• Christine Dorman

The Banshee and the Blarney Stone


In American pop culture, banshees are predatory monsters, but in their origin--Irish folklore--they can be compassionate and even helpful.
In American pop culture, banshees are predatory monsters, but in their origin--Irish folklore--they can be compassionate and even helpful.

Almost certainly you’ve heard of the Blarney Stone. It’s that magical rock that tourists bend over backwards to kiss so that they can become eloquent or, at least, get the gift of gab. But did you know that the rock only imparts this gift because it was enchanted by a banshee? According to Irish folklore, her name is Clíodhna and she is—or was—the queen of the North Munster banshees. I say “is or was” because she may have drowned or disappeared. Or not. Folklore exists in variants and those different versions sometimes disagree on the details. At any rate, all the versions identify Clíodhna as a banshee. Some also call her a goddess.

Now, she is not the old-hag-who-kills-humans-with-her-screams kind of banshee. That is an invention of American screenwriters and online game creators. Clíodhna is described as exquisitely beautiful. She often heals the sick, and is a guide and helper to members of the ancient Irish families she has adopted. In fact, she enchanted the Blarney Stone to help a certain Cormac MacCarthy win a lawsuit. She’s a faerie, as are all banshees. So she’s not always friendly. In fact, her personality is, well, complicated. Here’s her story.


Healer and Helper



A banshee doesn't scream. She wails in heart-wrenching grief.
A banshee doesn't scream. She wails in heart-wrenching grief.

While it is possible to find some stories in Irish folklore which speak of banshees as ancestral spirits, the true nature of a banshee can be found in her name. The word banshee comes from two Irish words, bean (woman) and sidhe (faerie). So banshee literally means “faerie woman.” Traditionally, these faerie women attach themselves to a human family and wail at the approaching death of one of its members. Her wail serves two purposes. First, it warns the family of the coming death so they can prepare. Secondly, the banshee’s wail is a sign of grieving. Although it has been corrupted into an ear-shattering scream in American pop culture, in Irish folklore, her keening (a mourning sound that is a mixture of crying and singing) is said to be of such intense sorrow, it can break your heart.

Clíodhna could be more proactive, though, than the typical banshee. Sometimes she intervened and prevented the human’s death. She had three birds, brightly colored and lovely to look at. They came from the Otherworld and their music both enchanted and soothed. Clíodhna brought her birds to sick humans (as she saw fit) and, it is said, the singing of these magic birds cured all illness. She tended to restrict this gift, however, to humans from the families she watched over. These families are said to be the MacCarthys, O’Donovans, O’Keefes, O’Collins, and FitzGeralds. Some accounts say that the MacCarthys adopted her as their faerie woman, but it was likely the other way around.


The Blarney Stone

When Colum MacCarthy found himself embroiled in a lawsuit, he called on Clíodhna, imploring her assistance. She appeared to him and agreed to help. She told him that, on his way to court, he should kiss the first stone he came across. If he did so, she said, he would receive the gift of eloquence. He did as she instructed and, in court, spoke with such power and persuasion, he won his case.

As he built Blarney Castle, he decided to honor the faerie woman who had helped him by placing the stone he’d kissed in the parapet of the castle. Today, thousands of visitors kiss the stone in the hope of receiving the gift of eloquence.


Clíodhna and Her Sister


Cliodna turned her sister, Aeibhill, into a white cat to eliminate her as a romantic rival.
Cliodna turned her sister, Aeibhill, into a white cat to eliminate her as a romantic rival.

Despite her apparently compassionate and helpful nature, Clíodhna could be vindictive. Her little sister, Aeibhill (also called Aibell) was the queen of the North Munster banshees. The two sisters had a serious rivalry going on. Of course, sibling rivalry is quite common, but it can take interesting twists when faeries are involved.


At one point, Clíodhna fell in love with a human, a chieftain of the O’Keefe clan. Aeibhill became romantically interested in him as well. Clíodhna confronted her sister and told her, essentially, “I saw him first. Back off!” When Aeibhill refused, Clíodhna changed her into a white cat.

With her sister out of the way, Clíodhna married the young O’Keefe. They had a happy marriage for a while. Then he learned what his wife had done to Aeibhill and renounced her. Discarded by her human husband, Clíodhna retreated to her palace. The entrance to it is said to be at a place called Carrigcleena (Cleena’s Rock), a rampart of rock located six miles from Mallow in County Cork.


The Clíodhna Wave and Rumors of Her Death


The O’Keefe chieftain was not the only human Clíodhna ever became romantically involved with. She is said to have had affairs with members of the FitzGerald family too. It is her relationship with a mortal named Ciabhán, however, that is said to have led to her death by drowning. According to the story, she traveled frequently from Tir Tairngire (“Land of Promise”) in the Otherworld into the human realm to meet with her human lover. On one occasion, though, she was waiting for him in the harbor of Glandore in Cork when the sea god, Manannán MacLir, sent a giant wave that engulfed her. She is said to have drowned. Since that time, a thunderously loud wave breaking against the cliffs has been referred to as Tonn Cliodhna, Clíodhna’s Wave. Some say that every ninth wave is Tonn Cliodhna. These are supposed to be the strongest and deadliest of waves. Another legend says that these waves foretell the death of a king or nobleman. That, of course, is in keeping with Clíodhna’s role as a banshee.


One story says Cliodhna drowned while waiting for her human lover.
One story says Cliodhna drowned while waiting for her human lover.

But did she really die? Another story seems to indicate she did. This story takes place at Pindy’s Cross, a spot about two miles north of Carrigcleena. There, five roads intersect. A blacksmith’s shop used to be located near this crossroad. The shop is gone now. In the story, though, Cliodhna stopped at the blacksmith’s one day to have a shoe put on her horse. Once the smith completed the job, she told him as she was leaving, that if a nearby clump of bracken was verdant and healthy the next day, it meant she would return. If, however, it was withered, she would never return. The next day, the bracken was wizened. Cliodhna, the story goes, was never seen again.


Does either story present clear evidence that she died? Not really. That she never returned to that blacksmith’s shop is meaningless. She may have returned to the Otherworld and chosen not to interact with humans again. Did she drown at Glandore or did she simply vanish? It is unlikely she died. Irish folklore says faeries are immortal. She might have tired of humans or she might just be taking a vacation. Faeries do as they like without worrying about what humans think or believe.

Faeries do as they please, completely unconcerned about human opinion or perception.
Faeries do as they please, completely unconcerned about human opinion or perception.

Whether you believe there is any truth to these stories from Irish folklore or not, I hope you see that the Irish banshee is a much more complex and interesting character than modern American culture indicates. Most of all, I hope you enjoyed the post.


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Slan go foil!



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