In a previous post this week, I covered various written works that were inspired by Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Such narratives are unabashed in admitting their primary literary influence, but there’s another story that can be added to the list, one whose connection to “The Legend” is less overt but still discernible. I am talking about Herminie Templeton Kavanagh’s 1903 novella “The Banshee’s Comb” (one of her Darby O’Gill tales).
Anticipating the classic Disney film Darby O’Gill and the Little People, Darby in “The Banshee’s Comb” has an encounter with the Costa Bower, a great “black coach that comes in the night to carry down to Croagmah the dead people the banshee keened for.” Significantly, said coach features a driver whose “head is cut off.” To be fair, the figure of the decapitated dullahan is a staple of Celtic lore, and many scholars would argue that Irving himself had the coach driver in mind when creating the Headless Horseman. The truth of such claim is debatable, but my interest here lies with Kavanagh’s apparent drawing on Irving when presenting the frightful driver in her tale. Darby actually refers to the figure as “the headless coachman,” a clear echo of the Headless Horseman. In the climax of “The Banshee’s Comb,” Darby sees the Costa Bower and what he mistakes for a dead passenger in its carriage (but who turns out to be Darby’s friend, Brian Connors, the king of the fairies, come to assist him). Similar to Irving’s playful tone in “The Legend,” Kavanagh’s scene puts the premium on comedic effect. The severed head of the coachman, who is given the prosaic name Shaun, starts weeping because of Darby’s resemblance to an old flame, Margit Ellen O’Gill: “If it wasn’t for yer bunchy red hair,” Shaun tells him, “an’ for the big brown wen that was on her forehead, ye’d be as like as two [peas].”
Other textual details in “The Banshee’s Comb” furnish further testament to its indebtedness to Irving’s tale. Despite his intimacy with the Good People, Darby maintains a deep dread “of all other kinds of ghosts,” and his trepidation (stemming from an overactive imagination) when sent out on a lonely errand by his wife on Halloween night recalls Ichabod Crane and his fearful trek through Sleepy Hollow after leaving the Van Tassel’s party. Approaching “the bridge in the hollow just below the berryin’-ground,” Darby spots “a slow, grey, formless thing without a head” and believes it to be “a powerful, unhowly monsther tower[ing] over him,” but it turns out to be only a neighbor’s wayward donkey. Darby’s ensuing hijinks with the beast are reminiscent of Ichabod’s experiences with the devilishly difficult horse Gunpowder. “The Banshee’s Comb” even makes mention of a “wild chase” of a wandering beggar woman by the phantom coach, “an’ if she’d been a second later raichin’ the chapel steps an’ laying her hand on the church-door it would have had her sure.”
In my essay “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture” (in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition), I discuss how the alleged “spiriting away” of Ichabod Crane by the Galloping Hessian connects back to fairy lore (that Irving likely learned from his literary idol, Walter Scott). It seems somewhat apropos, then, that Kavanagh recurs to Irving’s story and characters when scripting her humorous supernatural tale filled with elements of Celtic mythology. The Headless Horseman–legendary for his nightly beelining back and forth between churchyard and battlefield– has now come full circle.
[Citations of “The Banshee’s Comb” taken from its publication in Marvin Kaye’s anthology, The Ultimate Halloween]