The Dullahan and Banshee in Irish Celtic Fairy Tales

Marissa Harris

Marissa Harris

The ancient Celts are a mysterious people and little is known about where they came from or what group of people was considered “Celtic.” It is theorized that this group of people had northern origins, and by the fifth-century before Christ, they were settled in the Iberian peninsula. During his invasion, Juluis Caesar said, “the people who lived in central and southern Gaul called themselves Celts.”

In the sixteenth and eighteenth-centuries, the term “Celts” was extended to inhabitants of Britain. From the eighteenth-century and onward the definition of a Celt became someone speaking a Celtic language.

The mysterious background of the Celtics is similar to the mysterious origins of fairies and fairy tales. Despite several theories, there is no definite answer of whether fairies are meant to resemble Celtic ancestors or are merely mythical beings.

The Irish word for the fairy is Sheehogue [“sidheog”] and fairies are Deenee Shee [“daoine sidhe”] or “fairy people.” Based on folk beliefs, scholars have created two main theories for the origins of fairy culture. First, the Irish peasantry considers fairies to be, “Fallen angels who were not good enough to be saved, nor bad enough to be lost.”

Being less guilty than the rest, these fallen angels were not driven to hell, but rather, “were suffered to dwell on earth” in remote areas away from humans: “some were granted the depths of the oceans and became merfolk; others were sent to the lands under the earth and became goblins and trolls; others were granted the air and became spirits and sheeries; while others were given the harsh and barren areas of the countryside and became Leprechauns and Grogochs.”

The notion that fairies are actually fallen angels is derived from the characteristic that fairies are good to the good and evil to the evil, much like angels. The reason that these angels have fallen is that they are evil without malice, explaining why they fell but were not lost.

Second, the fairy folklore were viewed as the gods of pagan Ireland, known as the Tuatha Dé Danann. Irish antiquarians surmise that when these gods were no longer worshipped and fed offerings they dwindled away until they became only a few spans high.

According to Eberly, scholars trace the origins of fairy belief by interpreting fairies as, “deified ancestors, nature spirits, descriptions of aboriginal races, half-remembered gods, and/or spirits of the dead.” One scholar attributes that fairy belief developed as a response to questions that went unanswered in typical rural life, such as climatic disasters, premature deaths of young people, epidemics among cattle and livestock, infantile paralysis, and the birth of deformed children.

The theory that fairies are the remnants of the original Irish pagan gods finds evidence in the same names between fairy chiefs and old Tuatha Dé Danann heroes. The places where fairies are believed to gather are the same locations of old Tuatha Dé Danann burying-places. Finally, the Tuatha Dé Danann tribe used to be called the Sloa-Shee [“sheagh sidehe”] or “the fairy host.”

Early superstitions of fairies have historical truth but without the concept of magic. These “supernatural” creatures are actually the remaining memories of Celtic ancestors, twisted into myth over time. The natives became identifiable with fairies, and the existence of fairies began with human beings.

This perception is unrecognizable at first glance, but when analyzing closely to find meaning, the connection to historical accuracy can be found. Fairies of ancient Ireland were descended from the Tuatha Dé Danann or people of God. According to legend, this race came from the northern isles and was the size of mortals, or sometimes larger than mortals.

Historical records place the arrival of the Celtics to Ireland during the first millennium before Christ. Early writers of literature depict the Tuatha Dé Danaans with hints of divine power due to their advanced skills and magic, alluding to the confusion between the gods of the ancient Irish and these northern invaders. After their ships landed, the Tuatha Dé Danann colonists adjusting to the new land received hostility from the natives — the fairies.

With the introduction of bronze and the Iron Age, fairies became more violent and aggressive towards the newcomers until the Tuatha Dé Danann overthrew the native people of Ireland. In turn, the invaders were overthrown by the Milesians, the mythical ancestors of modern Irishmen.

As Christianity was introduced to Ireland and spread across the country, the Tuatha Dé Danaans withdrew into the green hills. These hills dwellings gave the Tuatha Dé Danaans a new name; they became known as “People of the Fairy Mound,” or Shee. These early settlers hid very carefully to avoid animals and enemies.

They lived off the land and stayed away from human contact in secluded areas, much like the descriptions of the solitary fairy. The Tuatha Dé Danann were learned in the ways of magic and connected to the Druids, some of the earliest immigrants, who practised black arts. This mystical group was devoted to the gods and practised the “superstitious ceremony of enchanting” or the singing of verses. These songs would have also been chanted by banshees, or fairy-women, as they conducted their spells.

This led to the belief that Banshees and druids have supernatural powers. Druids and other members of the bardic caste chose to live in the hills to study and practice their skills, where they resided until the sixteenth-century.

This seclusion kept the bardic caste distinct from the other inhabitants of the country and provided additional mystery and superstition for their neighbors, “which, in the dark ages, identified them with fairies, and which, down to the seventeenth-century, upheld the belief that they were in communication with them.” The Celtic Dark Ages lasted from the fifth-century to the fifteenth-century. The druids learned medicine, astrology, bardism, and prophecy.

Some magicians and witches pretended to use incantations and spells to achieve success in the practices of medicine and prophecy, which allowed them to maintain an aura of mystery around themselves. Since the Banshee was a healer and associated with the druids, it was believed that she could look into the future and see approaching deaths.

The Tuatha Dé Danann remained in the country for several centuries despite the Gaelic invasion, and over time the wonder of the Tuatha Dé Danann dwindled until the prowess of these large creatures shrunk into the little people of common fairy folk.

Since literature alludes to the Tuatha Dé Danaans’ connections to the Irish Gods, the appearance of fairies is likewise imagined to be similar to the brightness of divinities. Fairies were thought to have blue eyes and yellow hair and were elegantly dressed, always wearing green, the colour of immortality, among their garments. The theory of fairies being the Tuatha Dé Danann, or fallen angels, or a fusion of both, depicts the blending of pagan and Christian traditions.

There are stories of death omens within many cultures in which there is a personification of death that escorts people to the afterlife. There are similar elements among death-related stories of various cultures, such as the transportation of the deceased to the afterlife and confronting death. In the Celtic culture, the Dullahan is the personification of death. Irish tales of the Dullahan predate the nineteenth-century.

With the arrival of Irish immigrants and their stories, the Dullahan appeared in American folklore during the 1700s and 1800s. Emily Elizabeth Dickinson’s poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” (1890) includes an encounter with a Dullahan as the narrator describes a carriage ride to the afterlife. However, the most notable difference between Emily Elizabeth Dickinson’s poem and traditional versions of the tale is the narrator’s lack of fear when death appears.

Sightings of the Dullahan vary from person to person, but recurring characteristics include a black carriage drawn by black horses, that is driven by a dark coachman wielding a whip, and the creature appears close to midnight. The approach of a Dullahan may be heard the sound of hooves or the cracking of a whip.

Folks may hear a Dullahan but not see it, and vice versa. The Dullahan is the masculine form of the Banshee and warns of impending death.

The Gaelic root bean-sidhe meant “a woman of the fairies,” identifying the banshee as a fairy-woman. The idea of the Banshee as a phantom omen of approaching death is a modern concept.

Early perceptions of the Banshee viewed her as a female physician or witch, one of the earliest settlers in the country. She cured the wounded and sick with remedies from nature, and people attributed these healing powers to the supernatural. Folklore superstitiously attributed the wounds “to those old sources of evil, the fairies.”

Even after fairies were no longer visible to humans, there was a strong belief in the extent of their evil. Banshees used incantations to avert fairy harm from their friends or direct the evil to their enemies.

Some of the herbs that Banshees used for cures are still used by herb doctoresses in modern Ireland. Banshees were employed as nurses within Irish castles along with being a professional mourner at funerals. As a nurse, she would prepare medicines and administer to the sick.

It was her duty to mourn and cry, so when a patient was beyond her care she would “begin to lament in her fashion.” Those within the castle would hear her cries and recognize it as a sign that the patient was dying, “and thus it came to pass that the Banshee’s or fairy-woman’s shriek was truly deemed a forerunner of death.”

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