Next up in Winter Tales: Folklore Edition is a story by one of my favorite 19th century ghost story authors: Irish writer Charlotte Riddell. Mrs. Riddell wrote a great haunted house story, and I featured one of them as a previous winter tale. This time, I give you “Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning” (1873), about a dashing Irish doctor whose family has their very own banshee.
…and then with a start and a shiver, and a blanched face, he turned sharply round, whilst a low, sobbing, wailing cry echoed mournfully though the room. No form of words could give an idea of the sound. The plaintiveness of the Eolian harp — that plaintiveness which so soon affects and lowers the highest spirits — would have seemed wildly gay in comparison to the sadness of the cry which seemed floating in the air. As the summer wind comes and goes amongst the trees, so that mournful wail came and went — came and went.
The banshee is a female spirit from Irish mythology, generally attached to a specific family. She heralds the death of a family member by wailing and moaning just before the death occurs. She’s usually portrayed as an old woman (as she is in this story), although sometimes she can be young and beautiful. There’s a nice passage in the story where Mrs. Riddell details several banshee anecdotes in succession; she also slips in some pointed commentary about British upper-class society, which I imagine was heartfelt, as she spent most of her life in poverty, despite having been for a time a popular and well-regarded author.
In “Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning,” the titular protagonist lives in London, having been estranged from his family in Ireland for twelve years. He begins to hear a mysterious wailing that no one but himself and his dog can hear. He knows it’s the family banshee. But is she wailing for him, or someone else in the family? Things come to a head on Christmas Eve.
Rather than “once upon a time,” the story takes place “before cholroform was thought of.” Wikipedia tells me that the obstetrician James Y. Simpson first demonstrated the use of chloroform on humans to induce sleep in 1847. So that would place this story in the first half of the nineteenth century, or perhaps even in the late eighteenth century. This fact about chloroform serves mostly to help describe O’Donnell’s strength of nerve, since as a surgeon he would have to operate on conscious patients. Rather clever, I thought.
A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.
Illustration: Illustration of a banshee, from Bunworth Banshee, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker (1825). Source: Wikipedia