The terrifying legend of Derry’s crying banshee

Fulton Place in the Long Tower district of the city.
Fulton Place in the Long Tower district of the city.

Of all the mysterious phenomena believed to issue from the realm of the supernatural, the most characteristically Irish is undoubtedly the banshee.

Derry, not so very long ago, had a strong tradition of acceptance of the banshee myth. There are a number of stories which continue to be told in some areas of the city concerning experiences with banshees. Here’s a couple of them....

This extract is taken from 'Parade of Phantoms', by Peter McCartney. Published by Guildhall Press, the book is available in local bookshops.

This extract is taken from 'Parade of Phantoms', by Peter McCartney. Published by Guildhall Press, the book is available in local bookshops.

Considered as ‘the wildest and grandest of all the Irish superstitions’, the banshee - in Irish, bean-sidhe meaning ‘fairy woman’ - was generally depicted as being a small wizened old woman attired in loose white clothing and combing her long hair.

Other forms attributed to her were that of a beautiful young girl, a bird with a human face and occasionally a hare or a large moth. For the most part the banshee seemed to favour keening in the Gaelic, wringing her hands and uttering the most doleful cries. She was widely accepted as being an omen of death, if not to those who heard her, then to some close relative or neighbour.

Many local people also believed that the appearance of crows, the howling of a dog, or the screeching of a cat, outside a sick person’s house would herald the arrival of the dreaded wailing spectre.

There there is still a dispute amongst some older residents as to whether or not one particular apparition, fondly referred to as ‘the wee woman in white’, was a banshee.

Whatever the contention concerning the wee white woman’s spectral status, other local stories lay claim to ‘authentic’ banshee encounters. One such story relates to an incident dating back to the late 1940s. It occurred in Fulton Place, once a side street running off old Howard Street and backing onto one of the graveyards of St Columba’s Church (The Long Tower).

One winter, an elderly resident of the street became suddenly ill and was confined to his bed. A few days later some black crows landed in the street in front of the house and began to pick up scraps of bread that had been thrown out for scavenging birds. Some visitors to the house immediately rushed out and chased the crows away. Later that night the old man’s condition deteriorated and a priest was summoned to administer the last rites.

Sometime after, one of the younger visitors heard a knock on the back door. She asked if anyone else had heard it but was told no. She heard the knock again, this time followed by a low moaning sound. An old woman sitting opposite noticed her startled expression and instinctively told her to go to the door exclaiming, “He’ll have no rest until the knock is answered!”

The young girl went to the door and opened it. All at once she screamed and collapsed in a faint. The people inside came rushing out and found her lying on the ground in an obviously distressed state. They brought her back inside, calmed and comforted her, then asked what had happened. The girl explained: “When I opened the door and looked across the yard I could see an old hag-like woman with long white hair and a long white dress. She appeared to be crying and moaning and wringing her hands. She began to come towards the door. I screamed and she just seemed to vanish.”

The old man passed away later that night. As far as all the people present on that occasion were concerned, the house had been visited by a banshee.

Another story from around the same area and the same period was recounted by a resident of the Bogside. It involved her grandfather and one of his sons.

The grandfather had been suffering painfully from what he thought was a toothache for several days. While discussing with his wife about visiting a dentist, he happened to mention that he had seen a large white sheet hanging from one of their neighbour’s upstairs windows. His wife, knowing the particular neighbour well, was very surprised to hear that she was apparently drying her washing in the front street.

Next day her son approached her, somewhat agitated, and recounted a strange experience from the previous night. He had heard a peculiarly mournful wail coming from near the bottom of the street. When he looked he noticed what appeared to be a young child sitting under a windowsill, crying. He walked down the street and there, sitting hunched up under the sill, was a small wrinkled old woman, shrivelled and dried up with age. She was moaning inconsolably. He put out his hand to her but she immediately shied away, stood up and ran off. He was startled by how her small childlike figure contrasted so horrifically with her grotesque appearance. He was convinced he had seen a banshee and urged his mother to get a doctor to examine his father straightaway. Unfortunately his father was beyond medical assistance and a few nights after the incident he died.

To this day the family remain adamant that their grandfather saw his own burial shroud and the banshee encountered by his son foreshadowed the impending death.

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