My great uncle had just celebrated his eighty-second birthday but he was dressed in his old police uniform, resting in the kitchen of his house on Chicago’s south side. Until my sister lifted me, all I could see was a fair allowance of flowers and his nose sticking up past the rim of his coffin. I recall thinking that old people sure had a lot of hair in their noses. It was that night, at his wake, after the grown-ups offered fifty-thee “Hail Mary’s” and more than a few toasts from some bottles of Jameson’s, that I first heard the word “banshee”. The deceased was from the Walsh side of the family, a common surname indicating that some ancestor had once emigrated from Wales to Ireland.
The Walsh brothers, and one sister, my grandmother, traveled one by one from Ballylongford in County Kerry to Chicago, the lads each joining the Windy City’s constabulary soon after stepping off the train from New York. The last to arrive, in 1889, was little Mary Ellen. Twenty-three years later, that girl with the black pin curls and Irish brogue became my mother’s mother after marrying Edward Conners, an Episcopalian member of the Ó Conchobhair clan. She liked to say that she had rescued him from several generations of Orangemen who had so “miserably butchered” the family name. According to my aunts, Catholicism was Grandma’s gift to Edward and the O’Conchobhair (O’Connor) banshee was his gift to her. Grandpa could be forgiven for saying there was too much superstition among the Catholics. Too often, that was true. Being devout was not the same as being well instructed. On the other hand, it was his family that claimed to have a banshee.
Given the times and the Troubles, my grandparents seem to have done a remarkable job of removing bigotry, resentment, and prejudice from their lives. Edward, a bridge tender for the railroad, admired the dedication that his wife’s Catholic brothers put into keeping the peace. When Prohibition arrived, they all had enough rank to make sure you could still even have a drink in peace. They may have been guilty of accepting some “gratuities” but they weren’t afraid to put their lives on the line. One of them died in the line of duty trying to rescue a young girl who was being attacked in an alley. Grandma shared her husband’s religious tolerance. She admired the pioneering spirit of Grandpa’s family and would at least allow that the outhouses in England probably didn’t smell any worse than the ones in Ireland.
Grandma was not altogether unfamiliar with Protestants even in a Catholic village as small as Ballylongford. She grew up only a few doors away from the childhood home of Horatio Herbert Kitchener, First Earl of Khartoum, and Great Britain’s Secretary of State for War. While city folk might dismiss Ballylongford as merely a wide spot on a road that followed the estuary of the River Shannon, our family knew it was home to Earl Kitchener, home to the former Jesuit writer Malachi Martin, and home to Grandmother Mary Ellen Walsh Conners. It was also the first village in Ireland to have a refrigerator for their pub. Nobody from Cork or Dublin or Derry could claim any of that!
Some of this might have been part of the conversation the night of my great uncle’s wake. I only remember bits and pieces, scenes frozen forever in my mind, snippets of conversation. I was a child, and had the scene not seemed so very peculiar to me, I might have forgotten it entirely. Perhaps the only reason I remember any of it was that I was quite sure we never ever kept a dead guy in the kitchen at our house.
“Did he hear the banshee?” my mother asked. No doubt, some of the retired cops in the room smiled, perhaps even smirked at the question. I don’t recall. What I do remember is my Aunt Harriet saying, “She means was he prepared.” At the time I couldn’t begin to imagine how one prepares to recline and remain motionless in a wooden box while dozens of folks cry, laugh, pray and talk about you.
The Walsh brothers may have scoffed at the notion, but to my mother, the banshee was very real, a family spirit that came to help you prepare for death. Apparently there is no Walsh family banshee, but the tradition of the O’Conchobhair Banshee has been passed on for centuries. The O’Briens, the O’Neills and the O’Gradys each had their family banshee. The Fitzgeralds, I was told, were not allowed to have one. I don’t know if that was a blessing or a curse. Often in literature and film, a banshee is a terrifying creature. To some Irish families, a banshee is a fairy-like being. To others it is a frightful female spirit that sounds like the mournful keeners at an Irish funeral. Our family banshee was always portrayed as an angelic spirit who came with a beautiful song to remind you to repent, to forgive, and to let go of earthly attachments. My grandmother claimed to hear the banshee shortly before she died.
The tradition of the banshee goes well past the shores of Ireland. It can be found in Scotland and Wales and some Vikings even carried tales of the banshees back to Norway. Once out of Ireland, banshees appear to no longer tie themselves to clans or families.
According to my mother, Grandma Conners attended Mass every Sunday before praying the rosary. After that, it was her tradition to sing as she prepared Sunday brunch for her husband, son, and five daughters. The song she sang was always the same, “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”. “I never heard that song in Ireland,” she would say, “but I think it’s so beautiful. If ever I hear the banshee, I pray she will sing something beautiful like that.”
I don’t know if Grandma really heard a banshee. I don’t know if they are the stuff of fairy tales or actual manifestations of heavenly spirits. What I suspect is that in a society where we tend to avoid thinking or discussing preparation for death, the song of the O’Conchobhair banshee might just be worth hearing. The simple fact is that sooner or later we all die. I suspect that no matter what we believe, or even if we believe in nothing at all, we would probably have a better death if first we forgive others and let go of our resentments and earthly attachments. Like it or not, the day of the banshee is seldom as distant as we want to believe. My own hope is that some spirit will remind me of all that before I get stuffed into a wooden box, be it in a Chicago kitchen or elsewhere.
T.R. Heinan is the author of L’immortalité: Madam Lalaurie and the Voodoo Queen, a reflection on justice and compassion set in the historical context of a haunting 19th century New Orleans legend.http://www.amazon.com/LImmortalite-Madame-Lalaurie-Voodoo-Queen/dp/0615634710