The Banshee

The Bunworth Banshee, Thomas Crofton Croaker, 1825.

When it comes to Irish folk tradition I think it fair to say that one of the most iconic creatures that springs to mind is the Banshee (Bean Sídhe or Bean Sí). The core elements and descriptions have remained pretty much unchanged throughout time and you would be hard pressed to find any child or adult the length and breadth of Ireland that hasn’t heard of her, and ask any old timer and you are almost guaranteed to be regaled with a story of a personal encounter, or at the very least knowledge of someone they know having had an encounter with this denizen of the otherworld. The term Banshee, a term that is in use throughout Ireland in both urban and rural areas, and has been in common usage since around the 17th century (but accounts of the supernatural death messenger go much further back). The popularity of this name may owe something to literary sources. The name Bean sídhe comes from the old Irish ben side meaning “otherworldly woman” or “woman of the mounds” ( the word Sídhe can mean either “mound” or “otherworld”). Many people interpret it as meaning “fairy woman” but I would be inclined to agree with Patricia Lysaght  in regard to this particular translation being problematic (although technically correct etymologically)  due to there being many traits of the bean sídhe being completely different to the people we term “Fairies”. The Fairies, or daoine sídhe, are usually depicted as social creatures who live in communities and are often married with children. These communities can interact with humans in either a friendly or unfriendly manner and have even been known to have human lovers. The death messenger on the other hand is a solitary creature who is never seen as living in a community of “banshees”. She is never said to be married nor is there any accounts of her doing a “kind turn” for humans, despite not being particularly malevolent. There are many erroneous memes floating around with false etymologies of this name, for instance the that claims the word banshee comes from “bán Sí” meaning “white fairy” which is wrong on every level.

There are however other names or terms used for the Banshee such as “bean chaointe” (keening woman), “Badhb” (Bibe), “Babha” (bow) or any combination such as Bo chaointe. The name Badbh comes from a war goddess attested in early Irish literature as an announcer of death who took the form of a scald crow. While there is no tradition in living memory of the banshee appearing as a scald crow (lysaght,1996:106), the tradition remained that the scald crow is seen an omen of death. Another interesting connection between divine female figure and the Banshee may be seen if we look to areas (south east) where the banshee is known as the “Badhb”.

It is said that the Banshee takes the shape of a young girl with golden hair and dressed in a shimmering white garment. The banshee is still heard in this part of Clare. They say that it is the same Banshee that comes to the O’Briens always since the days of Brian Boru.  Informant: Mr John Connery,60, Glennagross, Co. Clare, Collector: Bean Uí Mhórdha, Meelick, Co. Clare. NFSC,Vol.0597:339

Here we may very much be looking echoes of a goddess and this can be seen in descriptions of her physical appearance. While in most areas she is seen as on old haggard woman with white or grey hair, the Badhb area often reports her as being tall, youthful and beautiful with blonde hair and white clothes. This is a stark contrast to the old disheveled and diminished look reported elsewhere. This more “popular” disheveled look interestingly starts to come to the fore around the 17th century.

“The Banshee is supposed to be a little old woman who is crying”.                    INFORMANT: Elizabeth Field, Coultry, Co. Dublin. NFSC: Vol.0792:285

Does this point to the goddess figure diminishing in status around the time of 16th/17th century with the dispossession of the Gaelic chieftains with a vestige of this Celtic matriarchal deity surviving in the Badhb area?  I would also argue that a reflex of a goddess may be seen in the fact that strong attention is paid to the male line of important ancient Gaelic families. This, to me, brings to mind a possible link to the sovereignty goddess although I will admit the argument doesn’t carry much weight.

Traditionally the Bean Sídhe  was believed to follow the ancient Gaelic families of Ireland, those being names with “O” or “Mac”. There don’t seem to be any accounts of any being attached to families who came to Ireland after the 17th century but there are accounts of some Norman or Norse descendants and also with some families “who came with Cromwell” having their own Banshee. Of the latter we have an account collected by Eddie Lenihan: “ This story of the banshee only being for the O’s and Mac’s is not right. Not right. Because the Frosts had a banshee, and other families I know came in with Cromwell. Do you know the Frosts came into Ireland in front of the Cromwellian army playing music? “ (Lenihan, :204)


As mentioned above The banshee is generally heard and not seen although there are also many, often contradictory, accounts recorded of her appearance. The more common depiction of the often small aged woman with unbound, free flowing white or grey hair and black clothes are very reminiscent of what could be argued to be her human counterpart, the bean chaointe or keening woman. These women who dressed in black were generally of advanced years with all illustrations of them showing them with their hair unbound. If fact it is believed in some areas that the banshee was formerly a keening woman who had sinned or not performed her job well enough. As the banshee is often said to be combing her hair, this has been interpreted by some as announcing the work of the bean Bhán or washer woman in charge of the preparation of the body prior to being laid out. It has been interpreted by others as being reminiscent of the tearing of hair, an act universally associated with grief and mourning and also a key part of the demonstrative behaviour of the keening women.

Aural manifestations

As I mentioned previously, the banshee is quite often heard and not seen and her quintessential Cry or gol is one of the most characteristic traits associated with this otherworldly death messanger. This cry is often the only thing that is reported, such as in cork and Kerry where you do not get accounts of what she looks like. The cry is often compared to being the call of a wild animal but this is often dismissed due to the omni-directional nature of the scream, its ability to travel at great speed, its duration, and its repetition and loudness (Lysaght, 1996). The gol  is similar to that of the mortal keening women in that it has no discernible words or distinguishable melody (The keeners lament consists of two parts the caoineadh which contains a verse and refrain and the gol). A number of different descriptions of the banshees Gol can be found and can be categorized in two groups in relation to the nature of the description:

Group (A): Cry, gol, wail, olagón, ochaón, lóg, lógaireacht, caoineadh, keen, moan.      Sorrow and grief are the key elements of this group and are associated with the mourning and wailing sounds of the human keening women and as such may point to the banshee being the “supernatural counterpart” of human  professional mourners (lysaght,1996:69)

Group (B): roar, scream, shriek, screech, scréach, béic, call glaoch, liú.                                    Fear is the presiding element here and these are mostly found in the badbh area (as described earlier). Here we see more of a connection to the supernatural and non- human sphere, although we do find some of these descriptors being applied to keening especially in the case of those hostile to the practice.

It should also be mentioned that while the banshee is not overtly malevolent, there is a tradition of stories where she can be a force to be reckoned with. This of course only applies to people who steal or find her comb. To the person unlucky enough to find/ steal this will be followed or chased to their house where the banshee proceeds to bash at the door or walls of the house until it is returned. This is almost always invariably returned through a window while being held with and iron thongs (Iron being an age old deterrent against evil, which I covered  in a previous post here). The tongs are often damaged, and it is understood that the arm would have been injured or torn off had they used their hand to turn the object. In one of these accounts the collector was brought to the ruin of a local house and showed the crack going up the gable end of the house which was explained as having being put there from the banshee trying to get her comb back from the occupant of the house at the time.

“A man took the comb of the Banshee and she began crying around this house all night. The next day the man went to priest and told him what he had done and he priest told the man to give the comb back to the Banshee when she’d come the next night and to give it to her with a thongs through the window. He did and she took half of the tongs with her as well. It was well for him that he did so, if not she would have broken his hand off”.                                                                                                                           INFORMANT:John Ryan, 48, Bannow Moor, Co. Wexford. COLLECTOR: Tomás Breatnach, Carrick, Co. Wexford , NFSC:VOL.0876:041.

The Irish Wake and its Gender Roles


When looking at the lifecycle in terms of folklore it cannot escape ones notice that many aspects of the life cycle have clearly defined gender roles. For the purpose of brevity in this essay I will focus on the death aspect of the lifecycle. I will focus on the rituals around death, namely the wake and how specific roles are gender specific, i.e. keening women (and the supernatural equivalent, the Bean Sí) and preparation of the body etc. Since the female roles are most prevalent according to death rituals I will briefly touch on the role of the Borekeen, the male master of ceremonies in relation to the games played at wakes, as well as some other male roles, to provide some balance. I will also be looking at a couple of paintings that depict wakes and also a photograph because I believe that these items show an interesting gender separation that illustrate the other points I have mentioned above.

When looking at folklore it is clearly evident that the important female roles, i.e. the Bean Feasa, Bean Bhán, Bean Chaointe and Bean Ghluine, are concerned with crisis points in the life cycle and are all insulated against the supernatural. In the case of the bean chaointe and the bean bhán, they are insulated against the malevolent power of death. We know that not all women were insulated in this fashion by the example of the the taboo for pregnant women to be present at a wake (Ó Crualaoich,1998:179)

Bean Chaointe/ keening women

The keen or lament was a central component in the rituals concerning death and from almost all the accounts passed down we can see that it was primarily a female role. The accounts of women performing laments far outweigh the number concerning men, in fact there are very few at all concerning men. In Irish Wake Amusements we get one of these rare accounts where a man composed a lament for his son (Ó Suilleabháin,1969:133). Angela Burke describes the lament or coaineadh as “a highly articulate tradition of women’s poetry” (Bourke,1988:287), a fact that is backed up by Patricia Lysaght when she says that  lamentation was a “central element of the culture of women” (Lysaght,1997:65). Lysaght goes on to say that this part of the ritual was so important that messengers would be sent great distances to find keening women, not only for people of the community but also if a stranger happened to die in the community (Lysaght,1997:67).  In effect the keener was a psychopomp  and the keen itself originally served a ritual function to help the soul travel from the world of the living into the spirit world (Ó Madagáin,2006:81). As mentioned above most accounts point to it being almost solely the domain of women. The practice eventually began to receive opposition from the clergy and accounts from synods around the 17th century onwards always mention women as keeners with the exception of the diocese of Leighlin that mentions the hiring “of men and women” (O Suilleabháin,1969:139). The synod of Armagh (1670) mentions that no member of the clergy would attend a wake at which “female keeners cried or screamed” (O Suilleabháin,1969:138). We also see similar at the Synod of Tuam (1660) and the Synod of Dublin (1670) where they mention how people were “hiring female keeners at wakes” and how they had to “bring an end to the wailing and screaming of female keeners” respectively (O Suilleabháin,1969:138). We cannot really tell with these older accounts if this was the norm, or if it was just the patriarchal nature of the church trying to stamp out the female aspect of the native tradition. We also see the male aspect trying to force itself into the funeral process in stories of clashes between the bean chaointe and the priests near the graveyard, which often erupted in violence, such as the priest attacking the keeners with a horsewhip (Ó Crualaoich,1998:154). Of course, this is not just male vs female but could also be looked at as ancestral vs popular religion. Although, that being said, many of the more modern accounts tell us exactly the same thing, that keeners were women.   Kevin Danaher tells that the keen was performed by the “old women of the place who were skilled in the art” (Danaher,1962:175).

Bean Sídhe

We can safely say from looking at the evidence that the transition of the soul/ spirit is in the hands of a human female agent but interestingly a female otherworld equivalent, the ‘banshee’, can be found in accounts throughout the country also. As the “bean sídhe” can be said to “sing” death into the community, the “bean chaointe” is seen to “sing” it out’ (Ó Crualaoich). There are a number of striking resemblances between the two that that back this theory up. We are told that the “gol” or cry was the most important constituent of the keen (Ó Madagáin,2006:84) and this bears striking resemblance to descriptions of the singular cry of the banshee.  When looking at details of the banshee’s cry we see reports such as “mournful cry”, a “wailing, piercing cry” and “pitiful” (Lysaght,1967:104).  The descriptions of this unnatural scream mirror those given of keening women and how they “shake the roof with their female crying and lamentation” (O suilleabháin,1969:134) and their “all unnatural screams” (O suilleabháin,1969:138). It is not just aural descriptions, but also physical that link these two together. Although the colour of her hair, and in some cases her age, changes, the bean sí is most often described as having long, often white, untied hair (lysaght,1967:348). This is strikingly similar to the keening women (who mostly consisted of older women and would most likely have had grey or white hair) and who wore their hair “dishevelled and unbound” (Norris: 1987:348) in a similar fashion. In many narratives of the bean sí she is not only described as crying but is also often told to be “tearing her hair” (Lysaght: 1967:104). This again is mirrored in the behaviour of her human counterpart where we are told that keeners “Beat their breasts, tear their hair and cry” (Ó Crualaoich,1998:150). The parallels between these two intrinsically connected females did not escape the keeners themselves. One informant claimed she was afraid that after death she might become a bean sí herself and described the bean sí as being “one of the oul criers” (Lysaght,1967:104). This lies in the belief that if a keener does not perform her job correctly that she is doomed to become a bean sí after death and is one of the origin myths for the bean sí.

Bean bhán

Keening was not the only aspect of death that primarily lay in the hands of women. There was a taboo against the family members to touch the body after death (Ó Crualaoich,1990:152) and this job was once again in the hands of women who were insulated against the malevolent power of death. It was carried out by the women termed bean bháin, literally meaning white women (due to the white sheets used). Sean Ó Suilleabháin tells us that the laying out of the corpse was done by a few neighbouring women who have had previous experience in doing so (O Suilleabháin,1969:13) but he gives no indication that this was even a semi-professional role like the keeners. In another source we are told that it was the oldest woman in the townland who was in charge of washing and preparing the corpse (Ó Crualaoich,1998:181). We can see these women are insulated from the supernatural forces from the fact that both the water and sheets that come in contact with the body can be used in cures. The bean bháin is able to cut triangle out of the grave cloth and dispense them as cures (Ó Crualaoich,1998:181). Women are also seen to be the ones who watch over the corpse for the duration of the wake, as the body is not to be left unattended at any point. One or two women usually stay at the side of the corpse (O Suilleabháin,1969:13). The only element of the preparation of the body that may be carried out by a man is in relation to shaving the corpse. If the person had a custom of shaving then it was carried out by another neighbour (O Suilleabháin,1969:14). Although this passage does not tell us specifically that it was a man who carried out the shaving, the wording of the passage seems to infer that it was a male neighbour. This however is not the only male role that is involved in this critical point in the life cycle.


Male roles

Although the more spiritual and important matters are the domain of the female at this stage in the life cycle, this under no circumstance means that the male is cast aside and ignored or considered inconsequential. There are also clearly defined gender roles that are reserved for men. At least two men were sent out for the essential supplies needed for the wake (O Suilleabháin,1969:14). These supplies consisted of the food and drink to offer to people who come to pay their last respects. It was also down to these men to get the candles (usually 12) that were lit around the body. Other supplies included the tobacco, snuff and clay pipes that were a staple at wakes. The men sent to get these supplies would also buy either a coffin or the supplies to make the coffin.

The borekeen and wake games

It was only usual in most cases for wake games to be found at wakes of someone who had passed of natural cause or in old age. Young or tragic deaths were more sombre affairs and would not have seen this behaviour to the extent the others would have. As mentioned at the beginning these games and revelry were presided over by a male master of ceremonies, the borekeen. When death caused disruption in the community, the female was the agent ushering the soul into the otherworld, i.e. presiding over death and the male was the agent presiding over life, whose job it is to “reassert the continuing of vitality and the potential for renewal in the community” (Lysaght, 1997:65). As a result they were cosmologically opposed, (Ó Crualaoich,1990:147) in essence a balance or compliment to each other. As well as having a male figure presiding over the games, many of these games and pass times were male-centred. That is not to say that they were all just involving men, as there were many matchmaking type games played that involved both sexes, but most of the recorded games seem to involve just male participants. These were often in the form of feats of strength to show physical prowess and gain acclaim (O Suilleabháin,1969:38). Story telling was also a favourite at wakes, even the more solemn ones, and we are told how these stories were more often than not told by an elderly man (O Suilleabháin,1969:14), most likely a member of the community with some renown in telling stories. Similar to keening this sort of behaviour at wakes came up against opposition by the clergy who at the synod of Cashel and Emly (1720) thought “the purpose [of the wake] is being defeated when immodest games are carried on which suppress the memory of death in the minds of those present” (O Suilleabháin,1969:149). It is interesting that the reason they condemn these activities is in fact the core reason of their purpose: a coping mechanism to deal with impact of death among them. The merrymaking scene found at these wakes made it “as though such a thing as grief were not in the world “(Norris,1987:347). This function as a coping mechanism can also be said about keening. An account by Tom Ó Flatharthan tells us how whenever his mother became distressed, following the tragic death of her child, that she would keen him to release the emotional distress (Ó Madagáin, 2006:81).


Pictorial evidence

There are a number of paintings whose subject matter is based around a wake that I thought were worthy of inclusion as many of the things seen within the painting are backed up by the accounts. They provide an interesting view on the gendered aspects of the wake and should not be overlooked. I have included three examples in the appendix: The Wake by N.Grogan (hereafter fig.1), The Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child by F.W.Burton (hereafter Fig.2) and a photograph from the National Museum Archive of a funeral (hereafter Fig.3) and also (Fig.4) which is a drawing of what looks like keening women. I feel these best illustrate the evidence given so far. An element each share is the fact the coffin or corpse is surrounded by women. This is backed up in a number of the accounts (Oscar:1987:347, Ó Crualaoich,1990:150)  and seems to have been an important aspect even up to modern times.


Fig.1: The Wake by N. Grogan


When looking at this painting we see many of the elements featured in the accounts that when viewed in term of gender, are quite interesting. Near the hearth we see women crowded together practicing what looks like divination. Although not exclusively practiced by women it was certainly very common for women to do so. The game being played first and centre has a mix of boys and girls as it is not one of the feats of strength type games favoured by men and boys. To the left we see a group playing pranks (pipe exploding) and directly below them seems to be a bit of matchmaking taking place (which ties into the continuity of life in the face of death mentioned above). Moving towards the back we see what looks like a group of men involved in storytelling and drinking. Behind that we see the corpse with all the handy work of the ban bhán: the candles, sheets hung up and the corpse wrapped in a shroud. Next to the body we see it is mostly surrounded by mostly women.


 Fig.2: The Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child by F.W.Burton


Here we see a more solemn wake, absent games, because of a tragic death. We do however see the keening women in action. The exaggerated movements of the woman standing and the more reserved stance of the gentleman standing brings to mind an account where we are told “the womenfolk are more demonstrative than the men and much less reserved than the men” (O Suilleabháin,1969:38).

Fig.3: Photo


I included this simply because it shows a number of old women, most likely keeners, surrounding the coffins. Oscar tells us how “four or five aged females” surrounded the coffin (Oscar:1987:347) and another piece tells us how “The coffin was surrounded by a prodigious number of females who wept and chanted” (Ó Crualaoich,1990:150), both accounts describing an almost identical scenario to the photo.



This illustration fits in similar to Fig.2 above with the exaggerated movements and demonstrative behaviour of the women while lamenting and the men are more reserved.

The evidence provided above from both the written evidence passed down to us and also from the illustrations that the death aspect of the life cycle has clearly defined gender roles. Although there are elements of fluidity at rare occasions we see that the certain roles related to the rituals concerning death certainly favour certain genders. In the male capacity we see the borkeen and the men who fetch the supplies for the wake and in the female capacity we see the bean chaointe (and her supernatural counterpart, the bean sí) and the bean bhán all working together to help the spirit of the deceased pass into the next world and also to promote the continuity of life in the community.


 Bourke.A (1988), The Irish Lament and the Grieving Process, Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol.11, No.4.

Danaher.K (1962), In Ireland Long Ago, Mercier Press.

Lysaght.P (1976), Banshee Traditions in Béaloideas 1974-76, Iml.42/43, An Cumann le Béaloideas Eireann.

Lysaght.P (1988), Caoineadh os Cionn Coirp: The Lament for the Dead in Ireland, Folklore 108.

Newell.V (1987), Reviewed Works: The Banshee: The Irish Supernatural Death Messenger by Patricia Lysaght, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol.22, No.4.

Norris.L (1987), The Swanee Review: keening, Vol.95,No.4, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ó Crualaoich.G (1990), Contest in the Cosmology and the Ritual of the Irish Merry Wake, Cosmo: The Yearbook of the Traditional Cosmology Society, Vol.6, Edinburgh University Press.

Ó Crualaoich.G (1998), The Merry Wake in: Irish Popular culture 1650-1850, Ed. Donnolly.J & Miller.K, Irish Academic Press.

Ó Madagáin.B (2006), Keening and Other Old Irish Musics,  Clo Iar-Chonnachta.

Ó Súilleabháin.S (1967), Irish Wake Amusements, Mercier Press.

Oscar (1835), The Dublin Penny Journal: The Wake, Vol.3,  No.148.

Influence from the lecture notes (Photos and paintings sourced from powerpoint slides)  of Dr Stiofán Ó Cadhla and originally handed in as a class essay for the Folklore and Gender module, Folklore and Ethnology Department, University College Cork.