The Banshee is the quintessential Irish haunt. She can be a grey-haired old woman who washes the bloody shirts of the dead in a stream. Or a young woman with blood-red hair floating behind her like a pall. But the screams are always the same: the brain-splitting shriek keening through the night before dying away to a sob. Before morning, someone will die.
On this St. Patrick’s Day weekend, let us hear from Mr. Elliott O’Donnell, in an excerpt from his book, The Banshee, as he tells how each clan has its own unique banshee, with its own special method of signaling death.
“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.”
O’Donnell also asserts that the Banshee did not remain in Ireland, but wandered the globe, seeking those of the old Irish nobility. This particular story comes from the east of England. If we could unravel that puzzlement of initials and those dreaded dashes of anonymity, O’Donnell would say that we would find a victim with the blood of some noble Irish clan in his veins.
The following account was received from a gentleman of good position, whom I must term Mr. A. Z. He has given me the full names of all persons concerned, but is unwilling that they should be published on account of the painful character of the event recorded.—F. W. H. M.]
In 1876, I was living in a small agricultural parish in the East of England, one of my neighbours at the time being a young man, S. B., [Author’s note: These are not the proper initials of his name.] who had recently come into the occupation of a large farm in the place. Pending the alteration of his house he lodged and boarded with his groom at the other end of the village furthest removed from my own residence, which was half a mile distant and separated by many houses, gardens, a plantation and farm buildings. He was fond of field sports and spent much of his spare time during the season in hunting. He was not a personal friend of mine, only an acquaintance, and I felt no interest in him except as a tenant on the estate. I have asked him occasionally to my house as a matter of civility, but to the best of my recollection was never inside his lodgings.
One afternoon in March, 1876, when leaving, along with my wife, our railway station to walk home, I was accosted by S. B.; he accompanied us as far as my front gate, where he kept us in conversation for some time, but on no special subject. I may now state that the distance from this gate, going along the carriage drive, to the dining and breakfast-room windows is about 60 yards, both the windows of these rooms face the north-east and are parallel with the carriage drive. On S. B. taking leave of us my wife remarked, “Young B. evidently wished to be asked in, but I thought you would not care to be troubled with him.” Subsequently—about half-an-hour later—I again met him, and, as I was then on my way to look at some work at a distant part of the estate, asked him to walk with me, which he did. His conversation was of the ordinary character; if anything, he seemed somewhat depressed at the bad times and the low prices of farming produce. I remember he asked me to give him some wire rope to make a fence on his farm, which I consented to do. Returning from our walk, and on entering the village, I pulled up at the cross-roads to say good evening, the road to his lodgings taking him at right angles to mine. I was surprised to hear him say, “Come and smoke a cigar with me to-night?” To which I replied, “I cannot very well, I am engaged this evening.” “Do come,” he said. “No,” I replied “I will look in another evening.” And with this we parted. We had separated about 40 yards when he turned around and exclaimed, “Then if you will not come, goodbye.” This was the last time I saw him alive.
I spent the evening in my dining-room in writing, and for some hours I may say that probably no thought of young B. passed through my mind; the night was bright and clear, full or nearly full moon, still and without wind. Since I had come in slight snow had fallen, just sufficient to make the ground show white.
At about 5 minutes to 10 o’clock I got up and left the room, taking up a lamp from the hall table and replacing it on a small table standing in a recess of the window in the breakfast-room. The curtains were not drawn across the window. I had just taken down from the nearest bookcase a volume of “Macgillivray’s British Birds” for reference, and was in the act of reading the passage, the book held close to the lamp, and my shoulder touching the window shutter, and in a position in which almost the slightest outside sound would be heard, when I distinctly heard the front gate opened and shut again with a clap, and footsteps advancing at a run up the drive; when opposite the window the steps changed from sharp and distinct on gravel to dull and less clear on the grass slip below the window, and at the same time I was conscious that someone or something stood close to me outside, only the thin shutter and a sheet of glass dividing us. I could hear the quick panting laboured breathing of the messenger, or whatever it was, as if trying to recover breath before speaking. Had he been attracted by the light through the shutter? Suddenly, like a gunshot, inside, outside, and all around, there broke out the most appalling shriek—a prolonged wail of horror, which seemed to freeze the blood. It was not a single shriek, but more prolonged, commencing in a high key and then less and less, wailing away towards the north, and becoming weaker and weaker as it receded in sobbing pulsations of intense agony. Of my fright and horror I can say nothing—increased tenfold when I walked into the dining room and found my wife sitting quietly at her work close to the window, in the same line and distant only 10 or 12 feet from the corresponding window in the breakfast room. She had heard nothing. I could see that at once; and from the position in which she was sitting I knew she could not have failed to hear any noise outside and any footstep on the gravel. Perceiving I was alarmed about something, she asked, “What is the matter?” “Only someone outside,” I said. “Then why do you not go out and see? You always do when you hear any unusual noise.” I said, “There is something so queer and dreadful about the noise. I dare not face it. It must have been the Banshee shrieking.”
Young S. B., on leaving me, went home to his lodgings. He spent most of the evening on the sofa, reading one of Whyte Melville’s novels. Saw his groom at 9 o’clock and gave him orders for the following day. The groom and his wife, who were the only people in the house besides S. B., then went to bed.
At the inquest the groom stated that when about falling asleep, he was suddenly aroused by a shriek, and on running into his master’s room found him expiring on the floor. It appeared that young B. had undressed upstairs, and then came down to his sitting-room in trousers and nightshirt, had poured out half-a-glass of water, into which he emptied a small bottle of prussic acid (procured that morning under the plea of poisoning a dog, which he did not possess). He walked upstairs, and on entering his room drank off the glass, and with a scream fell dead on the floor. All this happened, as near as I can ascertain, at the exact time when I had been so much alarmed at my own house. It is utterly impossible that any sound short of a cannon shot could have reached me from B.’s lodgings, through closed windows and doors, and the many intervening obstacles of houses and gardens, farmsteads and plantations, &c
Having to leave home by the early train, I was out very soon on the following morning, and on going to examine the ground beneath the window found no footsteps on grass or drive, still covered with the slight sprinkling of snow- which had fallen on the previous evening.
The whole thing had been a dream of the moment—an imagination, call it what you will; I simply state these facts as they occurred, without attempting any explanation, which, indeed, I am totally unable to give. The entire incident is a mystery, and will ever remain a mystery to me. I did not hear the particulars of the tragedy till the following afternoon, having left home by an early train. The motive of suicide is said to be a love affair.
In a subsequent letter dated June 12th, 1885, Mr. A. Z. says:—
I have no objection to the publication of the narrative on the terms you mention (i.e., avoiding all chance of recognition) and omitting my name. The suicide took place in this parish on Thursday night, March 9th, 1876, at or about 10 p.m. The inquest was held on Saturday, 11th, by ___, the then coroner.
He has been dead some years, or I might perhaps have been able to obtain a copy of his notes then taken. You will probably find some notice of the inquest in the ___ of March 17th. As far as I can recollect, nothing except the bare fact appeared in print, as the family made every effort to suppress details. I did not myself hear any particulars of the event till my return home on Friday afternoon, 17 hours afterwards. The slight snow fell about 8 o’clock—not later. After this the night was bright and fine, and very still. There was also a rather sharp frost. I have evidence of all this to satisfy any lawyer.
I went early the next morning under the window to look for footsteps just before leaving home for the day. Perhaps it is not quite correct to call it snow; it was small frozen sleet and hail, and the grass blades just peeped through, but there was quite enough to have shown any steps had there been any.
I was not myself at the inquest, so in that case only speak from hearsay. In my narrative I say the groom was awoke by “a shriek.” I have asked the man [name given], and cross-questioned him closely on this point; and it is more correct to say by “a series of noises ending in a crash” or “heavy fall.” This is most probably correct, as the son of the tenant [name given] living in the next house was aroused by the same sort of sound coming through the wall of the house into the adjoining bedroom in which he was sleeping.
I do not, however, wish it to be understood that any material noises heard in that house or the next had any connection with the peculiar noises and scream which frightened me so much, as anyone knowing the locality must admit at once the impossibility of such sounds travelling under any conditions through intervening obstacles. I only say that the scene enacted in the one was coincident with my alarm and the phenomena attending it in the other.
I find by reference to the book of [name given], chemist, of ___, that the poison was purchased by young S. B. on March 8th. I enclose a note from Mrs. A. Z., according to your request.
The enclosed note, signed by Mrs. A. Z., also dated June 12th, 1885, is as follows :—I am able to testify that on the night of March 9th, 1876, about 10 o’clock, my husband, who had gone into the adjoining room to consult a book, was greatly alarmed by sounds which he heard, and described as the gate clapping, footsteps on the drive and grass, and heavy breathing close to the window—then a fearful screaming.
I did not hear anything.
He did not go to look round the house, as he would have done at any other time, and when I afterwards asked him why he did not go out, he replied, “Because I felt I could not.”
On going to bed he took his gun upstairs; and when I asked him why, said, “Because there must be someone about.”
He left home early in the morning, and did not hear of the suicide of Mr. S. B. until the afternoon of that day.
An article which we have seen in a local newspaper, narrating the suicide and inquest, confirms the above account of them.
Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 1886, p. 39
I’ve previously posted on a Banshee in Indiana (the story also appears in The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past, )and about Mary, Queen of Scots, wailing of death at the Tower of London. Mrs Daffodil Digresses shares a pathetic tale of an Irish Banshee. And I interviewed a witness to a banshee in Springboro, Ohio in Haunted Ohio III.
The Fairyist tells of a chilling Banshee in County Clare.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.