For centuries clans and bloodlines have been forewarned of imminent death within their walls by way of portents and harbingers.
I first learned of such things as a child when my mother would tell me of the banshees and the accounts of local families here in County Limerick, who would have strange phenomena occur during times of impending bereavement.
In Ireland it is extremely common for creatures and ethereal beings to appear in the days and moments preceding the demise of a relative. The most terrifying aspect is that one of these harbingers attaches itself to a lineage and hangs over them forever more, particularly when it comes to the families of high social standing and nobility.
THE FOXES OF GORMONSTON
In Irish Peerage the title of Baron or Viscount of Gormonston belongs to the patriarch of the Preston family and has been around since the late fourteenth century, their residence being Gormonston castle in Drogheda, County Meath.
The castle remained in the family until the 1950’s when it was sold to a Holy Order to create a school. Prior to that however, it was the location of one of the strangest occurrences for generations.
With the first instance reported in the seventeenth century, it was documented that the foxes in the surrounding countryside would know when the head of the Preston household was dying, even if that fact was unbeknown to the family themselves.
Arriving in twos and amassing under the window of the Viscount’s bed chamber, the foxes would howl and cry all night long. Servants would do their utmost to drive the animals away, only for them to return to their place of vigil.
Once the Viscount had passed away, the foxes soundlessly faded into the night.
Banshees have forever been known as portents of death, however there have been sightings of these wailing spirits seeking death for revenge and torment.
This evil being has the appearance of a wretched old hag, dress shredded, matted grey hair, pointed rotting teeth and long, yellow fingernails. If she sets her mind to have you as her prey, she will stalk you, forcing you to listen to her soul wrenching scream of despair until you go insane and your own soul is lost in the depths of her evil cry.
Of course of you are lucky, you will have a quick death by looking into her blood red eyes, filled with enough loathing and agony to kill you instantly. Those strong enough not to succumb to either, are ripped apart with her bare hands.
More often than not however, the Banshee is a herald of despair and even as a child I heard tales and indeed the chilling cries through the still of the night that led to the report of a death the following morning.
In the early sixteenth century in Bunratty Castle in County Clare, it was reported that a visitor to the O’Brien family home was staying in a room overlooking the river and was woken by a piercing scream. Upon investigation the guest was horrified to see a pale deathly face floating at the window, dishevelled red hair cascading over her face.
The following morning the Lady told of her experience, to be told a family member had died in the castle in the night. The Banshee was believed to be the spirit of the wife of a worker drowned in the river by a former castle Lord, with her revenge being to bring death to descendants of the Castle.
In Dingle on John Street, the Hussey family were settled in for the night when their blood ran cold. The pitiful gut-wrenching cry of the Banshee was at their door. Thankfully due to their lowly status, it would appear to have been a case of mistaken identity, as the Banshee left and the following morning a well to do man in the fishing village, also called Hussey, was found dead.
Shucks, or Devil Dogs have long been written about in Irish history. They are black as the night, large, with glowing red eyes, some with cloven hooves instead of paws. Sometimes they are raised to protect treasure such as the one that breathes fire at Castle Biggs in Tipperary, others simply to forewarn of death.
Quite possibly the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles, they are seen in rural and isolated areas, although once your eyes set on the Shuck the mark of death is upon you.
In Kanturk, County Cork a local man by the name of Foley was walking home when he encountered the hell beast on the road, eyes glowing and snarling. He stood terrified as the Shuck brushed up against his leg. Unable to sleep that night, he told his family of his encounter and died just a few days later.
Crows and Ravens have long been emblematic of death, made all the more foreboding by their predisposition to feed on carrion, the decaying flesh of animals, as well as their black plumage.
These birds were purported to be chaperones, guiding the souls of the departed into the next world as well as conduits between this world and the spirit plain.
In Ireland there are references going back to ancient times and in Celtic folklore, The Morrigan is symbolised by a crow. She is a goddess of battle, strife and sovereignty and a harbinger of doom for those men who cross her path.
No corporeal weapons were needed in order for the Morrigan to take her prey. She relied solely on magic and her ability to shapeshift at will and is known primarily for appearing as a crow to those at death’s door.
The belief has continued over the centuries that when a single raven or crow has appeared at a house, tapping on the window, a death within was looming.
In the late eighteenth century there is an account of the Ross-Lewin family in Kilchrist, in County Clare being terrorised by their own messenger of death. The father of the household was away on business and his children went to spend the evening with friends.
On returning home, they passed the old abandoned church where they saw an old hag crying and waving her hands in the air.
Thinking her crazy the terrified youth went towards her only for the old woman to vanish. They sped home and told their mother of their encounter and the matriarch expressed her fears of a death in the family.
At that moment an enormous raven landed on the window sill and tapped three times on the pane. A few days later the family were in mourning as news reached them of the death of Mr Ross-Lewin.
Of course birds of ill-news do not end there. Thrushes flying in the window and settling and white owls seen during the day are also signs of a bereavement in the home.
THE COACH OF DEATH AND THE DULLAHAN
By far the most fearsome of all the harbingers is the Headless Horseman and his Cóiste Bodhar. Unlike the other portents who are seen as messengers of death and attached to bloodlines, the Dullahan is Death and he has no master other than the sacrificial god, Crom Dubh. He will not be stopped and his malevolent call to the dying is a summoning of their very soul.
The Dullahan is believed to be an incarnation of Crom Dubh. The god did not want to be denied human souls following the introduction of Christianity and so disguised himself as the one without a head, a tribute to the sacrifices through decapitation that gave Crom Dubh his power.
He rides through the darkness on the blackest steed with glowing red eyes, breathing flame and sparks from its nostrils. The Dullahan carries a whip made from the spine of a human corpse as he stands on his coach, with wheel spokes of thigh bone and covered with dried human skin. Some say the carriage is headed by six horses, black as the darkest soul, however the rider is always the same.
The headless horseman lights his way with candles embedded into skulls, his own incandescent head that he carries, a beacon in the dead of night. He has supernatural vision and when he senses a soul for the taking he holds his head aloft, seeing for miles across fields and forests, through windows and into the darkest and dingiest of rooms.
The Dullahan is only permitted to speak once on each ride and that is to utter the name of the person who is going to die. When the horseman stops, he has found his quarry and speaks their name aloud, bringing forth their spirit to be devoured.
So all are harbingers of death, however with the exception of the Dullahan, are these messengers of doom a horror to be feared with the knowledge of what is to follow, or rather an old family friend, come to warn of loved ones being taken into the eternal night?