While I was growing up in Ireland, I was told stories of the Banshee at bedtime, and they always terrified me.
The word ‘Banshee’ comes from the old Irish ‘Ben síde’, which means ‘Woman of the fairy mound’.
It is said that the Banshee’s scream foretells the passing of someone close to the one who hears her scream.
Below, you’ll find where the Banshee originated and discover the tales I was told while growing up in Ireland.
Some quick need-to-knows about the Banshee
Before we get into the legend, let’s quickly tackle the questions ‘What is a Banshee?’ along with what it looks and sounds like.
1. What is a Banshee
The Banshee is a fairy from old Irish folklore. It is said that if you hear a Banshee’s scream, it is a warning that someone close to you is on the verge of passing.
2. What does a Banshee sound like
The Banshee is known for its spine-tingling scream. You will hear many different accounts from across Ireland about the true sound, but the Banshee is said to sound like a woman wailing in a distressed manner.
3. What does a Banshee look like
The form of the Banshee varies, with many saying it looks like a haggard old woman in dark clothing with long, lank hair. However, you will hear others say it has glowing red eyes from the constant crying that it does.
4. What is the meaning of a Banshee
According to Irish mythology, a Banshee is a warning sign. The legend goes that, if you hear a Banshee’s scream, someone close to you will pass soon.
About the legend of the Banshee
Now, a quick disclaimer – the legend of the Banshee rarely takes one form, which tends to happen with many stories of Irish mythological creatures.
The reason for this is that the tale was likely altered slightly over time by many different storytellers. However, many of the core elements of the legend remain consistent, as you’ll discover below.
The myth in Ireland as I was told it
I first heard of the Banshee from my Dad. I was maybe 7 or 8 and it was during a bed time story. He said that the story I’m about to tell you was told to him by his father back in the early 1960s.
For context, he grew up in a rural part of North County Dublin, in an old, weather-beaten cottage with a long back garden that became pitch-black at nightfall.
He says his father told him that the family (which had ‘O’ in the surname – more on this below) had its own Banshee. One night, my dad was using the bathroom, which was in an outbuilding.
He heard a strange crying nose which steadily grew louder and more erratic. He panicked and ran to the house to tell his father, thinking that someone was hurt.
When he told his father what he heard, his father looked shocked and worried. He quickly locked the doors and brought my dad into the living room, telling him is was likely a fox.
It wasn’t until many years later that my grandad told my dad that what he heard that night was a Banshee. No (thankfully) strange passings took place after he heard it, meaning it was likely an animal.
Tales of the Banshee crop up across Ireland, with people claiming to see or hear a banshee. Some claim the Banshee scream was followed by a loved one passing. Others say they saw one, were terrified and that nothing happened.
It originated with Keening
Many believe that the legend of the Banshee originated from the tradition of ‘Keening‘, which is a passionate expression of grief.
The word ‘Keen’ comes from the Gaelic word ‘caoineadh’, which means to cry or weep and it used to be an Irish funeral ritual.
Here’s where things get a little strange – people used to pray women to ‘Keen’. It was often carried out by either one or a number of women and it’s believed that some were regularly paid to do so.
It’s believed that much of the legend of the Banshee stems from this. However, the main difference between Banshees and Keening women is that the Banshees can predict the passing of someone, which is why they spark fear in many.
The link to certain families
I was recently at a weekend away with a group of friends and one of their fathers. He grew up in Portrane – a once remote and rural peninsula in County Dublin.
We were chatting about old Irish legends and the story of the Banshee came up. He told me how he and many others believe that certain families have their own Banshees.
He claimed that people with ‘Ó’ or ‘Mc/Mac’ in their Irish surnames were the ones that are mostly linked to Banshees. A weird coincidence considering I’m an ‘O’Hara’ and he’s a ‘McMahon’.
I’ve also heard people say that other old Irish families, like the O’Brien’s, the O’Connor’s, the O’Neills, the Kavanagh’s and the O’Gradys could hear the cry of the Banshee.
Are they real?
The two most common emails we get about Irish folklore as ‘What is a Banshee?’ and ‘Are Banshees real?’
Like many of the tales from Irish folklore, the existence of the Banshee is… a grey area. Some will swear blind that they saw the spirit of a female wailing down their garden and that death followed soon after.
Others will tell stories of a terrifying wailing that they heard but that they couldn’t find the origin of the sound. One theory is that many people mistake the scream of an owl or a fox for the Banshee.
In particular, the sound of a rabbit ‘screaming’ is particularly frightening if you’ve never heard it before. Now, belief in the Banshee has dwindled rapidly over the years.
A hundred years ago, things were different, naturally enough. People were more superstitious, for one thing. Personally, I think this one’s a Celtic myth… I hope it is, anyway!
Another story appears to link the Banshee to the Morrigan (another popular figure in Irish and Celtic mythology).
FAQs about the Banshee
We’ve had a lot of questions over the years asking about everything from ‘Is the Banshee an animal?’ to ‘Are Banshees real?’.
In the section below, we’ve popped in the most FAQs that we’ve received. If you have a question that we haven’t tackled, ask away in the comments section below.
Is there an animal that sounds like a Banshee?
Many people think they hear the Banshee scream, but it ends up being an animal. Foxes, in particular, make a high pitched scream that can sound like a person. Certain types of owls can also make eerie cries.
Are Banshees real in Ireland?
Banshees are part of Irish folklore. While strongly liked to the traditional of ‘Keening’, it is likely that many mistake the Banshee scream with the sound of an animal, like a fox.
Keith O’Hara has lived in Ireland for 34 years and has spent most of the last 10 years creating what is now The Irish Road Trip guide. Over the years, the website has published thousands of meticulously researched Ireland travel guides, welcoming 30 million+ visitors along the way. In 2022, the Irish Road Trip team published the world’s largest collection of Irish Road Trip itineraries. Keith lives in Dublin with his dog Toby and finds writing in the 3rd person minus craic altogether.