The Banshee Wail: Ireland’s Scariest Sound

It’s a bit of a mystery how an island beloved for having one of the friendliest cultures on earth is also the home of some of the world’s scariest traditions and legends. Halloween began here as Samhain, the last day of the Celtic year when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was at it’s thinnest. That means that all manner of ghosts and ghouls can pop over to visit – and terrorise – the living. Dracula might have been a Romanian count, but it was an Irish author who wrote his story and made him famous around the world. Literature is one of the most enduring Irish gifts, and Ireland has bragging rights to a huge number of terrifying tales both ancient and new.

Jack-O-Lanterns in spooky Halloween Setting
Halloween – Inspired by the Celtic Festival of Samhain

Perhaps the most horrifying of all the Irish legends is that of the banshee. This unworldly woman portends death by screaming in the night – but she never indicates who will die or how. For centuries, Irish people have heard her chilling wail pierce the night and wondered for whom she called this time. Imagine walking home at night a century ago in the countryside, the moon hidden behind the thick clouds, when a sound slices the air. It is almost like a woman screaming, but not quite. Shadows move in the hedgerows on either side of the dark lane. You aren’t alone. Someone’s time is up, but whose?

Sketch depicting a Banshee
Sketch depicting a Banshee
Who Is the Banshee?

The word ‘banshee’ comes from the Irish words for woman (bean) and fairy (sidh). She is an elusive creature, rarely seen, but with many forms. The banshee is always in the form of a human woman, but she can appear as a beautiful young woman or an aged crone or at any stage in between. She does have one consistent trait that helps us poor mortals identify her: her hair. It is silver, not grey, but a sparkling, metallic silver. And it is long and flowing. But no matter how gorgeous she looks, no one wants to meet or even see her. What we dread more, however, is hearing her.

The banshee takes on many forms

Some people do think they have another explanation for those chilling, soul-shaking screams heard in the night around Ireland. It happens that another Irish creature known to roam the countryside and urban streets makes an unnerving screaming sound at night. The male fox screams in the mating season as he struts about looking for a lady friend. (And no doubt those foxy ladies have a very different reaction to his voice than we humans do.)

Irish Fox in Hedgerow
Irish Fox in Hedgerow

But the fact that the fox screams doesn’t mean he is the only creature shrieking in the night. Wouldn’t people have known about the fox’s mating call? Couldn’t we have both foxes and banshees? After all, foxes have a mating season that runs from January through March. So who is screaming the rest of the year?