The Irish Banshee

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER V....continued

A male fairy was a fer-side (fer,'a man'): a female fairy, a ben-side or banshee, i.e. 'a woman from the fairy-hills.' Several fairy-hills were ruled by banshees as fairy queens. The banshee who presided as queen of the palace on the summit of Knockainy hill, in county Limerick, was Aine [2-syll.], daughter of a Dedannan chief, who gave her name to the hill, and to the existing village of Knockainy.

Two other banshees, still more renowned, were Clidna [Cleena] of Carrigcleena, and Aebinn or Aibell [Eevin, Eevil] of Craglea. Cleena is the potent banshee that rules as queen over the fairies of South Munster. In the Dinnsenchus there is an ancient and pathetic story about her, wherein it is related that she was a foreigner from Fairy-land, who, coming to Ireland, was drowned while sleeping on the strand at the harbour of Glandore in South Cork. In this harbour the sea, at certain times, utters a very peculiar, deep, hollow, and melancholy roar, among the caverns of the cliffs, which was formerly believed to foretell the death of a king of the south of Ireland. This surge has been from time immemorial called Tonn-Cleena, 'Cleena's wave.' Cleena lived on, however, as a fairy. She had her palace in the heart of a pile of rocks, five miles from Mallow, which is still well known by the name of Carrig-Cleena: and numerous legends about her are told among the Munster peasantry. Aebinn or Aibell, whose name signifies 'beautiful,' presided over North Munster, and was in an especial manner the guardian spirit of the Dalcassians or O'Briens. She had her palace two miles north of Killaloe, in a rock called Crageevil, but better known by the name of Craglea, 'grey rock.' The rock is situated in a silent glen, under the face of a mountain: and the people affirm that she forsook her retreat when the woods which once covered the place were cut down.

The old fort under which the banshee Grian of the Bright Cheeks had her dwelling still remains on the top of Pallas Grean hill in the county Limerick. One of the most noted of the fairy-palaces is on the top of Slievenamon in Tipperary. But to enumerate all the fairy-hills of Ireland, and relate fully the history of their presiding gods and goddesses, and the superstitious beliefs among the people regarding them, would occupy a good-sized volume.

In modern times the word 'banshee' has become narrowed in its meaning, and signifies a female spirit that attends certain families, and is heard keening or crying at night round the house when some member is about to die. At the present day almost all raths, cashels, and mounds—the dwellings, forts, and sepulchres of the Firbolgs and Milesians, as well as those of the Dedannans—are considered as fairy haunts.

Shees open at Samain.—On Samain Eve, the night before the 1st of November, or, as it is now called, All Hallows Night, or Hallowe'en, all the fairy-hills were thrown wide open; for the Fe-fiada was taken off. While they remained open that night, any mortals who were bold enough to venture near might get a peep into them. No sooner was the Fe-fiada lifted off than the inmates issued forth, and roamed where they pleased all over the country: so that people usually kept within doors, naturally enough afraid to go forth. From the cave of Cruachan or Croghan in Connaught issued probably the most terrific of all those spectre hosts; for immediately that darkness had closed in on Samain Eve, a crowd of horrible goblins rushed out, and among them a flock of copper-red birds, led by one monstrous three-headed vulture: and their poisonous breath withered up everything it touched: so that this cave came to be called the 'Hell-gate of Ireland.' That same hell-gate cave is there still, but the demons are all gone—scared away, no doubt, by the voices of the Christian bells. The superstition that the fairies are abroad on Samain Night exists at the present day, both in Ireland and in Scotland.

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