In Search of Irish Banshees I Found My Own

In a recent and wild maternal ancestral search, Irish roots grabbed me heart and ankles and pulled me across the Atlantic. I was so excited to venture on my own away from my treasured family and thrilled to finally fulfill my childhood dreams of haunted castles, abandoned buildings, faerie magic and banshees. And, because I am a Death Doula and Funeral Celebrant by profession and have watched way too many people holding their breath during funeral services, I was, and am, intrigued by the “show” mourning of keening. I Googled for months and planned visits to the most haunted buildings in Ireland, where the most wicked witches once lived and “must see” cemeteries. I wanted to get creeped out a bit and come home with some really good stories of all of the haunted places I had visited. I had my map highlighted, GPS programmed and, because I am practical, I watched multiple YouTube videos on tips for driving on the left side of the road.

But, here’s what actually happened.

The plane touched down in Dublin and I grabbed my only bag from the overhead, set foot on the tarmac, took one deep inhalation of the cool, humid air, and… cried. And kept crying. All the way through to the Customs Officer where I dug my nails into my palms as if that could help hold in the tears. But they didn’t stay in. Tears filled and spilled and I could only smile and shrug, a little embarrassed, knowing full well that I was yet another from the US coming to find their ancestors. This tourist just happened to be a little emotional for some reason.

Now, perhaps I was jet lagged as I was landing at about 2 am back home and it was 7 am there but my tears haltingly came and went until after I got off the Iarnród Éireann in Athlone. It was there that I touched the stones of the first tourist attraction of my trip. Athlone Castle was erected in 1210 and proudly, or solemnly, displays a plaque with important dates in regard to the structure’s history which ends with brigadier George Adamson “who was shot dead on the 25th of April 1922.” This paused me. 1922 was not all that long ago. And, who was Mr. Adamson’s family? Did I come across that name in my ancestry search? This is when all of the millions of names and dates from Ancestry.com and Roots Ireland came rushing through my body, brain, soul and all of my plans fell with my salty tears and soaked into the dead center of Ireland.

That night from my hotel room floor with candles, incense, crystal skulls, and the only piece of jewelry that I have of my great grandmother’s I did a ceremony with, and for, my Irish ancestors. I was on a mission to follow my maternal line on this trip, but because I was going to be driving on the left side of the road starting the next day and I began sweating just thinking about it, I decided to also ask for help with driving from all of my Irish ancestors. (They didn’t actually drive vehicles while they were alive in Ireland but certainly carriages and I’m sure a few way back must have jousted from the left….)

And, so, I didn’t end up driving to specific destinations. I sunk deep, and just let Ireland just lead me. I settled behind the wheel and drove (like a rockstar) to wherever I ended up! I wandered through small medieval villages, drove in circles, stopped to chat with sheep and their baby lambs and went up one lane roads into the mountains where I thought the band of grave-digging-creepizoids that I had previously encountered in a random cemetery would find a great place to “do me in” if they so desired.

Without a map, I accidentally came across the Caves of Kesh (holy crap) and grabbed a bit of earth (shhhhh) then to the extremely off-path, megalithic passage tombs of Carrowkeel where inside I sat in meditation in a silent and highly charged chamber. Outside the tomb, I could barely stand from the strong winds and rough, muddy, craggy terrain and was slightly on edge about the hundreds of hefty blackface rams wandering freely who watched me with curiosity rather than fear. Further north, I walked over a fairy bridge where the Atlantic Ocean crashed beneath me 70 feet below. I did this even though I am very afraid of heights because apparently I am a different person in Ireland and so who am I to think I’m afraid?! I wandered in the most exquisitely charming cemetery I have ever set live foot in that looked like a page from The Secret Garden and I made a couple of new local friends. Friends that when I think of them now, my heart swells three times and I am so thankful for their help navigating the complexities of my ancestral lands.

Eventually, I walked through the open door into two inch deep dried sheep poop and into the moss-painted, crumbling building of my deceased relatives. I looked into the intact hearth where food was prepared during the Great Famine. I stood in the bedroom where babies were born and the sick and old died. My relatives were here… My family whose stories I am still uncovering and paths I am still tracing into America after months of searching microfilms, old maps and church records…. My mother’s bloodline which holds memories of cholera epidemic, early deaths, fostered children, changed names, workhouses, asylums, and stories that ended with families holding living wakes on the docks as they waved goodbye to their loved ones.

This is the land and these are the stories of the hauntings and the abandoned houses and the wailing women where pain was tilled into the same fields that also nourished their bodies. I didn’t need to map out a trip of “haunted Ireland.” I needed only to breathe the air and touch the stones to see, hear and feel ghosts everywhere. These are my family’s banshees and it’s so clear now that cellular memory plays a role in my life today with odd and irrational fears. I am better in this present day for knowing the pains of my past.

Perhaps it is as Freud may have said, that the Irish are the only race that cannot be psychoanalyzed. And I say, that the land of Ireland, should not be explored “mapped out.” For within, above and upon, it is sheer and utter magic and being in the unknown is a beautiful thing.

And, we need to bring a modern day version of keening to the US.

Author of Death Nesting and Ancient Death Doula Series. Feeding Your Demons Facilitator. Community Deathcare teacher. Mama of three. www.annemariekeppel.com

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