Monday, April 16, 2012

Irish Headless Horseman: The Dullahan


A friend of my family told me this story when I was a pre-teen, thinking back I was probably too young to hear it—for I had several vivid nightmares afterwards.

He asked me what picture I got in my mind when I thought of fairies. I think I told him “Tinker bell” or Cinderella’s “Fairy Godmother”. He told me, “Well this story is about a fairy but not that kind.”

I remember this grabbed my attention. This is the story he told me:

In Ireland, hundreds of years ago, there was a king by the name of Tighermas. Tighermas believed in a pagan god by the name of Crom Dubh. His belief in this god led him to sacrifice humans every year—by decapitating them—in order to appease or keep Crom Dubh happy.

This practice continued until the Christians gained a stronghold in Ireland at which point human sacrifice was no longer allowed. Resenting this, it is said Crom Dubh took on a human form so he would not be forgotten. To this day he is considered the most terrifying of all the Irish unseelie fairies.

Confused about the use of the term “fairy”, I asked why a fairy was scary.

So the friend stopped and explained patiently, this fairy was a supernatural spirit and a malicious and evil one at that.

He is known as Gan Ceann. (In old Gaelic Ceann means head, and Gan means without.) But most people call him the dullahan—the dark man.

He is a fearsome spirit who rides a large black horse—he is only seen at night—but it is best not to see him—but I am getting ahead of myself. He is headless * but he keeps his head near, he either carries it under his arm or thrusts it high in his outstretched hand as he rides his horse.

His head is rotted and moldy in appearance, it has dark eyes that dart back and forth constantly and it’s mouth sneers from ear to ear. The horse the dullahan rides is heard thundering down the road leaving a trace of burnt grass behind—most will not look at this horse—but the few who have and survived say fiery flames shoot from its nostrils.

Keep in mind there are not many people who have seen the dullahan for everyone is warned not to look upon this dark man as he passes by—for it is believed if they do it insures a person’s demise.

This horseman is clothed in dark robes and carries a whip made from a human’s spine, it is said he barely utters a word except a name. This is another reason why he is dreaded for the person the dullahan names as he stops is doomed for he claims their soul.

The friend paused here and I asked, “You mean he kills them.”

Yes, he steals their soul—and the person drops dead. There is no warning except for the pounding of his horses’ hooves on the road as he approaches—and when he stops he calls out their name—family members or friends who try to help this person find that the dullahan splashes blood on them or whips out their left eye which marks them as one of his next victims. 

“So there is no defense against him?”

There is one and it was discovered by accident. A man from Galway walking to a friend’s house late one night heard the sound of a horse’s hooves pounding behind him. He turned to see the dullahan and his black steed charging ever closer. He shouted and made a run for it—but as most know a mere mortal man cannot get away from this dark fairy. And this man had looked upon him…

The dullahan gained on him and the poor man knew this was the end but in the next moment his coin pouch worked its way open and one gold coin fell to the ground. All of a sudden there was a loud roar and a rushing of air above him as he turned to look he found the dullahan was gone.

“So the coin saved him?”

It was made of gold—and that was what saved him. It seems the dullahan has an irrational fear of gold—even a small amount will frighten him off. So each October during the Irish New Year, Samhain, which brings the beginning of the Celtic winter, every Irishman, carries gold and looks out—or actually looks away to avoid the dullahan.

* It is said that this tale, The Dullahan, most likely inspired Washington Irving to write The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  For his parents were Scots and Scotland just like Ireland has versions of The Dullahan—the headless horseman.



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