1) The bean sí (Banshee)

In folklore, the war-goddess has survived in some aspects in the supernatural personage of the Banshee, the anglicized form of Irish bean sí literally ‘woman-fairy’, i.e. ‘the otherworld lady’.1422 The tradition of the Banshee is widespread all over Ireland and the offshore islands.1423 She is a lonely female character who is usually attached to Irish families with a Gaelic surname, i.e. beginning with Ó or Mac, but this is not always the case. She is believed to come to announce the forthcoming death of member of the family, whether he lives in the area or abroad.1424 The sources generally indicate that she cannot be seen, except for a few which describe her as an ugly old woman wearing a shroud and combing her long grey hair while she is mourning for the impending deceased. All the collected statements concur to say that the announcement of the imminent death is conveyed by three piercing cries, which tend to be terrifying for the person who hears them. A testimony collected by Patricia Lysaght in Co. Laois perfectly illustrates this:

‘You know she would get on your nerves crying ; it’s terrible. It would bring the cold sweat out on you listening to her. This is mostly how you know that it was not something from here like.1425

In a tale entitled ‘The Banshee cries for the Boyles’, comprised in Henry Glassie’s Irish Folktales, the son relates his terrifying experience of the Banshee, who came to announce the death of his mother:1426

‘“I saw the Banshee when old Boyle’s mother died. I was coming home in the dusk with a load of sods, and the old grey horse and me mother with me.”
And she says to me, “Some poor woman has lost her man or maybe a son.” And the thing wore a shroud as if it had come from a coffin, and its hair was streaming in the wind. We both saw it.
And me mother, she says a prayer or maybe two. “That’s the Banshee”, says she.
“Aye, it cried for many an old family here, and some say it’s one that had gone before. Be that as it may, no human heart could utter such grief, so, mind ye, I doubt it.”1427

In the folk tradition of south-eastern Ireland, the Banshee bears names which are all derived from the name of the Irish goddess mentioned in the literary texts: Badb or Bodb. The badhbh-appellations differ in spelling and pronunciations from one county to another: badhb pronounced [bəib] in Waterford, south-Tipperary and south-Kilkenny; babha pronounced [bau] in Wexford, Carlow and south Kildare; and bo, or bodhbh chaointe (‘lamenting bodhbh’) in Kilkenny, mid-Tipperary and some parts of Laois.1428 The fact that the Banshee has names in the southern areas of the country similar to the name of the Irish war-goddess does not mean, however, that the Banshee is viewed in bird-shape like Badb, for she never appears in such a form in the folk legends. In addition to having this similar designation, one can notice that the Banshee and Bodhbh are both death-messengers, renowned for their shrill dreadful cries and generally described as ugly, frightful old women. It is significant that the crow is a fairly dreaded bird in folk superstition: it is regarded as a death omen coming from the otherworld.1429 It signifies either great misfortune or the imminent death of a member of the family of the person who sees such as bird. The raven thus clearly plays the part of the Banshee in folk beliefs. Nonetheless, some differences between the goddess and the fairy lady are noticeable. Contrary to the Badb, whose horrific shriek causes instant death and who delights in bloodshed on the battlefield, the Banshee or Bodhbh is not a hostile character and her scream is to be understood as a lament or wail, filled with sorrow and grief. She does not actually come to kill but to foretell death and to weep for the dead. She actually reflects the professional keening women, whose function is to mourn at wakes and funerals in Ireland.1430


Lysaght, 1996a ; Lysaght, 1979, pp. 7-29 ; Lysaght, 1996, pp. 152-165 ; Wood-Martin, 1902, pp. 364-371 ; Ackerman, 1990 ; Chalendon, 1994, pp. 295-301, 330-334 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 31-32 ; Chevallier & Gheerbrant, 1991, p. 430 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 33-34 ; Anwyl, in ERE, 5, p. 574 ; Evans-Wentz, 1911, pp. 188-189 ; Hull, 1928, p. 59.


Lysaght, 1996a, pp. 24-25: see the map of the general distribution of the death-messenger belief.


Hull, in ERE, vol. 5, 1955, p. 783.


Lysaght, 1996a, p. 84 (Laois 19)


For other stories about the banshee, see Yeats, 1888, pp. 108-127 ; Croker, 1998 ; O’Hanlon, 1870 ; O’Donnell, 1926 ; Todhunter, 1888.

Lysaght, 1996a, pp. 34-37 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 27-28 ; Chalendon, 1994, p. 301.


Glassie, 1987, p. 129.


Lysaght, 1996a, pp. 34-37 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 27-28 ; Chalendon, 1994, p. 301.


Evans-Wentz, 1911, pp. 251-252.


Lysaght, 1996a, pp. 38-40, 68-71 ; Lysaght, 1996, pp. 153-154 ; Lysaght, 1997, pp. 65-82 ; Sullivan, 2007, pp. 1-11.