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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.