MARCH 2001

At long, long last I was able to write a brand new Saint Patrick's Day column!

I'd been unable to do so the previous two years for reasons delineated below, so this was a happy occasion, indeed. I elected to tackle two of my favorite Irish Icons: Oscar Wilde, and Banshees . . .

 

Another Top of the Newsletter to yez . . .

 

Ah, Saints be praised, 'tis March yet again - time to trot out whatever green bit of clothing you can muster, dig out the Clancy Brothers records (or Chieftains, depending on your generational composition), doctor the family tree to include a distant Erin relation or two, and celebrate that glorious day when we are all for a brief moment Irish: St. Patrick's Day . . .

Or have ye heard that one already?

Begorrah, can it have been three long years since last we turned our gaze across the Atlantic to that most Emerald of Isles?

Hard to believe, and not intentional in the least.

Truth is, we changed servers in the early Spring of '99, and had to wait for the new one to warm up, and by the time we realized we ought to get a new newsletter in print, why, 'twas April already!

And last year, sadly, our thoughts were mostly on the newly departed and greatly lamented Charles Schulz.

So it is that we bring you the second in our yearly Irish Installment two years too late!

As I recall, we regaled you last time with some anecdotes concerning two of the great Irish wits from Days Gone By - specifically, James McNeil Whistler and George Bernard Shaw. And yet, we failed even to mention the greatest of them all, and one known to both of them.

I refer, of course, to Oscar Fingall O'Flahertie.

Oh, yes, you probably know him better as Oscar Wilde.

Yes, as you must know by now if you've kept yourself awake through any of these previous columns, Wilde is the very same as wrote the immortal "Canterville Ghost" - not to mention "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and too many others to fit into this wee column.

As far as Wilde and Shaw, I recall when a friend of Wilde's, back when Wilde was the toast of the land and Shaw was just starting out, chanced to remark that this upstart Shaw's writing style was bound to make him a lot of enemies.

Wilde replied, "Well, he hasn't become important enough yet to have any enemies. But none of his friends like him."

As far as Whistler is concerned (and yes, this is the very one known today for having painted his mother), he and Wilde had known of each other for a great long while, yet had never actually met. Then, one day, Whistler found himself in a hat shop, when suddenly Oscar Wilde burst in through the door. He immediately mistook Whistler for a clerk, and angrily shouted "This hat doesn't fit me!"

The great painter looked at Wilde for a moment, and said "Neither does your coat. What's more, I'll be damned if I care much for the color of your trousers!"

The two became lifelong friends.

Now, they evidently spent most of their time together attempting to outdo each other, wit-wise, and you may be sure that Oscar got his own as often as not, but my favorite exchange is another where Whistler had the last word.

He (Whistler) had just made a chance comment that struck Wilde as brilliant, causing Wilde to say, "I wish I had said that."

Whistler turned to his friend and replied "Don't worry, Oscar. You will."

Oscar Wilde was famed, then vilified (and decorum and the aforementioned lack of space causes us to say no more about that), and finally Oscar died, at the tragically young age of 46.

He saved his best quote for last, however.

He was on his death bed, his friends gathered around, breathing his last labored breaths, when suddenly he sat up and looked around - a final moment of clarity, as it were. Then he drew one last breath and announced "Either those curtains go or I do!"

At which point he went.

The above is a Classic Irish anecdote, blending as it does humor with the cold, grim reality of mortality. For there has always been the dark side to these happy Celts, born from centuries of Troubles, perhaps indeed inherent in their very blood.

It is perhaps this innate darkness that spawned so many legends concerning death.

For, as you know, 'tis the Irish who gave us Halloween.

However, as you further know, we're about as far from Halloween right now as a Dubliner is from saluting the flag of England, so we'll not go there . . .

It is, however, a high time in my humble opinion to say a few words about the grimmest and spookiest denizens of the island.

It's time to talk about Banshees.

Now, we spell it "banshee" because that's exactly how it's pronounced, but it's really two ancient Celtic words: "bean" (woman) and "si" (fairy). The banshee is the Irish Death Spirit, always female, and usually connected with a particular Old Irish Family. The banshee's one task is to appear just before the death of a member of her connected family, and let loose with the most ghastly, soul-chilling inhuman wail you've ever heard! She appears either as a young girl or an old, shrouded woman, with eyes fiery red (from continuous weeping, 'tis said). All this, combined with her long, straggling hair, grey cloak and green shroud and absolutely ghost-white complexion makes this spirit a terrifying thing even to contemplate, let alone see.

As far as the family member thus doomed is concerned, it matters not if he or she are even in Ireland, or any other part of the world. At the time they are to die, their banshee appears always at the place of their birth, or at their ancestral home. Occasionally, several banshees will get together for a communal wail if someone particularly noteworthy is about to shed their mortal coil.

It is further said by some that the banshee's cries frequently herald the arrival of the Dullahan Coach, the dullahan being a headless phantom, and the coach being a great black vehicle pulled by headless horses. If you do happen to see one, whatever you do, pray do not attempt to open the door - for if you do you'll only be rewarded with a basin of blood hurled at your face by invisible hands! This is the Death Coach, me buckos - leave it alone . . .

The O'Neill, O'Brien and McCarthy families all have their own banshees, but there are many, many other surnames so afflicted too numerous to be named in this wee website. I do actually apologize for not offering up a complete list of names, as to have one's own family banshee is something of an honor. Faith, and if ye've got a coat of arms somewhere's about ye've probably got a banshee as well! Fair enough?

Indeed, each banshee is thought to be originally from the family she now haunts, presumably a woman who met an unnatural end.


Her cousin, the Bean-Nighe of Scotland, is thought to have met a specifically unnatural end by dying in childbirth. The Bean-Nighe (pronounced "ban-neeyah" and meaning "washing woman") is not nearly as cute as her Irish peer. She is small, has red webbed feet and a drooping chest, grotesquely large and protruding front teeth, and only one nostril. Rather then uttering a keening wail, she portends someone's death by appearing at a nearby stream, washing the blood stained clothes of the one who is about to die . . .

Presumably, the Bean-Nighe specializes in portending deaths that are specifically violent in nature.

Now, whereas the banshee is relatively timid, and indeed if disturbed is most likely to simply vanish forever, the bean-nighe is more inclined to strike you with the linen she's washing, forever paralyzing that part of you thus stricken!

As you may no doubt already be aware, the legend of ghostly women foretelling deaths in a particular family is old, and reaches far beyond the British Isles. There is, for instance, the wonderfully creepy tale of the White Lady of the Hohenzollerns (Prussia's ruling family for centuries). Ah, it seems . . .

Ah, but as they say, melodious is the closed mouth.

For I have run overlong at me own mouth, and find it dry nearly beyond repair.

And so,

May the strength of three be in your journey,

May there be a generation of children on the children of your children,

And may you have warm words on cold evenings, a full moon on dark nights, and may the road to your door be always downhill.

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