The History of the Dullahan in Irish Folklore

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Lately I’ve been probing another folkloric rabbit-hole. Specifically, I’ve been digging into the history of the dullahan, a being of Irish fable generally portrayed as a headless horse-rider or coach-driver. Regrettably, a lot of the online sources on this folkloric entity are badly-researched, with the frankly awful Wikipedia article – which, incredibly, uses a page on Cracked.com as one of its main references – being typical. So, I decided to do some of my own research into the cultural history of the dullahan.

The earliest references to the dullahan that I’ve managed to trace is in a 1802 text on comparative linguistics by Charles Vallancey, entitled Prospectus of a Dictionary of the Language of the Aire Coti, or Ancient Irish, Compared with the Language of the Cuti, or Ancient Persians, with the Hindoostanee, the Arabic, and Chaldean Languages. The book includes a section in which Vallancey compares terms from Irish and Arabic folklore; amongst other things, he compares the Irish dulahan with something called a “wulahan”, which is apparently an Arabian demon:

The Dullahan or Wullahan is a terrible bug-bear at this day; the peasants hear him in the night dragging a heavy chain through the villages and along the roads; this is the wulahan, or Satanas of the Arabs…

Leaving aside Vallancey’s linguistic theories, the most notable thing about this rather brief, vague description is that it includes no mention of the dullahan being headless.

Skipping forward roughly a quarter of a century we come to the second earliest text that I can find referring to dullahans: Thomas Crofton Croker’s book Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (I should mention that there is an authorship controversy surrounding the book in question, with Croker allegedly failing to credit his collaborators, but that’s outside the scope of this post).

Croker’s multi-volume book began publication in 1825, although the edition I accessed on Google Books is from 1828. There are many later editions, and I notice that the exact selection of stories varies between them; on top of this, some editions include the stories themselves but lack Croker’s commentary. The 1828 edition is divided into five sections: “The Merrow”, “The Fir-Darrig”, “Treasure Legends”, “Rocks and Stones” and – yes – “The Dullahan”.

Croker’s Dullahans

The book’s dullahan section includes four prose stories, one ballad and (in the 1828 edition, at least) Croker’s commentary, which quotes some additional narratives relating to dullahans and other headless apparitions. Of the four prose stories, the only one to actually use the term dullahan is entitled “The Good Woman”.

The hero of this macabre but humorous tale is Larry Dodd, “a hard working and, occasionally, a hard drinking, Dutch-built, little man, with a fiddle head and a round stern”. While out riding on his horse, he encounters a woman who hurries past him

Her figure, considering the long strides she took, appeared to be under the common size—rather of the dumpy order; but further, as to whether the damsel was young or old, fair or brown, pretty or ugly, Larry could form no precise notion, from her wearing a large cloak (the usual garb of the female Irish peasant), the hood of which was turned up, and completely concealed every feature.

The gallant Larry offers the woman a ride on his horse, and without saying a word, she climbs up and sits herself behind him (folklorists will note that this is an historical example of the phantom hitchhiker motif). He speaks to her during the trip, but still she is silent. When Larry dismounts the horse to see to a loose shoe, the woman begins to make an abrupt exit towards Kilnaslattery church (a place I can find no reference to outside of this story):

Her feet touched the ground without making the least noise in life, and away she bounded like an ill-mannered wench, as she was, without saying “by your leave,” or no matter what else. She seemed to glide rather than run, not along the road, but across a field, up towards the old ivy-covered walls of Kilnaslattery church—and a pretty church it was.

Larry hopes for a kiss in return for the transport he gave her, and chases after the silent woman through the churchyard, “stumbling over head-stones and foot-stones, over old graves and new graves, pieces of coffins, and the skulls and bones of dead men — the Lord save us!—that were scattered about there as plenty as paving stones”. When he finally catches her, this is just the beginning of his ordeal:

Larry Dodd sprung forward with open arms, and clasped on them—a woman, it is true—but a woman without any lips to kiss, by reason of her having no head! […] staggering like a drunken man, he rolled against the broken window of the ruin, horrified at the conviction that he had actually held a Dullahan in his embrace!

When he recovered to something like a feeling of consciousness, he slowly opened his eyes, and then, indeed, a scene of wonder burst upon him. In the midst of the ruin stood an old wheel of torture, ornamented with heads, like Cork gaol, when the heads of Murty Sullivan and other gentlemen were stuck upon it.

Larry watches, frozen with fear, as headless figures dance to eerie music:

It was strange music to dance by; nevertheless, moving to it, round and round the wheel set with skulls, were well dressed ladies and gentlemen, and soldiers and sailors, and priests and publicans, and jockeys and jennys, but all without their heads. Some poor skeletons, whose bleached bones were ill covered by moth-eaten palls, and who were not admitted into the ring, amused themselves by bowling their brainless noddles at one another, which seemed to enjoy the sport beyond measure.

Larry did not know what to think; his brains were all in a mist, and losing the balance which he had so long maintained, he fell headforemost into the midst of the company of Dullahans.

Upon seeing Larry, the disembodied heads call out in welcome, and one dullahan offers the visitor a brimming cup:

“’Tis capital stuff,” he would have said, which surely it was, but he got no further than cap, when decapitated was he, and his head began dancing over his shoulders like those of the rest of the party. Larry, however, was not the first man who lost his head through the temptation of looking at the bottom of a bringing cup. Nothing more did he remember clearly, for it seems body and head being parted is not very favourable to thought, but a great hurry scurry with the noise of carriages and the cracking of whips.

When Larry recovers his senses, he finds himself outside the church in the daylight, his head back on his shoulders. But his horse has disappeared, presumably stolen by the dullahans, and so Larry trudges home to face the wrath of his wife Nancy.

“Of the young woman I know no more than I do of Moll Flanders”, says Larry after being heavily scolded. “but this I know, that a woman without a head may well be called a Good Woman, because she has no tongue!”

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Out of the four main stories included in Croker’s dullahan section, the only one to provide a definite origin for its spook is “The Headless Horseman”, where the title character is revealed to be the ghost of a man who had lost his neck in life. Protagonist Charley Culnane, out riding at night, witnesses a weird apparition – the disembodied head of a horse:

The head, apparently, of a white horse, with short cropped ears, large open nostrils, and immense eyes, seemed rapidly to follow him. No connexion with body, legs, or rider, could possibly be traced—the head advanced—Charley’s old mare, too, was moved at this unnatural sight, and, snorting violently, increased her trot up the hill. The head moved forward, and passed on…

The horseless head is followed by a headless horse, ridden by another otherworldly figure:

A figure, whose height (judging as well as the obscurity of the night would permit him) he computed to be at least eight feet, was seated on the body and legs of a white horse full eighteen hands and a half high […] his vision failed in carrying him further than the top of the collar of the figure’s coat, which was a scarlet single-breasted hunting frock […] see further he could not, and after straining his eyes for a considerable time to no purpose, he exclaimed, with pure vexation, “By the big bridge of Mallow, it is no head at all he has!”
“Look again, Charley Culnane, said a hoarse voice, that seemed to proceed from under the right arm of the figure.

Charley did look again, and now in the proper place, for he clearly saw, under the aforesaid right arm, that head from which the voice had proceeded, and such a head no mortal ever saw before.

It looked like a large cream cheese hung round with black puddings; no speck of colour enlivened the ashy paleness of the depressed features; the skin lay stretched over the unearthly surface, almost like the parchment head of a drum. Two fiery eyes of prodigious circumference, with a strange and irregular motion, flashed like meteors upon Charley, and a mouth that reached from either extremity of two ears, which peeped forth from under a profusion of matted locks of lustreless blackness.

Once again the story goes in a humorous direction, with Charley challenging the headless horseman to a race. This turns to be exactly what the spectre had hoped for:

“A hundred years it is since my horse and I broke our necks at the bottom of Kilcummer hill, and ever since I have been trying to get a man that dared to ride with me, and never found one before.”

The horseman then vanishes, but not before promising Charley supernatural assistance in any future horse-races.

The Death Coach

So far, we have seen two distinct varieties of headless spook in the stories collected by Croker: the merry church-dwelling skeletons of “The Good Woman”, and the headless horseman. The remaining stories deal specifically with a third variety: a headless coachman.

In “Hanlon’s Mill”, a story that Croker attributes to A. H. B. Clonmel , hero Michael Noonan sees an apparition of a headless coachman while riding by horse and cart at night:

[H]ow was Mick astonished at finding, close along-side of the car, a great high black coach drawn by six black horses, with long black tails reaching almost down to the ground, and a coachman dressed all in black sitting up on the box. But what surprised Mick the most was, that he could see no sign of a head either upon coachman or horses.

The apparition passes, and later turns out to be an omen of death: the following morning, Mick hears that his friend – a Mr. Wrixon – is fatally ill.
“The Harvest Dinner” is the story of Paddy Cavenagh, who was returning home at midnight after visiting a boisterous party when he “saw the fairies in real earnest”:

The side of the moat, you see, that looks into the field was open, and out of it there came the darlinist little cavalcade of the prettiest little fellows you ever laid your eyes upon. They were all dressed in green hunting frocks, with nice little red caps on their heads, and they were mounted on pretty little long-tailed white ponies, not so big as young kids, and they rode two and two so nicely.

The fairies run off in the direction of an old church, and Paddy then sees something else emerge from the moat – a coach pulled by headless horses and ridden by headless people:

[W]hat should I see but a great old family coach and six coming out of the moat and making direct for the gate where I was standing […] the gate flew open without a soul laying a finger to it, the instant minute they came up to it, and they wheeled down the road just close to the spot where I was hiding, and I saw them as plain as I now see you; and a queer sight it was, too, to see, for not a morsel of head that ever was, was there upon one of the horses or on the coachman either […] as it passed by me, I peeped in at the quality within-side, and not a head, no not as big as the head of a pin, was there among the whole kit of them, and four fine footmen that were standing behind the coach were just like the rest of them.

Paddy is unafraid of being noticed by this strange party (“when I saw that they’d no eyes, I k new it was unpossible they could ever see me”) and watches as they head off to the same old church as the red-capped fairies.

Next we have a ballad, entitled “The Death Coach”:

‘Tis midnight! — how gloomy and dark!
By Jupiter there ‘s not a star! —
‘T is fearful! — ‘t is awful! — and hark!
What sound is that comes from afar?

Still rolling and rumbling, that sound
Makes nearer and nearer approach;
Do I tremble, or is it the ground? —
Lord save us! — what is it? — a coach! —

A coach! — but that coach has no head;
And the horses are headless as it:
Of the driver the same may be said,
And the passengers inside who sit.

The ballad goes on to state that the coach’s wheels “are of dead men’s thigh bones/And the pole is the spine of the back” while “Two hollow skulls hang up for lamps”. The description has a touch of humour alongside the macabre imagery:

With people thus headless ‘t is fun
To drive in such furious career;
Since headlong their horses can’t run,
Nor coachman be headdy from beer.

Very steep is the Tivoli lane,
But up-hill to them is as down;
Nor the charms of Woodhill can detain
These Dullahans rushing to town.

The head puns continue to the end.

Croker’s Commentary

Croker spends much of his commentary on these stories talking about headless ghosts in folklore from outside Ireland – for example, in his comments on “The Headless Horseman” he mentions various items of macabre folklore relating to horses, including an alleged sighting of an English ghost in the form of a headless horse. However, he does find room to divulge further stories from Ireland describing headless entities similar to the ones described in the main five stories of his book’s dullahan section. Commenting on “Hanlon’s Mill”, Croker states that

Another legend of the same district [Castletown roche] relates, that a black coach, drawn by headless horses, goes every night from Castle Hyde till it comes to Glans Fauna, a little beyond Ballyhooly, when it proceeds up the valley, and then returns back again. The same coach is also reported to drive every Saturday night through the town of Doneraile, and to stop at the doors of different houses; but should any one be so fool-hardy as to open the door, a basin of blood is instantly flung in their face.

The appearance of “the Headless Coach,” as it is called, is a very general superstition, and is generally regarded as a sign of death, or an omen of some misfortune.

Croker quotes a series of excerpts involving similar legends elsewhere in Europe. The first is from one Dr. Grimm regarding a legend of lower Brittany about carriquet an nankon – a hearse drawn by skeletons said to visit the fatally ill. (I can find no other texts including the phrase “carriquet an nankon” – or even “carriquet au nankon”, as it is rendered in later editions of Croker’s book – but there is almost certainly some connection to the Ankou of Breton lore). The second excerpt is an 1826 Glasgow Chronicle report about visions of “carts, caravans and coaches going up Gleniffer braes without horses, or with horses without heads.”

Returning to Ireland, Croker reports on “a coach, sometimes driven by a coachman without a head, sometimes driven by horses without heads” that “was frequently observed at night driving furiously by Roper’s Rest” following a clergyman’s suicide. He concludes by giving examples of another motif, that of the wild huntsman, one variation of which – Graen Jette of the Danish islands – is said to ride with his head under his arm.

Discussing the ballad of the death coach, Croker writes that

The Death Coach is called in Irish “Coach a bower.” The time of its appearance is always midnight; and when heard to drive round any particular home, with the coachman’s whip cracking loudly, it is said to be a sure omen of death.
The following account of the Dullahans and their coach was communicated to the writer by a lady resident in the neighbourhood of Cork:–

“They drive particularly hard wherever a death is going to take place. The people about here thought that the road would be completely worn out with their galloping before Mrs. Spiers died. On the night the poor lady departed they brought an immense procession with them, and instead of going up the road, as usual, they turned into Tivoli: the lodge-people, according to their own account, ‘were kilt from them that night.’ The coachman has a most marvellously long whip, with which he can whip the eyes out of any one, at any distance, that dares to look at him. I suppose the reason he is so incensed at being looked at, is because he cannot return the compliment, ‘pon the ‘count of having no head. What a pity it is none but the Dullahans can go without their heads! Some people’s heads would be no loss to them, or any one else.”

Croker then brings up comparable folklore from Denmark and Wales. Note that the story provided by the unnamed Cork woman is – alongside “The Good Woman” and the ballad of the death coach – one of only three narratives included in the book that actually use the term “dullahan”.

This brings me to Croker’s commentary on “The Good Woman”, in which he talks about the etymology of the word dullahan:

Mr. O’Reilly, author of the best Irish Dictionary extant, respecting the name Dullahan thus expresses himself in a communication with the writer.

“Dulachan (in Irish Dubhlachan) signifies a dark, sullen person. The word Durrachan, or Dullahan, by which in some places the goblin is known, has the same signification. It comes from Dorr, or Durr, anger, or Durrach, malicious, fierce &c.” The correctness of this last etymology may be questioned, as Dubh, black, is evidently a component part of the word.

Headless people are not peculiar to Ireland, although there alone they seem to have a peculiar name. Legends respecting them are to be found in most countries.

The correspondent’s full name is not given, but I believe him to be Edward O’Reilly, whose Irish-English dictionary was published in 1817.

If the term “dullahan” means a dark or sullen person, then it seems likely that the word referred to sinister or malevolent spirits in general before coming to refer specifically to headless spirits – presumably after becoming attached to the motif of the death coach and its headless driver. This would chime with Charles Vallancey’s 1802 description of the dullahan simply as a chain-dragging spirit, with no reference to either headlessness or coaches. It’s impossible for me to say when this shift in meaning might have occurred, but I have to wonder if Croker was the person who cemented the association; after all, as noted, only three of the narratives in his book’s section on dullahans actually use the word “dullahan” to describe their headless spooks.

I’ll be following this post with a look at how authors like W. B. Yeats drew upon Croker for their own depiction of the dullahan, the possible overlap with Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, and a survey of dullahans in modern pop culture

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