), bean nighe
Irish: "woman of the sídhe
" (fairy hill)
A figure from Irish folklore, the bean sídhe is a fairy woman who fortells the death of a family member. To hear her keening is a sign that a member of your family will die that night. According to folklore, she is usually dressed in a gray cloak and green dress, and her eyes are red from weeping. If one were to catch a bean sídhe, the person could force her to tell him who will die.
The modern American concept of the bean sídhe is usually derived from the 1958 film Darby O'Gill and the Little People, wherein the bean sidhe is a frightening figure who (IIRC) can steal a person's soul away. However, this is not the original meaning of the bean sidhe, but a confusion with the theme of the Wild Hunt.
The concept of the bean sídhe is that she is a fairy woman associated with a certain family (clan). Her keening is mean to sing the soul to the Otherworld. In the time of Druidism, she may have originally been a house spirit, like the Roman lares. A lar was a deceased ancestor who was protector of the family; there is some speculation that the origin of the Tuatha Dé Danann may be found in ancestor worship. That is, this is a "fairy woman" but properly translated, she is a woman of the hills, specifically, the sídhe--the burial mounds found throughout the British Isles. As such, the origin of the bean sídhe may have been a sort of ancestor worship, later mutated into "fairies" or supernatural gods.
The concept of a bean sídhe can also be found in Irish mythology, such as the stories of "Oísin in the Land of Youth" (Fionn Cycle) or "The Adventures of Connla" (Cycle of the Kings). A fairy woman--often the daughter of Manannán mac Lír--comes to a hero and sings him away across the ocean to the Otherworld. He follows her to the various otherworld islands (Tír na nOg, Mag Mell, Emhain Abhlach)--usually not returning. This can also be seen in the death of King Arthur, who was brought to Avalon by Morgan le Fay. Like the common bean sidhe, these fairy woman sing to the dying and bring them to the "other side."
A ghost story: my (rather eccentric) aunt told me a story about the bean sídhe. My maternal grandmother's side of the family came to America at the time of the potato famine (ca. 1847), and settled in upstate Pennsylvania, in the coal-mining region. In 1918, my grandmother lost two of her brothers to the influenza pandemic that was busy killing up to 40 million people.
The story goes that my great-uncle Michael Buggy was dying. He was only 21; his young brother had already died. The family was gathered one night as he lay dying upstairs. There was a knock at the door, and a man entered. He said he was a doctor, and was let upstairs into Michael's room. The "doctor" was up there for a while, then came downstairs, and said, "There's someone here keeping this boy from dying. You have to let him go." The "doctor" then left. Outside, this unearthly wail went up--which my aunt explained was the keening of the bean sídhe. That night, my great-uncle died.
I can't say I've ever heard the bean sídhe, but it's hard to tell keening from any other odd city sound, like cop sirens or screaming drunks.