Hanlon’s Mill: A Folktale of Ballygibblin, Ireland

Pinpoint Location: Ballygibblin, County Cork / Map data ©2017 Google

This folktale from Ballygibblin tells the tale of Michael Noonan, who witnessed a black coach pulled by headless horses. 

One fine summer’s evening Michael Noonan went over to Jack Brien’s, the shoemaker at Ballyduff. It was a pretty, but lonesome, walk along the riverside, down by the oakwood, that brought him to the ruins of Hanlon’s mill; its great old wheel black with age, all covered with moss and ferns.

The day was gone, but the moon was not yet up, when Mick heard, coming out of the wood, blowing of horns and hallooing, and the cry of all the hounds in the world. He heard the galloping of the horses, and the voice of the whipper-in, and the echo over from the grey rock across the river giving back every word as plainly as it was spoken.

Mick started running, but the shouting and hallooing following him every step of the way until he reached Jack Brien’s door, and he was certain, too, that he heard the clack of old Hanlon’s mill.

Mick got his shoes, when who should be seated at Jack Brien’s before him, but a friend of his, Darby Haynes; a mighty decent man, that had a horse and cart of his own.

“Are you going home this blessed night?” said Darby.

“Where else would I go?” replied Mick. “But not across the Inch. Not after what I’ve heard there. Old Hanlon’s mill is busy again.”

“Truly?” said Darby. “Maybe you’d take my horse and cart home for me, Mick? I’m waiting here to meet a nephew of mine from Kilcoleman.”

“I will,” answered Mick, grateful for the opportunity.

Mick drove the cart fair and easy, knowing that the poor horse was tired after her long journey. The night was beautiful; looking up at the moon, Mick could not help bestowing a blessing on her beautiful face, shining down so sweetly upon the gentle Awbeg.  At one time, when a big old tree got between him and the moon, it was so dark that Mick could hardly see the horse’s head; then, as he passed on, the moonbeams would stream through the open boughs and variegate the road with lights and shades.

Mick was lying down in the cart at his ease, and was watching the bright piece of a moon in a little pool at the roadside, when he saw it suddenly disappear, as if a great cloud came over the sky. He turned round on his elbow, and was astonished at finding, close alongside the cart, a great high black coach drawn by six black horses, with long black tails reaching almost down to the ground, and a coachman dressed all in black.

What surprised Mick the most was that both coachman and horses were headless. But nearly as puzzling was the lack of sound. The coach swept rapidly by him, and he could see the wheels spinning round, the horses raising their feet, and the coachman spurring them on with his long whip. But he could hear no noise, only the regular step of Darby’s horse, and the squeaking gudgeons of the cart.

Mick’s heart almost stopped as he looked on; but the black coach swept away and was soon lost among some distant trees. He never saw it again.

Mick got home just as the moon was going down behind Mount Hillery, took the tackling off the horse, turned the beast out in the field for the night, and got to his bed. Next morning, he was standing at the roadside thinking of all that had happened the night before, when he saw Dan Madden coming down the hill on his master’s best horse.

Mick’s sensed that something was wrong, so he stood out in the very middle of the road, and caught hold of Dan’s bridle when he came up.

“Mick, for the love of God!” cried Dan. “Don’t stop me.”

“What’s the hurry?” said Mick.

“The master is dying!”

“Dying?” said Mick. “I spoke to him yesterday, and he was stout and hearty.”

“Stout and hearty?” answered Madden. “The first thing I saw this morning was the mistress standing at my bedside, bidding me to ride off like fire for Doctor Johnson.”

The next night’s moon saw Ballygibblin a house of mourning.

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  1. E535.1. Phantom coach and horses. England, Ireland, U.S., Wales. The death coach is part of the folklore of northwestern Europe. It is particularly strong in Ireland but is also found in the British and American culture. In Irish folklore, it is known as the Cóiste Bodhar, meaning deaf or silent coach, and it is said that the sight or sound of the coach is the harbinger of death. In Ireland, in particular, the Death Coach is seen as a signifier of the inevitability of death, as the belief goes once it has come to Earth it can never return empty. The driver of the Cóiste Bodhar is said to be a headless horseman (Dullahan).


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