Our English word banshee comes from the Gaelic term bean-sidhe, in Irish folklore a fairy-woman whose ghostly appearance and eerie wailing herald the impending death of a family member. In some descriptions the banshee is young and fair, in others withered and old. Usually a banshee visits by night, eyes bloodshot from crying, combing her long hair with a comb made of bone. Most banshees haunt the ancestral home of old Irish families, although there are stories of banshees following their host families (which makes them sound like exchange students!) to the United States during the mass emigrations of the 19th and 20th centuries. There are also stories of the dire consequences that befall anyone who would mess with fate by shooing the banshee away or stealing her comb.
Another variant of the banshee is the bean-nighe, or “washer woman,” a spirit sometimes seen at the edge of a stream or pool washing the bloodstained clothes of the one about to die. Unlike the banshee, the hag-like bean-nighe (ben NEE-yeh), is often described as having webbed feet and a single giant tooth and could be bargained with. In some legends, a traveler who came upon her washing his clothes might save himself before running away before she spied him. Other versions mention a supernatural barter through which anyone who got between the bean-nighe and the water might receive three wishes, but would have to answer three questions truthfully in turn. In at least one account, anyone courageous enough to seize and suckle one of the bean-sidhe’s pendulous breasts might win “special favor” with the spirit. The chronicles don’t go into detail.
Great female voices in Irish music should have something of the banshee—or the bean-nighe—in them. The ones that really play our hearts like one-stringed lutes have the fell undertones of real tragedy.
Karan Casey has got such a voice, and she is a marvelous singer. The familiar trills and lilts in her music are all just where you expect them to be, but there’s just a shade of huskiness to her voice, with all its whistling sibilants and melismatic phrasing, that carries a real sobering weight. This is as it should be. For every rollicking Irish reel there needs to be a “Danny Boy,” for every Riverdance a Waterboys.
But her voice is also as brilliantly clear as the crystal from her home county of Waterford. Casey began singing at a young age with locals in Ballyduff Lower parish, moving to Dublin in 1987 to study piano and voice and emigrating to New York in 1993. While knocking around sessions in the city’s Irish music scene, she was asked to join Solas, who recorded three albums in four years and toured extensively to great critical acclaim.
Casey also released her first solo album, Songlines, in 1997 to equally enthusiastic praise. Songlines draws heavily on traditionals that came to Casey’s ear through one singer or another. They range from endlessly sad to rousing in a revolutionary kind of way, and without exception they sound like they were written for Casey to sing them. “She Is Like a Swallow” is about a woman who uses herbs to induce a miscarriage. “Shamrock Shore” belongs to the wholly uplifting category known as the famine song, and “The World Turned Upside Down” celebrates the Diggers, who in 1649 rebelled peacefully against their landlords to keep their land “a common treasury for all.”
Casey’s voice can carry a sharply defiant tone at times, such as on the bitter “Ballad of Accounting,” which the liner notes (which are excellent and informative) describe as “a powerful description of how ideals can get lost, confused or ground down through slow, steady surrender.” And then it can get so unspeakably sad. Speaking of banshees, “The Song of Wandering Aengus” is about the god of love in Irish mythology who falls in love with a banshee in a dream and then spends eternity wandering all over Ireland looking for her. Paired with a mournful fiddle, Casey’s voice practically becomes poor Aengus, wandering the mountains and valleys, forever looking for the one with whom to pluck the silver apples of the moon and the golden apples of the sun.
Casey stayed with Solas for more than four years, leaving in 1999 to embark on a solo career. Her most recent release is 2001’s The Winds Begin to Sing. Like Songlines, The Winds comprises mostly traditionals perfectly suited to the many shades of her fantastic voice. Look into picking up one of these recordings next time you get that Celtic urge. Better yet, see Karan Casey perform live in Missoula this week with guitarist Robbie Overson and accordionist Nial Vallely. Best Celtic gig since Altan, or I’ll eat my shilleleigh.