"GOD speed you, and a safe journey
this night to you, Charley," ejaculated the master of the little sheebeen
house at Ballyhooley after his old friend and good customer, Charley Culnane,
who at length had turned his face homewards, with the prospect of as dreary a
ride and as dark a night as ever fell upon the Blackwater, along the banks of
which he was about to journey.
Charley Culnane knew the country well, and
moreover, was as bold a rider as any Mallow-boy that ever rattled a
four-year-old upon Drumrue race-course. He had gone to Fermoy in the morning,
as well for the purpose of purchasing some ingredients required for the
Christmas dinner by his wife, as to gratify his own vanity by having new reins
fitted to his snaffle, in which he intended showing off the old mare at the
approaching St. Stephen's day hunt.
Charley did not get out of Fermoy until
late; for although he was not one of your "nasty particular sort of
fellows" in any thing that related to the common occurrences of life, yet
in all the appointments connected with hunting, riding, leaping, in short, in
whatever was connected with the old mare, "Charley," the saddlers
said, "was the devil to plase."
An illustration of this fastidiousness was
afforded by his going such a distance for a snaffle bridle. Mallow was
full twelve miles nearer "Charley's farm" (which lay just three
quarters of a mile below Carrick) than Fermoy; but Charley had quarrelled with
all the Mallow saddlers, from hard-working and hard- drinking Tim Clancey, up
to Mr. Ryan, who wrote himself "Saddler to the Duhallow Hunt;" and
no one could content him in all particulars but honest Michael Twomey of
Fermoy, who used to assert - and who will doubt it - that he could stitch a
saddle better than the lord-lieutenant although they made him all as one as
king over Ireland.
This delay in the arrangement of the
snaffle bridle did not allow Charley Culnane to pay so long a visit as he had
at first intended to his old friend and gossip, Con Buckley, of the "Harp
of Erin." Con, however, knew the value of time, and insisted upon Charley
making good use of what he had to spare. "I won't bother you waiting for
water, Charley, because I think you'll have enough of that same before you get
home; so drink off your liquor, man. It 's as good parliament as ever a
gentleman tasted, ay, and holy church too, for it will bear 'x waters,' and
carry the head after that, may be."
Charley, it must be confessed, nothing
loth, drank success to Con, and success to the jolly "Harp of Erin,"
with its head of beauty and its strings of the hair of gold, and to their
better acquaintance, and so on, from the bottom of his soul, until the bottom
of the bottle reminded him that Carrick was at the bottom of the hill on the
other side of Castletown Roche, and that he had got no further on his journey
than his gossip's at Ballyclose to the big gate of Convamore. Catching hold of
his oil-skin hat, therefore, whilst Con Buckley went to the cupboard for
another bottle of the "real stuff," he regularly, as it is termed,
bolted from his friend's hospitality, darted to the stable, tightened his
girths, and put the old mare into a canter towards home.
The road from Ballyhooley to Carrick
follows pretty nearly the course of the Blackwater, occasionally diverging
from the river and passing through rather wild scenery, when contrasted with
the beautiful seats that adorn its banks. Charley cantered gaily, regardless
of the rain, which, as his friend Con had anticipated, fell in torrents: the
good woman's currants and raisins were carefully packed between the folds of
his yeomanry cloak, which Charley, who was proud of showing that he belonged
to the "Royal Mallow Light Horse Volunteers," always strapped to the
saddle before him, and took care never to destroy the military effect of, by
putting it on. - Away he went singing like a thrush-
"Sporting, belleing, dancing,
Breaking windows - (hiccup!) - sinking,
Ever raking - never thinking,
Live the rakes of Mallow.
Spending faster than it comes,
Beating - (hiccup, hic), and duns,
Duhallow's true-begotten sons,
Live the rakes of Mallow."
Notwithstanding that the visit to the
jolly "Harp of Erin" had a little increased the natural complacency
of his mind, the drenching of the new snaffle reins began to disturb him; and
then followed a train of more anxious thoughts than even were occasioned by
the dreaded defeat of the pride of his long-anticipated turn out on
St. Stephen's day. In an hour of good fellowship, when his heart was warm,
and his head not over cool, Charley had backed the old mare against Mr.
Jephson's bay filly Desdemona for a neat hundred, and he now felt sore
misgivings as to the prudence of the match. In a less gay tone he continued
"Living short, but merry lives,
Going where the devil drives,
Keeping - "
"Keeping" he muttered, as the
old mare had reduced her canter to a trot at the bottom of Kilcummer Hill.
Charley's eye fell on the old walls that belonged, in former times, to the
Templars : but the silent gloom of the ruin was broken only by the heavy rain
which splashed and pattered on the gravestones.
He then looked up at the sky, to see if
there was, among the clouds, any hopes for mercy on his new snaffle reins; and
no sooner were his eyes lowered, than his attention was arrested by an object
so extraordinary as almost led him to doubt the evidence of his senses. The
head, apparently, of a white horse, with short cropped ears, large open
nostrils and immense eyes, seemed rapidly to follow him. No connection with
body, legs, or rider, could possibly be traced the head advanced - Charley's
old mare, too, was moved at this unnatural sight, and snorting violently,
increased her trot up the hill. The head moved forward, and passed on: Charley
pursuing it with astonished gaze, and wondering by what means, and for what
purpose, this detached head thus proceeded through the air, did not perceive
the corresponding body until he was suddenly started by finding it close at
his side. Charley turned to examine what was thus so sociably jogging on with
him, when a most unexampled apparition presented itself to his view. A figure,
whose height (judging as well as the obscurity of the night would permit him)
he computed to be at least eight feet, was seated on the body and legs of a
white horse full eighteen hands and a half high. In this measurement Charley
could not be mistaken, for his own mare was exactly fifteen hands, and the
body that thus jogged alongside he could at once determine, from his practice
in horseflesh, was at least three hands and a half higher.
After the first feeling of astonishment,
which found vent in the exclamation " I'm sold now for ever!" was
over; the attention of Charley, being a keen sportsman, was naturally directed
to this extraordinary body, and having examined it with the eye of a
connoisseur, he proceeded to reconnoitre the figure so unusually mounted, who
had hitherto remained perfectly mute. Wishing to see whether his companion's
silence proceeded from bad temper, want of conversational powers, or from a
distaste to water, and the fear that the opening of his mouth might subject
him to have it filled by the rain, which was then drifting in violent gusts
against them, Charley endeavoured to catch a sight of his companion's face in
order to form an opinion on that point.
But his vision failed in carrying him
further than the top of the collar of the figure's coat, which was a scarlet
single-breasted hunting frock, having a waist of a very old fashioned cut
reaching to the saddle with two. huge shining buttons at about a yard distance
behind. " I ought to see further than this, too," thought Charley,
" although he is mounted on his high horse, like my cousin Darby, who was
made barony constable last week, unless 'tis Con's whiskey that has blinded me
entirely." However, see further he could not, and after straining his
eyes for a considerable time to no purpose, he exclaimed, with pure vexation,
" By the big bridge of Mallow, it is no head at all he has !"
"Look again, Charley Culnane,"
said a hoarse voice, that seemed to proceed from under the right arm of the
Charley did look again, and now in the
proper place, for he clearly saw, under the aforesaid right arm, that head
from which the voice had proceeded, and 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
Two fiery eyes of prodigious
circumference, with a strange and irregular motion, flashed like meteors upon
Charley, and to complete all, a mouth reached from either extremity of two
ears, which peeped forth from under a profusion of matted locks of lustreless
blackness. This head, which the figure had evidently hitherto concealed from
Charley's eyes, now burst upon his view in all its hideousness.
Charley, although a lad of
proverbial courage in the county of Cork, yet could not but feel his nerves a
little shaken by this unexpected visit from the headless
horseman, whom he
considered his fellow traveller must be. The cropped-eared head of the
gigantic horse moved steadily forward, always keeping from six to eight yards
in advance. The horseman, unaided by whip or spur, and disdaining the use of
stirrups, which dangled uselessly from the saddle, followed at a trot by
Charley's side, his hideous head now lost behind the lappet of his coat, now
starting forth in all its horror as the motion of the horse caused his arm to
move to and fro. The ground shook under the weight of its supernatural
burthen, and the water in the pools became agitated into waves as he trotted
On they went - heads without bodies, and
bodies without heads. - The deadly silence of night was broken only by the
fearful clattering of hoofs, and the distant sound of thunder, which rumbled
above the mystic hill of Cecaune a Mona Finnea. Charley, who was naturally a
merry-hearted, and rather a talkative fellow, had hitherto felt tongue tied by
apprehension, but finding his companion showed no evil disposition towards
him, and having become somewhat more reconciled to the Patagonian dimensions
of the horseman and his headless steed, plucked up all his courage, and thus
addressed the stranger : -
"Why, then, your honour rides mighty
well without the stirrups !"
"Humph," growled the head from
under the horseman's right arm.
" 'Tis not an over civil
answer," thought Charley ; "but no matter, he was taught in one of
them riding-houses, may be, and thinks nothing at all about bumping his
leather breeches at the rate of ten miles an hour. I 'II try him on the other
tack. Ahem!" said Charley, clearing his throat, and feeling at the same
time rather daunted at this second attempt to establish a conversation.
"Ahem ! that's a mighty neat coat of
your honour's, although 't is a little too long in the waist for the present
"Humph," growled again the head.
This second humph was a terrible thump in
the face to poor Charley, who was fairly bothered to know what subject he
could start that would prove more agreeable. " 'Tis a sensible
head," thought Charley, "although an ugly one, for 'tis plain enough
the man does not like flattery." A third attempt, however, Charley was
determined to make, and having failed in his observations as to the riding and
coat of his fellow-traveller, thought he would just drop a trifling allusion
to the wonderful headless horse, that was jogging on so sociably beside his
old mare; and as Charley was considered about Carrick to be very knowing in
horses, besides being a full private in the Royal Mallow Light Horse
Volunteers, which were every one of them mounted like real Hessians, he felt
rather sanguine as to the result of his third attempt.
"To be sure, that's a brave horse
your honour rides," recommenced the persevering Charley.
"You may say that, with your
own ugly mouth," growled the head.
Charley, though not much flattered by the
compliment, nevertheless chuckled at his success in obtaining an answer, and
thus continued : -
"May be your honour wouldn't be after
riding him across the country?"
"Will you try me, Charley ? "
said the head, with an inexpressible look of ghastly delight.
"Faith, and that's what I'd do,"
responded Charley, "only I 'm afraid, the night being so dark, of laming
the old mare, and I've every halfpenny of a hundred pounds on her heels."
This was true enough; Charley's courage
was nothing dashed at the headless horseman's proposal; and there never was a
steeple-chase, nor a fox-chase, riding or leaping in the country, that Charley
Culnane was not at it, and foremost in it.
"Will you take my word," said
the man who carried his head so snugly under his right arm, for the safety of
"Done," said Charley; and away
they started, helter, skelter, over every thing, ditch and wall, pop, pop, the
old mare never went in such style, even in broad daylight: and Charley had
just the start of his companion, when the hoarse voice called out "
Charley Culnane, Charley, man, stop for your life, stop !"
Charley pulled up hard. " Ay,"
said he, "you may beat me by the head, because it always goes so much
before you; but if the bet was neck-and-neck, and that's the go between the
old mare and Desdemona, I'd win it hollow!"
It appeared as if the stranger was well
aware of what was passing in Charley's mind, for he suddenly broke out quite
"Charley Culnane," says he,
"you have a stout soul in you, and are every inch of you a good rider.
I've tried you, and I ought to know; and that's the sort of man for my money.
A hundred years it is since my horse and I broke our necks at the bottom of
Kilcummer hill, and ever since I have been trying to get a man that dared to
ride with me and never found one before. Keep, as you have always done, at the
tail of the hounds, never baulk a ditch, nor turn away from a stone wall, and
the headless horseman will never desert you nor the old mare."
Charley, in amazement, looked towards the
stranger's right arm, for the purpose of seeing in his face whether or not he
was in earnest, but behold ! the head was snugly lodged in the huge pocket of
the horseman's scarlet hunting-coat. The horse's head had ascended
perpendicularly above them, and his extraordinary companion, rising quickly
after his avant courier, vanished from the astonished gaze of Charley Culnane.
Charley, as may be supposed, was lost in
wonder, delight, and perplexity; the pelting rain, the wife's pudding, the new
snaffle - even the match against squire Jephson - all were forgotten; nothing
could he think of; nothing could he talk of; but the headless horseman. He
told it, directly that he got home, to Judy; he told it the following morning
to all the neighbours; and he told it to the hunt on St. Stephen's day: but
what provoked him after all the pains he took in describing the head, the
horse, and the man, was that one and all attributed the creation of the
headless horseman to his friend Con Buckley's "X water parliament."
This, however, should be told, that Charley's old mare beat Mr. Jephson's bay
filly, Desdemona, by Diamond, and Charley pocketed his cool hundred; and if he
didn't win by means of the headless horseman, I am sure I don't know any other
reason for his doing so.
Source: Thomas Crofton
Croker - Fairy Legends and Traditions, first published 1825.
republished by: Collins Press, Cork, 1998.