CELTIC HARBINGERS OF DEATH

Celtic Harbinger of Death

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

 

Gormonston Castle

 

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.

fox

BANSHEES

 

Banshee

Banshee

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.

HELLHOUNDS

 

Shuck

Shuck

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.

ORNITHOMANCY

 

Raven

Raven

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.

 

The Morrigan

The Morrigan

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

death coach

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.

 

Dullahan

Dullahan

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?

 

 

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HALLOWEEN SPECIAL: IRELAND AND THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT

Dullahan

Every film and TV nightmare has a real beginning and Ireland is the place to find them. Here are the most well-known horror movie monsters brought to life!

WEREWOLF

Werewolves were often used as the weapons of the Ancient Celtic Warriors, sent out in battle to tear apart the enemy, their blood-curdling howls sending the cowards running. It is unusual therefore to find that The Vatican have documented a case from 1182, telling of a peaceful Christian Werewolf!

A priest was travelling to the South of Ireland who was sat by his campfire when a great hulking shape emerged from the still of the night, matted fur, dripping from its jowls, sharp pointed teeth glistening in the light of the fire.

The clan of this wolf man had been cursed by an Abbot some years earlier and every seven years two of his family would turn into werewolves and be banished into the forest.  The werewolf’s wife was dying and the priest delivered the last rites.  As his wife died she reverted back to her human form.  Despite his best efforts the priest was unable to ever again find the werewolf or his clan.

VAMPIRE

We have already heard about the female vampire, the Dearg Due, however long before that was the Chieftain Vampire, Abhartach from Derry. A cruel and sadistic warrior, he was finally slain by a rival clan and buried standing up as was the tradition.  The next night however, he was back inflicting more torment on the village than ever before.

Once again he was killed and buried, only to rise once more, draining the blood of his servants before terrorising the locals again.  Finally the rival Chief consulted a druid and took down Abhartach with a sword made of Yew, burying him for the last time head first, never to rise again, or so we are lead to believe.

WITCH

Petticoat Loose was a hideous beast of a woman from Tipperary. She was large, angular and over six feet tall with a strength to match her stature.

Her name came from her raucous behaviour while drinking and dancing and only one man would wed her.  She was named as a witch as the milk from her herd was said to turn blue when put in tea.  She was also accused of murdering her husband and died during a drinking game and so was buried without priest or ceremony.

Years later she would be seen at the roadside terrorising travellers by jumping on their carts.  One refused and she climbed on, stating she was weighted on every limb by magic.  The cart sagged and the horse dropped dead. A priest banished her to the mountain lake to empty it with a thimble, yet she still escapes now in the form of a half-human, half-horse.

EVIL LEPRECHAUN

Leprechauns don’t always wish you ‘Top of the Morning’ and willingly give up their gold. Some of them can be downright nasty, like the Red Man.

Dressed head to foot in red with a nasty yellow complexion, this magical being delights in evil mockery and torment, imparting evil waking nightmares on unwilling victims, making them believe they are carrying corpses and being forced to dine on old hags.

The only way to try and protect yourself is to cry out that you will not be mocked, however the Red Man’s magic is strong and this may not be enough.

HEADLESS HORSEMAN

The Dullahan is one of the Sidhe, or fairy beings. It is a headless horseman, with a steed of pure black, carrying its head beneath one arm.  When out on business, the Dullahan adorns his horse and wagon with funeral apparel and brandishes a whip made from a human spine. The wheels are made from the bones of men and he lights his way with candle filled skulls, the light illuminating the dark, beady eyes and rictus grin on his dismembered head.

Stay well away from this horrific sight, for if he stops in front of you, the gaping mouth says your name and you are dead.

ZOMBIE

In Roscommon in the eighth century, deviant burials took place outside of the cemetery walls. The bodies of several locals were unearthed with their limbs broken and folded in over their torsos, appearing to clutch a large rock embedded in their stomachs.

A pebble was wedged firmly in each jaw and they were buried in the opposite direction to the consecrated burials.  The reason?  These individuals were believed to be zombies, rising up to walk the earth, spreading fear and disease.

The pebble was to prevent the spirit returning, the mouth being the portal for an evil spirit to return.  The bones were smashed and body weighted with rock to ensure their feet never touched solid ground again.

HELLHOUND

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.

Primarily they are raised to protect treasure such as the one that breathes fire at Castle Biggs in Tipperary, others simply to forewarn of death.

BANSHEE

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.  For those who have been strong enough not to succumb to either? She will rip you to death with her bare hands.

So if you find yourself in Ireland, curled up by the fire watching the latest horror, remember – it could be happening for real just outside your window.

banshee