The Banshee of the O’Neills. The Origin of the Banshee Myth?

During my recent research into the Northern Ireland locations used for Game of Thrones, I came across the story of Shane’s Castle, near Randlestown, Co. Antrim, which is said to be haunted by the O’Neill banshee.

Irish HIstory Expert

A traditional depiction of a banshee.
Image source: Wikipedia Commons

A banshee is similar to the Morrigan, the crone aspect of the Celtic triple goddess, the representative of death. Sometimes encountered in the guise of an old woman washing clothes by a warrior on his way to death, the banshee is more often seen as a spirit (bean-woman, sidhe–fairy) keening a death in the night. Like the washerwoman, the banshee’s appearance precedes death.

Set on the northeastern shore of Lough Neagh, Shane’s Castle was a commanding presence for many centuries.  Originally know as Eden-duff-carrick, the castle was reinstated to the O’Neill clan by King James in 1607. After this it became known as Shane’s Castle. Mary Lowry, in her 1913 book The Story of Belfast and it’s Surroundings, cites Shane McBrien O’Neill as the owner who changed the name, and gives 1722 as the exact date. The O’Neills then in possession of the castle were descended from the great Shane O’Neill, who become The O’Neill Mór around 1562 and ruled or controlled most of Ulster. After his death, his many sons were known as the Mac Shane, the sons of Shane, and predictably the christian name Shane was popular among his descendants. So, the name Shane’s Castle has many resonances and potential origins.

Although the O’Neills held many castles, Eden-duff-carrick contains a stone carving of a head inset into one of the tower walls, known as the black head of the O’Neills, or the black brow on the rock.  It’s thought that this stone carving pre-dates the castle by some centuries.  It is said the line of the O’Neill’s will come to an end if the head ever falls from its position on the castle wall. Luckily for the O’Neills, the tower containing the head survived when their banshee burned the castle.

Game of Thrones fan gear - Shop HBOTraditionally, only the oldest Irish families are said to have banshees, spirits that forewarn of death. The O’Neills, being descended from the first Ard Rí, the High King of Ireland, Naill Nolligach, also known as Niall of the Nine Hostages, are one of the very oldest. (Niall died around 405, Shane O’Neill rose to O’Neill Mór about 1562, and the O’Neill family were hugely influential in Irish political life during this span.) A room in Shane’s Castle was traditionally laid aside for the use of Maeveen, the White Lady of Sorrow, the banshee of the O’Neills. Perhaps, implying she was originally a family member? I don’t know of any other banshee’s who were/are on first-name terms with their families. Visitors, it is said, could see the impression of the woman on her bed. However, in 1816, a large house party meant that this room was called into service. Perhaps the banshee was enraged at this snub after centuries of respect? A fire began in this room, and burned down the main block of the castle. They say a jackdaw’s nest which had been built in the long-unused chimney caught fire, and the fire spread, but who knows the true story?

One source suggests that the origin of the O’Neill banshee lies in an affront the fairies. One of the early O’Neills was returning from a raid when he found a cow with its horns tangled in a hawthorn tree. Single hawthorns are sacred to the sidhe [see wishing trees] and so the fairies now regarded the cow as their property. Foolishly, he freed the animal, and incurred the anger of the fey. When he arrived at his home (which presumably was not Eden-Duff-Carrick, as that was built much later, but may have been where the black head of the O’Neills originally stood), he found that the fairies had taken his daughter to the bottom of the lough (which lough is not specified, but the waters of Lough Neagh were said to have healing properties associated with the little folk). The girl was allowed to return to let her father know that she was safe in the fairy kingdom, but she could only return from then on in order to warn of impending death in the family by keening. This source names her as Kathleen, which is of Anglo-Norman origin and so would seem to be of much more-recent provenance than the ancient legend. Maeve is a very old Irish name, found in the oldest sagas, and appears more in keeping with the apparent antiquity of the banshee myth. The ending -een is a common diminutive in Irish, an affectionate twist on a name that would seem to reinforce the story that the banshee was originally a daughter of the house.

Irish History is even more fascinating than fantasy fiction

Ruins of Shane’s Castle. The intact conservatory is to the left.
(Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

The ruins of the castle today are unusual, as the castle was in the process of being rebuilt in a grander style by Richard Nash, architect of Buckingham Palace, among other famous buildings, when the fire broke out. The conservatory was already completed, and it survived the blaze while the main block of the castle was destroyed. Visitors can get a glimpse of the sumptuousness of the plans for the restored castle from the completed conservatory, while touring the ruined remains of the main block, towers and curtain wall. A fortified esplanade, studded with cannon salvaged from an English man-o-war, stands guard over the shoreline, and an interesting family tomb and statues can be seen in the grounds.

The castle boasted an impressive series of vaults and basement chambers, connected to a long underground passage, reputedly used as the servants entrance, but possibly originally intended as a refuge or escape route. To my knowledge, these vaults are now closed to the public.

The banshee was said to be heard in Coile Ultagh, the “Great Wood of Ulster” which grew by the castle on the shores of Lough Neagh, and through which Shane O’Neill had marched his army in 1565 on his way to defeating the MacDonald’s at the battle of Glentaisie, which cemented his authority over Ulster. There’s still some of the great wood left in the grounds of Shane’s Castle, although much of it has gone to farmland and housing developments.

After the Flight of the Earls, in 1607, when the leaders of several Irish clans fled to the continent, thus ending the last vestiges of the Brehon laws and traditional governance in Ireland, some say that the Banshee of the O’Neill’s followed the family into exile. However, the family line of the O’Neills is often unclear, and Hugh O’Neill, the last Earl of Tryone, was the offspring of an illegitimate son of the first Earl of Tyrone, and his father’s claim had been successfully contested by the great Shane O’Neill. So, perhaps Maeveen, the White lady of Sorrow, the banshee of the O’Neills remained at Shane’s Castle, and the legitimate descendants of Shane O’Neill. After all, the black head of the O’Neills still stands on the tower wall at Shane’s Castle.


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If you enjoy Irish mythology, you might be interested in the festival of Lúnasa or the Irish roots of Halloween: the feis of Samhain

If you enjoy Game of Thrones, you should check out the History Channel’s great show Vikings, which is also filmed in Ireland!

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