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1649: Lady Fanshawe and the Woman at the Window

In 1649, Sir Richard Fanshawe [1608-1666] and his wife, Ann, Lady Fanshaw [1625-1680], found themselves temporarily resident in Cork, Ireland, towards the end of the English Civil War [1642-1651] while awaiting commands from His Majesty in England. In October, however, Cork rose up against the King and those loyal to him, and the Fanshawes made a hasty retreat. As a result, they stayed at many friends' estates as they made their way to Spain on orders from His Majesty. One of the places they stayed for three days during this time was at the home of Lady Honara O'Brien, where Lady Fanshaw had a very strange experience indeed.

        Around one o'clock in the evening of their first night in the castle, Lady Fanshawe was awakened by a voice at the window of her room. Arising, she drew the curtain open and discovered a woman leaning into the casement of the window from outside. She was lit by the moon, and was wearing white, with red hair, and a "ghastly complexion." The woman called out loudly in a strange tone "Ahone, Ahone, Ahone"... and then, with a sigh "more like wind than breath," the woman vanished, her body looking "more like a thick cloud than substance."

        To put it mildly, Lady Fanshawe had been frightened; and it took much effort on her part to wake her dozing husband, who was surprised to find her in such a state when he finally came to. He was also startled by her account of what had happened, for he had heard that such apparitions were "much more usual in that country than in England." They were more surprised still when, around eight that morning, Lady Honara O'Brien told them she had not slept that night because an O'Brien cousin of hers, whose ancestors had owned the home they were in, had asked her to stay with him in his chamber; this was presumably because he was ill, for he died at two o'clock that morning. Lady Honara also expressed her hopes that they had a peaceful night, for she had given them the room they had because it was the best room in the house... but she had forgotten that the spectre of woman who had become pregnant by a former owner of the home and then been murdered by said owner, now appeared nightly in the window of the room when any in the family were dying.

        The Fanshawes made arrangements to leave as soon as possible.

Please Note

        Banshees are intriguing to me, for instead of starting as legends and then having people claim to encounter them, they start as encounters and then legends and fiction are written about them later. This seems to be the earliest banshee encounter that I can find at the moment, and it shows two things: the classic image of a ghostly woman wailing at a family member's death, and the fact that Lord Fanshawe had heard tales of such previous to his wife's encounter... showing that the knowledge of banshees is still older yet. It's also noteworthy that the spirit was not called a "banshee" in the memoirs, either by the Fanshawes, or by the Lady Honara O'Brien.

        The odd cry of "Ahone Ahone Ahone" is a phonetic rendering of the ancient Irish ochón, which roughly translates as "alas," and is a general cry of great despair... which is interesting as it seems unlikely from context that Lady Fanshaw would know this, so her rendering of an unfamiliar word that actually fits the prescribed behavior of a banshee -- which Fanshaw also didn't know previously -- adds credibility to the account.

        The identification of the phantom as that of a woman wronged by the family makes me wonder why the spirit would cry in despair at the death of members of the family. Perhaps the 'ghost' identification was simply a family tale to explain the banshee's presence.