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A Folklore Survey of County Clare by Thomas Johnson Westropp


The Death Coach [30]

The ‘headless Coach’ or ‘coach a bower’ seems of far later date than the banshee. Ghostly chariots such as that of Cuchulain figure in very early tales, but neither their appearance nor their sound foretold death.[31] In Clare, at sight or sound of the coach, all gates should be thrown open, and then it will not stop at the house to call for a member of the family, but only fortell the death of some relative at a distance.[32]

I collected five stories, three of well-defined character, and give them in order of time as the dates can be fixed. The first appearance, on the night before June 18th, 1806, was related to my three informants [33] most solemnly by their fathers and uncles. Two told it in a general and confused way, but varied from the story of the third, which I give, only by omissions. Ralph Westropp, of Attyflin and Lismehane,—the latter place is in Clare, but I never could learn where he died,—lay sick unto death. His sons in the late dusk waited on the steps for the arrival of the doctor. Suddenly they saw and heard a large coach drive into the paved court before the house. One of them stepped down to open the door, but the dark object rumbled past and drove down the long, straight avenue, which was fenced on both sides. Two of the watchers ran after it, hearing it ahead of them. The noise stopped, and they expected to find the coach at the gate. They ran full tilt against the bars, the gate being closed and locked. They called up the lodgekeeper, and he was found to have been asleep with the keys still beside him. The sick man died the next morning.

Lismehane, under its later name of Maryfort, afterwards became the residence of the O’Callaghan family, its present occupants. On the night of April 29th, 1821, two servants,—one of whom was ‘Matty Halloran’ who died not long ago at an advanced age, and the other was a butler named Richard Burke,—were sitting up to receive a son of the family, Cornelius O’Callaghan, who had travelled for his health in vain and was returning home. Halloran, who told the tale with fearless faith and weary frequency, said that the heavy rumble of a coach roused them. Burke stood on the top of the long flight of steps with a lamp, and sent Halloran down to open the carriage door. He reached out his hand to do so, saw a skeleton looking out, gave one yell, and fell in a heap. When the badly-scared Burke picked him up, there was no sign or sound of any coach. A little later the invalid arrived, so exhausted that he died suddenly in the early morning. The present generation seems to have got the story from Halloran alone.

On the night of December 11th, 1876, a servant of the MacNamaras was going his rounds at Ennistymon, a beautiful spot in a wooded glen, with a broad stream falling in a series of cascades. In the dark he heard the rumbling of wheels on the back avenue, and, knowing from the hour and place that no ‘mortal vehicle’ could be coming, concluded that it was the death coach and ran on, opening the gates before it. He had just time to open the third gate and throw himself on his face beside it, at the bank, before he ‘heard a coach go clanking past.’ It did not stop at the house, but passed on, and the sound died away. On the following day Admiral Sir Burton MacNamara died in London.[34]

A man living at Annaghneale was returning from Tulla late at night. As he reached the corner of Fortanne demesne he heard a heavy rumbling behind him, and horses trotting. Surprised after a time by its not coming nearer, he looked back and saw a large dark mass with a figure on the box. It came no closer to him, and in a fright he hurried on. At a bend in the road he ventured to stand at the fence and look again. This time he saw the horses and carriage drive over the wall and ditch into Fortanne. He fell, nearly insensible with terror, but, hearing and seeing nothing more, hurried home. This was told to a steward at Maryfort about twenty years ago, and happened ‘long after the sale of Fortanne’ to its present owner in 1879. The present tradition of Fortanne says that the coach was heard at the deaths of certain Westropps after 1873, but nothing happened after its last appearance.

The phantom of a coach and horse was seen not far from Corofin, at Cragmoher, not long since, but it is agreed that no death took place after the apparition. An equally vague story was told about 1870 at Attyflin by a very old woman, Norry Halloran, whom the sound of the coach pursued one dark evening for a long way, but it did not pass her door, and nothing happened afterwards.


Chapter 2


Chapter 4