WHERE THE FOLK can I hear the Scream of a Banshee?
Updated: Apr 3
I HAVE BEEN DRIVING THE BACK-ROADS of Caerphilly since the first lockdown, passing through places I never even knew existed. But I haven’t been doing it for the blog, oh, no; when I’m not exploring the B-roads of Wales in search of myths, legends and weird place-names, I work as a Family Mediator for a government-funded charity, “helping end youth homelessness” by supporting young people at risk of being kicked out of, or running away from, their family homes. We’ve got offices all over South Wales and some places up north, but I’m based here, covering the entirety of Caerphilly County Borough.
As such, I visit families all over and come across plenty of peculiar place-names along the way. One of the ones that really stood out for me is found just over the county border at Nantgarw, just outside Cardiff. Heol-y-Bwnsi; a.k.a. “Road of the Banshee”. I just had to stop and snap a photo for the blog on my way home one day!
This quiet lane, which stretches from Mynydd Meio (from ‘beio’, meaning the “Mountain of Blame”) in the Rhondda Valley, through the village of Groeswen and into the Aber Valley, doesn’t stand out, as such. However, the path, along with Mynydd Meio from which it descends, is said to be the haunting grounds of a terrifying female spirit called “Shinny”…
Shinny is said to appear either as a crippled old woman asking for help or as a seductive femme fatale. You should be alright as long as you ignore her and keep on walking, but stop, and she just might end up washing your decapitated head in the stream that runs nearby.
This story intrigued me, but when I went home and did some research on the ghosts and banshees of Caerphilly, I was surprised to see that Shinny was just the tip of the iceberg.
In my very first post, WHERE THE FOLK can I find a Hungover Ghost?, I visit nearby Garth Hill and discuss the history of Taff’s Well, found at the foothills of said “mountain”. Locked away at Taff’s Well Park is a natural hot spring, which used to be the main focal point of the village and was a popular public bath for many years.
What I didn’t know at the time was the story of the Grey Lady who apparently dwells in said spring. The story goes that in life, the Grey Lady would frequent the public baths, always turning up dressed all in grey. So peculiar was she that people would speak of her for many years following her death.
Then, one day, a local man went down to fill up a pitcher at the spring and the Grey Lady’s ghostly hand came up from the depths and grabbed him by the wrist. “Hold my hands!” she pleaded.
The man, understandably bricking it, did as she asked, and even tried pulling her out, but she did not get out of the water. He asked her several questions, probably relating to who the folk she was, but she just stared blankly back at him and said nothing.
Eventually, her fingers slipped from his grasp and she disappeared back under the water, wailing as she went: “Alas, I shall remain in bondage another hundred years! And then, I must find a woman with steady hands that are stronger than yours, so as to hold me!”
Unfortunately, I’m not sure of the origin date of this tale, but I’m sure a hundred years have come and gone by now, so please, if there are any sturdy-handed women out there interested in revealing the truth about the Grey Lady, do please hang out at Taff’s Well and see what happens!
I also learned when doing my research that, sometimes, you don’t need to take to the back-roads to find myths, legends and tales of wailing dead women, for two of Caerphilly’s most famous hags can be found right at the town’s focal point and main attraction; Caerphilly Castle.
We now move on from Grey Lady to Green. At thirty acres, Caerphilly Castle is the largest castle in Wales and the second-largest in the UK, second only to Windsor Castle. It was built between 1268 and 1272 by Gilbert de Clare & son and featured a ring of concrete walls, a first for Britain. Historian Dean Powell discusses the history of the de Clares, amongst other things, in WHO THE FOLK are Dean Powell and Dr William Price?.
A DEADLY LOVE TRIANGLE:
From left: the King, the Wife (Green Lady of Caerphilly Castle) and the Love Rival
Gilbert’s interests included war, power and control. His French wife, Alice de la Marche, niece of Henry II, was the total opposite. She was a liberal who enjoyed late nights and woke conversation. Needless to say, their marriage was strained.
Then, one day, Gruffudd the Fair, Prince of Brithdir, visited the castle. Alice was infatuated. I mean, with a name like that, she was bound to be! And Prince Charming felt the same way about her, so the two began a lustful affair.
However, Gruff was a fair man in more ways than one, and couldn’t live with the guilt of it all. He confessed his sins to a local monk, who was actually immensely loyal to the tyrannical de Clare, and immediately grassed him up. Gilbert was livid, and ordered Alice to be shipped back to France and for Gruff to be accounted for. Nice guys finish last, I suppose!
But someone tipped Gruff off as well, and instead of getting the hell outta’ Dodge, he instead went off on a murderous rampage, tracking down the monk who grassed him up and hanging him from a tree. Not long after, Gilbert’s men caught up with him and he suffered the same fate.
Over in France, news reached Alice of Gruff’s death. In classic folktale fashion, died on the spot- women must have had really weak hearts in those days! But even though she died in France, it is said that her spirit came back to haunt the ramparts of Caerphilly Castle...
Some say that she is stuck in purgatory for her sins. Others say that she is looking for her executed lover. Then again, some argue that she’s still in shock and is merely aimlessly wandering the halls. Whatever the reason, she’s here, and people have been reporting sightings of the Green Lady of Caerphilly Castle for many years now. Perhaps the eeriest accounts describe how she has the ability to turn herself into ivy, and that if you spot her and she takes a liking to you, then she’ll reach out to shake your hand before quickly vanishing.
Indeed, Alice tends to keep herself to herself for the most part and doesn’t go around scaring the pants off people by screaming like a banshee. One old hag who does exactly like that, however, is the castle’s other resident ghoul; Gwrach-y-Rhibyn.
There’s an old Welsh saying that goes “Y mae mor salw a Gwrach-y-Rhibyn”, which means “She’s as ugly as the Rhibyn Witch”. Indeed, this old hag is well-travelled, and doesn’t restrict herself to the Big Cheese. In fact, I’m not sure if she’s supposed to be just the one being or if her name is more of a collective term for an entire class of monster…
She is said to be a harbinger of doom, much like the Irish banshee, and is often seen hanging around people’s windows at night, calling out the names of those who are about to die. She sometimes calls out to people near streams (where she is sometimes seen washing her hands) or at crossroads when the mist rises in the morning.
Indeed, a lot of stories place her near bodies of water- let’s not forget that bodies of water are considered to be rifts between our world and that of Annwn/Annwfn, the Welsh Otherworld. Many people claim to have sensed an eerie presence before she jumped out at them, as though they were being silently stalked.
As well as this, she is often heard lamenting over someone, calling out such things as "Fy ngŵr, fy ngŵr!" (My husband, my husband!) or “Fy mhlentyn, fy mhlentyn bach!” (My child, my little child!). She is also gender-fluid, sometimes adopting a male voice to wail for “Fy ngwraig! Fy ngwraig!” (My wife! My wife!).
Although she often turns invisible when traversing the land, those who have seen the "Hag of the Mist" have hardly been subtle in their descriptions over the years; “wild, unkempt hair”… “long, gangly arms and legs”… “leathery, bat-like wings”… “a hideous, ugly old woman with black teeth and pale skin”… between this and the incessant wailing, you certainly wouldn’t miss her if you did come across her!
But there’s one thing I’ve neglected to mention about Gwrach-y-Rhibyn, something that makes her stand out from your standard harbinger of doom- her insatiable bloodlust. I actually mentioned Gwrach-y-Rhibyn in a previous post, WHERE THE FOLK can I buy Vampire Furniture from?, due to her tendency to be referred to as a “vampire”. You see, this old hag has a taste for blood, and the blood of her victims is often seen caked on her black teeth. Some reports even claim that she has one long, hollow tooth that she uses to drain the blood of children with.
She has a soft spot for children, mind, perhaps due to the fact that she is mourning her own child… she has never killed a young one, by all accounts, but does enjoy scaring the crap out of them and will drink some of their blood... even then, she always lets them run off home afterwards, where they often turn up looking a bit under the weather. She will also drink the blood of vulnerable babies as they sleep in their cribs. In days of old, if a baby was born healthy and gradually grew paler and sicker over time, people would blame it on her.
Some “survivors” claim to have fought her off using physical force, so she isn’t untouchable. That said, she will often attack the bed-ridden or those too vulnerable to defend themselves.
One of the most famous encounters took place at Llandaff in Cardiff in the year 1574, when 92-year-old Sion Gruffydd was lying in his deathbed. He claimed to have seen a dark figure watching him from the window one night, with red eyes and a dark green face. Deducting that it was Gwrach-y-Rhibyn having come for his soul, he accepted his fate. But there was a sudden flash of light, and the apparition vanished. Jumping out of bed to look out the window, he saw the witch fold up her wings and head into the local pub. The next morning, Sion felt better than ever and decided to celebrate with a pint, as many man would. Upon entering the local, however, he learned that Tomos the innkeeper had perished the night before.
Gwrach-y-Rhibyn was also said to have lived at St Donat’s Castle (Vale of Glamorgan) in the 1800s, where she proclaimed the death of the final member of the Stradling family, who died in a duel with Montpelier.
She is even said to have tormented the sailors down at Tiger Bay, often luring them to their deaths. In one instance however, she asked a skipper for a ride in his boat, saying he would be “handsomely rewarded” for the effort. He dutifully agreed, but as he rowed out into the bay, the boat became heavier and heavier, until in the end he was forced to dock. The witch then grabbed him by the hand and took him down the Taff and into the woods. Eagerly anticipating his “reward”, the sailor was somewhat taken aback when she pointed a stone then abruptly vanished. Lifting the stone, he found a pile of gold. He used it to become a dockside property developer, never revealing the secret of his wealth until he was on his deathbed, years later.
The story of how she ended up at Caerphilly Castle stems from the 1700s. Apparently, she used to live in a swamp outside of Caerphilly. However, when the swamp flooded, she ventured into the town itself, terrifying everyone by flying around, screaming like a banshee. Some of the local boys tried to catch her but she fled into the castle, where she still resides today.
So is she a witch, a form of Welsh banshee, a ghost or a vampire?! Who the folk knows, but it’s worth me visiting Caerphilly Castle, that’s for sure! As such, when my girlfriend’s Basque housemate told me that her friend from back home was visiting her in Wales and asked me for places to go, I jumped at the opportunity to take them there. Joining us in another car are Sophie’s other two housemates and one of their partners.
“Caerffili”, as it is known in Welsh, is found to the south of the Rhymney Valley, seven miles north of Cardiff (with Caerphilly Mountain in between) and twelve miles northwest of Newport. It sits within the historic borders of Glamorgan, bordering Monmouthshire. According to the 2011 Census, there are around 41,402 people living in Caerphilly, with a total of 178,806 people living in Caerphilly County Borough itself.
The origin of the town’s name is based on theory, with no archaeological evidence to back it up. It is believed that a monastery was built here by Saint Cenydd in the 6th Century. Up until then, Cenydd had lived as a hermit on the Gower Peninsula. The ‘cantref’ that grew from there in medieval times became known as ‘Senghenydd’. It has been suggested that Saint Ffili, Cenydd’s second son, built a fort here, and that is where the town gets its name; “Caer Ffili”, meaning “Ffili’s Fort”. Others, however, argue that the town was named after Philip de Braose, an Anglo-Norman Marcher Lord.
But they do know that the place was occupied by the Romans in AD 75. They themselves built a fort here and hung around until the middle of the 2nd Century.
When the Normans arrived in the late 11th Century, with most of Wales having fallen to the French invaders, Senghenydd stood its ground and was governed by the Welsh under Ifor ap Meurig, otherwise known as Ifor Bach, whom I discussed in WHERE THE FOLK’s the party at?. Ifor Bach’s grandson, Gruffydd ap Rhys, was the last Welsh lord of Senghenydd, falling to Gilbert de Clare, otherwise known as the “Red Earl”, in 1266.
But Gilbert didn’t exactly have it easy once he was in control, because a year later, in 1267, Henry III recognized Llywelyn ap Gruffudd as Prince of Wales following a bloody war. In 1268, Llywelyn took over the northern territories of Senghenydd, which made Gilbert nervous. As such, he began construction on Caerphilly Castle on 11th April that year. But Llywelyn’s forces attacked the construction site in 1270 and work was halted for a while, re-commencing in 1271 under the leadership of Gilbert’s son, also named Gilbert de Clare. From there, a small settlement grew just south of the castle that would become the town of Caerphilly.
The 1700s saw the place grow into a thriving market town, but the Industrial Revolution brought further growth to communities throughout South Wales in the 19th Century, and the town’s population flourished. A railway station was opened in 1899 and remains open today.
We stop for an Italian meal at a restaurant overlooking the town square before venturing into the castle, the seven of us still getting used to the concept of wearing our masks whenever we stand up or go to the toilet then taking them off to eat or drink. It hasn’t been long since restaurants re-opened. We are seated next to a window offering a great view of the castle, which unfortunately has scaffolding on it, ruining an otherwise perfect photo. That’s the only trouble with visiting these castles off-season…
Down on the square below us is a statue of the late Tommy Cooper (pictured), who famously died of a heart attack on stage, with most of the audience members believing it was a joke. He grew up in Caerphilly, as did footballers Aaron Ramsey and Robert Earnshaw. The eccentric Dr William Price also grew up in a cottage outside of Caerphilly, whom I discuss in WHERE THE FOLK did the "Mad Doctor" go to burn the Baby Welsh Messiah?.
But Caerphilly is known for its cheese, really. Every year, along with the Caerphilly Food Festival, the town hosts the Big Cheese Festival, which has been held in and around the castle since 1998. You can expect plenty of food, drink, fireworks and a “cheese race” that goes around the castle. They also host the musical event “Megaday” as well as the Festival of Light in winter, when they parade around town holding burning lanterns. They’ve also got two agricultural shows; the Machen Agricultural Show and the Bedwellty Agricultural Show, held on the grounds of Llancaiach Fawr Manor, where I shall be visiting soon for a future post.
Indeed, there’s plenty going on here in Caerphilly!
The place has also made it onto the small screen a few times, with a protest against the Sex Pistols being filmed here outside the Castle Cinema on the night of December 14th, 1976. It featured in the Sex Pistols’ documentary The Filth and Fury. Caerphilly Council was one of the only three counties that were allowing the Pistols to perform at the time, the other two being Manchester and Leeds. The castle itself has also featured in the BBC television series Merlin, as well as a couple of Doctor Who episodes.
Entering Caerphilly Castle, I am taken back to the time I brought my Australian friend and her two friends here when they visited Wales a few years ago. I had previously stayed with her at her home on Magnetic Island when backpacking across Australia, but then it was my turn to host. I remember how astonished they were with how green everything was over here…
Gilbert de Clare’s son, Gilbert de Clare, died at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and Edward II, whom I’ve also mentioned a few times in the course of this blog, became legal guardian of his three sisters and heiresses. In 1315, he replaced de Badlesmere, the constable at the time, with Payn de Turberville of Coity, who turned out be a real bas- really brutal towards the people of Glamorgan.
On top of this, the place was struck by famine, and pretty soon a new Welsh rebel rose against the English as a consequence; Llywelyn Bren, Ifor Bach’s grandson and Lord of Senghenydd. But de Turberville came down hard on him, charging him with sedition. Llywelyn begged Edward II to either take control off of or take control of de Turberville, to which Eddy responded by summoning him before Parliament to be put on trial. He added that if he was found guilty, he would be hanged.
Llywelyn fled, sparking a revolt on 28th January 1316 by leading a surprise attack against Caerphilly Castle. They managed to capture the constable and take the outer ward, but failed to break into the inner defences. Indeed, standing here today, it’s clear to see why taking this castle might have been a bit tricky- a moat, an outer wall then a drawbridge before you reach the castle itself. Once at the front door, you’d have to get through several gates that would each close and trap you beneath deadly murder holes where you’d either be burned to death with hot sand from above or killed by the arrows from the windows on either side of you… certainly not a task for the faint-hearted!
And so, Llywelyn moved his attention to the small settlement outside instead, ordering his men to slaughter its inhabitants and burn their houses to the ground. Of course, the town was eventually re-built.
Entering through the gift shop, I keep an eye out for the huge models of dragons they had the last time I was here, and am somewhat disappointed when I don’t see them. Did they move those dragons around different castles? No- there they are! With a whole section dedicated to them this time, and a loudspeaker narrating some tale about a Welsh prince eating a dragon’s egg then turning into a dragon, himself. Me and the boys exchange a few suspicious glances, then nod in agreement that it’s not a legit folktale.
In the 15th Century, the castle was attacked again, this time by everyone’s favourite, Owain Glyndŵr, whom I discuss in WHERE THE FOLK can I listen to Talking Starlings and a Welsh Banger? Part II. Glyndŵr actually managed to take control of the castle though (at around 1403-05). Of course, his reign didn’t last long…
Then, finally, in 1642, the castle had to face the perils of the English Civil War. South Wales was predominantly a Royalist area and a small fort was built overlooking the castle from the site of the old Roman fort in 1646, at the tail end of the war. However, it is unclear whether this was built by the Royalists or the Parliamentarians. Regardless, after the war, the castle was destroyed by the Parliamentarians, as were many other Welsh castles. This was to prevent them from ever being used again.
Since then many towers have collapsed, with most having fallen by the 18th Century. There is no evidence of an official order to destroy the castle, so it is unclear whether the towers fell as a result of canon fire or damage caused by the retreating water defences. You’ll see for yourself if you ever come here that one tower, in particular, is still standing but resembles the Leaning Tower of Pisa. They’ve got a statue standing here today, pretending to be keeping the tower upright.
“Go on, stand there with your arms up like this, like the statue!”
“No!” she says, blushing and turning away.
“Russ- shut up!” she says, clutching her handbag. “Come on, let’s go!”
The castle lay in ruins for years after, with one tower being used as a prison. It was briefly used as a manorial court by the 2nd Earl of Pembroke in the mid-16th Century, but was leased to a Thomas Lewis in 1583, who used a lot of the stones to build himself a mansion nearby. Ironically, the Lewis family were descendants of Ifor Bach! They vacated the manor house around a hundred years later.
Then the Marquesses of Bute got hold of the property in 1776 and shortly thereafter issued its restoration. In 1950, the castle and its grounds were handed over to the state and the water defences filled back up with water again. These days, Cadw manages the site (itself a Grade-I listed building) as a museum and tourist attraction, like most castles in Wales. It saw 90,914 visitors in 2006, and you can now book out the Great Hall as a wedding venue!
As we explore the castle, I try to imagine what it would be like seeing Gwrach-y-Rhibyn roaming the courtyard, calling out my name…
So what the folk is Gwrach-y-Rhibyn? A witch, as the name suggests? A vampire with a good soul deep-down, forced to feed on human blood? Descendant of a Welsh goddess?
What?! That’s right- her proposed origin story throws another player into the field: a Welsh goddess. Some folklorists claim that she was once a water deity of sorts, associated with, or perhaps being an aspect of, the Welsh goddess Dôn. In WHERE THE FOLK did the Flower-Faced Girl go? Part I, I mentioned how the family in that branch are descendants of this Welsh deity. She was the wife of Afagddu, rejected son of the shapeshifting sorceress Ceridwen and her partner Tegid Foel, from the Book of Taliesin.
But most scholars and folklorists tend to associate her with the cyhyraeth, the Welsh version of the Irish banshee. The name “cyhyraeth” derives from the word ‘cyhyr’, meaning ‘muscle’, ‘tendon’ or ‘flesh’ and the termination ‘aeth’, meaning ‘skeleton’. As such, it is a “thing of mere flesh and bone”.
These ghostly apparitions have also been referred to as “death-potents” and “wraiths”. They stem right from Welsh mythology and are usually depicted as disembodied voices that call out and moan just before someone dies. By all accounts, the voices sound “doleful and disagreeable”, like the groans of someone lying on their deathbed, and they always call out a total of three times before a person dies, growing fainter each time. Apparently, they even call out to Welsh people who are about to die thousands of miles away from home.
Stories tell of cyhyraeth terrorizing Afon Tywi in east Dyfed, Pembrokeshire, as well as the coast of Glamorgan, where they would often be heard just before a shipwreck would occur. There, they were also accompanied by a corpse-light, which I briefly mention in in WHERE THE FOLK did the Flower-Faced Girl go? Part IV.
Hm. Doesn’t sound much like Gwrach-y-Rhibyn, mind! So if what are the cyhyraeth based on- the Irish banshee, or the Scottish cailleach, perhaps? Perhaps this is one of those chicken-or-the-egg debates…
The word ‘banshee’ derives from the Old Irish term ‘ben side’, meaning “woman of the fairy mound” (‘mound’ referring to the many important tumili linked to Irish mythology that can be found all over Ireland) or “fairy woman”. Essentially, they’re female spirits who turn up before a relative’s death and give out a ghostly wail or a shriek, but they may also begin “keening”, which is an Irish lament traditionally wailed by a woman. Some women became professional wailers in real life, earning a decent living out of it!
Much like the Welsh cyhyraeth, banshees would lament over dead relatives even if they died far away, thus becoming the first to alert the family of their death or impending doom.
Their height is widely disputed, with most people describing them as being much taller than a human and others claiming they were shorter in comparison. But most people agree that they have long hair and sometimes wear grey cloaks over a green dress. Their eyes are also said to be red from all the crying. Other accounts describe them as women in white, with long, ginger hair.
But the banshee can even take the form of an innocent virgin (if a virgin dies in the family) and can also become invisible, much like Gwrach-y-Rhibyn. Banshees are often seen posing as old hags, mourning and lamenting under trees.
Although there are plenty of accounts that say otherwise, traditionally, a banshee would only approach a descendant of the pure Milesian stock of Ireland, often classed as those with surnames beginning with O’ or Mac. Also, when several banshees turn up at once, it often signifies the death of someone important, like a holy person or member of royalty.
People have also associated banshees with the spirit of either a murder victim or a mother who died in childbirth, which would explain the family-orientated lamenting the old hag’s been doing here at Caerphilly Castle.
The banshee’s origins go way back. Those with the O’ or Mac surnames in Ireland have Goidelic ancestors, being natives of the Insular Celtic lands as opposed to having Norse, English or Norman ancestors. Banshees are mentioned in Norman literature at the time. Hold up- banshees come from the Normans?! Well, they were familiar with them, at least… no, I’m not here to take the banshee away from the Irish today!
Indeed, Gwrach-y-Rhibyn does sound more like a banshee than she does one of the cyhyraeth, though the cyhyraeth do have similarities with the banshees… but neither of them are blood-suckers. Is Gwrach-y-Rhibyn some banshee/vampire/Welsh goddess hybrid?! Whatever she is, it’s safe to say that she’s pretty unique and sits in a class of her own. She is, therefore she is!
We end our trip to Caerphilly with a short walk up to the top of Caerphilly Mountain. We park up outside the Caerphilly Mountain Roadside Café, which sells some pretty banging food, let me tell you! I’ve been up here many times- it is the route I take to work, and have also come up here on Guy Fawkes’ Night a couple of times so as to get a free look at all of the fireworks in Cardiff as well as Caerphilly and the Rhondda Valley.
Once at the top, we take in the glorious sunset then take one hell of a group photo. And a good day was had by all… although, unlike the Australians, the Basque girls didn’t think Wales was green enough! Off-season cons, I suppose!
Thanks for reading.
Has anyone been to Caerphilly Castle and seen (or heard) the Green Lady or Gwrach-y-Rhibyn for themselves?
Also, what are your thoughts on the links between Banshees, the Cyhyraeth and Gwrach-y-Rhibyn? And where do you think the vampiric elements came from?!
GOOGLE MAPS LOCATIONS:
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^ Caerphilly Observer Caerphilly Mountain Snack Bar gets £300,000 revamp (online article viewed 6 Sept 2011)
^ Tour of Britain 2012, stage six: Leopold Koenig triumphs in Caerphilly as Jonathan Tiernan-Locke takes lead - Telegraph
^ BBC News - In pictures: Tour of Britain tackles Caerphilly Mountain
Wiffen, B. B., Choice Notes from "Notes and Queries", P.P. - London. - Notes and Queries, William John Thoms. p. 32
^ Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru: A Dictionary of the Welsh Language, p. 746.
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^ Owen, Elias, Welsh Folk-Lore pp. 153-4
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Coflein record of Senghenydd deer park
^ British Geological Survey 1:50,000 map sheet 249 Newport & accompanying memoir
^ BGS ‘Geology of Britain’ viewer
^ Ordnance Survey Explorer map 166 Rhondda & Merthyr Tydfil/Merthyr Tudful'