This appeared in the North Clare Local in June. Not many people realise that the author of Dracula, Bram Stoker, was an Irishman. Fewer still know of the great novel’s connection with Irish folklore.
This year has kicked off a decade of important centenaries. Events like the sinking of the Titanic, World War I, the 1916 Rising, are so momentous; it’s hardly surprising that one or two anniversaries get overlooked. Five days after the sinking of the Titanic, on April 20, 1912, the creator of one of Western culture’s most enduring characters, Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker, died. Stoker was an imaginative Protestant civil servant from Clontarf who had spent many years in London, where he wrote his most famous work, Dracula.
Dracula seems to have an unlikely connection to Irish folklore. However, Bram Stoker was just as fascinated by folklore and customs from his own country as well as that of Eastern Europe. The resulting novel is an intriguing mix of the most chilling folklore from several lands.
The myths and legends of Eastern Europe are fascinating in their own right and although Stoker never travelled further east than Vienna, he did a tremendous amount of research into vampire belief in the area. A century before, parts of Europe had undergone a vampire ‘panic’. People genuinely believed that vampires arose from their graves and fed on the living. These vampires were more Nosferatu than Edward Cullen- senseless, barely sentient; they were relentless feeding machines rather than the more suave, sophisticated aristocrat represented by Dracula.
The aristocratic vampire largely originates with John Polidori, Lord Byron’s physician, who wrote The Vampyre at the famous dinner party in Switzerland where Mary Shelley produced Frankenstein. Stoker was also doubtlessly influenced by his fellow Irishman Sheridan LeFanu’s novella Carmilla.
Famously, the name Dracula comes from the Romanian ruler Vlad III Dracula. This 15th century prince, also known as Vlad the Impaler, was notorious for his fondness for impaling anyone unlucky enough to cross his path. His own personal death toll is believed to be in the thousands. Some theorists believe, however, it comes from droch fhola- Irish for bad blood.
So with this melting pot of influences, where, if anywhere, does Irish folklore fit in the Dracula tale?
Vampires, for want of a better word, exist in all cultures across the globe, and have done since the beginning of time. The belief largely arises from a misunderstanding of how the human body decomposes. Bloating, discolouration and the ‘growth’ of hair and nails after death are all features of the decomposition process, but are also traits of the pre-Twilight traditional vampire.
Ireland too had this belief. For example, Derry was home to Abhartach, an ancient dwarf chieftain, a vicious tyrant, who was slain by a rival. However, he continued to rise and feast on the blood of his subjects after his death, until he was buried, standing, head-first under a large stone.
Some scholars believe that it was far more likely that Stoker heard the tale of Abhartach and other similar Irish stories rather than the legends of Eastern Europe. They also point to Bram’s lonely childhood. He was an invalid for seven years of his young life- hovering on the brink of life and death as many Victorian children were; it was perhaps only natural that the voracious reader may have been drawn to darker folktales. His own mother, Charlotte, who was descended from the Blake ‘Tribe’ of Galway and the O’Donnells of Donegal, entertained her sickly son with folktales and family history from those two counties, as well as her own native Sligo.
Possibly the most influential of all in the young Bram’s imagination was all-too-recent Great Famine. He was himself born in ‘Black ‘47’, the worst year of the Famine. Surprisingly little first –hand evidence of this relatively recent event remains, but for anyone of Stoker’s generation, the event would have cast a shadow even the most comfortable of childhoods.
What has this got to do with vampires? Bram, an imaginative child, heard from his mother the tales of the fever dead in the west of Ireland. One, about how people were buried alive during a fever epidemic in 1832, he never forgot. The very real horrors of the Famine give context to Bram Stoker’s macabre imagination.
Another influence in his childhood was Clontarf graveyard, where he would play as a boy. The graveyard was home to a plot for suicide victims. A folk belief at the time was those who had died by suicide would rise from the dead as they were not allowed to be buried on consecrated ground. His family also had a tomb in the creepy vaults of St Michan’s Church in Dublin. Mummified remains are on display in the crypts, some, due to age, out of their coffins, a possible inspiration for Dracula’s own coffin.
While set in England and Transylvania, Dracula is very much an Irish story written by an Irishman. Another reason to be proud of our wonderful folklore and heritage