Growing up in rural Catholic Ireland I often came in across traditional stories associated with death. As far back as primary school, I was warned all about the Banshee and her screams and attended traditional Irish wakes of loved ones. Death was an important part of our culture. I recently read Dr Marie Cassidy’s book ‘Beyond the Tape: The Life and Many Deaths of a State Pathologist’, her memoir which recounts her years as Ireland’s State Pathologist between 2004 and 2018. One statement in her book stood out to me, ‘The Irish are obsessed with death’. No truer words were spoken in my opinion, and since moving to the UK 5 years ago that has become more apparent to me as I talk about death with others. Cassidy states attending funerals in Ireland is a national sport and instead of checking your horoscope, the Irish listen to the death notices on the radio- this conjures up so many memories from my childhood! The Irish feeling comfortable with death likely steams from our past, including stories of folklore and mythology. In this blogpost I will discuss three examples of death omens in Irish culture.
The Banshee (Bean Sidhe)
Perhaps the most famous of all Irish legends associated with death is the Banshee or Bean Sidhe, meaning ‘woman of the fairies’. Most children in Ireland know about this legend, usually told by grandparents to give them a scare. There are endless sources on the Banshee, all stating she is a supernatural being whose scream foretells the death of a loved one. She usually wears a dark cloak, has a ghostly complexion and has flowing red or white hair. There are conflicting ‘first-hand’ accounts of her age, either stating she is young or siren like, or old with a hag like appearance – either a maiden or a crone. It is her cry or scream that terrifies anyone who crosses her path, with Irish families with O’ or Mac/Mc as part of their surname most likely to become a victim to her shrieking. She often combs her long hair and will only turn violent or aggressive if someone finds her comb and steals it. I was often told as a child not to pick up any comb if found near a graveyard as it was likely the Banshee’s.
Keening women or bean chaointe (as Gaeilge) were a part of Irish mourning tradition and may have associations with the origins of the Banshee legend. Many writers state she only cries for the families of the O’Briens, the O’Connors, the O’Neills, and the O’Gradys to name a few. Sometimes she is described as a washer woman (bean nighe) seen washing the blood-stained clothes of the family member about to die.
The Coiste Bodhar (Death Coach or Coach-a-bower)
The death coach in Irish folklore is often thought to be summoned by the wails of the Banshee. A headless horseman drives the coach, sometimes thought to carry a black coffin, and pulled by headless horses (very similar to the Legend of Sleepy Hollow). Like the Banshee, the coach foretells the death of a loved one, and will only leave once it has claimed a soul. The creature known as the Dullahan drives the coach (sometimes called Gan Ceann as Gaeilge), a headless male figure that sometimes carries their own head with a hideous grin. WB Yeats mentions the coach in his collection of Irish Folk Tales. Yeats states the coach will rumble to your door and, if you open it, blood will be thrown into your face. Yeats also states that as well as the coach and the banshee, some families know death is near by the crack of a whip or the attendance of ravens. Often it is stated that the coach travels so quickly it sets fire to the road, and that locks on houses and gates would not deter the coachman- the only thing to scare away the Dullahan was the sight of gold.
In Ireland, a Fetch is a supernatural double of a living person – like that of a doppelganger. Sighting of a fetch, particularly at night, signifies the death of that person. Some suggest the word originates from the Irish word for seer or prophet (fáith), other than that there is very little said about the origins of the term (it may also have some association with Norway). It is thought the term dates back as far as the 16th century but rose to prominence in the 19th century when mentioned in the gothic story ‘The Fetches’ by John and Michael Banim. The Fetch was also mentioned in the letters of Sir Walter Scott on Demonology and Witchcraft, 1830.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fetch_(folklore) https://www.pinterest.ie/pin/360358407661878293/ https://www.libraryireland.com/LegendaryFictionsIrishCelts/Contents.php