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Customs, Lore and Legend of Other Clare Days:
The Banshee

Twas the banshee's lonely wailing
Well I knew the voice of death,
On the night wind slowly sailing,
O'er the bleak and gloomy heath.

The most frequently encountered female in folklore however is undoubtedly the banshee, or bean si, the otherworld forewarner of death. The wail of the banshee (sometimes called the bean chaointe in Irish) was regarded as a sure signal of approaching death in certain families, particularly those whose names were prefixed by 'O' or 'Mac' i.e. O'Brien, Mcnamara etc. These were regarded as the true Gaelic families:

By 'O' or 'Mac', you'll always know
True Irishmen they say,
But if they lack an 'O' or 'Mac'
No Irishmen are they!

It is clear from the school's folklore collection that belief in the banshee was widely held right down into the late 1930s; and, indeed, it still survives, vestigially at least, in certain parts of the county. This writer knows three people whom he firmly believes are convinced that they heard the banshee (one of them on more than one occasion) when some old people of their acquaintance were on the verge of death.

Variants of the banshee tradition surface in Irish literature almost from the very earliest times. According to the author of the Cogaidh Gaeil re Gaill a supernatural female, Aoibheall of Craglea, near Killaloe, the legendary patroness or Badhb of the Dal Cais appeared to Brian Boru in his tent on the eve of the Battle of Clontarf to forewarn him of his death on the following day. Sean Mac Craith, the fifteenth-century chronicler of the wars of Turlough O'Brien, refers to another female - a washer of blood-stained clothes - who appeared at the most turbulent and life-threatening times in the life of his hero. Thomas Westropp found that belief in this tradition was still extant until well into the present century. A local legend in the Dysert area told how Aoibheall and twenty-five banshees washed blood-stained clothes in Rath Lake on the eve of the famous battle in 1318 at which Richard De Clare was killed, and that they still do so in times of crisis.

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