CURRENT ISSUE:  OCTOBER 2023

Cleveland Comhrá: The Dullahan

     

By Bob Carney

This time of year, as the mornings grow cooler my thoughts turn to Halloween. Truthfully, my one granddaughter and I start watching classic horror movies when summer begins. She is also becoming interested in the books that inspired  them.

One recent book I shared with her was Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”. We can all relate a little bit to the fear that befalls poor Ichabod Crane in that classic tale. Irving included that tale in a collection of short stories entitled, “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.”, published in 1820.

The story is set in upstate New York, and the characters are depicted to be of Dutch and German heritage. But, like a lot of these great American tales of the supernatural, you can find similar stories in Irish mythology and legends. 

At a convention I attended last year, I was able to speak to an exibitor who has been compiling stories of the supernatural in the Appalachian Mountain region.

We found many similarities to Irish folklore, which wasn’t too surprising considering the rich Irish and Scottish backgrounds of many of the early settlers of that area.

Dacre Stoker, great grandnephew of Bram Stoker, the creator of the best known vampire of all time, theorized that it’s very possible Bram drew inspiration from the tales he heard growing up in Ireland as a child. There are many stories regarding vampire like creatures in Irish mythology and lore. For more information on Bram Stoker, see Cleveland Comhrá Oct.2021 and on Dacre, Cleveland Comhrá Oct. 2022.

Earlier this year, Speak Irish April 2023, I shared the story of the Osraí, the wolfmen of Ireland. Now it’s very true you can find examples of these supernatural stories in almost every culture on earth, but I’m drawn to the tales from Ireland!

The Dullahan

The Dullahan

Dúlachán, as the dullahan is called in Irish, translate to “dark person.” Our headless rider is also refered to as Gan Ceann, “without a head.” Sometimes the dullahan is portrayed as a headless rider on a black horse who carries his head in his hand or under his arm. 

The dullahan can be male or female, in the tale of “The Good Woman,” a man named Larry Dodd attempts to steal a kiss from a woman who he has offered a ride to. It is then that he discovers her to be a dullahan. He is tortured, and in the end, loses his horse to her.

special effects image of a dullahan from Darby O'Gill and the Little People.
The dullahan from Darby O'Gill and the Little People.

Darby O’Gill

Other tales have the dullahan as a headless coachman, driving the Cóiste Gan Cheann, “headless coach.

That was how the dullahan appeared in “Darby O’Gill and The Little People.” The dullahan called out Darby’s name in the place of his daughter and Darby climbed into the coach, but was saved by the king of the leprechauns.

In some of the stories, even the horses pulling the coach are headless. In most tales, the dullahan’s head is the texture and color of moldy cheese; his eyes are huge and span from ear to ear, darting constantly in all directions. 

He can put on his head or remove it and throw it to terrorize his victims. As a rider his massive black horse has flaming eyes and the dullahan using a whip made from the spine of a human corpse can flick out the eyes of those who dare to watch him. Open your window to see him ride by and might have a bucket of blood thrown in your face.

In Thomas Crofton Croker’s “Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland,” there is a story titled “The Headless Horseman.” It tells the story of Charley Culnane, a fearless rider in the local races and his encounter with a dullahan, that defies everything I’ve told you. 

In this tale, Charley is challenged to a race by the headless fairy, who is mounted on a white horse. Charley accepts, and the race is on in the dark and rain over difficult terrain. Charley’s mare is keeping up with the apparition and finally Charley is beseeched to stop by the dullahan who fears for Charley’s safety. 

He tells him it’s been one hundred years since he and his horse broke their necks at the bottom of Kilcummer Hill, and he’s been trying since then to get a man who would dare to ride with him. He tells Charley to always ride hard and he would never desert him.

Charley’s friends attributed the headless horseman and Charley’s tale to the “X water parliament” he was fond of, but couldn’t really explain his prowess in the saddle and the old mare’s ability to win.

ink drawing of a banshee
“Banshee” by W.H. Brooke via archive.org

The Banshee

The bean sídhe is only one of the fairies that can foretell of impending death or misfortune, but is probably the best known. In another of my favorite books, “True Irish Ghost Stories,” compiled by St. John D. Seymour and Harry L. Neligan, a number of stories are told of “Headless Coaches.” They make a distinction between headless coaches and phantom coaches.

The first being a harbinger of death and are usually connected to a single family. The second are more of a supernatural phenomena and don’t always predict evil or death.

One story from Clare says that one night in April of 1821, two servants were waiting up, expecting one of the sons of the family. Cornelius O’ Callaghan had travelled trying to better his health, but to no avail. The servants had drifted off, but one of them was awakened by the heavy rumble of a coach.

The senior of the servants sent the other down the flight of steps to open the carriage door. He reached out his hand to open the door and saw a skeleton staring out at him; the servant collapsed in a heap. When he picked himself up there was no sign or sound of a coach at all.

A little later, Cornelius arrived home. He was so exhausted he died suddenly the next morning. We are told that at the sight or sound of this coach, all gates should be thrown open, and then it will not stop at the house to call for a family member, but will only foretell of the death of some relative at a distance.

The classic monster movies are great, I’ve watched many of them numerous times over the years. But it is really cool to find a story from Irish lore or mythology that might have inspired some of them.

As much as I love these stories, I really enjoy being able to share them with my grandchildren. Maybe someday they too will go to the book store and feel compelled to explain to the clerk the bizarre titles being purchased.

Find this column and others from the September 2023 issue here!

Bob Carney

Bob Carney

*Bob Carney is a student of Irish language and history and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday at PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhound and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Rían, Aisling and Draoi and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be reached at [email protected]

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