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Stories From Another Time

The Banshee

© G.H.E.W

“The cry of the banshee is a blood curdling cry.
It pierces the silence of the midnight sky
And those who have heard it never leave us in doubt
That at midnight from their homes they never more venture out”
.
[Extract from a poem by Francis Duggan.]

At just thirteen-year-old, young Eliza Jane Kearney was an authority on matters relating to the Banshee; that spirit from the fairy mound, bedizened with streaming silvery hair and dressed in flowing translucent, silvery apparel.

She had been made aware not only of the Banshee’s very existence, but also her true purpose, as the descendant of the Celtic-triple goddess of death and destruction. Eliza Jane education after all had come from stories extolled by her nearby adult neighbours, who regularly gathered around her grandmother’s warm log fire of a winter’s evening.

In particular, on a Sunday night they would religiously turn up, as if duty-bound, to hear the weeks omnibus edition of “The Archers”, followed by the BBC World Service News, broadcast on her grandmothers crackly wet and dry battery radio.

They also came in the certain knowledge that as a general rule, either stewed apple and custard, thick pancakes heated on a lightly oiled griddle, or a cut of fresh sourdough bread thickly covered in farmers butter accompanied by a ‘sup of tae’, would most likely materialise during the course of their often-two-hour sojourn.

Regardless however, on these same Sunday evenings, neighbours would sit and relate idle chatter, intermixing both rumour and story. Most of this talk was generated from the little understood personal affairs of others; while same persons discussed, would never be in attendance, but nevertheless remained well-known to all in their small gathering.

It had been reluctantly accepted, by Eliza Jane, that when the old clock tower of the Cathedral Church pealed out the hour of nine, she would immediately, without further discussion or protest, retire to her bed.
This agreement had been reached following a threat by her grandmother to cut a thin willow switch; on her next visit to the townland of Monacocka, situated on the north east bank of the river Suir.

Eliza Jane herself had never actually been punished by a switching, but she was aware that the parents of her nearest neighbours, Joseph and Mary Ryan, often chastised their nine children, using a switch, in the solid belief that “sparing the rod would spoil the child”.
Young Jimmy Ryan, their second oldest son, had often related, in graphic detail, the non-niceties of several strokes of a switch across the back of his bare legs. To further add to any impending chastisement, his mother would insist that he, “the offending mischievous cur” cut his own switch, himself.

Punishment would then be metered out when his father came home from work and when all the family were gathered together after supper, before the nightly prayers. The wording taken from the Lord’s Prayer, found in Chapter 6 of St. Matthew’s Gospel; “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”; was expected to further impress upon any particular young offender, the serious error of his ways, following such a switching, that was deemed necessary.

Initially, Eliza Jane had resented this bedtime rule, but soon she realised she could just as easily overhear all adult conversations through the thin wainscoting, which divided her small room from the more spacious outer warm kitchen area.

Two large timber knots, removed from the base of this thin, dividing, wooden panelling, and removed with the aid of a broken bladed fruit knife, obtained from the “Big House” dump, ensured that every utterance from visitors would arrive clearly to her ears.

It was from here she had learned that Whitethorn trees bring good luck and prosperity. But never bring branches into your home, since it attracts “the little people”, (fairies). Always keep the branch from a Rowan tree (Mountain Ash) in your cowshed to ensure a good milk yield, and even more importantly; the need to be careful about what tall trees you cut down, remembering that they may be holding up the sky.

On many’s the night, she had lain in her low, single bed in the darkness, often fearful; waiting for sleep to supervene, following the strange stories she had heard of Craig Liath. Craig Liath (Irish – ‘Grey Rock’ ), situated two miles north of Killaloe, overlooking the River Shannon, was the well-known hilly home of the Banshee, known as ‘Aibell’.

None of her grandmother’s welcome neighbours had ever actually seen Aibell in her ghostly personage, but others, that they themselves were regularly conversant with, admitted privately they had made her acquaintance, often describing in terrifying detail her appearance, her shrieking and keening.

Tales also abounded of persons seeing this non-physical entity, veiled in white, sailing, silently past in the moonlight or suddenly springing from a crouched position to terrorise unsuspecting night travellers. Eliza Jane was aware that Aibell’s purpose was to forewarn certain families of the imminent death of an elderly parent or other relative and often to announce the loss of life of a young mother or a child, latter having passed away during childbirth.

Despite all of these stories Eliza Jane had heard through her nightly eavesdropping, she had never expected to actually meet a Banshee in person.

It was while walking, holding hands with her mother Jenny; with some small haste, down the yew lined driveway from the ‘Big House’, that the apparition appeared and when they both came face to face with Aibell’s ghostly manifestation.

The night was peacefully quiet, except for the occasional noisy ‘kerrx-kerrx’ sound from a shy, secretive, male corncrake, communicating to his mate in high pitched tones, from the nearby 40-acre meadow. A September full-moon, bounded by a million twinkling stars above their heads, combined to cast a white-silver glow from the warm night’s cloudless sky.

They had a short time earlier, finished washing-up, in the kitchen of the Big House. The widowed estate owner had that evening, hosted her annual post-harvest gathering for her numerous tenants, farm workers and their families. Eliza Jane’s father, her brother and grandfather were all employees of the estate; and had attended; joining in the activities associated with this end of harvest function.

Eliza Jane’s mother had insisted she would come to help out with the enormous clean-up required following this event, and for which the widowed host had agreed to pay her the enormous sum of sixpence and a whole shilling for her mother, following their joint 12 hours of domestic toil in the ‘Big House’ kitchen.

Now returning home, tired but happy; Eliza Jane and her mother had turned from the Yew driveway, onto the well-worn pathway leading to their estate gate lodge, when ‘Aibell’ the Banshee made a totally unexpected appearance. As they passed under the shadows of an ancient estate oak tree; dressed in her white translucent attire, Aibell rose screeching; sailing silently alongside them for what seemed forever, before eventually turning off in the direction of Thurles town.

The night silence broken, the screeching and keening rang in their ears; creating an almost paralyzing influence which spread over their bodies, initiating an icy cold sweat. Temporally rooted to the spot, their pulses began to throb, pounding loudly in their ears. Jenny was first to break loose from this state of immobility. Grabbing Eliza Jane, she began to run along the narrow well-worn path, towards the hoped-for safety of their nearby thatched gate lodge.

“Avert your eyes; look away, run like the wind”, Jenny instructed, in a low, throaty, fear-stricken tone, “Pretend we don’t see, for God sake don’t look into her eyes or surely we will both be done for.”
Eliza Jane found herself running blindly, as her mother tried to cover both their face with her black woollen shawl. Reaching their intended destination, she slapped down hard on the cast iron latch with her thumb, opening the top of the half door, almost lifting it off its iron hinges. In her haste, the sliding mechanism keeping the bottom half of the door fully closed, proved more difficult to locate, hidden by the darkness of the interior.

Pressed against her, Eliza Jane now turned to confront any pursuing adversary, while screaming at Jenny to hasten, as the ear shattering ‘shree’ scream appeared to fade away into the distance, confirming that the former ghostly apparition had decided not to pursue them further.
Jenny eventually located the wooden slider bar, which passed through the iron hasp locking it to the door frame. Sliding it back, the door suddenly burst open inward, pulling her over the threshold, to fall prostrate onto the flag stone surface of the interior kitchen floor.

The sudden draught of air from the hastily opened door rekindled fresh flames to the existing ghríosach on the open hearth, allowing Jenny suffeciant light to secure the bottom half of their entry point. It was her mother’s decision also to retain only the existing light and not to ignite the iron rush-light on the mantelpiece, thus keeping them half hidden, at least for one night, from any outside predator.

But had Eliza Jane and Jenny actually met Aibell the Banshee?
It was when both were initially leaving the kitchen of the ‘Big House’ that a pale-coloured, male, nocturnal Barn Owl with its heart-shaped white face, had used its asymmetrically placed ears to identify the noisy movement of a field mouse, as it scuttling as yet unseen by him through the sedge grass under the shadows of an ancient oak tree.

Using his hair like extensions, which projected from the barbs of his feathers, he successfully minimised the noise of his wingbeat. Flying from his original round stake perch, he landed in the lower streatched branches of the broad oak tree. The noise of the mouse was now clearer to his ears and eventually it appeared, attempting to climb a grass stem; its mind set on eating the ripened seeds at its top.

The Barn owl stretched his talons waiting, before taking off to silently strike at the spot that now only partially concealed his grey whiskered prey. Finally, he dived toward the ground, penetrating through the sedge grass with his talons, to seize the small furry creature, with pinpoint, deadly accuracy. The pressure from his talons followed by several strikes from his beak ensured that his quarry was no more for this world.

As he began to consume his tasty morsel, his acute hearing suddenly picked up another sound. It was that of twigs breaking under foot. Now startled, he identified the further clamour of loud laughter. The intrusion into his night time domain was surely coming from humans and humans he had long ago learned were most definitely not to be trusted.

Extremely frightened by this unwarranted intrusion, he gripped his partially consumed meal with one talon and waited. Then, rising quickly from his insecure location, he shrieked out a succession of ‘shree’ like screams to warn others of the presence of more than one unwelcome human, before heading for a more secure area of his long-established Thurles territory.

Then again, maybe it was ‘Aibell’ the Banshee, sure didn’t near neighbour Molly Dwyer, the thatchers wife, pass away at around the same time of her possible sighting, as Eliza Jane Kearney and Jenny would learn the following morning, as they relayed their tale from the night before.

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2 comments to Stories From Another Time

  • Michael

    I love the “The Banshee”

  • Katie

    Michael. This story reminds me of the Possums we get around here every night. The noise they make is unbelievable. We are surrounded with lovely bushes and trees. And been told Possums only come out at night. I am still not convinced, Would they make such terrible noise. Still trying to find out. I always remember my late brother Sean coming home as white as a sheet saying he was followed by a ghost after walking along the railway line out to Rathcool where we lived at that time. And I believe in the Banshees. A great story. Only in Ireland.

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