as me, and was thrown out of his cot every night. And as sure as midnight came, the dogs couldn’t stop outside but would come shrinking and howling into the house.
Yes indeed, I believe the faeries are in all countries, all over the world; but the banshee is only in Ireland, though sometimes in India I would think of her when I’d hear the hyenas laughing. Keening, keening, you can hear her, but only for the old Irish families, but she’ll follow them even as far as Dublin.
Source: Lady Augusta Gregory – Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, first published 1920.
republished by Colin Smythe Ltd., 1992.