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Banshee Screams and St. Patrick s Day History

banshee, st. patrick s day

The old had, hooded cloak version of a banshee. Note: she's not screaming!

I once had a roommate who would claim, when his bladder was full to bursting, that he had to “pee like a banshee.”

He had conflated “pee like a racehorse” with “scream like a banshee” and his mistake was charming enough to be forgiven.

But when others talk about “crying like a banshee” or “lying like a banshee,”or “fighting like a banshee,” it’s just embarrassing. A banshee screams (and only sometimes at that).

Since it’s still St. Paddy’s day for a few more hours, it’s a good time to figure out this banshee business.

According to Irish legends, banshee (or bean-sidhe), are fairies or an ancestral spirit appointed to visit members of certain Irish families to warn them of their death.

The banshee typically appears in one of three guises — a beautiful young woman, a matronly middle-aged one, or an old hag. She wears a gray hooded cloak, a flowing twisted sheet or a gray robe. In some version, she appears as a washer-woman and appears to be washing blood from the clothes of the almost-dead.

Oh, and these pre-death announcements? The banshee only perform the services for five Irish families: the O’Neills, the O’Briens, the O’Connors, the O’Gradys, and the Kavanaghs.

The good news is there’s been so much intermarriage, probably any ol’ Irish name qualifies at this point.

Now for the screaming part: it’s not a requirement of a banshee! But that’s sometimes her method of conveying coming death and it’s more of a mourning call than and all out nerve-shattering shriek, which is what we’ve come to equate “screaming like a banshee” with.

For your tween readers, an excellent book which frequently references the banshee — and takes place during the Irish potato famine — is “Nory Ryan’s Song,” by Patricia Reilly Giff.

If you’re going the read-aloud route, may I suggest a box of tissues because by the end, you’ll be crying like a banshee. Oh, you know what I mean.

Photo: W.H. Brooke via WikiCommons

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