The Banshee

I blame my grandmother.

When I was five, we were visiting my father’s family in rural Ireland. She flat out refused to let me call her grandma – my parents married young and she was in denial of her status. You call me Monica, she told me. I thought her very strange. She looked at me as if I were to be whisked away upstairs when she felt like it – it felt imminent – and made to sleep in a strange smelling bed under a gaudy picture of the Virgin Mary which was less serene than you would imagine. This Holy Mother had a supernatural glow which spoke less of the Holy Spirit and far more of the wrath of God. It terrified me.

She sat me down one afternoon and asked me, “Rose, do you know about the Banshee?” I was five, not at all sure about this woman with dark eyes and pink lipstick and a thick Irish accent. I shook my head. She sighed. I wondered if it meant I was to be banished to the room with the glowing Virgin Mary. My mother was nowhere in sight.

“Your great grandmother, she had the sight.” Monica looked at me long and hard. “She had a rocking chair and she smoked a pipe, she could tell anyone things about themselves they thought no one knew and what would happen to them. She was famous for it. And she could hear the Banshee.”

I remember paying great attention. Adults never usually spoke to me so directly. I was used to fairy stories and Enid Blyton. This story had possibilities. Monica had already given me a set of Rosary beads which I wanted to hang around my neck and pretend they sparkled. She was stern in her reproach to mind my prayers. Even at age five, I sensed you couldn’t get much past this grown up.

I said I didn’t know what a Banshee was. Monica pursed her lips and gave me a look which I now believe summoned up her contempt for my English upbringing in a heathen land. “It is the sound you hear – the howling of the banshee, from the hag, from beyond- you hear her when someone is about to die. She would always hear it. I think you may hear it, too.”

At this, my fear took over and I started to cry. Parents appeared, I was soothed off and calmed down, but all the time Monica watched me carefully. And I began to listen for the Banshee.

The legend of the wailing woman, a fairy woman – keening the bad news of a death before the news reaches the family. In Ireland, after the Famine and as many migrated, news of deaths came slowly back to Ireland. In that soup of superstition, folklore and church mysticism grew the legend of the warning wailing of death. My great grandmother always heard it – a piercing song, the long haired hag, shrieking the bad news before it arrived. I imagine my ancestor rocking in her chair, the pipe smoking in her hand as she heard the sound of death.

I have never heard the Banshee.

I do not wish to hear the Banshee. Monica died when I was ten. My grandmother gave me more than my rosary beads. She gave me a genetic link to believing in another world, a supernatural world where anything is possible.

I shall keep listening…