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Dullahan, the headless horseman
—Illustrated by W. H. Brooke, Croker, Fairy Legends (3rd ed., 1834).

The Dullahan (Irish: Dubhlachan; dúlachán, /ˈdləˌhɑːn/) is a type of legendary creature in Irish folklore. He is depicted as a headless rider on a black horse, or as a coachman, who carries his own head. As it not widely attested in native sources, including no references to it on the extensive website of the Irish Folklore Commission Dúchas.ie, there is doubt as to whether the Dullahan was originally a part of the Irish oral tradition.


Dullahan or Dulachan (Irish: Dubhlachan [Duḃlaċan]) referring to "hobgoblin" (generic term; cf. Dullahan described as "unseelie (wicked) fairy"[1]), literally "signifies dark, sullen person", according to the lexicographer Edward O'Reilly.[2] Dulachan and Durrachan are alternative words for this "hobgoblin", and these forms suggest etymological descent from dorr/durr "anger" or durrach "malicious" or "fierce".[2] The original Irish term contains the stem dubh, meaning "black" in Irish.[4]

Dullahan was later glossed as "dark, angry, sullen, fierce or malicious being",[a][8] encompassing both etymologies, though Thomas Crofton Croker considered the alternative etymology more dubious than the dubh "black" ("dark") etymology.[b]

The Dullahan is also called Colainn Gan Cheann, meaning "without a head" in Irish.

"Headless Coach" (Irish: Cóiste Gan Cheann)[9] or the "Soundless Coach" (literally "deaf coach", Irish: cóiste bodhar;[10][9] Hiberno-English: Coshta Bower, corrupted to "coach-a-bower")[11] [12] is the name given to the vehicle driven by the dullahan.[13]

Folk Beliefs[edit]


He is depicted as a Headless Horseman,[14] stereotypically on a black horse,[19] and he is either a headless body without a head or he carries his own head in his hand or under his arm.[20][1] The severed head has a revolting apperance, as in Croker's tale "The Headless Horseman":

..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.[21]

According to the modern storyteller Tony Locke of County Mayo, the Dullahan's mouth, full of razor-sharp teeth, forms a grin reaching the sides of the head, its "massive" eyes "constantly dart about like flies", and the flesh has acquired the "smell, colour and consistency of mouldy cheese".[22]

There are also legends and tales mentioning the "Headless Coach"[23] (also called "Coach-a-bower";[24] Irish: cóiste bodhar[10]), with the Dullahan as its presumed driver.[25][26] Cóiste Bodhar was referred to as "Soundless Coach" by Robert Lynd, who gave an account of a "silent shadow" of a coach passing by, provided by an avowed witness from Connemara.[9] However William Butler Yeats explained that "the 'deaf coach' was so called because of its rumbling sound".[27][c] According to one witness,[d] only the silent shadow of the horse-drawn hearse, i.e, the "Soundless Coach" was seen passing by.[9]

In Croker's poem "The Death Coach", the carriage axle is made of a human spine and the wheel-spokes are constructed from thigh bones.[28] A later writer prosifying this description supplied additional details, so that the "two hollow skulls" used as lanterns on the carriage [28] are set with candles,[29] and the hammercloth made of pall material "mildew'd by damps"[28] is embellished as being chewed away by worms.[29][e]


A Dullahan appears as a mounted horseman or a coachman[26] driving a horse-drawn carriage out of graveyards.[6] The rumour of a Dullahan's appearance often develops near a graveyard or a charnel vault where a wicked aristocrat is reputed to be buried.[6]

He arrives, driving the Death Coach, at the doorstep of a person whose death is approaching.[12] According to Croker, the appearance of the "Headless Coach" foreshadows imminent death or misfortune.[31] In "Hanlon's Mill", Michael (Mick) Noonan is returning from his trip to a shoemaker at Ballyduff, Co. Cork, and during his journey, he sees a black coach drawn by six headless black horses, driven by a headless coachman clad in black. The next morning, Mick receives news from the huntsman that Master Wrixon of Ballygibblin had a fit and died.[32]

Croker reports that in one legend, a Headless Coach would run back and forth from Castle Hyde[f] to a glen/valley[g] beyond the village of Ballyhooly, in County Cork.[h][31] Nearby in the town of Doneraile,[i] it was said that the coach would visit the houses in succession, and whichever occupant dared to open the door would be splashed with a basin of blood by the coachman.[31]

There are rumours that golden objects can force the Dullahan to disappear.[33][better source needed]


A modern commentator stated that the Dullahan has the ability to see with the severed head and can "use it to scan the countryside for mortals about to die".[1]

In contrast, the headless coach in the tale "The Harvest Dinner" is described as a "blind (thief)",[34] and Croker assumed he lacks sight.[35]


The Dullahan allegedly uses a human spine as a whip according to a number of modern-day (21st century) commentators.[36][22][40][j]

The headless coachman merely bears a "long whip" in Croker's tale "The Harvest Dinner", with which he lashes the horses so furiously, he almost strikes a witness blind in an eye (the would-be-victim regarded it as deliberate assault).[34] Croker deduced that the headless creature, as a way of habit, attempts to destroy his witness's eye[42] or eyes with his whip, reasoning that the coachman's wrath turns to the onlooker because he lacks the ability to look due to his headlessness.[k][35]

Folk Tales[edit]

Croker's Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1828) contained a section on "The Dullahan" devoted to the lore of headless beings.[43]

The tale "The Good Woman" recounts a peasant's encounter with a cloaked female who turns out to be a Dullahan. A peasant named Larry Dodd, a resident of "White Knight's Country" at the foot the Galtee Mountains (Galtymore),[l] travels (westward) to Cashel where he buys a nag, intending to sell it at Kildorrery fair that June evening.[46] He offers a ride to a cloaked female, and when he grabs her to exact a kiss as payment for the ride, he discovers her to be a Dullahan. After losing consciousness, in the church ruins he finds a wheel of torture set with severed heads (skulls) and headless Dullahans, both men and women and nobles and commoners of various occupations. Larry is offered a drink, and when he is about to compliment it, his head is severed mid-sentence. His head reverts when he regains his senses. He loses his horse to the Dullahans.[47][m]

Some believe the Dullahan to be the embodied spirit of the Celtic god Crom Dubh.[22]

In popular culture[edit]

  • The fantasy film Darby O'Gill and the Little People features a Dullahan who drives the Death Coach. When it arrives, it calls out Darby's name in place of his daughter, and although he enters the coach, he is saved by the king of the leprechauns.
  • In the anime Durarara!!, one of the main characters, Celty Sturluson, is a Dullahan that came to Japan from Ireland in search of her stolen head.
  • Irish author Derek Landy's novel Skulduggery Pleasant: Mortal Coil features a Dullahan who drives the Coach-a-Bowers, which is pulled by four headless horses, and is summoned to collect any human who has heard the call of a banshee.
  • In The Misadventures of Myndil Plodostirr by author Michelle Franklin, Mr Dullahan, who was named by Myndil, is a dullahan that lost its horse and whip and now protects an abbey in Ulaid.
  • In the game Warframe, a playable Dullahan-inspired character named Dagath has the ability to summon ghostly horses at will and is equipped with a blade-and whip weapon inspired by the spine imagery in folklore.
  • In the manga Berserk, a Dullahan makes a cameo at the end of Millennium Falcon Arc in Vol. 34.

See also[edit]

Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ O'Hanlon's book drew from Croker. See Frank Kinahan's remark (though it concerns the appropriation material regarding the merrow).[5]
  2. ^ Croker felt that the "this etymology [by O'Reilly] may be questioned, as dubh "black" is a "component of the word".[4]
  3. ^ Cf. Charles Welsh, who repeats the blood basin splashing told by Croker, adds that the "rumbles to your door".[13]
  4. ^ Lynd's informant was from Connemara, County Galway.
  5. ^ And the upholstery covering the wagon becomes "dried human skin", for example, in Jim Zub's comic novel Wayward 4 (2017).[30]
  6. ^ About 2 miles NW of Fermoy.
  7. ^ "Glana Fauna".
  8. ^ Fermoy is on the Blackwater, as is Killavullen, and Ballyhooly is about midpoint in between.
  9. ^ 4 miles west of Ballygibblin, 7 miles NNW of Killavullen (the Mill).
  10. ^ Dullahan using human spine as whip occurs in fantasy fiction writer Craig Shaw Gardner's novelization Leprechauns (1999).[41]
  11. ^ The coachman is called a "blind thief" in the tale, which corroborates the notion he cannot see.
  12. ^ The Mountains span from Co. Limerick to Co. Tipperary, but the White Knight's estate here was probably to the south, in Co. Cork. In 1643, the then White Knight (prob. John Fitzgibbon, 9th White Knight) lived at Kilbehenny Castle in the southern shadow of Galtymore,[44] John Oge Fitzgibbon, 10th White Knight was known by alias "John the White Knight of Mitchelstown, Co. Cork"."[45]
  13. ^ The epilogue tells of Larry getting a tongue-lashing from his wife Nancy Gollagher after his absence the whole night. Larry wisecracks that the headless woman should be called a "Good Woman" (as given in the title) in comparison, for she lacks the ability to verbally abuse him so.[48] It is further explained that a "Good Woman" referred to a saint or devoted woman martyred by decapitation, but this got corrupted to a standing joke that a woman without a head (and therefore can only remain silent) is therefore a "Good woman".[49][50]



  1. ^ a b c Haughton (2012), p. 54.
  2. ^ a b Edward O'Reilly (by private communication[3]) cited by Croker.[4]
  3. ^ Croker (1834), II: 240.
  4. ^ a b c Croker (1828), II: 98.
  5. ^ Kinahan, F. (1983). "Armchair Folklore: Yeats and the Textual Sources of Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry". Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature. 83C: 265. JSTOR 25506103. Much of what Yeats had to call on might be classed as armchair folklore: Croker describes the merrow, Kennedy borrows from Croker but adds an anecdote, O'Hanlon goes back to Croker and then adds a touch of his own.
  6. ^ a b c d O'Hanlon, John (1893). "Legend of Murrisk". The Poetical Works of Lageniensis [pseud.] Dublin: James Duffy. pp. 218–221, n 4, n7 and n8.
  7. ^ a b Campbell, Josianne Leah (2016). "Death Coach". In Fee, Christopher R.; Webb, Jeffrey B. (eds.). American Myths, Legends, and Tall Tales: An Encyclopedia of American Folklore: an Encyclopedia of American Folklore. Dublin: ABC-CLIO. pp. 285–296. ISBN 9781610695688.
  8. ^ O'Hanlon (1893),[6] also quoted by Josianne Leah Campbell (2016).[7]
  9. ^ a b c d Lynd, Robert (1912) [1909]. Home Life in Ireland (3 ed.). A. C. McClurg. p. 67.
  10. ^ a b Doyle, James J. [Séamas Ó Dubhghaill] [in Irish] (February 1922). "Irish Popular Traditions". The Irish Monthly. 51 (584): 78.
  11. ^ Croker (1828), 2: 136.
  12. ^ a b Haughton (2012), p. 63, historian, cited by Josianne Leah Campbell (2016).[7]
  13. ^ a b Welsh, Charles (1904). "Irish Fairy and Folk Tales". In McCarthy, Justin; Welsh, Charles (eds.). Irish Literature. Vol. 3. Maurice Francis Egan; Douglas Hyde; Lady Gregory; James Jeffrey Roche (assoc. ed.). Chicago: DeBower-Elliot Company. pp. xxix–xx.
  14. ^ Croker (1828), II: 98. §The Dullhan, "The Headless Horseman", p. 146
  15. ^ Croker (1828), II: 107.
  16. ^ Croker (1828), II: 150–151.
  17. ^ Addison, Joseph (6 July 1711). "Untitled [Ghost Story]". The Spectator. 2 (110): 108.
  18. ^ Handley, Sasha (2016) [2007]. Visions of an Unseen World: Ghost Beliefs and Ghost Stories in Eighteenth Century England. Routledge. p. 116. ISBN 9781317315254.
  19. ^ Haughton (2012), p. 54 generalizes on colour of the horseman's steed. Whereas Croker's story "Hanlon's Mill" features a "black coach drawn by six black horses".[15] Croker's annotation also quotes an account of a "spirit.. in the shape of a black horse without a head", from The Spectator,[16][17] but this was actually a fabricated ghost story by Joseph Addison, set near the (English) manor of the fictitious Sir Roger de Coverley.[18]
  20. ^ Yeats, William Butler, ed. (1892). "The Solitary Fairies: 6. The Dullahan". Irish Fairy Tales. London: T. Fisher Unwin. p. 229.
  21. ^ Croker (1828), II: 143.
  22. ^ a b c Locke, Tony, ed. (2014). Mayo Folk Tales. The History Press. Dullahan. ISBN 9780750961141.
  23. ^ a b Croker (1828), II: 109.
  24. ^ Croker (1828), II: 136.
  25. ^ Croker's section on The Dullahan includes the tale "Hanlon's Mill", and in the postscript Croker states the "Headless Coach" is a "general superstition".[23]
  26. ^ a b O'Hanlon's poem "Legend of Murrisk" describes the Coach-a-bower on the move, and its driver is explicitly called "Dullahan" in a subsequent stanza.[6]
  27. ^ Gregory, Augusta (1920). Yeats, Wililam Butler (notes) (ed.). Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons. p. 284, n17.
  28. ^ a b c Croker (1828), II: 133–134.
  29. ^ a b White, Carolyn (2001) [1985]. Ballyvourney Collection (Irish songs) (4 ed.). Mercier Press. p. 67. ISBN 9781856350099.
  30. ^ Zub, Jim (2017). Wayward. Vol. 4 Threads and Portents. Illustrated by Steve Cummings; John Rauch. Image Comics. ISBN 9781534303133.
  31. ^ a b c Croker (1828), 2: 109.
  32. ^ Croker (1828), 2: 106–108.
  33. ^ "Hidden Ireland | The Dullahan". www.irelandseye.com. Retrieved 10 May 2019.
  34. ^ a b Croker (1828), II: 126.
  35. ^ a b Croker (1828), II: 136–137.
  36. ^ Haughton (2012), pp. 54–55.
  37. ^ Ray, Brian (2010). "Tim Burton and the Idea of Fairy Tales". In Greenhill, Pauline; Matrix, Sidney Eve (eds.). Fairy Tale Films: Visions of Ambiguity. University Press of Colorado. p. 207. ISBN 9780874217827.
  38. ^ Yeats, William Butler, ed. (2003). "The Solitary Fairies: The Banshee". Irish Fairy and Folk Tales. Paul Muldoon (foreword). Random House Publishing Group. p. 118. ISBN 9780812968552.
  39. ^ Yeats, William Butler, ed. (1888). "The Solitary Fairies: The Banshee". Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. London: Walter Scott. p. 108.
  40. ^ Brian Ray's essay claims that "W. B. Yeats mentions.. the dullahan.. brandishing a whip made from a human spine",[37] however, the source Ray cites, Yeats (2003), p. 118[38] (= Yeats (1888), p. 108[39] fails to mention whip or spine.
  41. ^ Gardner, Craig Shaw (1999). Leprechauns. Hallmark Entertainment Books. p. 41. ISBN 9781575665351.
  42. ^ Haughton (2012), p. 55.
  43. ^ Croker (1828), Section "The Dullahan". Chapters "The Good Woman"; "Hanlon's Mill"; "The Harvest Dinner"; "The Death Coach"; "The Headless Horsemann" II: 85–152
  44. ^ Flynn, Paul J. (1926). The Book of the Galtees and the Golden Vein: A Border History of Tipperary, Limerick & Cork. Hodges, Figgis & Company. p. 116.
  45. ^ Graves, James, ed. (1881). Unpublished Geraldine documents: From the Journal of the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland. Vol. 4. Dublin: M. H. Gill & Sons. p. 67.
  46. ^ Croker (1828), II: 85–87.
  47. ^ Croker (1828), II: 87–96.
  48. ^ Croker (1828), II: 97–98.
  49. ^ Croker (1828), II: 100.
  50. ^ Brady, John Henry (1839). "bug, bugbear". Clavis Calendaria; Or, A Compendious Analysis of the Calendar. London: Henry Washbourne. p. 317.

General and cited references[edit]

External links[edit]