Weird Wednesdays: Never a Dullahan day, Ireland’s Headless Horseman legend

 A statue of a headless horseman lights up at night. (Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)

A statue of a headless horseman lights up at night. (Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)

The most terrifying thing about headless horsemen, I think, isn’t the whole “undead spectre from the depths of hell” thing. My fear is more along the lines of “Oh god, that person with no visible eyes is driving a raging twitchy hellbeast going at a million miles an hour, RUN.” (If you can tell, despite the fact I study animal science, horses scare the crap out of me.)

If you’ve read Washington Irving's “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (or saw the Disney cartoon) you know how scary a headless horseman can be. With a terrible collar and a vicious steed, this spectral rider would strike fear into the heart of any patriot. Irving, for his part, didn’t come up with the idea for it himself.

Our journey takes us to Ireland. Back in the day, people had a real and paralyzing fear of fairies. I’m not talking about the dinky little winged Victoria’s Secret models poking around in buttercups or whatever.

I’m talking about The Good Neighbors: vicious, beautiful and cruel otherworldly beings who would kidnap people for laughs and trap them in the fairy realm for a century or two, releasing them back into the human world only just after all their loved ones had died and presumably capturing a few reaction vids of them for the YouTube views.

The Dullahan (or Far dorocha) was one of these. Clad in spectral rags, this pale rider on a pale horse would ride through the night, his decapitated head tied to the saddle by his stringy hair. A messenger of death (or perhaps death himself), the Dullahan would ride through the night, often when the clouds blocked out the stars and the moonlight.

The fey’s skin was a ghastly white, and sometimes described as lumpy or dripping like moldy cheese. His horse was pitch-black, larger than any plough steed could possibly be, with a murderous red fire glinting in its malevolent eyes. The Dullahan (which means ‘headless’ in Gaelic) would carry around a lantern lit with a sickly yellow glow to it in one hand; some say he carried a bucket of blood in the other, to fling at an unsuspecting night traveler he chanced on the road.

A drive-by splattering, however, was better than the rider stopping in his path. Should a Dullahan ease his horse, the moment the beast halted would be the same moment a man would die. The Dullahan’s head, held aloft, could see for miles through hills and valleys and house walls, peering into the room of a dying man and telling the horseman where his next visit would be.

The legend of the creature has been speculated to have evolved from the Celtic god Crom Dubh (Black Crom.) Little is known about his worship, other than he would often demand sacrifice in the form of severed heads. Picky, picky!

In some legends, the Dullahan pulls a carriage hearse (coiste bodhar, or ‘silent coach’) driven by a team of six black horses, moving so quickly that roadside bushes would be set afire. Inside the carriage lay the coffin of the coachman’s next target, who he would call out to with a ghastly moan from his severed head.

A side note: the Dullahan, while similar, is not synonymous with the bean sidhe (banshee). Banshees were lady fey (not ghosts, as some people call them) who would sit by a river and wash the clothes of those doomed to die soon. Banshees were usually tied to one family or clan, and weren’t so much malicious as very, very wail-y.

Back to the Dullahan. While most fey were deterred by cold iron, chucking a horseshoe at a headless horseman would probably just make him angrier, and thus is counterintuitive. Gold, on the other hand, a metal associated with purity and sunlight, was sure to drive the fairy away; even something so small as a gold-plated pin would be enough to deter him.

Of course, unless you’re Flava Flav or a Mafia don, you might not be packing the shiny stuff on a given day, which is a worry if you’re wandering the Irish moors on a dark, cold night.

Then again, most smartphones contain a tiny bit of gold in their processors. So, if you’re taking a selfie on your moonless walk, you should be fine. Keep your heads about you, folks, and stay weird!


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.