Banshee (The); The Irish Death Messenger

The Banshee; The Irish Death Messenger (2nd ed) by Patricia Lysaght. Boulder, CO: Roberts Rinehart, 1996. ISBN 1-57098-138-8 $16.95 434 pp.

"The Banshee was probably once a patron goddess and personification of the land"

I must confess that before I read this book, the only image I had of the banshee was that of the ghostly creature in the movie Darby a'Gill and the Little People. As I child I knew that the banshee was a death messenger and that it keened wildly, but as it seemed unlikely that any banshees had travelled from Ireland to the U.S. I didn't think much about them. Imagine my surprise when I read here that the banshee is most often described as a woman. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly. Often old and small but occasionally young and tall. Usually with long flowing hair of grey, or white, or, on rare occasions, gold. And, there are reports of Irish-American families being visited by banshees!

Source material

Lysaght's book, based on her doctoral thesis, is a treasure trove of information on this supernatural creature. She draws on primary source material collected, but never published, in the 60 year period from the 1920' s to 1980, and also on responses to questionnaires sent out in the late 1970's. Her secondary source material includes reputable printed material from the 19th and 20th centuries. Literary sources were used only when they could be supported by corresponding evidence from folklore sources, since literature is subject to tampering for artistic, religious, moral, or ideological reasons. From all of this, Lysaght produced 13 chapters which cover topics including the aural and visual manifestations of the banshee, the situations of manifestations (time and place), origins of the death messenger belief, interference legends. and continuity and change.

Origins of the banshee

What are the origins of the banshee, and what, indeed, is she - fairy, fallen angel, ghost of a mortal? Lysaght’s investigations indicate that she was most probably once a patron goddess and personification of the land, caring for the fortunes of the people in the locality associated with her. "Her continuing significance and relevance today ," says the author, "lie rather in the believer's perception of her as a family messenger of death - one of 'your own' coming to announce death and to accompany you...across the great divide into the company of your ancestors."

Read this book and you will discover if your family is one of those known to have a banshee (usually a "mac" or "O" family, since these are the most ancient Irish family names), and you'll learn how to hand back the comb of the banshee should you pick it up when she drops it. For that matter, you'll read various theories as to why the banshee is often seen combing her hair, and you'll learn how she has evolved, and is continuing to evolve, with societal changes. You will also discover some literary speculation about banshees, totally without foundation in genuine folk tradition according to Lysaght, which has achieved the status of fact in some books of folklore.

There are 180 pages of appendices with information in English and the Irish language, and even several musical notations of the banshee's wail as heard and noted by some who have heard it. An exhaustive study of a fascinating topic.

The Second Story Review, Vol 3, No. 3, Sep 1998
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