This folktale from the South of Ireland tells the tale of Larry Dodd, who encountered a Dullahan.
In a pleasant and not unpicturesque valley of the White Knight’s Country, at the foot of the Galtee mountains, lived Larry Dodd and his wife Nancy. They rented a cabin and a few acres of land, which they cultivated with great care, and its crops rewarded their efforts. They loved each other deeply, were independent, and well respected by all their neighbours.
Larry was the most distinguished horse trainer for forty miles round; a straightforward, hard-working, and occasionally a hard-drinking, little man with a fiddle head and a round stern face. He had a moist, ruddy countenance, rather inclined to an expression of gravity, and particularly so in the morning.
One day, Larry was returning from Cashel mounted on a rough-coated and wall-eyed nag, though, notwithstanding these and a few other trifling blemishes, a well-built animal. He had only just purchased the nag, hoping to make a profit at the Kildorrery fair. Well pleased with himself, he trotted along the road in the delicious and lingering twilight of a lovely June evening, thinking of nothing at all.
His attention was caught by a woman pacing quickly by the side of his horse, and hurrying on, as if endeavouring to reach her destination before the night closed in. Her figure, considering the long strides she took, appeared to be under the common size — rather of the dumpy order; but any further features were obscured by a large cloak, the hood of which was turned up.
Enveloped in this mass of dark and concealing drapery, the strange woman kept up with Larry Dodd’s steed for some time. He offered her a lift, but received no answer. Until he pulled up by the side of a gap and said, “Ma colleen beg (my little girl), just jump up behind me, and I’ll take you safe and sound through the lonesome bit of road ahead.”
She jumped on the back of the horse as light as a feather. In an instant, she was seated behind Larry, with her hand and arm buckled round his waist.
“I hope you’re comfortable, my dear,” said Larry, but there was no answer. On they went — trot, trot, trot — along the road; and all was so still that you might have heard the sound of the hoofs on the limestone a mile off.
Larry had a keen ear, and did not require so profound a silence to detect the click of one of the horseshoes. “Just a loose shoe,” he assured his companion, as they were entering the lonesome bit of road of which he had spoken.
Some old trees with huge trunks, all covered, and irregular branches festooned with ivy, grew over a dark pool of water, which formed a drinking-place for cattle. In the distance lay the majestic head of Galteemore. Larry dismounted to lead the horse by the pool.
“By the piper’s luck,” Larry said, recalling something, “I’ve got a nail in my pocket; it’s not the first time I’ve put on a shoe.”
No sooner had Larry dismounted, than the young woman jumped down at his side. Her feet touched the ground without making noise, and away she bounded. She seemed to glide rather than run, not along the road, but across a field, towards the old ivy-covered walls of Kilnaslattery church.
“Not so fast, young woman,” cried Larry, running after her, “Where’s my wages? I’ve earned a kiss — and I’ll have it too!”
She ran on faster and faster, jumping over the churchyard wall.
Larry, with a desperate bound vaulted, scrambled, and tumbled after her. He got up from the elastic sod of a newly-made grave, and went on stumbling over headstones and footstones, over old graves and new graves, pieces of coffins, and the skulls and bones of dead men that were scattered about there as plenty as paving-stones.
Meantime the merry wench in the cloak moved through all these obstructions as evenly and as gaily as if the churchyard, crowded up as it was with graves and gravestones, had been the floor of a dancing-room. Round and round the walls of the old church she went.
“I’ll just wait,” said Larry, “when she comes round again, I’ll get my kiss. Here she is!”
Larry Dodd sprung forward with open arms, and clasped in them — a woman, it is true, but without any lips to kiss, because she had no head! Numb with fear and astonishment; Larry’s blood seemed turned to ice, and a dizziness came over him. Staggering like a drunken man, he rolled against the broken window of the ruin, horrified that he had actually held a Dullahan in his embrace!
When he regained consciousness Larry slowly opened his eyes, and a sense of wonder burst upon him. In the midst of the ruin, plainly visible in a strange light, stood an old wheel of torture, ornamented with heads.
Larry gazed through a shattered window of the old church, with eyes bleared and almost starting from their sockets. Strange noises assailed his ears, until at last they tingled painfully to the sharp clatter of little bells, which kept up a continued ding—ding—ding. Marrowless bones rattled and clanked, and the deep and solemn sound of a great bell came booming on the night wind.
It was strange music to dance by; nevertheless, moving to it, round and round the wheel set with skulls, were well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, and soldiers and sailors, and priests and publicans, but all without their heads. Some poor skeletons, whose bleached bones were ill covered by moth-eaten palls, and who were not admitted into the ring, amused themselves by bowling their brainless skulls at one another.
Larry, losing the balance which he had so long maintained, fell head-first into the midst of the company of Dullahans.
“Welcome, Larry Dodd,” cried every head, bobbing up and down in the air. “A drink for Larry Dodd,” shouted they, as with one voice, that quavered like a shake on the bagpipes.
One player at heads, catching his own as it was bowled at him, for fear of its going astray, jumped up, put the head, without a word, under his left arm, and, with the right stretched out, presented a brimming cup to Larry, who, to show his manners, drank it like a man.
“It is good stuff,” he would have said, but he found himself decapitated, and his head dancing over his shoulders like those of the rest of the party.
When his senses returned, he reached to where his head formerly grew, and to his great joy there he found it still. He shook it gently, but his head remained firm enough, and somewhat assured at this, he proceeded to open his eyes and look around him.
It was broad daylight, and in the old church of Kilnaslattery he found himself lying. “Could it have been an ugly dream? Where is the horse?” He got up slowly, every joint aching with pain, and walked to the pool of water. But his horse was nowhere to be seen.
“How will I face Nancy?” said Larry, with a rueful expression, “What will I tell her about the horse? That Dullahans have stolen him from me?”
He arrived at his cabin around noon, without any further adventures. There he found Nancy, looking black as a thundercloud at him. Yet she listened to his marvellous explanation with astonishment.
“What brought you to the abandoned church, Larry?” asked Nancy.
Larry looked like a criminal for whom there was no reprieve; he scratched his head for an excuse, but not one could he muster up, so he knew not what to say.
“Oh! Larry,” muttered Nancy, after waiting some time for his answer, “you men are all alike — I’ve no pity for you — confess the truth!”
“I do confess, there was a young woman without a head tha—”
His wife heard no more.
“A woman! I knew it!” cried she, “Larry, you villain, going after such—”
“Well,” said Larry, putting his hands in his coat-pockets, “any woman without a head may well be called a Good Woman, because she has no tongue!”
How this remark influenced the matrimonial dispute history does not inform us. It is, however, reported that the lady had the last word.
If you enjoyed reading this folktale from the south of Ireland, please consider keeping it alive by sharing it with your friends. You can find many more Irish folktales by visiting our dedicated collection.