Being Irish, this time of year is not about shamrocks and parades for me. Or that truly odd delicacy, a green bagel. It’s about the wind. March winds bring me back to afternoons at the kitchen table of Bridget Reilly Fitzgerald–my grandmother. She would make us strong black tea, lightened and sweetened, and tell us stories about home. It was the story of the Banshee that took root in my young mind. Rarely seen, the Banshee moaned like a restless wind or screamed through the night, giving notice that someone in the family was about to die.
One of 10 children, my grandmother came to this country at 16 with her 14-year-old sister, Molly. They traveled in steerage, arriving in New York City harbor to become maids in Manhattan. In an upstairs-downstairs turn of events, Bridget captured the heart of Harry, the son of her employer. During the depression, Bridget and Harry moved to the Connecticut countryside so that they could feed and care for their young daughters. I knew my grandmother as a statuesque woman with waves of white hair and eyes the same blue as my own. The lilt of her language was barely noticeable but she had carried her stories with her like a traveler’s cloak.
Derived from the old Irish bean sidhe, banshees (“woman of the winds” or “woman of the faeries,” depending on your translator) are said to date back to 8th century Ireland. They are believed to be spirits that attached themselves to prominent Irish families, throughout the centuries. The conquering Normans, and the English later on, did not have the dubious honor of personal Banshees. The O’Reilleys were among the clans that did. In all fairness, the Scots were also honored with Banshees.
Despite the association with death, it’s a case of don’t blame the messenger. The Banshee was more an escort from this world into the next.
“You will with the banshee chat, and will find her good at heart.” W.B. Yeats
The first time I visited extended family in the Irish countryside, the Banshee was still very much a part of life there. My second cousin Theresa told me of her neighbor who had died recently and how the Banshee had wailed, how she kept inside that night, windows closed, shutters battened. As I listened to her tell the story, I was glad I had not been there. Would I have thought it the wind, on an island that is always restless with wind? Or would I have pulled covers over my head, put hands over my ears and mourned the neighbor’s passing?
Each time I’ve been back, I listen to the wind — from the lover’s whisper on clear sunny days to the howls that run through the hilltops. I came to understand how the throaty vibration can find it’s way into your very being. If the Banshee finds us when we die, it’s because she has always been with us.
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