The Irish love of a good yarn, one embued with equal amounts of mystery and magic (with a little fear thrown in for good measure), is a dying art. Anyone’s grandparents used to be able to send chills up and down your spine before bedtime with some tale or other they swore was the truth. This was a story my grandmother told us. She said it was in the newspapers of the day, and although there are indeed reports made in the papers about people hearing a banshee’s scream in the same area, I can’t find this one. But no matter, everyone in the towns and villages where I grew up knew about this event and everyone knew about the banshee.
Let’s be clear: banshees do not cause harm, they are predictors of great tragedies, loss and death, but I suspect that if you ever had the (mis)fortune to hear one, you might be inclined to think otherwise.
It’s the late 1950s, early 1960s and it’s summer, high summer, not a cloud in the sky and the air is heavy with heat, it rests on the skin like warm silk. The noise you can hear is a children’s sports event, held in the beautiful gardens of a former stately home, once owned by a High Sheriff of Antrim, who had been knighted. The grounds hold a large lake, lush rose gardens, woods and paths for meandering, and on the day in question, it is full of happy, boisterous children and teenagers, as they compete for medals in a boy scout competition.
Around 3 o’clock, in the middle of the swim competition, an oppressive silence descended over the park, followed by a mist, a cold, swirling mist. The birds scattered into the sky. People dragged their eyes away from the boys swimming in the lake to the mist that was gathering all over the water, wondering where it could have come from on such a perfect summer’s day, a day of uninterrupted blue skies and bright light.
And then it began. A skin crawling noise, a terrible, demented screaming, the like of which no one had ever heard before, wailing over and over, the sound of a soul in perpetual torment. Puzzled panic bloomed on people’s faces until the screaming ended, and it ended as suddenly as it had begun. The mist lifted, swirled away in the heat, the birds returned to song and a child lay drowned in the lake.
At once everyone knew what they had heard and they had all heard it, man, woman and child, believers and unbelievers.
Years later, in Belfast, reports were made one evening of a woman’s hair raising scream that split the air in half. A week later, Northern Ireland was officially engulfed in ‘The Troubles’. In hindsight, people said, it had been an omen.
The supposed location of our story.