For many, October is the creepiest month of the year. In fact, Ireland is the origin of Halloween. According to Ireland’s Celtic calendar, October 31st marks the end of autumn, meaning the first of November starts off winter. On the eve between these two seasons, the ‘curtain’ between our world and the world of the spirits is at its thinnest. This means that for one night only, certain determined spirits have the ability to cross the threshold into our world.
In order to appease the spirits and keep the ghosts at bay, rural Irish culture dictates that families leave out food offerings for the ancestors, and suggests that everyone disguises themselves – traditionally, this can be done by wearing homemade masks, turning clothing inside out, switching clothing with your siblings, wearing your coat inside out or covering oneself with coal dust or other such disguises meant to confuse the spirits. Want to know more about Halloween in Ireland? Read more here.
Ireland is also the originator of one of the world’s most famous monster stories. Aside from Frankenstein, Dracula might just be the most famous monster tale of all time. Certainly, he is the most famous vampire and has spawned an entire vampire horror sub-genre which continues to this day.
So for this Halloween season, let’s have a look at Ireland’s famous vampire writer, Bram Stoker.
Abraham Stoker, better known as Bram Stoker, was born in Dublin in 1847 to a local father and a mother from Sligo. Raised in Clontarf, he was bedridden with an unknown illness as a child, which offered him a lot of time to read and think in his formative years. He later attended Trinity College, Ireland’s top university, eventually serving as auditor of the College Historical Society and president of the University Philosophical Society.
He later worked as a theatre critic for the newspaper, Dublin Evening Mail, which interestingly was co-owned by Ireland’s other famous horror writer, Sheridan le Fanu, author of Carmilla. This is a vampire story that actually predates Dracula by more than 20 years. Coincidence? Maybe we’ll never know.
After giving a favourable review of Hamlet, put on by London’s most famous actor Henry Irving, Stoker was invited to dinner at the Shelbourne Hotel – one of the capital’s top hotels – with the actor Henry Irving himself. This was the start of nearly 30 years of collaboration.
A short time later, Stoker married local Irish beauty, Florence Balcombe. She had previously been wooed by yet another famous Irish author, Oscar Wilde, whose only novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey, is one of the best-known gothic/devil stories of the Victorian era. The Stokers relocated to London, where Bram began a career spanning almost three decades as the acting and business manager of Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre.
As if he didn’t already have enough famous literary connections, in London Ben Stoker rubbed shoulders with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes series. While not the first detective story, much like Dracula and the vampire tale, Doyle’s stories kickstarted a new type of fiction, the detective story.
Stoker had been writing since his Trinity days, and certainly since his days at the Evening newspaper. A visit to the coastal English town of Whitby, in which pivotal scenes in Dracula took place, may have inspired the book’s setting, at least in part. Another inspiration is likely the darkly gothic tales of the Carpathian Mountains that run through the Balkans of Eastern Europe, told to him by Hungarian writer and traveller Armin Vambery. Though he was well-travelled, it is of note that Stoker never actually travelled to the Balkans.
Dracula is his most famous novel, and though he wrote a number of other novels, he’s often tooted as a ‘one hit wonder.’ His other books, including The Lady of the Shroud, The Mystery of the Sea, The Jewel of the Seven Stars and the Lair of the White Worm have gained far less traction in the literary world. He never saw fame during his life but has over time become a household name, a cult hit and a huge inspiration and effect on the Vampire/monster, gothic and horror genres.
Published in 1897, Dracula is not the first vampire story. Stoker’s former colleague Sheridan le Fanu authored the short story, Carmilla, about a female vampire in central Europe, in 1872. Other tales about vampires already existed, coming from much older folklore.
Stoker’s Dracula defined the genre of the vampire story and horror genre, part of the Victorian gothic. Even today, Dracula’s influence is exceptional. In fact, it is thought that Dracula has gone on to be the most filmed book of all time besides the Bible, with countless retellings, inspirations, video games, films, stories, TV shows and mashups not to mention spawning of an entire genre.
Dracula is an epistolary novel (i.e. told through letters, newspapers and journals), following the story of Jonathan Harker who visits a client in Transylvania, a noble called Count Dracula. He quickly figures out that Dracula is a vampire after encountering three female vampires – the brides of Dracula – and hurries back to England. Unfortunately, the Count follows him to the quaint seaside town of Whitby, which he begins to terrorise.
This is where Harker’s fiancee, Mina Murray, and her friend, Lucy Westenra, come in. The latter begins sleepwalking, and is eventually turned into a vampire by Dracula. A hunt for the vampires begins, with many lives and fortunes at stake, and you can imagine the rest. A stake through the heart, beheadings, graveyards and burials, gore and death and more, as one might expect in a gothic horror vampire tale.
It is often thought that the title character harks back to the dark and horrific stories of Vlad Drăculea or Vlad Tepes, commonly known as Vlad the Impaler. This 15th-century Romanian ruler was as vicious as he was infamous. With an affinity for impaling his enemies, Vlad spent all of his life resisting the Ottoman Turks and trying to protect his lands and his peoples from invasion, in the process killing thousands of people. This is the kind of tale Stoker would have heard from his friend and storyteller, the Hungarian Armin Vambery.
It is known that in the course of his research, in addition to hearing stories by Vambery, Bram Stoker consulted and took notes from William Wilkinson’s An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, and other books on folklore, Eastern Europe and the Carpathian Mountains.
But is this really where Stoker’s Count Dracula comes from? Or is there an inspiration slightly closer to home? After all, Stoker was Irish and was quite affected by his youth spent in Ireland. And don’t forget – he never stepped foot in Eastern Europe.
According to legend, Abhartach was a tyrannical ruler, an evil magician, an undead vampire and interestingly, he is also said to be a dwarf. Originally from Derry and working as a servant for a druid, Abhartach spent his days learning as much as he could before returning as a fully-fledged sorcerer – and a cruel one at that, exacting revenge and tyranny.
Finn McCool, the famous giant attributed with building the Giant’s Causeway, eventually grew annoyed with the dwarf’s cruel tyranny and killed Abhartach, burying him standing upright in an old Celtic tomb (which would normally prevent undead monsters in local folklore). But before his death, Abhartach had dabbled in dark magic that allowed him to cheat death. He rose from the dead and once again began his killing spree, emptying his victims of blood. Finn McCool killed him again and once more buried him, but alas the vampiric dwarf rose once more. On the third try, based on a druid’s advice, he was killed and buried upside down, and Abhartach rose no more – though his gravesite remained a place invoking terror.
Later versions were Christianised with saints stepping in for druids but the essence of the story remains the same – except for one interesting fact: the saint instructs the hero (not McCool in the Christian version) to kill him with a wooden yew stake. Sounding familiar?
The story was chronicled in Patrick Weston Joyce’s The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places from 1875, which Stoker evidently researched. There are indeed several overlaps with Stoker’s vampire horror tale: Abhartach is cruel, his a member of the aristocracy, he wields stolen dark magic, he drinks the blood of his victims, he rises from the dead and he needs to killed using a special wooden weapon and buried in a particular way.
So perhaps the legends of Eastern Europe weren’t the only tales that influenced the most famous vampire story – Irish legends likely had as much if not a bigger role in the creation of the terrifying Count Dracula. Learn more here.
A little-remembered corner of Dublin associated with Stoker is Marsh Library. Founded in 1707, this small private library has amazingly remained unchanged in the intervening 300 years. Now a museum, this is where Stoker came to do his research, learning about Transylvania, Romania and the Carpathian Mountains as well as Eastern European culture and folklore.
Marsh Library has revolving exhibits that change every few months, but one such exhibit is on Bram Stoker. Even if that exhibit isn’t on during your visit, any history buff or bibliophile will be fascinated by this bizarre little time capsule of a library in downtown Dublin.
Curious specifically about Stoker? The docents are always eager to answer questions and discuss the people such as Stoker and other scholars who once studied their collection. In fact, we know what books and maps Stoker studied because the library still has a record of what he checked out, so we know he was interested in Eastern Europe and its legends.
Though Stoker himself is buried in England, and many state that his inspiration for the famous vampire-hunting scene in the graveyard comes from London’s eerie Highgate Cemetery, a guided tour of Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin will send shivers down your spine.
In fact, Ireland has some of the creepiest cemeteries across Europe, often attached to haunting ruins of abbeys and churches and full of ghoulish legends or tragic tales.
So no matter where you go in Ireland, even if you manage to avoid the demon vampires, a visit to a monastery, church or abbey is sure to give you goosebumps.
Every October, an exciting Halloween festival dedicated to Bram Stoker and his heritage is hosted by the city of Dublin, the author’s birthplace.
Honouring Stoker’s literary achievements, horror stories, and of course the Irish origins of Halloween, taking part in the Bram Stoker Festival is the perfect way to participate in October festivities. After all, Ireland is the county in which Halloween originated…
Read more about Samhain, the origins of Halloween.
According to Bob Curran, a lecturer in Celtic History and Folklore at the University of Ulster, Coleraine, Stoker’s infamous vampire story has an influence a little closer to home, taking inspiration in Irish folklore – principally, the evil tyrannical dwarf, Abhartach, who once ruled the lands around Derry with an iron fist.
The story states he was from Slaghtaverty, a tiny village between Derry and Coleraine. Rural places like this were isolated and life was harsh. Rural folk had strong beliefs in the supernatural from ghosts and spirits to fairies, witches, devils, and, yes, vampires.
Stories like Abhartach the undead and others would have been handed down in oral storytelling tradition.
Derry, to the north of the Irish border, hosts Europe’s largest Halloween festival: find out more here.
Stoker’s mother, Charlotte Thornley, was from County Sligo in Northwest Ireland. Stoker himself was born during the Great Famine, which was a terrible time in Irish history. Though he himself grew up in Dublin, he would have heard tales from his mother Charlotte about the rough life her family experienced in rural Ireland.
Life itself was difficult enough in 19th century Ireland, particularly in the rural western regions. But the Famine years became a real-life horror tale of people starving to death, tenants being evicted from their homes, the horrors of life in the workhouses, not to mention those who had no choice but to leave Ireland behind, sailing on the so-called “coffin ships” to the Americas and Australia. Many of these people were never heard from again, and those that made it across the ocean rarely returned.
There were even terrifying tales of people accidentally being buried alive… So is it any wonder that Stoker became a horror writer?