A book cover style illustration about the terrifying rural Irish folktale character, the Banshee. Harbinger of doom. (Graphite pencil and goauche on paper, and Digital)
About the Banshee
It’s another in my continuing series of frightening folk tale characters: my imagining of the Banshee.
I’ve always pictured the Banshee sitting at a crossroads, combing her hair; wailing in despair—or screaming. If you saw the Banshee, the chances were that you’d survive, but a family member wouldn’t. Some theorise that the hair combing was related to the dressing of the dead. And God help you if you ever found her comb and kept it. She’d lay siege to your house—screaming—until you gave it back through a partially opened window; with a pair of iron tongs, lest she take the comb—and your arm! The Banshee’s scream has been ascribed to the unnerving night-time screeches of vixens. But we all know that’s just crazy talk. Nowadays, we don’t only hear those in the countryside, but it the suburbs and city too! As we all know, country foxes have migrated into these built-up areas, but that’s clearly coincidental (and much less exciting).
Some Personal Background History
I’ve referenced two County Kildare villages—now small towns—on the road sign, which I briefly lived near as a child in 1977. We’d moved to Ireland from Scotland, and while we waited (and waited and waited) to move into our still unbuilt house in Ballymore Eustace, my parents temporarily rented a gate-lodge, in-between Sallins and Clane. Sallins (Na Solláin) was a tiny place, with a bridge that rose over the river, beside a great big meat processing factory. The meat plant was right in the very epicentre of the village, with the post offices and the couple of shops opposite. It stank to high heaven. I presumed that it was rotting flesh—and it was like the strongest lingering boiled cabbage after-stench ever. Sweet, sickly, deathly. I wondered if the villagers ever got used to it—all of those years, until the business closed down and the fresh country air returned.
Spooky Place, Spooky House
Since making this, I’ve discovered that when my Northern Irish cousin Carol was only 12 in the early 1970s, she had the misfortune of seeing a Banshee in the broad daylight of an afternoon. It was combing its long hair, dressed in grey, and it scared the hell out of her. Strangely, no one else who was there saw it! Unlike Carol, I’ve never seen a Banshee anywhere, including the Sallins/Clane area in the 70s, and I’d probably never heard of one, but I referenced the place in this picture for a good reason…
A large surrounding area of countryside—according to my dad’s workmates, after we’d safely moved away to our new house—was notorious for hauntings. It was good that my big sister and I weren’t told this at the time. You see, it was frightening enough just going out of the back door at night into the pitch blackness, feeling your way through the little back garden’s rhodedendron bushes—blind—arms tentatively outstretched—trying to find the little wooden shed containing kindling sticks or turf or whatever for the fire. Without a torch, I was literally in pitch darkness. God only knew what a 9 year old kid with a vivid artistic imagination could meet out there, or put his hand onto amongst the old wood! God only knew, but I could well imagine many unpleasant things.
There were also lots of elderberry bushes along the roadsides, and I loved to collect lots of them, squash them, and make a load of fake blood. It occurred to me that it’d be fun to throw it all over a bit of the main road out there to freak people out! My mum probably told me not to. Vivid imagination.
One night, strange things did happen as I slept, oblivous to all on the sun-lounger behind the living room sofa (My dad slept on the sofa while we were there). But my mum and dad were still awake, relaxing watching the old, wonky, second-hand black and white telly when suddenly weird things began to happen. I only heard about this after we moved to the new house, which as I said, was a good thing in retrospect.
As they watched the TV, strange sounds began to come from above them. It was a 1-storey gate lodge, with an extension bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. Above those there was a modern flat roof. They were hearing a rough dragging sound. It was as if someone—or something—up there, was dragging an object across the rough roofing-felt. Scrape—scrape—scrape… it went. Was it an animal, like a fox, or cat pulling another dead animal, or something worse? Whatever it was, it was loud and seemed to be big. As if this wasn’t bad enough, something else very peculiar happened. Small white dusty flakes stated to fall from the ceiling. One could imagine that these were bits of loose paint being dislodged by the vibration, and so did they, but the weird thing was, my mum and dad couldn’t see any them on the carpet after they fell!
Whatever happened after that, I don’t know, but I’m glad that I blissfully slept through it all. If I’d known, I never would have gone out to the little shed in the dark without a light. I never would have gone down the dark avenue with my dad to the big house, to collect logs from there with only the car headlights to illuminate our work, with pitch darkness all around behind our backs. And I never ever ever would have sat in the window in the dark winter evenings, between the curtains and the glass, with goodness knows what, beyond, outside in the blackness.
As always, I sketched some thumbnails, and even tried colouring them digitally to get an idea of whether this was going to work or not. I then did a larger sketch, and moved onto the full-size pencil image. I tried some alternative compositions, and flipped them left and right on the computer, substituting different heads for the banshee from other quick fragmentary sketches. In the end, after some indecision and (Banshee) hand-wringing I settled on pretty much doing a large version of the very first first sketch. Funny who these things go. A bit like buying the first shoes you saw,in the first of 10 shops you visited, hours ago! All part of the process I suppose. I know that if I hadn’t previously tried out many compositions and concepts, I would have missed the best one.
Illustrator: John White
Drawing: pencil and gouache on paper