Last week I did some digging into the history of the dullahan, a being from Irish folklore generally depicted as a headless coach-driver or horseman. The earliest source I could find that discussed dullahans in any detail was the 1828 edition of Thomas Crofton Croker’s book Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland.
Croker’s book stands as the definitive body of dullahan literature. If you go to Google Books and search for nineteenth-century texts mentioning the dullahan, most – if not all – of the results appear to be drawing upon Croker in some capacity. For example, here’s an excerpt from W. B. Yeats’ 1888 book Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry:
An omen that sometimes accompanies the banshee is the coach-a-bower [cóiste-bodhar]—an immense black coach, mounted by a coffin, and drawn by headless horses driven by a Dullahan. It will go rumbling to your door, and if you open it, according to Croker, a basin of blood will be thrown in your face. These headless phantoms are found elsewhere than in Ireland. In 1807 two of the sentries stationed outside St. James’s Park died of fright. A headless woman, the upper part of her body naked, used to pass at midnight and scale the railings. After a time the sentries were stationed no longer at the haunted spot. In Norway the heads of corpses were cut off to make their ghosts feeble. Thus came into existence the Dullahans, perhaps; unless, indeed, they are descended from that Irish giant who swam across the Channel with his head in his teeth.—Ed.]
Note that, while Yeats repeats the account from Croker’s book of a dullahan driving a coach and throwing basins of blood at witnesses, he comes up with some additions of his own. He mentions an alleged sighting of a headless apparition in London’s St. James Park, continuing Croker’s practice of discussing the Irish dullahan alongside headless spooks outside of Ireland. He claims, without citation, that the dullahan’s coach sometimes accompanies the banshee. Presumably writing with his tongue in his cheek, he concludes with two possible origins for the dullahan.
I’ll admit that I’m unfamiliar with the story of “that Irish giant who swam across the Channel with his head in his teeth” – indeed, I have trouble visualising the logistics of such a position. I wonder if this might be a garbled reference to Bran the Blessed, a figure in Welsh legend, who arranged for his severed but still-living head to be sent from Ireland to Wales.
Another author I’d like to bring up in relation to the evolution of the dullahan is Washington Irving. His all-American classic “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, with its climactic clash between schoolmaster Ichabod Crane and the (alleged) spirit of a decapitated Hessian horseman, has clear similarities to the Irish tales collected by Croker. “The Headless Horseman” is the most obvious comparison point, but it’s also worth mentioning that each of the main four prose stories – like Irving’s tale — depict a lone traveller encountering a headless apparition on the road at night; indeed, “The Havest Dinnerr” even has its protagonist returning home from a celebration, just as Ichabod Crane did. The humorous tone of the Irish stories is also echoed in Irving’s story.
But Irving’s story cannot have been influenced by Croker’s collection, as it was published years beforehand. Is it possible, then, that Irving had come across some of the same Irish folktales as Croker? Alternatively, might Croker have been influenced by Irving’s story when he rewrote the tales he collected? After all, it’s impossible to say exactly what form they took before he retold them; any number of influences might have crept in.
But whatever chain of influence may or may not exist between Croker’s dullahans and Irving’s horseman, it’s clear that the two have become somewhat mingled in the modern imagination, with multiple contemporary descriptions of dullahan folklore being influenced by Irving’s story – along with other, similarly dubious sources.
The Dullahan Online
I started this blogging project because I was disappointed at the slipshod research in online resources about the dullahan, including the Wikipedia article on the topic. But if nothing else, these references are good case studies in how folklore can be distorted by modern media. So, let’s take a close look at exactly what the Internet says about the dullahan.
Leaving aside Croker’s book and a couple of resources relating to dullahans in modern fiction, Wikipedia’s dullahan article lists three sources, all of them webpages. The first of these is at a website called Ireland’s Eye, which acknowledges its contents as having been “adapted” from the 1997 book A Field Guide to Irish Fairies by writer Bob Curran and illustrator Andrew Whitson. I don’t have access to the book, so I can’t comment on how Curran’s writing might have changed in the adaption.
Clearly influenced by the headless horseman story collected by Croker (in which the severed head “looked like a large cream cheese hung round with black puddings” and had “a mouth that reached from either extremity of two ears”) the page describes the dullahan as having an ear-to-ear grin and cheese-like skin. It also includes what seem to be distorted references to the ballad of the death coach: where the ballad mentions the coach containing lanterns made of skulls and wheel-axels made from spines, the webpage describes the dullahan using his glowing head as a lantern and a human spine as a whip. We are also told that the dullahan is prone to striking observers blind or throwing basins of blood in their faces, details lifted from Croker’s notes.
The page appears to be an exercise in creative writing more than serious folkloric scholarship, and makes a colourful but completely unsourced connection between the dullahan and the religion of pre-Christian Ireland:
The origins of the dullahan are not known for certain, but he is thought to be the embodiment of an ancient Celtic god, Crom Dubh, or Black Crom. Crom Dubh was worshipped by the prehistoric king, Tighermas, who ruled in Ireland about fifteen hundred years ago and who legitimised human sacrifice to heathen idols. Being a fertility god, Crom Dubh demanded human lives each year, the most favoured method of sacrifice being decapitation. The worship of Crom continued in Ireland until the sixth century, when Christian missionaries arrived from Scotland. They denounced all such worship and under their influence, the old sacrificial religions of Ireland began to lose favour. Nonetheless, Crom Dubh was not to be denied his annual quota of souls, and took on a physical form which became known as the dullahan or far dorocha (meaning dark man), the tangible embodiment of death.
This is a good premise for a horror story, but as a piece of folklore scholarship it’s extremely dubious.
Also included are two alleged first-hand accounts of dullahan sightings. One is attributed to “W. J. Fitzpatrick, a storyteller from the Mourne Mountains in County Down” (an individual mentioned in another book by Bob Curran, in relation to leprechauns):
I seen the dullahan myself, stopping on the brow of the hill between Bryansford and Moneyscalp late one evening, just as the sun was setting. It was completely headless but it held up its own head in its hand and I heard it call out a name. I put my hand across my ears in case the name was my own, so I couldn’t hear what it said. When I looked again, it was gone. But shortly afterwards, there was a bad car accident on that very hill and a young man was killed. It had been his name that the dullahan was calling.
The second account is anonymous, and establishes that a dullahan is afraid of gold:
A man was on his way home one night between Roundstone and Ballyconneely. It was just getting dark and, all of a sudden, he heard the sound of horse’s hooves pounding along the road behind him. Looking around, he saw the dullahan on his charger, hurtling towards him at a fair speed. With a loud shout, he made to run but the thing came on after him, gaining on him all the time. In truth, it would have overtaken him and carried him away had he not dropped a gold-headed pin from the folds of his shirt on the road behind him. There was a roar in the air above him and, when he looked again, the dullahan was gone.
The other two pages cited by Wikipedia are shakier still. One is a Cracked article that references just one source in regards to the dullahan: a HubPages piece written by “Crescentmoon2007”. This turns out to be a garbled re-write of the Ireland’s Eye page, amongst other things repeating the dubious connection to pre-Christian sacrifice, and illustrated with a still of the headless horseman from Tim Burton’s 1999 film version of “Sleepy Hollow”.
Finally, we come to an article at The Irish Place, which is comparatively recent (it was posted in late 2019). Again, this seems to have been based on the Irish Eye page, repeating (and elaborating upon) the fanciful connection to paganism: this time, we’re told that the dullahan story “first became prevalent in the sixth century”. Needless to say, no citations for this claim are included.
Elements from Croker’s book can be glimpsed here, but in distorted form: for example, the severed head that looks like cheese has mutated into a head that “gives off the strong odour of rotting cheese”. And, again, the influence of Washington Irving seems to have slipped in, the article mentioning a story about the dullahan having been “a soldier in his previous life and had his head taken from him in battle” – echoing the origin of Irving’s horseman as a Hessian soldier whose head was knocked off with a cannonball during the Revolutionary War.
It’s clear that the authors of these pages are working from a vanishingly small pool of sources. All of the pages appear to have been drawn either directly or indirectly from the dullahan chapter in Bob Curran’s Field Guide to Irish Fairies. The chapter in question, if its “adaptation” at Irish Eye is anything to go by, is a loose jumble of details from Croker’s book, with some fanciful fakelore about pre-Christian religion sprinkled on for flavour.
So, ultimately, we come back to Croker’s book as the definitive text on dullahan folklore, much of what came afterwards being a distortion.
The Pop Culture Dullahan
I’d like to conclude with a look at dullahans in modern pop culture. To the best of the my knowledge, the closest thing to a major film depiction of a dullahan is in the 1959 film Darby O’Gill and the Little People, which (alongside a banshee, pooka and sundry leprechauns) depicts a glowing, otherworldly coach driven by a headless man, ready to cart the titular O’Gill to the afterlife. The word “dullahan” is never used, but this is clearly the death coach as described by Croker in his coverage of dullahan stories. However, the headless coachman of Darby O’Gill appears to have had little influence on modern depictions of the dullahan.
In the 1980s, dullahans made their way into Japanese video games; the earliest examples that I know of being Megami Tensei (1987) and Final Fantasy III (1990). From here dullahans entered the world of anime and manga; the 2016 book The Supernatural Revamped includes an essay on this topic by Masaya Shimokusu, although I haven’t yet been able to read it.
A Google image search for “dullahan” will turn up an array of modern depictions, ranging from video game publicity images to DeviantArt illustrations. Between them, they give a generally consistent picture of the modern dullahan – and show how this figure has evolved since the days of Croker and Yeats.
The modern dullahan is usually a warrior, clad in dark amour and bearing weapons. This interpretation is likely informed partly by Irving’s headless Hessian soldier, and partly by video games in which a dullahan must be an imposing opponent to a sword-wielding hero. The dullahan’s weapon varies: sometimes it’s a sword, or a lance, or an axe; often it’s a whip formed from a human spine – an element which, as noted, seems to originate in Bob Curran’s 1997 book rather than folklore.
Their disembodied heads exist at various stages of decomposition, some full-fleshed, others rotting and zombie-like, still others bare skulls – a detail true to Croker. If a modern dullahan’s head has skin it will often have a manic, Joker-like grin, clearly derived from Croker’s description of the headless horseman and his “mouth that reached from either extremity of two ears”.
Being soldiers rather than chauffeurs, modern dullahans often ride horses but seldom drive coaches. The horses almost always have heads: somehow, the headless horses described by Croker appear not to have captured the public imagination.
Like in Croker’s book, today’s dullahans can be male and female. Indeed, modern depictions appear to be roughly even in terms of gender. Female dullahans are typically armed warriors, like their male counterparts, although they appear to be less prone to decomposition.
Modern dullahans are associated with otherworldly light. Sometimes their heads glow like will o’ the wisps, a detail probably lifted from Bob Curran’s description – or, perhaps, from the 1949 Disney cartoon of “Sleepy Hollow”, where the horseman uses a burning Jack o’ lantern as a head. In many cases a weird flame or mist can be seen emanating from the dullahan’s neck; for one reason or another, this element seems particularly common amongst Japanese dullahans.
My delve into dullahan history has shown me a few things. For one, it appears that the most substantial body of writing on dullahan lore remains Croker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. Croker’s influence persists to this day, albeit filtered through books by later writers, the most influential of which seem to be Yeats’ 1888 Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry and – thanks to the Internet – Bob Curran’s 1997 Field Guide to Irish Fairies.
Certain elements from Croker’s book turn up amongst modern pop-culture dullahans, including the ghoulish grin, the cheese-like complexion, the basin of blood, the eye-whipping, and the coach made partly from bones. Yet other details recorded by Croker have left less of an impression. In the story of “The Good Woman” alone we find a dullahan acting as phantom hitchhiker, dullahans throwing a party in an abandoned church, skeletal dullahans bowling with their skulls, and a mortal man becoming a headless dullahan in turn upon drinking a mysterious beverage – traits that seem to have been abandoned by today’s dullahans.
Meanwhile, I find myself wondering if any oral tales of the dullahan, from before Croker’s influence was felt, have been recorded. How sharply might they differ from the dullahan that today haunts the Internet, video games and manga?