No wonder strange superstitions linger in the scattered hamlets by the sea or in the lonely cabins on the rocky islands around the Iron coast, for on winter nights when the mighty surges break thundering against the towering cliffs and the storm wind wails weirdly through the hollow caverns and ivied ruins, where the deserted fortresses of the powerful chieftans of bygone days look down on the foaming waves and the cry of the gulls and curlew echoes over rocks shores and across wide loughs and estuaries, one might well fancy that the sounds were the voice of giants or wizards doomed for their sins to wander forever ’round this coast, the mournful wail of the “Banshee” or of “the White Lady of the Cliffs”–a famous Munster apparition.
Women and children, crouching over the fire or driftwood, peat or furze branches flaming fitfully on the open hearth, cross themselves as a louder wail rings through the darkness or a rumbling sound is heard that to their ears seems to be the rolling of the wheels of “the headless coach” or “death coach,” so called in the County Cork because horses and driver are supposed to be headless. The coachman is the dullahan–that is, a dark or sullen person, a goblin of most malignant disposition.
The phantom is said to “follow” many old Munster families, the vehicle lumbering heavily up the avenue and stopping at the front door whenever a death is about to occur in the house. I know numbers of persons–and not by any means merely uneducated peasants–who are persuaded that they have heard the rumbling of the headless coach. Needless to say, the noise of a heavy cart at night along an unfrequented road is sufficient to terrify superstitious people into believing that they have heard the death coach. They take good care not to see it!
Another much dreaded apparition is the phooka, or fairy horse, a very malicious spirit that is said to appear in the shape of a beautiful coal black steed with fire darting from his eyes and nostrils.
Occasionally he adopts the form of a black bull or goat, and he appears as an awful compound of several black animals – horse, bull, goat and ram. In his equine form he is said to amuse himself by enticing solitary travelers whom he meets after dark into mounting him, and as he invariably looks like a “nate(?) cut of a horse,” such as every Irishman appreciates, he is said to succeed very frequently in his nefarious plan.
The instant the rider is on his back the elfin steed dashes off madly through stream, lake and bog hole, thicket and coppice, hedge and ditch, marsh and ravine, till the terrified mortal, drenched, torn and bruised shrieks for mercy or perhaps remembers to gasp out a prayer, when with a furious bound the phooka flings him off, preferably into a muddy pool or a furze brake, and darts away, leaving the unhappy rider to pick himself up, invariably finding that he is miles out of his way.
Sudden falls are attributed to this malignant sprite, and many a man who has lost his way or met with an accident coming home from fair or funeral on a dark night is convinced for the rest of his days that he has been led astray by the phooka, although his troubles were possibly due to a yet more potent spirit. Dangerous rocks and crags are often called “carrig-na-phooka” (rock of the phooka), just as deep pools or holes in a river or bog are poul-na-phooka. A beautiful waterful in Wicklow bears this name.
The “poukeen,” as he is sometimes called is also said to adopt the form of a great black bird or a bat. The latter is greatly favored by the country folks. In the bat form he is supposed to lure people into climbing ivied walls and towers, from which he throws them, an idea which seems to bear some relation to the vampire stories of eastern Europe. He is the pouke of Spensear, and from breaking the necks of the unwary to spoiling the blackberries on Michaelmas eve in order to vex the archangel, there are few enormities of which he is not guilty, according to popular belief.
“Puck, the household fairy,” of English legend finds his Irish counterpart in the fir-darrig, or red man, a merry goblin, very similar to the Scotch red cap*, or brownie. He is said to be dressed in scarlet. The attire of most of the Irish varieties is supposed to consist of a green suit, red shoes, long white stockings and red or black cap with an eagle’s feather. This little red-clad sprite is said to remarkable for the extreme beauty of its voice, which, according to the now fast disappearing race of story tellers, is “like the sound of the waves,” “the music of angels or the warbling of birds. A sweet voice is highly esteemed in Erin, where a girl possessing that “excellent thing in women” is said to be able to “coax the birds off the bushes.” - New Ireland Interview
*”Redcaps,” or “Powries,” are more commonly portrayed as sinister beings in much of Scotch-English folklore, as my article “The Boiling of Bad Lord Soulis,” bears out.