Origins of the Headless Horseman



We all know about the headless horseman, a particular scary character brought to life in Washington Irvine’s classic ‘’The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’’. But how many of you know that this fictional character is based on an actual legend from Irish Mythology? Much like the ancient Irish tradition of Samhain was brought to the US by Irish immigrants, the Headless Horseman or Dullahan to give him his correct name was also most likely brought to the US, were Washington would have heard about it and based his sinister character on. The horseman in Irish Lore is also known as ‘An Fear Dorcha’ (The Dark Man) or ‘Gan Ceann’ (Without Head). Many believe that the Dullahan is a Dark Faerie or Ghost. And whilst we don’t know exactly how old this legend goes back in time, it may well go back to ancient Ireland where it was not unusual for our ancestors to take an enemy’s head in battle. Some would have you believe that the horseman is an physical entity of the ancient Celtic God Crom Dubh, returned to the world of man to claim the souls of the living. The reason behind this is the belief that Crom was a sacrificial idol and that our ancient ancestors would have practised human sacrifice to appease Crom. But considering the effort by the Christian church into discrediting the ancient Gods of Ireland in favour of their own religion controlled by Rome, I would strongly dispute these claims.

The Dullahan or Gan Ceann is said to be a dark Faerie, a collector of souls, whom roams the countryside at midnight in search of suitable souls to take. People say that he  is dressed in a long black cloak, the Dullahan has no head on his shoulders and is usually seen riding a large black horse and carrying his head under one arm. Little is known as to why this monster carries his head under his arm or how in fact he became separated from it. But the head’s eyes are said to be huge which constantly dart about like fire- flies, and it has a mouthful of hideous razor sharp teeth. Because of its supernatural powers when the head is raised up into the air it is able to see great distances, even on the darkest night. Its  Charger is said to have flaming red eyes. The Dullahan carries a whip which is said to have been made from a human corpse’s spine. When the Dullahan stops riding, a person will inevitably die. Once the Dullahan has spoken your name out loud, your time is up. The Dullahan’s powers allow it to suck the soul from the intended victim once it calls their name. Now most cases reported envolved a victim of ill health whom was already on deaths door, but there have been occurances of souls been taken from an otherwise healthy victim. It is said that there is no way to stop the Dullahan in its work, as any gates or locks which stand in its way open at its will on approach.

Apparently it is not a good idea to observe the Dullahan either, so be warned,  it has been known to lash out at anyone caught observing it with its whip, thus blinding them in one eye as punishment. Also it has been known to throw a bucket of blood over the unsuspecting watcher which would seem to be a supernatural marker for the next victim to have their soul taken. Unlike the Bean sidhe, which is known to warn of a death in certain families, the Dullahan does not come to warn. He is a definite harbinger of someone’s demise and there exists little  defence against his powers.  However there is some good news for anyone whom is unfortunate enough to cross paths with this dark faerie. It is known that they are terrified of gold! Even something as small as a gold pin or coin can be enough to send it off in the opposite direction. The following  story from Galway tells of a man whom was on his way home when all of a sudden he heard the sound of horse’s hooves pounding along the road behind him. In dread , he turned around to look. It was the Dullahan. He tried to run, but nothing can outrun the angel of death. Then the man remembered that if he couldn’t outrun him, he could outsmart him. With that, he dropped a gold coin on the road. There was a loud roar in the air, high above him, and when he turned to look again, the Dullahan was gone!!!!!

In  some parts of Ireland, he drives a black coach drawn by a team of six black horses. They travel so fast that the friction from their hooves is said to set the hedges on fire along the sides of the road. The Dullahan makes an appearance in the 1959 Disney film Darby O’Gill and the Little People, but does not name the Dullahan directly; instead it is portrayed as the headless driver of the Cóiste Bodhar.  W. J. Fitzpatrick, a storyteller from the Mourne Mountains in County Down, gives the following account of his encounter with the Dullahan; ‘’ I have 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.” So if you happen to be out and about this Halloween please be careful and don’t forget to keep a gold coin in your pocket. It might just save your life!!!!

“The Dullahan serves no master but death.”


And dont forget to get your submissions in for the SPOOKTACULAR CHALLENGE on October 31st.


About edmooneyphotography

Photographer, Blogger, Ruinhunter, with an unhealthy obsession for history, mythology and the arcane.
This entry was posted in Diary of a Ruinhunter, Halloween, Historical, Legends, Samhain and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

85 Responses to Origins of the Headless Horseman

  1. Great article, I remember growing up near Rockbrook in south Dublin the story of a headless horseman

  2. Sue says:

    Interesting post, Ed

  3. Ali Isaac says:

    Fun post, Ed, very appropriate to the season. I love the images, too… very atmospheric!

  4. roweeee says:

    Thanks very ,much for this Ed. I’ve been researching my Irish family history and have really benefited from reading blogs like yours and Ali Isaac’s which give me insights into Irish history and the Irish psyche. xx Rowena

  5. Wonderful post today. Thanks for sharing it.

  6. hocuspocus13 says:

    Reblogged this on hocuspocus13 and commented:

  7. Yet another great post.

    Just out of curiosity, could you maybe do a short post on Irish Gaelic? I find myself ever more fascinated by the language as much as the information. Do you speak I.G? How do yo say “photography” in I.G? What is the relationship between the words and your pictures, or are there any?

    • Thanks Dan, thats an interesting idea. Now you are going to set me off on a bit of a rant…….
      In answer to your question, Is féidir liom labhairt cúpla focal i nGaeilge……
      I do speak some Gaelic, but probably not enough to hold a big conversation with a native speaker. I dont gte to use it often so as the old adage goes, ‘If you dont use it, you loose it”.
      Although there is no Irish word for Photography as cameras were not around back then, they have made one up.
      To be quite honest the real Irish Language is lost and gone, modern Irish that is thought in schools is a bastardised dialect made up to suit translation into english and it really makes me mad.
      It was once known as the Poets Tongue and was quite difficult to learn if you were not a native speaker. For instance, in English we say something like. ‘I went down to the shops’, well in Irish it would be ‘To the shop I did go’,
      Its a funny old language and an awfull shame it has been destroyed, I go mad when the kids are doing their homework as the stuff they are being thought is utter shit. Take the word Mother. it should be Máthair, but kids are being thought to say Mamo.
      Appologies for ranting 🙂

  8. Wonderfully interesting history, Ed. Enjoyed it.

  9. hooklineandinkwell says:

    Awesome article! I have been in love with this character since first watching the old Disney cartoon…nowadays I watch the TV series, Sleepy Hollow, whose first enemy of the people was the Headless Horseman…I really enjoyed this piece; thanks for sharing 🙂

  10. willowdot21 says:

    How does he manage to keep hold of his head, with no hands free, one for the sword the other for his reins….. maybe a saddle bag? 😉

  11. gordon759 says:

    Headless horsemen are to be found all over Britain, my favourite story concerns the great folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould. In his part of Devon headless horses pulled a black coach which was associated with several local figures, including Baring-Gould’s own great grandmother! On going to a friends house for dinner his host had to apologise as his cook refused to cook dinner for his guest, the reason – her husband had been frightened by the ghost coach containing Baring-Gould’s ancestor, fallen and broken his arm. So she wasn’t going to cook dinner for any descendants of the spirit who had injured her husband.
    Baring Gould was fascinated by the ‘persistence of belief’ as he put it, though he ascribed the cook’s husband’s injury to spirits of a non-supernatural kind.

  12. oglach says:

    Damn fine storytelling!

  13. Ed, a truly interesting post. I wasn’t aware the headless horseman extended across the pond to the UK. It makes perfect sense considering how influenced New England states are with British culture.

  14. Great stuff! And very seasonal too!

  15. Thanks for the informative post.

  16. Galaxy Jane says:

    I’m just glad I’m not the only one who remembers “Darby O’Gill and the Little People”. Quite a scary picture when you are little.

  17. beetleypete says:

    Finally, something I actually knew! I had heard of the Irish tales of the headless horseman, but as always, Ed, you put the flesh on the bones of any story. Great stuff mate.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  18. noelleg44 says:

    Really an interesting post, Ed! I’m amazed at the amount of stuff that originated in Ireland, especially since I discovered I am part Irish.

  19. Do you reckon a pound coin would do it Ed? 😉

  20. Here we go…now I know Halloween is not too far off…

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  22. I love this story!! I definitely do not want to come across him on a dark night as he must now be over here as well because of Irving’s tale!!
    Ed, if you do a post on Irish gaelic do mention the scots gaelic as well which is so similar and the ancient kingdoms of the dal riata.

  23. aidymcglynn says:

    Brilliantly told Ed!

  24. TPJ says:

    You have the gift of the tale.

  25. Fabulous tale. Well done. It is a shame the English killed the Celtic customs and language. It is good some remnants remain. I believe the Welsh language fared a little better than the Scottish and Irish native tongues. Correct me if I am wrong.

  26. p.s. When I was a little girl (~1958) I stayed in a place called Starling Park House, Carmarthenshire, Wales my step-gran sent me to the local store with a note in Welsh because they spoke no English there.

  27. BunKaryudo says:

    If I need a gold coin in my pocket, it looks like I’m a goner. I hope he accepts IOUs.

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  30. Thank you for liking “Creepy Towers.” Fantastic post! 🙂 I enjoyed reading Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” so I found this background information about the Dullahan to be fascinating. That whip made from a human corpse’s spine sounds hideous! Of all the things in the world, I did not expect gold would scare them away. It reminds me of the way you are supposed to be able to kill werewolves with silver bullets (at least in the movies). I wonder why precious metals seem to ward off evil spirits. 🙂

  31. johnwhye415 says:

    Whoa! Tonight is Halloween, so I am definitely NOT going outside, I do not want to run into the Dullahan, because I am just a poor Irishman with no gold to ward off the headless horsemen on his evil rounds! Scary!

  32. Thanks so much for collecting and sharing all of this. Fascinating where ideas are woven from. (Didn’t get you an image, but did come up with a spooky tale on my blog)
    Mother Nature is providing all the outdoor decorations and sound effects here tonight. Dark and stormy for sure…not sure what else may be lurking after reading all this (nice images, too)
    Enjoy all the haunts and goblins of Holler-Ring

    • It was my pleasure, I just finished reading it, and I am in awe. I love tales that can portray an atmosphere with very little build up. If that makes sense. Less is definitely more. And yet it was probably something that has happened many times over the years, creepy, sad and realistic. Thanks so much for sharing 😁

  33. jazzfeathers says:

    Enjoyed it a lot. I’ve heard bits and pieces of these tales around, but it’s nice to read them all in one place, like a whole story.

    I love the storyteller’s story 🙂

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