Tuesday, August 06, 2013

6 August - Lord Rossmore's Banshee

6 August is the feast of the Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord on Mount Tabor.

It's also the 212th anniversary of the death in 1801 of Robert Cuninghame, 1st Baron Rossmore, soldier and Irish politician.  He fought at Culloden, but alas, on the wrong side.  Well, morally the wrong side.  For purposes of personal advancement, very much on the correct side.  He died quite a wealthy man, a peer,  and commander-in-chief of the  military forces in Ireland.

And I'm telling you this, because. . .?

His death involved one of the great banshee stories in Irish lore.  The following is from Personal Sketches of his Own Time by Sir Jonah Barrington, Member of the Irish Parliament, Judge of the High Court of Admiralty of Ireland. In two volumes.  1871.

Herewith, the death of Lord Rossmore:

This intimacy at Mount Kennedy gave rise to an occurrence the most extraordinary and inexplicable of my whole existence -- an occurrence which for many years occupied my thoughts and wrought on my imagination. Lord Rossmore was advanced in years, but I never hard of his having had a single day's indisposition. He bore, in his green old age, the appearance of robust health. During the viceroyalty of Earl Hardwick, Lady Barrington, at a drawing-room at Dublin Castle, met Lord Rossmore. He had been making up one of his weekly parties for Mount Kennedy, to commence the next day, and had sent down orders for every preparation to be made. The Lord-Lieutenant was to be of the company.
"My little farmer," said he to Lady Barrington, addressing her by a pet name, "when you go home, tell Sir Jonah that no business is to prevent him from bringing you down to dine with me to-morrow. I will have no ifs in the matter -- so tell him that come he must!" She promised positively, and on her return informed me of her engagement, to which I at once agreed. We retired to our chamber about twelve; and towards two in the morning I was awakened by a sound of a very extraordinary nature. I listened. It occurred first at short intervals; it resembled neither a voice nor an instrument; it was softer than any voice and wilder than any music, and seemed to float in the air. I don't know wherefore, but my heart beat forcibly. The sound became still more plaintive, till it almost died away in the air; when a sudden change, as if excited by a pang, altered its tone. It seemed descending. I felt every nerve tremble. It was not a natural sound, nor could I make out the point from which it came.

At length I awakened Lady Barrington, who heard it as well as myself. She suggested that it might be an Eolian harp, but to that instrument it bore no similitude. It was altogether a different character of sound. My wife at first appeared less affected than I; but subsequently she was more so. 
We now went to a large window in our bed-room, which looked directly upon a small garden underneath. The sound seemed then obviously to ascend from a grass-plot immediately below our window. It continued. Lady Barrington requested that I would call up her maid, which I did, and she was evidently more affected than either of us. The sounds lasted for more than half-an-hour. At last a deep, heavy, throbbing sigh seemed to issue from the spot, and was shortly succeeded by a sharp but low cry, and by the distinct exclamation, thrice repeated, of "Rossmore--Rossmore--Rossmore!" I will not attempt to describe my own feelings; indeed I cannot. The maid fled in terror from the window,and it was with difficulty I prevailed on Lady Barrington to return to bed. In about a minute after the sound died gradually away, until all was silent. 
Lady Barrington, who is not so superstitious as I, attributed this circumstance to a hundred different causes, and made me promise that I would not mention it next day at Mount Kennedy, since we should be thereby rendered laughing-stocks. At length, wearied with speculations, we fell into a sound slumber. 
About seven the next morning a strong rap at my chamber-door awakened me. The recollection of the past night's adventure rushed instantly upon my mind, and rendered me very unfit to be taken suddenly on any subject. It was light. I went to the door, when my faithful servant, Lawler, exclaimed, on the other side, "O Lord, sir!" "What is the matter?" said I hurriedly. "Oh, sir!" ejaculated he, "Lord Rossmore's footman was running past the door in great haste, and told me in passing that my Lord, after coming from the Castle, had gone to bed in perfect health, but that about half after two this morning his own man, hearing a noise in his master's bed (he slept in the same room), went to him, and found him in the agonies of death; and before he could alarm the other servants, all was over!"
I conjecture nothing. I only relate the incident as unequivocally matter of fact. Lord Rossmore was absolutely dying at the moment I heard his name pronounced. Let sceptics draw their own conclusions; perhaps natural causes may be assigned; but I am totally unequal to the task. 
Atheism may ridicule me; orthodoxy may despise me; bigotry may lecture me; fanaticism might burn me; yet in my very faith I would seek consolation. It is, in my mind, better to believe too much than too little; and that is the only theological crime of which I can be fairly accused.

This link should open to the correct page of the on-line volume.

If you're in the mood for a leisurely 19th century reminiscence, this link should take you to the main page where you can select among several formats.