Was Dracula Irish?

Alternative Origin of Dracula

It has always been assumed that the original Dracula story, written by the Irishman Abraham (Bram) Stoker in 1897, was based on the Transylvanian folk hero Vlad Dracul, known as "the impaler" because of his favourite method of punishment.

However, an intriguing alternative inspiration for the Dublin civil servant's story has been put forward by Bob Curran, lecturer in Celtic History and Folklore at the University of Ulster, Coleraine, in the summer edition of History Ireland, a sober academic journal edited by historians from the Univeristy College, Cork.

In the district of north Derry known as Blenullin (Glen of the Eagle), between Garvah and Dungiven, lies the remote townland of Slaughtaverty. Here, in the middle of a field, can be found the remains of a megalithic monument known (like many all over Ireland) as the "Giant's Grave."

This one also has the more specific name of Leacht Abhartach (Abhartach's sepulchre). According to folk tradition, Abhartach was a fifth or sixth century petty king or chieftain with an evil reputation for sorcery. His terrified subjects prevailed upon Catha'n, a neighbouring chieftain, to get rid of him.

Catha'n slew the wizard and buried him standing up in an isolated grave; but Abhartach returned the following day and demanded a bowl of blood, drawn from his subjects' veins, to sustain his corpse. Catha'n killed and buried him again, but the indefatigable man reappeared, demanding his cup of blood as before.

Catha'n now consulted either a local Druid or a Christian saint--there are variation in the tale--and was told that Abhartach had become one of the neamh-mhairbh (the undead) and a dearg-diu'lai' (a drinker of human blood).

He could not be killed, but could be put under restraint. He had to be run through with a sword made from yew wood, buried upside-down surrounded by thorns and ash twigs, and his grave surmounted by a heavy stone. Catha'n followed these instructions and the people of Glenullin ceased to be unwilling blood donors.

In 1997, attempts were made to clear the land; in conformity with folklore, workmen who attempted to cut down the thorn tree arching across Abhartach's sepulchre allegedly had their chain saw malfunction three times. While attempting to lift the great stone, a steel chain snapped, cutting the hand of one of the labourers, and ominously, allowing blood to soak into the ground.

Mr Curran himself suffered "a severe and inexplicable fall" after visiting the site. During a lecture in 1961, the Registrar of the National Folklore Commission, Sea'n O' Suilleabha'in, mentioned a site which he called Du'n Dreach-Fhoula (pronounced droc'ola) or Castle of the Blood Visage.

This was allegedly a fortress guarding a lonely pass in the Magillycuddy Reeks in Kerry, and inhabited by blood-drinking fairies.

He did not give its exact location, and cultural historians have spent years hunting through archives for more specific information. Droch-fhoula pronounced droc'ola, can also mean "bad" or "tainted blood" and while it is now taken to refer to "blood feuds," it might have a far older connotation. It might indeed have been the inspiration for the name Dracula rather than Vlad Dracul. Stoker, after all, never visited Eastern Europe and relied entirely on travellers' accounts.

"There is no tradition of vampires here (in Romania)," said Prof Sabina Ispas, director of the Institute of Ethnography and Folklore in Bucharest, addressing the World Dracula Congress held in Transylvania last May. "Bram Stoker presented his fiction with a special identity of his own making . . . Until 10 years ago, we Romanians hadn't even heard of the Dublin writer or his character, Dracula . . . Dracula did not live in Romania, there are no vampires in our mythology and no vampiric castle."

Abhartach is only one among many blood-drinking noble and chieftains that populate Irish folklore; and the blood-drinking undead feature in Geoffrey Keating's History of Ireland, written in 1626-31.

Stoker may well have read the legend of Abhartach in another History of Ireland, written by Patrick Weston Joyce and published in 1880.

Around the same time, manuscript copies of Keating's work were on display in the National Museum in Dublin.

Dracula's night out in Dublin

We all know that the un-dead Count Dracula of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel hails from Transylvania, from a castle astride the Borgo Pass, and that you must imbibe much slivovitz to make it there, don't we? or do we? What Irish influences were there in the making of Dracula?

Commentators outdo one another in speculating on the sources used by Stoker (Brimstoker in James Joycean Wakese). They point the finger at Byron's The Giaour (1813), and Polidori's The Vampyre (1819), Hoffmann's The Serapion Brethren (1820) or Poe's Berenice (1833) and their many spin-offs.

In terms of technique, Carmilla (1871-2), with its medical and psychopathological framing, by a Dubliner who had preceded Stoker at Trinity College, Sheridan Le Fanu, was probably a direct source for Stoker.

Every generation

These literary effusions have been obsessively re-worked into films with monotonous regularity. It seems every generation has found the need to express its preoccupations through retelling this gothic tale.

Literary critics vaguely gesture towards East European folklore as yet another source for the Dracula story but, in my experience, they are never specific.

A recent essay by Irish folklore specialist Bob Curran suggests that Stoker may have used Irish archaeology, folklore and language for inspiration.

The legend of Abhartach from the Glenullin district of Derry tells a story of a much feared chieftain killed by another at the request of those victimised by him. Unable to die, he exacts a price in human blood. He is finally despatched by a wooden sword through his heart and a vast stone to prevent his wandering. Fear of Leacht Abhartach, the tomb of Abhartach, persists into the twenty-first century, in this account.

Curran goes further and talks of an Irish tradition of vampires, offering other evidence from Wicklow and Limerick. He also links the name Dracula to the Irish for "bad blood".

The Irishness of contributions to the genre of Gothic is not often noted. Certainly Irish-born Edmund Burke's essay on the Sublime (1757) with its attempt to naturalise and reinscribe horror as both pleasurable and viscerally fear-inducing, is usually taken as a key moment in aesthetics and the foundational moment of the genre. It has certainly been used by scholars of gothic to confer dignity on what is usually regarded as an inferior genre.

W J McCormack, in a recent article on Irish gothic, contests the notion of a coherent Irish Gothic fictional tradition, despite the stature of nineteenth-century Irish practitioners of the standing of Maturin, Le Fanu and Stoker.

Dracula and Irish land wars

Sources and theories aside, it is astonishing how often the Dracula novel is read as an Irish political allegory, and from many incompatible perspectives. Nationalist readings in which Count Dracula is variously an absentee landlord or a gombeen man abound. In what Seamus Deane refers to as the Big House genre of Irish fiction, the Irish Gothicists are thought to express some profound sense of class guilt inhering in the Protestant Ascendancy class. The London townhouse and the ruined castles are important motifs in such a reading.

A variant of this is Deane's focus on the Count's victims as needing to be released from historical crime by the power of Anglo-American money (unable to be raised by the Big House incumbents, usually descendants of the criminal land-grabbers): the fall of the tainted Big House is achieved via the impaling and beheading of the vampire. In these revenge-inspired accounts, often Marxist in inflection (eg, Eagleton), it is often significant that the Count is an absentee landlord running out of land (pungently symbolised by his reduction to the diminishing number of boxes of earth which migrate from Transylvania to London and back). He bleeds money.

In addition, Lucy, the ascendancy woman, is destroyed whereas the middle-class woman, Mina (with her Irish name and connections) survives. The problem with such readings is that none of the writerly trio (Maturin, Le Fanu and Stoker) came from the land-owning class, or can be seen to be unproblematically identified with it. Drac often seems to have the stereotypic attributes of a caricature Jew.

More recently critics like Morash, Moses and most importantly, Bruce Stewart, have been problematising the nationalist readings and generating revisionist and anti-nationalist ones, and ones more specifically tied to the land wars of the latter half of the nineteenth century rather than centuries-old dispossession.

Is it possible that the vampiric behaviours are those of the violent Land Leaguers, and moreover are the lineaments of the Count quite specifically those of Charles Stewart Parnell, 'puppet-master of the agrarian agitators'? The Count as Fenian 'head centre' and the tribe of Szgady, the peasants who support him, his Land League followers?

But what of their obvious fear and distaste for the Count? And what, too, of the deployment of Catholic sacred paraphernalia (hosts and the like) against him by the 'goodies', Van Helsing and Mina, who are identified as Catholic?

Such Irish-inflected readings, while not altogether convincing to me, nonetheless constitute a vivid set of debates about a text set at the nether end of Europe in a Transylvania which Anglo-Irishman, Stoker, never visited. His novel is set in a sufficiently exotic or far-off place to suggest that it is a canvas for the sorting out of complex neuroses.

Dracula is a confused and confusing work which, for all its slippages and contradictions, stands as an intriguing study of conservatism and anxieties of all kinds - about sex, about the gender wars, about race, about modernity and its relationship to atavism, and also, it seems, about Ireland.

Leacht Abhartach

In the north Derry area, between the towns of Garvagh and Dungiven, a district known as Glenuilin (glen of the eagle) might give us a clue as to Dracula's origins. In the middle of a field in the remote townland of Slaughtaverty, is an area known locally as the 'Giant's Grave' but which may be more properly described as Leacht Abhartach (Abhartach's sepulchre). On the grave itself is a curling thorn bush under which lies a large and heavy stone. Originally there were more stones, the remnants of an old monument, but these have been removed over time by local farmers for building purposes. There is little doubt that the sepulchre was once an imposing place and that it has given the townland its name. But who was Abhartach?

During the fifth and sixth centuries, the Glenullin area was a patchwork of petty kingdoms, each with its own local ruler or 'king'. These kings may have been little more than tribal warlords and there is ample evidence of their rule, for the countryside is dotted with hill forts, ancient raths and early fortifications which marked their respective territories. Abhartach, according to tradition, was one of these chieftains.

Local descriptions of him vary. Some say that he was a dwarf, others that he was deformed in some way, but most agree that he was a powerful wizard and was extremely evil. So evil, in fact, that those over whom he ruled wished to get rid of him.

However, so terrified of him were they that they would not kill him themselves and so they persuaded another chieftain, Cathán, to perform the deed for them. Cathán slew Abhartach and buried him standing up in an isolated grave. However, the following day Abhartach returned, evil as ever and demanded a bowl of blood, drawn from the veins of his subjects, in order to sustain his vile corpse. In great terror, the people asked Cathán to slay him once more. This Cathán did, burying the corpse as before. But the following day, Abhartach returned again, demanding the same gory tribute from his people.

Cathán was puzzled and, depending upon the variant of the folktale, consulted either a local druid or an early Christian saint, as to why Abhartach could not be killed. There are several 'hermitages' in the area, according to tradition the dwellings of particularly holy men. The most notable is in Gortnamoyagh Forest on the very edge of Glenullin where local people will still point out 'the saint's track'-a series of stations near to a holy well. Close by was said to have been the hermitage of a saint known as Eoghan or John who is credited with founding a place of Christian worship in the area (the site is still known as Churchtown although any related foundation has long since vanished). A 'footprint' on a stony prominence in the forest is also attributed to this saint and it is said that from here he flew from Gortnamoyah to say Mass in his own foundation. His name further appears in several local placenames -Killowen in Coleraine (about fifteen miles away) and Magilligan (about twenty miles away). It was to this saint that Cathán is believed to have gone. The venerable old man listened long and hard to the chieftain's tale.

One of the neamh-mhairbh

'Abhartach is not really alive', he told the astonished Cathán. 'Through his devilish arts he has become one of the neamh-mhairbh [the undead]. Moreover, he is a dearg-dililat, a drinker of human blood. He cannot actually be slain but he can be restrained.' He then proceeded to give Cathán instructions as to how to 'suspend' the vampiric creature. Abhartach must be slain with a sword made from yew wood and must be buried upside down in the earth, thorns and ash twigs must be sprinkled around him and a heavy stone must be placed directly on top of him. Should the stone be lifted, however, the vampire would be free to walk the earth once more.

Cathán returned to Glenullin and did what the holy man told him. Abhartach was slain with a wooden sword and was buried upside down with thorns placed all around the gravesite. On top of the actual grave, Cathán built a great leacht or sepulchre which could be seen for miles around. This has now vanished but the stone remains and a tree, which grew from the scattered thorns, rises above it.

The land on which the grave is sit-uated has acquired a rather sinister reputation over the generations. Locally it is considered to be 'bad ground' and has been the subject of a number of family disagreements over the years. In 1997, attempts were made to clear the land and if local tradition is to be believed workmen who attempted to cut down the tree found that their brand-new chain-saw stopped without reason on three occasions. When attempting to lift the great stone, a steel chain suddenly snapped, cutting the hand of one of the labourers and, significantly, allowing blood to soak into the ground. Although legends still abound in the locality of the 'man who was buried three times' and of a fantastic treasure which was buried with him, few local people will approach the grave, especially after dark! The current writer suffered a severe and inexplicable fall after visiting the site.

Irish vampire tradition?

This, then, in essence is the legend with its folkloric additions. But is it simply an isolated tale or does it fit into a tradition of Irish vampire tales which could have influenced Bram Stoker? The spilling of blood was not uncommon amongst the ancient Irish-indeed animal blood was ritually let under Christian directive upon St Martin's Eve (11 November). The roots of this tradition undoubtedly go back into pagan times and may have a connection with the returning dead. The horrors of the Famine considerably added to the lore. The blood of pigs and cows supplemented a meagre diet, either drunk in a raw state or made into relish cakes (a mixture of meal, vegetable tops and blood brought together in a kind of patty). Place names in many areas which were badly stricken by the Hunger (for example in parts of Clare and Galway) reflect communal blood-letting sites.

Although most cultures have vam-pire stories, such tales have a partic-ular resonance in Ireland. Here, interest in and veneration of the dead seems to have played a central part in Celtic thinking.

But it was the historian and folk-lorist Patrick Weston Joyce who actually made connections between Abhartach and the Irish vampire tradition. Joyce enthusiastically recounted the legend in his own book A History of Ireland (Dublin 1880). This was seventeen years before Dracula was published and it is believed that Stoker, then a Dublin civil servant, read Joyce's work (and presumably the Abhartach legend) with some relish. Around the same time, manuscript copies of Geoffrey Keating's History of Ireland [which made much of the neamh-mhairbh, the un-dead] were placed on public display in the National Museum in Dublin. They were on loan from Trinity College Library (which possessed two manuscript copies) and the display included chapter ten on the undead. Although Stoker himself could not read Irish, he had many friends and acquaintances who did and he may have received at least part of the work in translation.

Might not the legend of the vampire-king, coupled with the strong tradition of blood-drinking Irish chieftains and nobles recounted to him as a child by his Sligo-born mother and the Kerry maids who worked about his Dublin home, have eventually coalesced into the idea of Count Dracula? Certainly, Stoker was not writing from any great experience of Eastern Europe. He had never been there and was relying heavily on tourist accounts of the region. His experiences may have come more directly from Irish folklore.

Even the name Dracula has Irish resonances In Irish, droch-fhoula (pronounced droc'ola) means 'bad' or 'tainted blood' and whilst it is now taken to refer to 'blood feuds' between persons or families, it may have a far older connotation. So can we really consign the vampire to some remote part of Eastern Europe, where he is unlikely to do us any harm?

Sources: The Fortean Times #138 October 2000, Táin Edition 12 April-May 2001
Authors: Frances Devlin Glass & Bob Curran


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