Books discussed in this essay include: Words Alone: Yeats and his Inheritances, by RF Foster, Oxford University Press, 236 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0199592166; From the Shadow of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker, by Paul Murray, Jonathan Cape, 340 pp, ISBN: 978-0224044622, The Un-Dead: The Legend of Bram Stoker and Dracula, by Peter Haining and Peter Tremayne, Constable, 288 pp, ISBN: 978-0094754300 and Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing since 1790, by Seamus Deane, Clarendon Press, 270 pp, ISBN: 978-0198184904
Writing in 2002, Joseph Valente asserted in the opening sentence of Dracula’s Crypt: Bram Stoker, Irishness and the Question of Blood that “the decade of the Irish Dracula ended in 2000”. In Valente’s view, following “a spate of historical exegesis, in which Bram Stoker’s masterwork emerged as an all purpose allegory for a series of distinct contemporary discourses on the state of the British people and society (degeneration theory, reverse colonialism, criminal anthropology, inversion theory, and the like), attention has increasingly focused upon the specific relevance of Stoker’s homeland to his most famous literary creation …” But, he seemed to imply, with the coming of the new century enough was enough.
It is hard to disagree with Valente’s account of the state of Dracula studies. As anyone who looks into a bibliography of recent criticism devoted to Stoker’s powerful but enigmatic novel will discover, together with a bewildering array of comment viewing it in the perspective of late imperial anxiety and the varieties of racial and sexual transgression, there has been a resourceful and sustained attempt to explicate Dracula in terms of specifically Irish contexts and concerns.
This attempt has involved a number of the most subtle and rhetorically resourceful commentators on Irish culture and society. In his essay on “Protestant Magic”, included in his collection Paddy and Mr Punch of 1993, Roy Foster proposed a distinct Protestant sensibility, extending from Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, via Sheridan Le Fanu to Dracula and beyond, as a presiding presence in Irish Gothic. This identification of Gothic with Irish Protestantism was an insight which had been outlined, in abbreviated form, as early as the 1930s by Aodh de Blácam in his A First Book of Irish Literature. In revisiting the issue, Roy Foster argued that the local masterworks of the genre were the products of “marginalised Irish Protestants, often living in England but regretting Ireland, stemming from families with strong clerical and professional colorations, whose occult preoccupations surely mirror a sense of displacement, a loss of social and psychological integration …” Others have explored the same territory. In Heathcliff and the Great Hunger, Terry Eagleton proposed a view of Stoker’s protagonist as an Anglo-Irish landowner who – in a reference to the coffins filled with soil from his native Transylvania on which the count’s continued existence depends – was literally running out of land. In his Strange Country, Seamus Deane viewed Dracula in displaced agrarian terms as an absentee landlord, who is not only running out of soil but is threatened by “a nationalist dawn, a Home Rule sun rising behind the old Irish parliament”. In a powerfully suggestive reading, Deane went on to probe the novel’s multiple oppositions and to suggest that an analogue for the doom-laden vessel which carries Dracula from the Black Sea to England may be found in the coffin ships which transported the starving Irish poor from their famine-stricken country in the late 1840s.
Declan Kiberd’s richly textured discussion of Dracula in his Irish Classics explored links between the novel and late nineteenth century Irish society, suggesting that it might be seen as a fable of the fall of feudalism. In his view the Gothic mode to which Dracula belongs encouraged “a besieged Protestant elite to dramatize its fears and phobias in a climate of inexorable political decline. The Gothic was what they had instead of historical novels …” In his wide-ranging essay Gaelic Gothic, Race, Colonization and Irish Culture, Luke Gibbons argued for a view of Gothic as a post-Glorious Revolution form whose business was the expunging, through the medium of fiction, not only of feudalism but also of archaic Catholic remnants. Although Gibbons does not quite put it in these terms, a view of Gothic as a predominantly English and Protestant form would seem implicit in his argument; while European literature abounds in ghosts and ghouls, it is difficult to think of any other literary culture which contains such an amount of strained imaginings in its cellars or attic. In Gibbons’s account, because of its Protestant orientation, there was a convergence between the themes and tropes of Gothic and a longstanding English habit of vituperation of the native Irish. He goes on to argue that in the nineteenth century this sinister discursive tradition underwent a significant mutation, as it came to incorporate the language of scientific racism and imperialist anthropology. As a result, the vampire was reconfigured as an image of Irish disorder, threat and potential contamination.
As this selective and abbreviated summary may suggest, although the Irish commentary on Dracula amounts to a rich ideological brew, many of its insights are primarily metaphorical and do not admit of any obvious means of verification or disproof. Joseph Valente’s assertion that the year 2000 marked the ending of the Irish Dracula may have expressed more of a hope than a conviction and attempts to make sense of the novel in Irish terms certainly did not cease with the new century. Perhaps the most outstanding contribution of the post-2000 period has been Paul Murray’s From the Shadow of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker, which appeared in 2004. As a biography, concerned with chronicling the minutiae of family, student and professional life, the prevailing spirit is positivist and thus represented something of a change of direction As one who is prepared to take Stoker’s assertions regarding his own beliefs at face value, Murray’s attitude is, at times, one of barely concealed impatience with the Freudian and other theoretical perspectives which have been brought to bear on his subject. This is a stance which can yield useful correctives, as when he protests against repeated descriptions of Stoker as Anglo-Irish; he had, we are reminded, no connection with Ireland’s landowning grandees, being rather a middle class Dublin Protestant, whose grandfather had been an artisan and his father a junior clerk, and who spoke with a Dublin accent to the end of his days. Murray’s portrait of the author of Dracula is of one who combined hard work and professional competence with the social fluency of a man about town. Although this portrait is amply documented, and tells all we can now know about the historical Stoker, because of the limited nature of the evidence – for scarcely any personal papers of significance have survived – the question of how this seemingly amiable and conventional man came to be possessed of such a bizarre and strained imagination remains unanswered.
Political and biographical approaches to Dracula have been supplemented by a third line of inquiry, which has attempted to explore possible links between the novel and the folklore and literature of nineteenth century Ireland. At first sight this approach would seem promising. The 1890s, the decade of Dracula’s publication, was the heyday of the Folklore Society. The society’s project, which was marked by the immense confidence of its era, was by implication unionist and imperialist in scope. Its voluminous publications included lore from all parts of the United Kingdom including Ireland, and that of the subject peoples of the empire, while British residents and enterprising travellers reported on the tales and customs of previously obscure corners of Europe. When we first meet Jonathan Harker he is such a figure. As he makes his way through Transylvania (“one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe”) to Castle Dracula he comments on the ethnic mixture of the region , notes local vocabulary for “Satan”, “hell”, “witch” and “were-wolf or vampire”, and reflects, with what subsequently proves to be heavy irony, that “every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool; if so my stay here may be very interesting.(Mem., I must ask the Count all about them.)”
Although as a Dubliner Stoker might appear remote from the oral traditions of the countryside, there are suggestive links with a number of dramatic episodes which, well into the twentieth century, continued to be commemorated through the stylised medium of folklore. Following the French landing in the summer of 1798, a relative of Stoker’s on his mother’s side, George Blake, threw in his lot with the insurgents. After the defeat of the Franco-Irish forces Blake was betrayed and, following a drumhead court-martial, was hanged from the shaft of a cart. The events of the summer of 1798 generated a huge amount of lore throughout the West of Ireland, which continued to be narrated until recent times. George Blake’s participation on the Irish side and that of his brother in the British army was memorialised in a mocking saying current in the West, “Is cosmhail le Blácaigh na Gearrra-Chluana iad, ceann aca i n-arm Shasana, ceann eile i n-arm na hÉireann” (They are like the Blakes of Garracloon, one in the English army and another in the Irish army). As a girl in Sligo, Stoker’s mother, Charlotte, witnessed the cholera outbreak of the summer of 1832, an event which left its mark on Irish folklore in the multiple stories of “the blessed turf”. Paul Murray suggests that knowledge of both episodes was transmitted by Charlotte to her children.
A link with Irish folklore of a very different kind was provided by Stoker’s intimacy as a young man with the household of Sir William Wilde and his wife, Jane Francesca. Sir William and Lady Wilde were a formidable double presence on the Dublin literary scene in the decades following the 1840s. Together with his commitments as a medical innovator, antiquarian and travel writer, Sir William was a pioneer folklorist, whose Irish Popular Superstitions of 1852 was one of the key texts in the nineteenth century study of Irish popular culture. Sir William was a kindly man, part of whose medical practice was among the poor, from whom he sometimes collected folklore in lieu of a fee. Following his death in 1876, his wife brought out two substantial volumes of folklore based on material collected by her husband. Although Lady Wilde was WB Yeats’s favourite among the Irish folklorists, others have been less indulgent in their assessments. Douglas Hyde was sharply critical in his survey of Irish folklorists in the introduction to Beside the Fire, while a generation later the director of the Irish Folklore Commission, JH Delargy, characterised her work as “untrustworthy and incompetent”. It is true that she provides little information regarding informants or provenance, and that at times one suspects the lore of having been filtered through her own romantic sensibility; nonetheless internal evidence and comparison suggests that it was substantially based upon authentic oral material. Because of the interests of Sir William and his wife, their household was thus an unusually stimulating setting for the young Stoker to pass his evenings. We do not know what he may have absorbed from his hosts, but as Sir William was a famous raconteur and the young man a frequent guest at his table he was certainly well placed to acquire a knowledge of the tales and legends which so absorbed the older man.
Like Dracula, which it preceded by seven years, Stoker’s first novel, The Snake’s Pass of 1890, begins with a dramatic journey to an exotic destination. Whereas Jonathan Harker travels by night to the eastern limits of Transylvania, his hero of 1890 travels by daylight, through an astonishing landscape rendered even more striking by an immense thunderstorm, towards Ireland’s western coast. Unlike the ominous and silent driver sent by Count Dracula to fetch his guest, Arthur Severn’s West of Ireland cab driver is nothing if not a chatterbox, who has stories to tell about every corner of the countryside. As the narrator remarks, “his knowledge of folklore was immense, and … nothing but a gigantic memory for detail, cultivated to the full, or else an equally stupendous imagination working on the facts that momentarily came before his view, could have enabled him to keep up such a flow of narrative and legend”.
It is in the company of this talkative comedian that the hero takes refuge from the storm in a wayside shebeen where, having been provided with food and drink, he has an opportunity to listen to the stories which the company are exchanging. The occasion upon which he has stumbled is what folklorists would classify as a legend-telling session, an event with its own particularities and conventions. The stories told by the group are of some importance, as they ramify throughout the novel, driving forward the action and providing its thematic unity. The first story, from which the novel takes its title, tells of a confrontation between Saint Patrick and the King of the Snakes, a malevolent creature associated with a local mountain lake. When Patrick attempts to expel this sinister opponent, the king initially defies the saint, before finally departing, threatening to return again under some other form. The second legend is set during the insurrection of 1798 and tells of a treasure lost by a fleeing group of French soldiers following the defeat of their cause.
The first story can be identified as an eccentric variant from within a widespread group of legends concerning encounters between Saint Patrick and various demonic serpents and pre-Christian potentates. Stoker’s narrator remarks that the action of his story takes place at harvest time. This is a signature detail for, as Máire MacNeill established in her classic study The Festival of Lughnasa, this group of legends was associated with a late summer festival and arrival of the first grain or new potatoes. The story of the lost treasure is less specific, as Irish tradition contains so many legends of hidden gold as to make it almost unclassifiable. Although widespread, these stories tend to be lacking in dramatic impact and would, on the face of it, seem to present unpromising material for fictional transformation. The likelihood is that, because of family connections, Stoker was aware that there were stories current in the West regarding the French landing in 1798. He probably contrived the story of the lost French treasure, for there is nothing quite like it in Guy Beiner’s Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History and Social Memory, and substituted this for some more prosaic legend of buried gold.
We have seen James Delargy, a figure of immense authority in Irish folklore studies, offering a briskly dismissive assessment of Lady Wilde’s competence in that field. If he had chanced to come across the story of Saint Patrick and the King of the Snakes, we may be sure that his judgment would have been equally severe. When encountered in the oral tradition, although the balance of power lies with the saint because of the superior virtue of the Christian faith, the legend involves a confrontation between two powerful and well matched antagonists. Stoker subverts this internal balance, by shifting the centre of gravity to the king, who from the start is the focus of dramatic attention and provides a recurrent point of reference throughout the novel. This was accompanied by other misjudgments. As the legend revolves around a single encounter, Stoker evidently felt it was lacking in variety and impact. This was remedied through the introduction of an absurd motif of his own devising, as human sacrifice is offered to the King of the Snakes. This reconfiguring of the balance within the legend was accompanied by a transformation of the figure of the saint, as the grave and powerful protagonist of the oral tale was replaced by the comic Saint Patrick of urban Ireland.
As Máire MacNeill has argued, the Lughnasa story was not only of great antiquity but of considerable cultural weight in the communities in which it was narrated. In traducing it, Stoker drained away its significance, thus weakening its usefulness to him in the construction his novel. That he should have done so, even when this was of evident disadvantage to him as a writer, suggests the inability of sections of urban Ireland to take the imaginings of the rural poor with complete seriousness. This was an attitude which found reflection not only in narrative, but at the level of speech. The narrator, a speaker of standard English, remarks at one point, “I went down to the tap-room, where there were always a lot of peasants, whose quaint speech amused and interested me.” The local people comment on the legend of the French gold “some in Irish, some in English, and some in a speech, English indeed, but so purely local and idiomatic that I could only guess at what was intended to be conveyed”. In spite of such difficulties, as the medium of the legends is speech, we are dependent on Stoker as writer/traveller for access to them. Unfortunately he proved almost comically inept in his rendering of Hiberno-English, as when one character recounts how “wid a hiss that made the air seem full of watherfalls the whole iv the shnakes that was round the hill wriggled away into the say”, while another responds “I’ll be ready, yer ’an’r, in two skips iv a dead salmon.”
From the 1820s onwards oral tradition was regularly incorporated, with varying degrees of sophistication or ineptness, into Irish fiction. Although the classification is a crude one – for orally narrated stories were to be heard everywhere in nineteenth century Ireland – we may distinguish between writers, such as Gerald Griffin or William Carleton, who were themselves members of, or close to, the storytelling community, and encountered the stories they drew upon in that setting, and urban travellers into the Irish countryside, who retailed stories they chanced to hear by the roadside, or even came upon in printed form. Stoker, who travelled the length and breadth of Ireland in the 1870s, when as a young civil servant he was appointed Inspector of Petty Sessions, obviously belonged to the second category. It is true that variants of the Saint Patrick story are to be found in Caesar Otway’s Sketches in Erris and Tyrawly of 1841 and in William Wilde’s The Beauties of the Boyne and the Blackwater of 1851. Both, however, are so different in content and context from the story in The Snake’s Pass that they seem unlikely sources. As no other nineteenth century printed variants of the particular story Stoker drew upon are mentioned in The Festival of Lughnasa, the probability is that he heard rather than read it.
While the storytelling in The King of the Snakes may at first sight seem like another blundering Victorian encounter with Irish folklore, there are elements to Stoker’s approach which distinguished him from his contemporaries. Although he was incapable of retelling the story sympathetically, he brought a degree of attentiveness to context and performer which was unusual for his time. Nineteenth century litterateurs who exploited oral tradition tended to focus narrowly on the narrative text and to have little to say regarding the storyteller or his audience. Stoker is unusual in commenting on the dramatic performer of the narrator, who he reports “went through all the pantomime of the occasion, exemplifying by every movement the speech both of the Saint and of the Snake”. Even more unusual is his rendering of the interjections of the audience and of the differing attitudes among them to the truth claims of the legends. Stoker was possessed of a strong sense – unusual among those unfamiliar with Irish – of the relationship between legends and place-names and the way in which legends could be woven into the local landscape. As these were aspects of storytelling which others tended to pass over, and of which Stoker could not have learned from any book, they can only have been the result of direct observation. That fact that they were rendered with comic heavy-handedness does not detract from the impressiveness of his having noticed them.
Stoker sent a copy of The Snake’s Pass to Michael Davitt who, in a review in Labour World, characterised it as a “fresh, powerful, dramatic, interesting story”. While Davitt’s assessment suggests that he was a kindly man, Stoker must have suspected that the praise was excessive. He emerges in his first novel as writer with a fantastical dimension to his imagination, who aspired to use folklore creatively but who did not manage to craft the legends on which he relied into a sustained and coherent narrative. Part of the difficulty may have been that, where his own country’s folklore was concerned, Stoker lacked negative capability and, like so many Victorian Irish, was incapable of committing himself imaginatively to the beliefs and narratives of the Catholic poor. Instead it seems possible to detect a dual perspective in The Snake’s Pass for, while he attempted to use the legends, this was accompanied by a disruptive rationalism which insisted that they could be explained scientifically. It may be significant that, after his first novel, Stoker never returned to the Irish theme. The novel which immediately followed – Dracula – resembled its predecessor in making extensive use of folklore, but this was lore of a very different provenance. In striking contrast to The Snake’s Pass, the author of Dracula committed himself unconditionally to the truth and imaginative coherence of the beliefs on which he based his novel. Although there is much pseudo-science in Dracula, there is not a grain of scepticism.
As part of the attempt to claim Dracula for the Irish canon, commentators have focused on its possible debt to Irish folklore and literature. Strangely enough these reflections have little to say about The Snake’s Pass, which is surely our richest source of information regarding Stoker’s familiarity with Irish tradition. In spite of this lacuna, attempts to present Dracula as an Irishman have been nothing if not far-reaching, with material from every corner of the native imaginative corpus cited as possible precedents. Some of the most daring speculations were advanced by Cathal Ó Sándair, the illustrious creator of the Irish-speaking detective Réics Carló, whose adventures were as thrilling ‑ if more linguistically challenging ‑ as those of Sexton Blake. Ó Sándair suggested that, while a student at Trinity, Stoker might – via an English translation – have encountered Seathrún Céitinn’s account of the neamh-mhairbh (undead) in his history of Ireland, Foras Feasa ar Éireann. He went on, with something of the same ingenuity he brought to the cases of his Gaelic detective, to speculate that Stoker might have been led to the use of the name Dracula “because it sounded the same as the Irish droch-fhola (pronounced drok’ola), bad blood” and “might even have connected the name with a Kerry folk-tale about Dún Dreach-Fhola (pronounced drak’ola), the castle of blood visage”. Perhaps inspired by Ó Sándair’s willingness to speculate, Peter Haining and Peter Tremayne (Peter Berresford Ellis) cast their net wide in The Un-Dead. The Legend of Bram Stoker and Dracula of 1997. In their view possible analogues for Stoker’s vampire may be found in the life of the early Irish saint Nathi, the legend of Abhartach, a sixth century blood-drinking chieftain from Co Derry, stories of the dearg diúlaí, or red blood sucker, associated with Carrickaphoucha Castle, west of Macroom, the seventeenth century scholar Dubhaltach Mac Firbisgh’s Genealogies, Tribes and Customs of Hy-Fiachrach, the eighth century tale Fled Bricrend (Bricriu’s Feast) and the biography of the third century high king Cormac Mac Airt.
Other commentators, notably Bob Curran in his enthusiastic essay of 2000 “Was Dracula an Irishman?”, have followed in the footsteps of Haining and Tremayne, while in his biography Paul Murray has argued for the key role of Sir William and Lady Wilde in the genesis of Dracula. In his view, “The timing matches perfectly: Dracula’s intellectual roots can be located in the late 1880s, when Lady Wilde published the first of her volumes of legends and superstition.” The process involved, Paul Murray argues, was based on a perceived identity of Irish and Transylvanian legends, leading Stoker to substitute Transylvanian narratives for the Irish ones he had employed in The Snake’s Pass. Perhaps through some process of repetition, this view of Dracula shows every sign of cohering into an orthodoxy. Thus, when the Irish language TV channel TG4 marked Halloween 2011 with a documentary on Stoker by Deaglán Ó Mocháin of Dearcán Media, one of the propositions on which the programme was based was that everything in Dracula was to be found in Irish folklore. Although this view is beguiling, examination of relevant areas of Irish oral tradition suggest it may be difficult to sustain.
One view of folklore is that it coincides with the activity of the human mind in the era before mass literacy. As it incorporates huge areas of life and feeling, it is not surprising that researchers should be able to find in the great European folklore archives – including that of Ireland – some echoes of whatever they are searching for. The claims advanced by proponents of a Gaelic Dracula nonetheless seem improbable. A feat of the kind attributed to Stoker would have involved pulling together a range of disparate Irish items and integrating these into a coherent Transylvanian narrative. These were capacities which were notably absent in his handling of Irish legends in The Snake’s Pass and seem unlikely to have been acquired in the intervening period.
The sources for a Gaelic Dracula are nothing if not hypothetical, and amount to a set of speculations that Stoker might have read this or must have heard that. Moreover, once probed, rather than cohering they appear even more fragmentary and allusive – speculative etymologies and tales which may have existed but for which no text is available. Even when a coherent and accessible Irish source is suggested for some aspect of Stoker’s Transylvanian imaginings, this fails to carry the weight which the thesis demands. One example is the tale to which Lady Wilde gave the title “A Wolf Story” and included in her Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland of 1888. Although wolves finally disappeared from the Irish landscape in the eighteenth century, it seems likely that they lingered in the local imagination and that stories in which they featured continued to be current in the nineteenth century. Almost certainly such a story, collected by Sir William, provided the basis for his wife’s text.
The story tells of a young farmer named Connors, two of whose cows go missing. After searching all day for the missing animals, in the evening, far from home, the young man seeks shelter in a rude shieling. He is admitted by a tall, thin, grey-haired old man, with keen, dark eyes, who invites him to share supper with himself and his wife. While Connors is sitting by the hearth, two slender young black wolves enter the house and having, each in turn, gone into an inner room, reappear as dark handsome youths. Taken aback at what he has seen, Connors is about to leave when one of the young men reassures him. He recalls how once Connors had removed a thorn from the side of a young wolf he came upon in the glen. “Well”, says the young man, “I am that wolf, and I shall help you if I can, but stay with us tonight and have no fear.” Connors passes a pleasant evening in the company of the elderly couple and their sons. On the following day, when he returns home, he finds that the wolves have provided three fine cows to replace his missing animals for “a kind deed is never lost, but brings good luck to the doer for evermore”.
Although “A Wolf Story” has been linked to the opening section of Dracula, the vision of the tale and the novel are so divergent that it is difficult to see any possibility of influence. Lady Wilde’s story came from a society whose fairy tales were full of helpful animals who enter relations with the tale’s human actors. While the Wilde story recognises that wolves are predatory, their ability to assume human shape points to a view of man and nature as related and to a potential for exchange between the two. Connors’s encounter with his strange hosts has its disquieting aspect, but the overall vision is reassuring, as the wolves replicate the human family and acknowledge mutual obligations. Lady Wilde’s creatures may be a threat to the farmer’s cattle, but are remote from Dracula’s emissaries of darkness. One group are, in the Irish language, mic tíre (sons of the country/countryside), while the other are, considerably more ominously, “children of the night”.
Stoker was not a student of the older Irish corpus and his familiarity with the various Gaelic proto-vampires proposed by recent commentators depends on a postulated familiarity with the work of intermediary figures. Prominent among these was the late nineteenth century scholar PW Joyce. Joyce was, however, an uncertain alley in the construction of an Irish Dracula. As he noted of the werewolves and blood-sucking demons he found in various corners of the Gaelic imaginative world, “these stories are scattered and have no thread of connection: they do not coalesce into a system; they are told of individuals in palpable exception to the general run of people ….” As Joyce’s observation suggests, although stray hints can be found, vampires as a category are absent from Irish tradition.
Vampires are not to be found in Seán Ó Súilleabháin’s A Handbook of Irish Folklore, published in 1942. The handbook, whose author was archivist to the Irish Folklore Commission, covered all of the major categories of Irish folklore and has been described as “an encyclopedia of Irish, and, indeed, of West-European tradition”. Following its publication it provided an indispensable guide for Irish field collectors. Its ability to direct collectors towards particular topics and areas of inquiry was based on the knowledge gained during a decade of intensive collection by the Folklore Commission and its predecessor, the Irish Folklore Institute. The absence of vampires from the handbook was not thus a casual omission but based rather on the expectation that, amid the otherwise bewildering array of Irish supernatural actors, they would not be encountered by collectors.
Viewed historically this absence was not surprising. In his essay “The Decline of Witches and the Rise of Vampires under the Eighteenth Century Habsburg Monarchy”, Gábor Klaniczay argued that vampire beliefs were a comparatively new phenomenon, having emerged in Central and Balkan Europe in the seventeenth century. In his account, apart from a few obscure medieval references, they were previously unknown. Their emergence as a unified concept, predominantly in the Habsburg lands, including Transylvania, resulted from the synthesis of a number of previously separate magical beliefs. Vampires thus began to figure in the European popular imagination relatively recently, and in an area remote from Ireland. One of the pre-existing elements the vampire synthesis drew upon were witch beliefs, leading Klaniczay to suggest there was a relationship between the emergence of the vampire and the decline of belief in witches. As, for reasons that are still debated, the witch craze never put down roots in Ireland, it was scarcely to be expected that the replacement belief would be received.
Historical perspectives can be supplemented by the content and internal structure of Irish popular belief. One of the most striking features of that world of belief, as evident from the accounts of nineteenth century travellers and lore transcribed by twentieth century collectors, was the massive presence within it of the creatures known in Irish as an slua sí, (the fairy host) or, in the more elaborate epithet favoured by Yeats, slua sí an aeir (the fairy host of the air) and in English as the good people or fairies. In common with other European peasantries in the pre-modern era, the belief was widespread among Irish country people that paralleling our human lives, living alongside us and intermittently intersecting with us, was a race of supernatural beings. In popular theology these were sometimes seen as fallen angels, who had chosen neither God nor the Devil, while nineteenth century antiquarians speculated that they might be descendants of the Tuatha de Danan, the gods of pre-Christian Ireland. Their dwellings were the forts and raths of the Irish countryside, from which they rode forth at the major turning points of the year – Bealtaine (May Day) and Samhain (November Eve/Halloween) – periods during which they were particularly likely to impinge in disturbing ways upon the human world.
Although generally invisible, the sí/fairies could intervene unpredictably in human affairs, so that in one view they could be seen as a device for explaining all the untoward events that might happen in the countryside. Human dealings with the fairies extended along a range from minor irritations and bizarre experiences, via disruption of household or farm routines, to personal misfortunes such as mental illness, diseases such as tuberculosis and death. Young mothers, their children, and young adults generally were particularly vulnerable to fairy attentions. The threat faced by these groups was of abduction and substitution, that is to say a young person would be carried off by the fairies into one of their forts, and a worthless substitute or changeling left in their place. A whole category of narratives had fairy abductions as their focus.
Even from such an abbreviated summary, it will be clear that fairy lore was intimately woven into the texture of daily experience and provided a means whereby life’s misfortunes, sorrows and unexpected chance occurrences could be handled in culturally familiar terms, as they were accommodated within short narrative forms. The lore could be seen as providing those who made use of it with a symbolic language, by means of which their own experiences and concerns might be externalised and discussed. There was thus some distancing of raw experience, as fairy interventions – most notably abductions – allowed for a euphemistic treatment of events that were otherwise baffling, psychologically painful or a cause of distress. Of these the most pressing was death, particularly the death of young people. In stories concerning those who go with the fairies – either because of illness, mental disturbance or because they have been taken into the world of death – it is sometimes possible to detect a dual perspective, as the basic experience on which the legend or memorat (first person account) is founded hovers within the narrative, being neither quite acknowledged or denied. Thus when the Irish-American Jeremiah Curtin collected abduction legends from Irish speakers in Kerry in the 1890s, he was in no doubt that the stories he was hearing were, in some sense, about death. Curtin wrote:
In the fairy tales I have collected so far, and in the conversations of the men who told them to me, I find a remarkable freedom of intercourse between the visible and the unseen worlds, between what we call the dead and the living – a certain intimate communion between what has been and what is. Unless in the case of old people, it can hardly be said that there is such a thing as death in the Keltic philosophy. Children and young persons are removed; other bodies, apparently deceased or dying, are put in their places. The persons removed are taken to fairy mansions; if they eat they are lost to this life; if they refrain they have seven years in which return is possible.
During the same years as Curtin was collecting in Kerry, Stoker in London was writing Dracula. Both the legends and the novel could be seen as working at different levels and as containing the possibility for alternative readings within themselves. The Kerry stories are accounts of how young men and women were carried off into the fairy forts and of attempts – usually unsuccessful or of ambiguous outcome – to recover them from that fate. They are also oblique acknowledgments that the individuals in question have died and could be seen as a use of narrative for a gradual coming to terms with the irreversibility of death. (There are a number of instances, although not in Curtin’s collection, in which informants wept as they told their stories.)
Dracula, for its part, tells of the threat posed by the malevolent count to his guest, Jonathan Harker, and later to the teeming city of London, and of how he is finally tracked down and destroyed at the Borgo Pass. There can be few readers who have not felt that, behind all this elaborate narrative business, with its comings and goings between England and Transylvania, the novel contains a powerful, if concealed – and thus deniable – sexual dimension. Stoker’s rhetoric endlessly insinuates a view of Dracula’s oppressive attentions and bleak coupling, with its exchange of bodily fluids, as a form of inverted sexuality. In the novel, death functions as an alternative to sex, as the characters are bitten, ail, die and are buried with the same regularity as the errant lovers in a French farce hide under beds or jump into wardrobes. Dracula is the embodiment of negation, so that to yield to his embraces, rather than being life-enhancing, acts as a portal to death, as he leads his victims into “that unknown and terrible land”. The novel is written in a transparent code, in which blood acts as a surrogate for semen and death takes the place of the lover’s ecstasy. A number of these elements have equivalents within the world of the sí.
Fairy belief was so pervasive in Irish popular culture that, to use a somewhat crude formulation, it left no space for vampires to establish themselves. Moreover, specific elements within the immense constellation of fairy lore dealt, in their own terms, with situations and sentiments similar to aspects of vampirism. The overlap between the two, which undermined any raison d’être vampirism might have had in Ireland, was at its most striking in stories and beliefs regarding erotic relationships between a young person and a member of the fairy host. While the two are far from being identical, there are significant affinities between some of the Irish legends dealing with fairy lovers and encounters between vampires and their victims. In probing these affinities it is important to recall that the cluster of attributes connected with vampires, as employed by Stoker, had undergone more than a century of literary embellishment in works as varied as Goethe’s Die Braut von Corinth (1797), Kleist’s Penthesilea (1808) and Polidori’s The Vampire (1816). The stereotype available to Stoker was thus significantly different from the beliefs and narratives encountered by early eighteenth century Habsburg magistrates and officials. The animated corpses and revenants on which they reported, while intent on doing ill, seem to have lacked the erotic dimension of later literary vampires. As, however, it is for Dracula that origins in Irish folklore are claimed, it is upon the latter that comparison will focus.
In fairy lore one of the prevailing assumptions was that the fairies take from the human world what they need. In keeping with this perspective, there was a distinct element of physical attraction in fairy abduction legends. It was believed that, while indifferent to the old and the ugly, the fairies were drawn to youth and beauty and were likely to carry off pretty children, handsome young men and fine-looking young women. As one of Lady Gregory’s informants remarked: “It’s not often the old are taken. What use would there be for them? But a woman to be taken young, you know there’s a demand for her.” In a similar vein a Co Roscommon informant, speaking to an Irish Folklore Commission collector, recalled the taking of a local young man: “He was a powerful athlete and a fine looking man in every way. … Simon Hanley was this boy’s name and he was so fine a lad that the fairies wanted him.” A Co Longford informant was quite explicit in identifying the motive for abductions as sexual desire: “They are just the same as ordinary people any one they do take, but only the finest.”
Fairy lore is nothing if not fluid. Because it has been filtered through the minds of countless informants and reflects their differing experiences and preoccupations, although there are predictable aspects, there is no fairy orthodoxy, or anything that could be called a fairy doctrine. Thus for every generalising statement that is made, evidence for a counter view could readily be found. There is nonetheless a persistent strand within the lore, which sees the members of the fairy host as incapable of begetting or bearing children among themselves. For this purpose they require a human partner. As a young man, over a period approaching a decade, WB Yeats had an intense engagement with fairy lore and was particularly fascinated by stories of fairy abductions. He wrote, in a contribution to Lady Gregory’s Visions and Beliefs of the West of Ireland, of those who were taken into the fairy realm, and whom he conceived of as being in a trance:
According to the peasant theory these persons are, during these times, with the fairies, riding through the country, eating or dancing, or suckling children. They may even, in that other world, marry, bring forth, and beget, and may when cured of their trances, mourn for the loss of their children in faery.
Yeats’s view was grounded on his own experience of the lore and that of his associate Lady Gregory. The latter was told by an elderly Clare informant. “They don’t have children themselves, only the women that are brought among them, they have children … The handsome they like, and the good dancers. And if they get a boy among them, the first to touch him, he belongs to her.” A woman living on the borders of Connemara told Lady Gregory: “And don’t believe those that say they have no children. A boy among them is as clever as any boy here, but he must be matched by a woman from earth. And the same way with their women, they must get a husband here. And they can never give breast to a child, but must get a nurse from here.” Several decades later this was confirmed by an informant from Co Longford, who reported: “The Good People cannot marry, themselves, but they take away young women and young men and marry them. If they took away a young woman, they’d be married while they’d be with the Good People.”
As in Dracula, the appropriation of bodily fluids plays an important, if implicit, role in this erotic traffic between members of the Good People – “them” in the language of Lady Gregory’s informants – and their human partners. The fairies are without blood, or, in the words of a Donegal tradition bearer, have as much blood “agus a shilfeadh de ghob pinn” (as would drop from the point of a pin). Fairy women are incapable of suckling their own children, and for this purpose need a human wet nurse. Although we would not expect it to be stated explicitly, within the logic of this physical economy the young men who were carried off into the fairy world were taken not only because they were attractive, but because they were possessors of semen.
The Gaelic tradition, both in the written high culture and in its folklore, contained so many encounters between human beings and fairy lovers that a certain prudence is required in offering generalisations. It was as if levels of reality intersected, or that the partition between the two was so fragile, that it was possible to cross that invisible frontier with the same ease as a dweller in the countryside might move from one townland to another. Within this great body of stories and reports there is one strand which presents involvement with a fairy lover as an oppressive and physically draining experience. One variant of a migratory legend known as “Tricking the Fairy Suitor”, which was collected in 1978 from the Mayo storyteller Seán Ó hEinirí, tells of a young girl who meets a strange young man by the seashore. On each of three days she grows more intimate with him, until on the third she agrees to untangle and rearrange his hair. On each evening the girl’s grandmother suspicions are aroused, as the girl’s health is failing and she is unsettled-looking and pale about the face. While the storyteller is delicate in his presentation of the relationship, its implications are unmistakable. The remainder of the tale concerns the trick that is used to banish the unwelcome suitor.
In a number of stories collected by the Irish Folklore Commission, belief on the part of a named individual that he or she possesses a leannán sí (fairy lover) can be seen as a manifestation of neurotic or disturbed sexuality and as linked with states of emotional deprivation and loss. In a number of such narratives the leannán sí appears to a man or woman living alone, while in others the victim of its attentions is a young person whose fiancé has recently died. The domain of the leannán sí thus emerges as one of loneliness and unsatisfied needs. While at the core of such legends there was obviously some kind of personal experience, the belief also possessed a wider social dimension. For the unhappy protagonist the delusion of having a relationship with a fairy lover may have served as a compensatory fantasy, while the stories which attached to such individuals could be seen as the community’s way of accommodating bizarre individual behaviour by translating it into the familiar language of fairy lore. For the individual participant these encounters seem to have been oppressive and unsatisfying. In a piece of lore from Waterford, a young man whose fiancée has died is tormented for many years by a leannán sí. When he responds to her approaches, “bhíoch sí cú fuar leis a mbás ner a raghach sí gairid do” (she would be as cold as death when she came close to him).
Although the historical genealogy of Irish fairy lore is difficult to reconstruct, it is certainly long established and possibly of great antiquity. The examples cited are somewhat miscellaneous; nonetheless it is hoped that their import will be clear. Within the Irish body of lore it is possible to identify patterns and meanings which overlapped with significant elements in vampire lore. Given that the fairy lore was firmly established and, as it were, occupied the available territory, it seems improbable that vampire beliefs could have gained any purchase within the Irish tradition.
In spite of the affinities we have traced, there were immense differences between the fairies and vampires as imagined by Stoker and his fellow litterateurs. Dracula is a neurotic solitary whereas the slua sí/fairy host is a community, whose internal arrangements replicate those of human society. The fairies lack the immense malevolence of vampires, and if troublesome could also sometimes be helpful. Unlike the sí, whose relations with human beings were pragmatic and instrumental, Dracula aspires to replace human beings with creatures made in his own likeness. In comparison with fairy belief, which as a collective creation opens up to multiple interpretations, Stoker’s mythology strikes one as closed and airless. In Joyce’s “The Dead”, Gabriel Conroy imagines that he sees the form of a long dead young man standing under a dripping tree. “Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence.” The Irish sense of the realm of the dead as indeterminate, a wavering, fluctuating presence on the edge of our world, so masterfully evoked in the concluding pages of Joyce’s story, was remote from the harsh dichotomies of Dracula.
This sense of two worlds existing alongside one another, and of connections between them being possible, may have lingered so long in Irish consciousness because it echoed at popular level the Christian doctrine of the communion of the saints. It was certainly incompatible with the materialism of Dracula. Thus, although the Wildes are frequently cited as a possible link between Stoker and Irish tradition, the evidence can be read as pointing the other way. Joyce’s Michael Furey was buried at Rahoon, while elsewhere in the county, on the islands off the Connemara coast, William Wilde was told: “At night the dead can be heard laughing with the fairies, and spinning the flax. One girl declared that she distinctly heard her dead mother’s voice singing a mournful Irish air away down in the heart of the hill. But after a year and a day the voices cease, and the dead are gone for ever.”
Four years before the publication of Dracula, Douglas Hyde included a version of the great love song “Úna Bhán” in his Abhráin Grádh Chúige Connacht: Love Songs of Connaught. In the song the speaker, Tomás Láidir Coisdealla, find himself at the grave of his beloved, Úna Bhán Nic Dhiarmada. Tomás Láidir’s piercingly eloquent outpouring of grief climaxes, in Máire Áine Ní Dhonnchadha’s classic rendering of the song, with the following address to the dead woman:
A Úna Bhán nach gránna an luí tá ort
Do cheann le fána i measc na mílte corp
Ach mar a dtuga tú fáir orm a phlandóig bhí riamh gan loch
Ní thiocfaidh mise t’áras go brách ach an oíche nocht.
Fair Una, it’s terrible the way you are lying now
Your head sloping amongst a thousand corpses
But if you don’t come and rescue me, my dear one without fault
I will not come to your residence ever again, but tonight.
In these lines Tomás Láidir acknowledges, in a vision of almost medieval intensity, the decay which has overtaken his beloved, while simultaneously conceiving of her as someone who can be addressed and from whom a response may be expected. That response was forthcoming. In his account of the lore which surrounded the song, Douglas Hyde tells how, after Tomás Láidir’s address to his beloved, “he felt Úna rising up, and striking a light blow of her palm upon his cheek, and he heard a voice like Úna’s saying ‘Come not’, and he then departed satisfied, without returning for ever.”
The attitudes evident in the song found expression elsewhere. Among the fairy lovers good-looking young men might encounter, by far the most renowned was Clíona, the queen of the South Munster sí. In Edward Walsh’s gloss, she was “of very amorous complexion, [having] practiced the abduction of young men since time immemorial”. In his autobiography, O’Donovan Rossa recalled a local road as the “the road I travelled the day I robbed the blackbird’s nest! It was on that road I shook hands with Daniel O’Connell; it was on that road that Cliona the fairy queen used to enlist her lovers … ” Rossa’s revealingly casual phrasing points to the co-presence of different levels of reality, with Clíona’s assignations with bewildered young men seen as events of the same standing as the author’s schoolboy adventures or his encounter with Daniel O’Connell.
To judge by The Snake’s Pass, Stoker was not only familiar with fairy lore but, in a pattern already noted, gives evidence of encountering it directly rather than via literary or elite sources. Because the lore reflected the concerns of those whose talk sustained it, we might expect to find differences between that current among different age groups and between the use made of it by men and women. The manner in which it is employed in The Snake’s Pass, when the hero’s servant makes a series of jesting, insinuating references to a girl his master is fond of as “the fairy”, is probably the kind of use that was current among young men. Although fragmentary, it differs from the kind of lore collected by Lady Gregory from older and predominantly female informants.
If Stoker did not make much use of fairy belief, he nonetheless understood the essentials, commenting at one poin: “It would seem that so many inhabitants had been allured by the fairies, and consequently had mysteriously disappeared, that this method of minimisation of the census must have formed a distinct drain on the local population.” Although less detailed, Stoker’s observation recalls that of Jeremiah Curtin, but the tone is so knowing and flippant, the stance of superiority to the narratives of others so unearned, that there was little its author could have done imaginatively with fairy lore.
The suggestion that Dracula can be linked to a nineteenth century tradition of Irish supernatural writing could be seen as a sub-theme within the attempt to view it in terms of a possible debt to Irish folklore. In assessing this, it may be useful to recall a particularly chilling moment in the opening section of the novel. This occurs when Jonathan Harker describes how, when he first encountered Dracula’s coachman, “One of my companions whispered to another the line from Burger’s ‘Lenore’:-
‘Denn die Toten reiten schnell.’
(‘For the dead travel fast.’)”
This recalls Harker’s slightly earlier reflections on Transylvanian folklore, in that it too seems to provide an internal pointer to the novel’s imaginative roots. As is well known, Burger’s ballad, which was written in response to its author’s reading of Herder, proved to be a detonating event in the emergence of European romanticism. It was quickly translated into the major European languages, from English and French to Polish and Russian, and generated imitations and works that bore the mark of its sensibility, including (in English) “Christabel” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. In the judgment of JG Robertson, in his A History of German Literature, “The eerie tramp of the ghostly horse which carries Lenore to her doom re-echoed in every literature and … helped materially call the romantic movement in Europe to life.”
Early nineteenth century Irish writers proved responsive to this shift in sensibility and were particularly alert to that strain in romanticism which probed the interplay between eroticism and death. The earliest, and most terrifying, of these exercises was Gerald Griffin’s story “The Brown Man” in his collection Holland Tide of 1827. This tells of a widow and her daughter who are living in poverty in a desolate region of West Munster. One day a strange horseman rides up to the door. He is dressed in brown, his hair is brown, his eyes are brown, his boots are brown, he rides a brown horse and he is followed by a brown dog. The Brown Man offers the widow a purse of gold for her daughter’s hand in marriage. The widow accepts and the Brown Man places the girl behind him on his horse and rides off. Although he has led mother and daughter to believe that his circumstances are comfortable, at the end of their journey the pair arrive at a wretched hovel in the middle of Mangerton mountain, where the girl is given poor food to eat and is shown some straw in a corner on which to sleep. In the middle of the first the night the Brown Man rises and departs. When he returns the girl feigns sleep, but feels that her husband is cold as ice. On the next night the same thing happens. On the third night the girl secretly follows her husband as far as the Muckross Abbey churchyard, where in the moonlight she sees him, together with his horse and dog, standing at an opened grave, eating a corpse. The girl rushes home and, although she pretends to be asleep when the Brown Man returns, his suspicions are aroused. On the following day the girl asks her husband to see her mother and he departs to fetch her. In the evening the girl sees the old woman coming up the path to the hovel and runs to greet her. She pours out her heart, telling everything she has seen, when the old woman casts aside her disguise and reveals that she is the Brown Man. He immediately kills her and, together with the horse and dog, eats her corpse.
“The Brown Man” is one of a group of tales, told on November Eve, “at the house of a respectable farmer in the West of Munster, upon whose hospitality chance threw the collector of these stories on the 31st of last October”. The story is an Irish version of an international folktale. (It is type number 363 in the Aarne and Thompson classification and was previously known as “The Vampire” but, following a recent reclassification, is now more accurately known as “The Corpse Eater”.) Although subject to varying elaborations, the basic narrative situation involves a man or woman who discovers after their marriage that their spouse secretly eats human flesh. As an international tale-of-magic (Märchen) it belongs to a different part of oral narrative culture from the local legends and belief statements discussed so far. While fairy lore could be as shapeless as life itself, and could be told by anyone, stories like “The Corpse Eater” were structured narratives, whose recital was generally confined to particular occasions – notable fireside gatherings in winter when farm work was lightest – and to individuals who had local reputations as skilled storytellers.
In their Types of the Irish Folktale, Seán Ó Súilleabháin and Reider Th. Christiansen included seven variants of the Vampire/Corpse Eater, with a further six stories listed as having affinities with the tale-type. (As a result of what was presumably an oversight, “The Brown Man” was not included in their listing.) In fact only four variants, all from Kerry, three in Irish and one in English, are sufficiently close to Griffin’s story to be relevant to our enquiry. This certainly contrasts with some of the more popular international tales-of-magic found in Ireland, which are represented in The Types of the Irish Folktale by many hundreds of variants. Indeed, given the small number of variants, and the fact that “The Brown Man” was the earliest of these, the question arises of whether it was the source of the Kerry cluster. If so, this might suggest that Griffin took a literary tale from somewhere in his extensive reading, dressed it in Irish clothing and relocated it at the fireside of a West Munster farmer, and that this when read, either privately or aloud, became the source of the later variants. While this might seem to have a certain logic, there are difficulties in the way of the hypothesis. Griffin’s fiction was popular throughout nineteenth century Ireland, so that if one of his stories influenced the oral tradition we might expect its traces to be evident throughout the country rather than in a single county. While three of the four Kerry stories are so abbreviated that no useful conclusions can be drawn from them, one very full variant was collected by Seosamh Laoide from Tadhg Ó Ciabháin, an accomplished storyteller from Ceann Trágha (Ventry), some time before 1915, and included in his anthology Tonn Tóime. A detailed comparison of the two stories would, I believe, reveal that the Ó Ciabháin story is sufficiently different from “The Brown Man” as not to be derivative from it, yet sufficiently alike to suggest that Griffin’s story had its origin in the Munster oral tradition.
“The Brown Man” is notable for the bleakness of its vision. Unlike Tadhg Ó Ciabháin’s story, which goes some way towards blurring edges by suggesting motives, no attempt is made to censor or distance disturbing material. Dracula and the Brown Man could be seen as two of a kind. Both are consumers of that which is intrinsically disgusting – in one case blood, in the other human flesh. Both are physically cold and merciless in relation to their victims. Both are instruments of death who might appropriately say, in the words of Goethe’s Faust, “I am he who negates.” The fact that the story seems to have been limited to one corner of Ireland is certainly puzzling. It may have been a specialisation, confined to certain storytellers, or to particular narrative occasions, such as Halloween, when ghoulish stories might seem in order. Perhaps its sheer horror limited its appeal. It may be significant that in a related story from Co Cork – in which a woman confronts her husband, having observed him eating the flesh of two men hanging in one of the rooms of his house – the storyteller turned the climax of the story into a comic routine, which first terrified his listeners before reducing them to laughter. Having told his story in a deliberately low voice, the storyteller uttered the climax statement – the husband’s threat to his wife, “Íosfai mé thusa leis!” (I will eat you too) – in a manner so terrifying that his listeners fell off the bench on which they were sitting, before picking themselves up to join in the general hilarity.
William Carleton’s poem “Sir Turlough, or, the Church-Yard Bride”, which was published in 1830, three years after Griffin’s grim masterpiece, was closer emotionally to Burger’s “Lenore” and the international tale (Aarne and Thompson type 365 – The Dead Bridegroom Carries off his Bride) associated with it. In “The Church-Yard Bride” Carleton elaborated a thirty-six-stanza narrative poem around a group of stories associated with a churchyard in the parish of Errigal Truagh in North Monaghan. These told of “a spirit which appears to persons whose families are there interred … If the person be a young man, it takes the shape of a beautiful female, inspires him with a charmed passion, and exacts a promise that he will meet her in the church-yard one month from that day; this promise is sealed by a kiss, that communicates a deadly taint to the individual who complies.”
Although Carleton summarised the Errigal Truagh belief in authorial prose, it was communicated to him in the talk of local young men, who interpreted the deaths of two of their contemporaries as the result of their agreeing to assignations with a supernatural paramour. Carleton was a hard-edged rationalist, who normally would have been dismissive of the solemn declarations of “the friends of these two persons” that what they reported was true. In “The Church-Yard Bride” he escaped from this self-imposed constraint, and experienced an imaginative freedom equal to his material, through the use of verse. He thus circumvented a potential quarrel with the voices of his home place by transforming what they had to say into the luxurious language of romanticism. It is almost as if, with the shift to poetry, in place of his customary nagging rationalism, a different music, more hospitable towards the non-rational, became available. This generic transformation was accompanied by a temporal relocation, as the story was shifted from the South Ulster of the author’s youth to a vague and less problematic medieval setting. This distancing in time resulted in a palpable de-ideologising, as the argumentative present gave way to a picturesque but largely contentless past.
It is also possible to identify a major narrative transformation, as a legend/memorat about an encounter with a beautiful young woman was recast to resemble the Lenore story. Sir Turlough finds himself in the churchyard because his bride has died but, in an acknowledgment by Carleton of his legendary source, the figure who beguiles the young man is not his dead bride, but a supernatural intruder among the keeners.
The keen is loud, but the voice is low
Killeevy, O Killeevy!
And sings its song of sorrow slow,
And names young Turlough’s name with woe,
By the bonnie green woods of Killeevy.
Now the grave is closed, and the mass is said.
Killeevy, O Killeevy!
And the bride she sleeps in her lonely bed,
The fairest corpse among the dead,
By the bonnie green woods of Killeevy.
The Cork poet Edward Walsh played his own variations on the theme of fairy abduction in a series of narrative poems from the first half of the 1830s. One of the most accomplished of these was “Meelan: A Legend of the South” of 1835. Like “The Church-Yard Bride”, the romantic impulse which sustained Walsh’s poem was accompanied by a certain archaism, with the action located at a vague and glamorous distance in medieval Ireland. The story tells how Meelan, the daughter of a McAuliff chief of Clanawly, was successfully wooed by the gallant, brave and gay O’Herly, “a chieftain of high degree”. The poem is heavy with presentiments of doom, as on her wedding day, while her handmaids prepare her chamber, the bride is warned:
Thou wilt press with thy lover no nuptial bed –
Borne off by enchantment so drear and dread,
From bridegroom and bridal bower.
On the evening of her wedding day Meelan dances with a dark and melancholy stranger and consents to listen to his beguiling song. Although, in terms of the legend which was Walsh’s source, this mysterious figure is an intruder from the fairy world, his real place of origin is Byron’s poetry. Like Pushkin’s preening heroes, and an assortment of literary young men from various parts of Europe during the same period, Walsh’s “dark stranger” has been imagined in the shadow of Byron’s gloomy protagonists. In his song this disquieting and uninvited guest announces that Meelan will spend her wedding night with him rather than her husband and promises her immortality in the fairy world. The poem concludes with Meelan carried off by “the mysterious stranger”, never to be seen again as she disappears into the immensity of nature.
This cluster of stories and poems, composed within a period of less than a decade, represents an intense Irish response to the literary currents then sweeping Europe. It is as if Griffin, Carleton and Walsh were drawn to those areas of the oral tradition which most closely matched the romantic impulse or lent themselves to reconfiguring in romantic terms. In representing men who prey upon women, and women who prey upon men, and who in an act of erotic consummation carry their victims into a world of shadows, they could be seen as anticipating elements in Dracula. Unlike the ingenious, if excessively erudite, suggestions made by Cathal Ó Sándair and his successors, these influences are from works which would have been readily available to Stoker. Griffin, Carleton and Walsh were familiar figures, whose writing were widely read and constituted part of an informal, but real, nineteenth century Irish literary canon. They were authors of the kind a young Dubliner a generation later, who was drawn towards literature and perhaps dreaming of a literary career, might be expected to encounter. Some have been proposed as possible influences and indeed “The Church-Yard Bride” loomed large in the TG4 documentary on Dracula broadcast at Halloween 2011.
To judge by The Snake’s Pass, Stoker was familiar with some of the more commonplace strategies of nineteenth century Irish fiction. The protagonist of the novel is a substantial landowner, who in his travels in Ireland does not advertise this fact, so that it could be seen as an example of the disguised landlord genre, which derived from Maria Edgeworth’s The Absentee. The figure of Murdock, the gombeen man, who looms so large in The Snake’s Pass, recalls a widespread strategy in Anglo-Irish writing to displace responsibility for the distresses of the countryside from the landlord class, who were the ultimate consumers of rents, to Catholic middlemen who extracted rents from the tenantry on their behalf. The hero’s driver and general factotum Andy belongs to a well established nineteenth century line of comic servants, whose nearest relative is Samuel Lover’s Handy Andy. (The ability of Stoker’s Andy to cause offence without intending could be seen as an equivalent to Handy Andy’s proclivity to get everything back to front.) These were the well used narrative conventions and formulae available to Stoker in writing his first, and only, Irish novel. There is, however, no evidence, either here or in Dracula, of engagement with Griffin, Carleton and Walsh. Although literary influence can be elusive, of its nature it leaves some trace, and of the early Irish romantics and their imaginings there is nothing in Stoker.
In addition to the search for an Irish Dracula in folklore and literature, a number of readings have attempted to view the novel against the background of the bitter struggle between tenant farmers and the landlord interest, which convulsed the Ireland of the 1870s and 1880s and, in a somewhat more extended perspective, the long decline of Protestant power in nineteenth century Ireland. In chapter three of his recently published Words Alone; Yeats and his Inheritances, Roy Foster revisits some of the issues associated with these attempts to historicise Dracula. This chapter, entitled “Lost in the Big House: Anglo-Irishry and the Use of the Supernatural”, covers much of the ground originally surveyed in his “Protestant Magic” essay of 1993. Although this reengagement with the supernatural theme is, for the most part, a relaxed affair there are occasions – as when FR Leavis is admonished for failing to be sufficiently respectful towards Yeats – when a perceptible sharpening of tone can be detected. While most of the author’s disagreements are handled discreetly, “Lost in the Big House” is notable for its muffled polemic against readings of Dracula as a bloodsucking landlord and attempts to present Irish Gothic as an emblem of ascendancy guilt. Such an approach, the reader is warned, “is not a sufficient analysis for a complex intellectual and cultural phenomenon”.
Although Roy Foster dissents from the Deane/Eagleton view of Dracula as “a metaphor for declining Irish landlords”, this is a reading which – while obviously differing in its implied sympathies – in important respects overlaps with his own. Seamus Deane sees Dracula as an emblem of the Anglo-Irish landowning class in extremis as, under pressure from a resurgent tenantry, the soil on which they depend for sustenance is reduced to a few boxes of earth. In “Protestant Magic” Roy Foster adopts a somewhat longer perspective and suggests that Hibernian Gothic can be viewed as a symptom of the sense of insecurity and displacement felt by individual members of clerical and professional groupings in Protestant Ireland, faced with the “inexorable” rise of Catholic middle class power. While the terms in which the two hypotheses are advanced are somewhat different, both agree in seeing nineteenth century supernatural fiction as responses to the experience of decline. Arguably both views prove vulnerable if pressed.
In Strange Country, Seamus Deane focused his reading of Dracula on two riveting images, that of diminishing soil and the coffin ship. Although fiction can accommodate divergent energies, as at least one reader (Joseph Valente) has argued, these images are mutually cancelling, in that Dracula cannot simultaneously be a parasitic absentee landlord and a passenger on a coffin ship. For its part, the de Blácam/Foster view of Irish Gothic as a Protestant enterprise is surely called into question by the dazzling contributions of Griffin, Carleton and Walsh as early as 1827-35. Roy Foster fails to suggest why the feelings of unease and marginalisation he discerns in his authors should issue in the production of Gothic fiction rather than any one of the multiple other forms such feelings might assume. It would, moreover, seem a weakness in his thesis that the foundation text of the tradition, Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer of 1820, should have appeared at a time when ascendancy power was still, comparatively speaking, robustly intact and developments such as Catholic Emancipation, the tithe war and the failure of the Protestant crusade – all of which must have been disquieting to the literary-clerical stratum of the Protestant population – lay in the future.
In his reflections on the landlord interest in “Lost in the Big House”, Roy Foster is concerned to contest – in a deployment of his favourite noun – “the elision from insecurity to guilt”. The latter, itself in his view mistaken, has as its corollary “the oversimplified assumption that the Ascendancy can be equated with ‘the expatriate English.’” While such language, he suggests, may have its rhetorical uses, “the Anglo-Irish were very far from seeing themselves as belonging to England”, to which he adds, as if tenacity in holding onto property was a criterion of identity, that “the vast majority of Irish landlords … clung to their land however badly they managed it”. These views were not universally shared in Victorian times. In its reporting of the land war, The Times referred to the landlord configuration not as a section of the Irish population, but as representing the English interest in Ireland. James Anthony Froude, who had his own Irish connections and whom Lord Salisbury appointed as Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, entitled his study of the great creative epoch of Anglo-Ireland The English in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century. Queen Victoria, for her part, seems to have regarded Ireland’s landowning class as part of England’s ruling elite, remarking with the air of one uttering an indisputable commonplace: “For health and relaxation no one would go to Ireland, and people only go there who have their estates to attend to.”
Implicit in Queen Victoria’s utterance was a view of the Anglo-Irish as a subset of a more substantial English identity, and one moreover in which the Irish component was as much an appropriation as a definition. Her view on this, as on other matters, may have been unduly simplifying, for as Roy Foster reminds us, individual members of the landlord class, while remaining overwhelmingly unionist in orientation, nonetheless experienced “the impulse to belong” and sought to connect with Ireland’s imaginative resources via antiquarianism, archaeology, topography and history. In a sense it hardly matters whether we incline to the view of Professor Foster or that of Queen Victoria, as in one reading of the evidence the Anglo-Irish aspired to be both English and Irish. What was in dispute over the decades was the terms on which it might be possible to do so, extending from the confidence with which the young Tories and churchmen associated with the Dublin University Magazine of the 1830s announced that they represented the wealth and intelligence of Ireland to DP Moran’s grim determination in the early twentieth century to police the borders of Irishness. Roy Foster is, it would seem, led to overinsistence on this point because of his concern to deflect any reading of Dracula, and the tradition of Anglo-Irish supernaturalism, as an “inheritor of Ascendancy guilt”. This may be a misdirected strategy, as it is not a priori to be excluded that responses to the unparalleled suffering which the conjuncture of landlordism and Victorian political economy inflicted on the Irish poor in the 1840s and 1850s might be refracted through Gothic modes. This would seem to be the significance of Sheridan Le Fanu’s The Child that Went with the Fairies of 1870.
The Le Fanu story, which is a fictional rendering of a fairy abduction legend, is one of the most chillingly accomplished pieces of writing in the nineteenth century Irish canon. Although notable for its sensitivity to the feelings and insights of those among whom abduction experiences take place, it is not a reproduction of a piece of lore but rather a crafted literary tale based on a story which Le Fanu must originally have encountered orally in Abingdon, Co Limerick, where his father was Church of Ireland rector. It is striking for its numinous and sinister rendering of the Munster landscape and for investing the abduction experience with a degree of menace for which it is difficult to think of parallels in the tradition. The palpable sense of threat that the story carries with it is inseparable from issues of social class. These find their malign embodiment in the strikingly aristocratic “beautiful and ‘very grand looking lady’” who persuades the little boy to come with her. The travellers in the carriage, although presented in the language of menacing grand guignol, are the social superiors of the child they abduct, so that in one reading The Child that Went with the Fairies is about members of the rural upper classes who prey upon the poor. In presenting his source in this way Le Fanu was deviating from the traditional view of the fairy realm as a place which replicates the world of those who tell the stories and as being without internal social divisions. Although the fairies were sometimes referred to as “gentry”, their material world and habits – from dependence on potatoes to fondness for music – mirrored that of their human neighbours.
Le Fanu’s recasting of the traditional abduction legend was not limited to the introduction of social class. Fairy abductions are utilitarian, or at least neutral, transactions. The good people take what they need – whether these be gifted musicians and dancers, handsome young men or lactating young women – but without any feelings of hostility towards those who are taken. Le Fanu suggests that his carriage-drawn abductors, some of whom have “small, restless fiery eyes and faces of cunning and malice”, are of evil intent and enjoy the deception they are practising. Although this feature is often implicit in fairy legends, The Child that Went with the Fairies is unusual in the explicitness with which it identifies fairy abduction with death. Narrators have generally little to say about life among the fairies, and while the view is sometimes expressed that human life is better than being “away”, in so far as it is portrayed the fairy realm is seen as a place of dancing and merrymaking. The place to which Le Fanu’s predatory gentry take the little boy differs, in that it is evidently comfortless and exploitative and possesses features that recall the post-Famine Irish scene.
There are occasional moments of shock in the writings of nineteenth century collectors, such as John O’Donovan and Jeremiah Curtin, when one realises that some of the tradition bearers they encountered were half-starved. Le Fanu too provides one such instant. Some time after his abduction/ death there is a moment of return, when the little boy is glimpsed by his sister:
… the little girl, lying by the side of her elder sister, who was fast asleep, heard the latch lifted softly, and saw little Billy enter and close the door after him. There was enough light to see that he was barefoot and ragged, and looked pale and famished. He went straight to the fire, and cowered over the turf embers, and rubbed his hands slowly, and seemed to shiver as he gathered the smouldering turf together.
Like the voices of the dead, reported on by the Wildes, these sightings take place for a while, after which the little boy departs into silence and “was never seen any more by any one of his kindred”.
Although it contains moments of brilliance, there was, prior to the emergence of Yeats and his cohort, only a limited and at best partially successful use of folklore in nineteenth century Irish writing – unlike the situation elsewhere in northern Europe. While folklore was one of the elements that went into the Irish novel, there was no Irish Kalevala or Peer Gynt, or anything equivalent to the free play of creativity which marked Pushkin and Gogol’s engagement with Russian and Ukrainian oral tradition. While folklore is everywhere in nineteenth century Irish writing, all too often there seems to be some element of dissonance, some failure to exploit fully its creative possibilities. We have seen examples of such failure in Stoker’s traducing of a legend associated with Saint Patrick by recasting it in comic form, and in his obtuse know-all comments regarding fairy abductions. Yeats, who as a young man obsessed with folklore read through much of the nineteenth century corpus, observed with disapproving accuracy that much of it was marred by a pervasive attitude of heartless laughter. It is as if contemporaries could not take with complete seriousness the imaginings of people who were often illiterate and generally poor. The Child that Went with the Fairies is unusual in that it stands outside this framework and responds to an abduction legend with an insight and gravity that matches its source. Although Roy Foster would appear to reject such a possibility, it may be that Le Fanu’s ability to respond in these terms arose from distress at the suffering of the rural poor and awareness that responsibility lay with those who ruled over them.
The disagreement with Seamus Deane and Terry Eagleton which, reading between the lines, it seems possible to discern in “Lost in the Big House” is, in a sense, beside the point. Although he favoured Home Rule within the Empire and enjoyed chatting about Irish politics with Gladstone when the latter visited the Lyceum, Stoker does not really seem to have been interested in the Irish countryside and its problems. It is true that in The Snake’s Pass the conventions of the genre provided him with a landlord-related plot, but he made nothing of its possibilities. At an early point the villainous Black Murdock is told, “Saintough is virtue compared to your act”, in a context which suggests that Saintough is the local landlord. If so, no further reference is made to him in the course of the novel. When in 1990 Brandon republished The Snake’s Pass, the introduction focused attention on the figure of Murdock, the usurer and gombeen man, suggesting that the novel was “rooted in the real world of economic and social life of rural Ireland in the late nineteenth century”. While one can only sympathise with the desire of a small publishing house to find some interesting angle on the novel, this will hardly stand up as an account of The Snake’s Pass. As the novel progresses Murdock becomes an increasingly abstract and isolated emblem of evil who, although a money lender, is not shown in relationship to the surrounding society.
Although Stoker’s political allegiance was Liberal, and he differed from the majority of his co-religionists in favouring Home Rule, where the land war was concerned his views do not seem to have been too different from those of others of his background. Apart from Sir William Wilde, the only authorities he cites on Ireland are Cambrensis and Spenser. At one point in The Snake’s Pass the hero finds himself out at night on sentimental business. While on these excursions he is concerned that the police may suspect he is one of “the moonlighters who now and then raided the district” and who were “composed of the scum of the countryside”. While, in context, these observations are casual and of no consequence, they remind us that The Snake’s Pass was written as the land war reached its convulsive and dramatic climax in the Plan of Campaign. This public drama has no resonance inside the novel, which possesses its own very different dynamic. Given the apolitical character of Stoker’s only Irish novel, one concludes that attempts to read its Transylvanian successor in terms of the decline of landlordism are – no matter how metaphorically inventive – misplaced.
As attempts to locate sources for Dracula in either Irish tradition or the political and social conflicts of late nineteenth century Ireland prove fruitless, it may be wiser to take Stoker at his word. His working notes for the novel, which have survived and are discussed in Paul Murray’s biography, contain no references to Irish material. In an interview he gave to the British Weekly in July 1897, he identified the sources he found most useful (Emily Gerard’s essays on Romanian superstitions and Sabine Baring-Gould’s Book of Werewolves) and discussed vampire beliefs from China to Iceland. No reference was made to Ireland. It is almost as if, having failed in The Snake’s Pass to shape his West of Ireland stories into a coherent narrative, the move to Transylvania provided Stoker with an alternative setting in which his imagination could move more freely, unconstrained by local associations. Unlike Yeats, he was unable to dramatise his own moods and desires through the language of Irish legend. The exoticism he encountered in the Carpathians matched his needs and was essential to his strange creation. At the centre of that creation was the figure of the vampire, which acted as a receptacle for its author’s preoccupations and dissatisfactions. Commentators have seen these chiefly in terms of the anxieties of fin de siècle imperialism and changing relations between men and women. Arguably the Victorian collapse of religious belief was of equal weight in shaping Dracula.
In The Snake’s Pass the author, speaking in his own voice rather than that of his youthful narrator, refers to “the long expanse of commonplace life, strewn as it is with lost beliefs and shattered hopes”. This was a sentiment which, to judge by his second novel, Stoker experienced with particular intensity. Dracula is a novel pervaded by the fear of death; its desolate landscape is what remains when Christian assurances have been withdrawn. It is a place pervaded by “the deathly sickly odour of earth newly turned”, in which death is seen vividly and God scarcely at all. In this setting “God seems to have deserted us”, while “the devil and his children still walk with earthly feet”. With its bleak blood-based materialism, Dracula offers a grim and depressed reprise of departed beliefs in the resurrection of the body and eternal life. Dracula’s realm, peopled by “the devil’s Un-Dead”, and by foul things that take human shape but without human souls, recalls Christian redemption recast as parody. The world of the undead, to which admission is by way of “the vampire’s baptism of blood”, is almost an intermediary state on the road to “Death himself”. Death is where the emotional heart of the novel lies. Dracula, for his part, is lacking in definition and is without desires or preferences, other than blood, or any of those accoutrements which define human life. He is the antithesis of society and of all business except the movement of coffins. He represents “emptiness”, an unnamable horror beyond words, that which at its root principle negates life. While Stoker’s theology is eccentric, and its propositions frequently nonsensical, Dracula’s role as negation, as the opposite of grace, is sustained throughout by a consistent unity of metaphor and mood.
As early as the 1930s Aodh de Blácam identified a line of supernatural fiction running from Maturin, via Le Fanu, to Stoker. “In works like these,” he commented, “we see a definite vein of Anglo-Irish genius, a horrific imagination which dramatises the insane universe of the sceptic.” De Blácam was a convert to Catholicism, who was perhaps somewhat overemphatic in articulating his new orthodoxy. Although his language now seems dated, he had the insight to perceive the element of religious disturbance which animates areas of Protestant Gothic. In the case of Dracula that disturbance belongs to a specific time and place and has as its background the response of young men raised within the Church of Ireland to nineteenth century challenges to Christian belief.
It is one of the commonplaces of religious history that Protestantism proved more vulnerable than Catholicism to the mid-Victorian crisis of religious faith. For those who regarded the Bible, as they understood it, as the sole rule of faith, the critique of Christianity implicit in historical criticism of Holy Scripture and advances in geology and biology proved more disturbing than for those whose faith had as its context sacred tradition and the sacramental life of the church. This contrast, so vividly present in English intellectual history, where Catholics such as Newman and Anglo-Catholics such as Charles Gore accommodated themselves to advances in science in ways their Protestant contemporaries found difficult, had its echoes in Ireland. Such attitudes could take robust form on the part of Irish Catholics, as when the formidable Archbishop Croke assured William O’Brien:
Those fellows who go swaggering about telling us how fast they can make us travel, and guessing the age of the earth as a cattle-jobber would tell you the age of a heifer by her mouthful of teeth have no more right to tell me what we’re in the world for than the architect who built my cathedral, and did it well, would have to put up his own statue on the High Altar in place of God. We need not discard the railroads nor burn the new books about physiology, but the experts, though first rate servants, must keep a civil tongue in their head to the Master.
The demotic confidence of Archbishop Croke found few echoes on the Church of Ireland side, to judge by some of Stoker’s most illustrious Trinity College contemporaries – a term here intended to include not only Stoker’s own cohort, but his immediate predecessors and successors as students in the college. These seem to have experienced their era’s crisis of faith with the same intensity as their English peers. One of the best known accounts of the intellectual climate in which these developments took place was provided by Rev Charles E Osborne. He recalled that when the modernist theologian George Tyrrell was a youth in Dublin, “various groups of thinking young men, whose parents were nearly always orthodox Protestants of the old fashioned Low Church variety, were experiencing mental disengagements of their minds from their Puritan moorings. The direction taken was not the same in each case, but the liberating process was experienced whatever the ultimate goal of the soul’s barque might be.”
Those who experienced this unmooring included the clergyman Stopford Brooke, the Byzantine historian JB Bury, the physicist John Tyndall (who admittedly studied in Germany rather than Trinity) and WH Lecky, described as “the most perfect specimen of the Dublin disciples of John Stuart Mill”. The metaphysical unease that could result from the movement away from the faith of their parents on the part of these young men is suggested by the case of William Tyrrell, the brilliant older brother of George Tyrrell, who entered Trinity in 1871, a year before Stoker’s auditorship of the College Historical Society. This young man, who rapidly became one of the idols of the university, had “a mind, in religious matters, not merely agnostic, but as negative as could be met with”. When asked by his brother, shortly before his own early death, where he thought the soul went after death, William replied: “Where the flame goes when the candle is burnt out.” In addition to Tyrrell, the Trinity group included the literary critic Edward Dowden, who was a friend of Stoker’s and is described by Paul Murray as having a profound influence on his development. Stoker left few personal papers and, although the historical context is certainly suggestive, apart from the evidence of his fiction his inner life remains opaque. There is much nonetheless that would make sense if we assumed that he followed Edward Dowden into disbelief, but was unable to regard the prospect of the flame going out with the same equanimity as William Tyrrell. Dracula is testimony to the anguish caused by the Christian collapse and by the urgency of the need – or perhaps we should say desire – to construct some alternative amid the rubble.
From when they first became known, through reports of officials of the Empress Maria Theresa, figures as diverse as Pope Benedict XIV and Voltaire recognised that there was something obscurely blasphemous in vampire beliefs. The vampire could be seen as an inverted Christian object, who recalled not only the liquefying blood of the relics of the saints, but also the mystery of the Eucharist. In Dracula the bearer of this blasphemous potential is the unbearably unctuous figure of Doctor Van Helsing. Like Auguste Comte, the creator of the Religion of Humanity, Van Helsing is the magus of a new faith which, being grounded upon science, aspires to being more soundly based than its predecessor. It is as if some of the madder reaches of Victorian science – corporeal transference, materialisation, astral bodies and the reading of thoughts – which might have once been “deemed unholy” and led their discoverers to be “burned as wizards”, were now brought into service to fill the emotional void created by the fading of Christian belief.
Van Helsing’s qualifications for this task are certainly impressive: he is possessed of “an absolutely open mind”, is “a philosopher and metaphysician, and one of the most advanced scientists of his day”, and “has revolutionised therapeutics by his discovery of the continuous evolution of brain matter”. Although he claims for his many assertions that “science has vouched for the fact”, the authority in which he is invested is that of a priest rather than a scientist. He demands of his followers “Will you not have faith in me?” and assures them “we are ministers of God’s own wish”. Like some gnomic trickster he mocks his Christian rivals, “those holy men with their white garments of the angels”, who pretend to find in sacred books a knowledge they do not possess.
As Van Helsing has constructed his creed out of the detritus of religious belief, his blasphemies are multiple. He has been crafted by Stoker to resemble Jesus of the Gospels, in that he reveals his meaning slowly, by way of deferred revelations, whose significance only becomes apparent with the passage of time. And like Jesus, whose utterances are structured to contain a series of Old Testament references, his language is a biblical echo chamber. In his speech Van Helsing persistently recalls the rhythms of the King James Bible, as he echoes Deuteronomy, the Psalms and the parables of the New Testament, making use of a pseudo-religious style that is bereft of religious content. His creator’s claims notwithstanding, he is a false prophet and, as a pioneer eugenicist, rather than abundance of life is a deliverer of death wrapped up in the language of benevolence. In spite of the religious afflatus with which he is invested, Van Helsing has nothing to reveal. His tabernacle is empty, or rather its only contents are the medical materialism of Max Nordau and the Social Darwinism of Cesare Lombroso.
The transgressive character – viewed in Christian terms – of Van Helsing’s revelation becomes unmistakable with the black parody of the Resurrection that is enacted at Lucy’s empty tomb. The desperation out of which that revelation issued is suggested by Stoker’s dealings with the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist. Since the Reformation the nature of the Eucharist was one of the points most sharply disputed between adherents of the Catholic and reformed traditions. That dispute took on a particular edge in Stoker’s lifetime. Writing in the early twentieth century regarding his youth, Rev Newport JD White, of the Trinity Divinity School, commented: “Those who know Ireland need not be told that, thirty years ago, the feeling of the average Irish Protestant towards Irish Roman Catholics was a repugnance, instinctive rather than reasoned, based on racial and social as much as on religious antipathies.” In such a setting, in which a measure of polemical cut and thrust was the norm, it was hardly to be expected that the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist would be treated with any particular tenderness.
In such polemics the continuing material attributes of the wafer after consecration were felt to be a particularly vulnerable point in the Catholic position. This was the aspect seized on by Samuel Ferguson in the anonymously published Father Tom and the Pope (1838), in which he made fun of the scholastic language of substance and accidents in which the doctrine was articulated. In so doing Ferguson was aware that he was giving offence, commenting in a letter to his publisher: “I am very desirous not to be known as the author … I am just about to be called to the bar here, and I confess I wouldn’t like to lose the patronage of every Papist attorney as I infallibly would if they suspect me of breathing a syllable against their dogma.” Giving offence was also the purpose of Rev Edward Nangle, one of the more prominent actors in the Protestant crusade, who attempted to discommode his opponents by offering to weigh the wafer before and after consecration, and attracted considerable notoriety by publishing a drawing of a mouse gnawing a consecrated host in his Achill Missionary Herald. If sentiments of this kind were widely held, although experienced in less abrasive terms, in nineteenth century Protestant Ireland, in Dracula it seems possible to discern Stoker retreating, with every appearance of self-consciousness, from them.
The Eucharist, used for purposes of containment, is one of the devices in Van Helsing’s armoury in his battle with Dracula. Unlike Ferguson and Nangle, he believes in, and repeatedly demonstrates, its efficacy. In so doing he subjects it to a reductively materialistic reading, as he and his associates set out to confront their opponent armed with an assortment of torches, revolvers and consecrated hosts. When so treated the Catholic sacrament ceases to be a mysterious conduit of grace and becomes rather an instrument, almost a gadget. It is hard to regard Stoker’s imaginative recourse to it as anything other than a sign of weakness. It is as if, the main guarantor of Protestant Christianity having collapsed, he hoped that something might be found in the repudiated sacraments of the Catholic tradition. The use of the Eucharist thus parallels the increasing franticness with which God is invoked in the novel; both are pointers to the hollowness of the creed which is affirmed. It can be said of Dracula, with an obvious change of register, as TS Eliot said of In Memoriam, that “It is not religious because of the quality of its faith, but because of the quality of its doubt. Its faith is a poor thing, but its doubt is a very intense experience.” Whereas Tennyson, bolstered by the resources of poetry, arrived in the end at a certain equipoise, Stoker’s needs strike one as more desperate and the outcome less reassuring.
Only the tough-minded among nineteenth century sceptics walked away from Christianity into pure atheism or even agnosticism. Most travellers, Stoker included, seem to have contrived some half way house of their own devising. Although these, as Newman had predicted, proved to be temporary dwelling places, the little band of late Victorians who, towards the end of the novel, set out for Transylvania in pursuit of Dracula were freighted with their author’s hopes, not only that relations between men and women might remain untouched by all that modernity was bringing, but that some kind of belief in God might be recuperable. It is difficult to see the optimistic conclusion of their journey, which is also the conclusion of the novel, as other than willed and imposed. Faced with an outcome that contradicts so much of the internal logic of Dracula, of its rhetoric and movement of feeling, it seems useful to recall DH Lawrence’s injunction that we should trust the tale and not the teller.
In a somewhat longer perspective, it might be claimed that the Protestant insistence on the omnipotence of God and his availability to men, without the need for institutional intermediaries, or the historically deep interpretive community represented by tradition, proved vulnerable once the narrative of God’s dealings with man began to be called into question. That sense of omnipotence left no place for subsidiary entities, such as the multiple saints of Latin, Orthodox, and Celtic Europe, or the fairy host of the Irish countryside. In psychological terms, one of the advantages of fairy belief was that it provided a way of explaining life’s many griefs, including the death of loved ones and of children whose lives had scarcely begun. Fairy belief thus blunted what for believers is one of the most problematic aspects of the Christian faith; how can the undeserved suffering which marks so much of life be reconciled with God’s benevolence? The world of the fairies was a place in which seemingly inconsequential acts, such as blocking a path, or throwing out dirty water, or cutting down a thorn tree, could, by angering these invisible neighbours, have seriously negative consequences. A fairy-filled world was a place of endless contingency and thus emotionally remote from that presided over by the all-knowing, all-foreseeing, preordaining deity of the Calvinist tradition.
If the reading proposed in this essay is correct, Dracula’s primary Irish context is not at the level of literature or folklore but is to be found in the religious difficulties which afflicted so many of its author’s contemporaries. Where Stoker was concerned these difficulties appear to have persisted. In his biography, Paul Murray, who has examined such post-Dracula productions as The Mystery of the Sea and The Jewel of Seven Stars, reports that these sensationalist pot-boilers included scraps of Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, Voodoo and borrowings from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. This miscellany seems more like evidence of restless searching than of a mind in repose. How far meanings in Dracula which are embarrassingly obvious to us were apparent to Stoker is unclear. Once again the evidence from the final years of his life is not reassuring. During this period he launched a campaign against the prurient novel, which he saw as “part of the war between God and the Devil”, and as a “category of pestilence that must be stamped out”. He added that “the only emotions which in the long run harm are those arising from sex impulses”. The “filthy and dangerous output” of writers on lewd subjects must, he believed, be suppressed.
It may be that anxiety to grant Dracula Irish citizenship has obscured his substantial lineage. Walter Pater’s reverie of 1873 on the Mona Lisa famously announced: “She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave … ” Although written in prose, Pater’s miniature verbal symphony was the first inclusion in Yeats’s wonderfully eccentric Oxford Book of Modern Verse of 1936. In the same decade it found a place in The Romantic Agony, Mario Praz’s groundbreaking study of the influence of the Marquis de Sade on nineteenth century writing. It is surprising that Praz found room to discuss Pater, whose invocation of the Mona Lisa exemplified his theme in much the same way as countless other nineteenth century French and English texts, but excluded Dracula, in which that theme found its apotheosis. It may be that he was unfamiliar with Stoker’s novel, but given the breadth of his reading this seems unlikely. As a university lecturer in the 1930s Praz possessed a sense of literature as a privileged category, reflected in his focus on the major voices – Mérimée, Gautier, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Swinburne, Wilde and d’Annunzio – of European romantic and post-romantic writing. It seems likely that, as a commercial writer of sensationalist fiction, Stoker could not be accommodated within Praz’s criteria and thus found no place in his study.
The Romantic Agony tells how the Byronic fatal hero, the bearer of a love that destroys, fused with the more extreme and gruesome longings of the Marquis de Sade to create an influential, if subterranean, tradition running through nineteenth century writing. In Praz’s account, de Sade’s central propositions – themselves a form of inverted Christianity – were that “Everything is evil, everything is the work of Satan” and that it “is necessary to practice vice, because it conforms to the laws of nature … which insist upon destruction”. As Praz shows, this perverse amalgam echoed through the century, making it possible to discern in what one commentator called “cette littérature des cannibales” the lineaments of Dracula. The major motifs of the tradition, its personages – including vampires – moods and assumptions were replicated at the end of the century in Stoker’s novel at an extraordinary level of intensity. It is almost as if he subsumed an entire body of writing and restated its major themes and perversions in one final display of cruel flamboyance.
Stoker brought skills peculiar to himself to the task of penning his coda to the Romantic agony. The literary current traced by Mario Praz was awash with disturbed and disordered feelings, which of their nature inclined to shapelessness. From de Sade onwards these imaginings were marked by elements of monotony, as variations were played upon the same desires and transgressions. Stoker circumvented the repetitions of this narcissistic discourse by imposing a strong narrative pattern on it and by finding in the relationship between vampire and victim an objective correlative – to employ a term from Praz’s decade – for feelings that were otherwise vague and inchoate.
In place of the exoticism of the Parisian masters, Stoker favoured the bric-a-brac of late Victorian England, as he combined anticipations of disaster with comings and goings that would not be out of place in The Diary of a Nobody. He possessed an imagination that was at once catastrophic and mundane, as earth-filled coffins and death coaches keep company with typewriters, cheque books and phonographs, all set against the background of an imaginative geography which includes the Borgo Pass and Dracula’s castle, but also Bermondsey, Mile End and Walworth. If anything, the commonplaceness of the London setting accentuates the threat represented by Dracula, although occasionally bathos threatens, as when Jonathan Harker reports after a day spent trying to trace the vampire to his lair: “I got a cup of tea at the Aerated Bread Company and came down to Purfleet by the next train.” Dracula represents a domestication of that which of its nature might seem intransigently extreme. To the best of my knowledge, none of Stoker’s many commentators have discussed the half-concealed genealogy which links his novel with the tradition which issued from Byron and de Sade. As a result the question of how the amiable manager of Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre tapped into this disturbing current of Anglo-French writing remains unclear.
Two years after the appearance of Dracula, Yeats published The Wind Among the Reeds. The volume, one of whose central energies was provided by fairy lore, was the outcome of the young Yeats’s fascination with Irish folklore. The poet, who was almost a generation younger than Stoker, later recalled in his autobiographies the needs which as a young man had driven him to the tales of the countryside and the other wonderful, if miscellaneous, sources on which his imagination fed. Yeats emerges from this account as an unwilling inheritor of the mid-Victorian crisis of belief:
I am very religious, and deprived by Huxley and Tyndall, whom I detested, of the … simple-minded religion of my childhood, I had made a new religion, almost an infallible Church of poetic tradition, of a fardel of stories, and of personages, and of emotions, inseparable from their first expression, passed on from generation to generation by poets and painters with some help from philosophers and theologians.
Both Dracula and The Wind Among the Reeds concern human encounters with supernatural figures. In the case of The Wind Among the Reeds these encounters arose from their author’s passionate involvement with oral tradition. Yeats did not reproduce what he heard from storytellers and tradition bearers of Sligo and Galway, for he was not a folklore collector, but rather used their lore to explore his own desires and preoccupations. This involved a dialogue with the tradition, whose insights the poetry both echoed and transformed, in a creative act which was both a reading and a misreading. Unlike Stoker, whose terminus was death, Yeats conceived of fairy abduction as a move to a world of heightened emotion and fuller life. Although his West of Ireland legends were subject in The Wind Among the Reeds to the filter of an individual consciousness, the lore itself was a collective creation, and thus differed from the gloomy solipsism of the Dracula mythology. Yeats rather than Stoker was the inheritor of nineteenth century Ireland’s long and uncertain, if intermittently creative, engagement with the oral tradition of the countryside.
There was one other – perhaps less expected – inheritor to the central theme discussed in this essay. We have seen how the little island on Loch Cé where Úna Bhán lay buried, and the graveyard in Errigal Truagh where Sir Turlough’s bride was laid, provided a focus for poetry which combined the intensities of loss with continuing desire. These emotions found riveting expression in “Cé sin ar mo thuama?”, a poem which is a variant of the international ballad type “The Unquiet Grave”. Although Edward Walsh included both the poem and a translation in his Irish Popular Songs of 1847, the quotations below are from Seán Ó Tuama and Thomas Kinsella’s more recent An Duanaire 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed:
Ise: “Cé sin ar mo thuama
Nó an buachall den tír tú?”
Eisean: “Dá mbeadh barr do dhá lámh agam
ní scarfainn leat choíche.”
Ise: “A áilleáin is a ansacht,
ní ham duitse luí liom –
tá boladh fuar na cré orm,
dath na gréine is na gaoithe.”
She: “Who is that on my grave?
A young man of this place?”
He: “Could I touch your two hands
I would never let go.”
She: “My darling and sweet one
this is no time to lie here:
I smell of cold earth,
I am sun – and wind – coloured.”
In spite of its chilling evocation of the girl’s passage from the intimacy of the human world into the coldness of nature, as it develops this seems more a poem about memory than about death. While the opening stanzas evoke the desolation of the lovers’ irreversible separation, the focus thereafter shifts to the memory of a particular meeting and – a familiar topic in Irish love songs – the role of the girl’s parents in keeping them apart. It is a poem thus about the persistence of memory, about the dead girl’s continuing ability – encapsulated in her lover’s capacity to hear her voice – to remain a presence in his life.
In August 1912, six years after he had written “The Dead”, while on a return visit to Ireland, Joyce travelled to Galway with his wife, Nora Barnacle. During his time there he cycled to the graveyard in Oughterard , where he had placed Michael Furey’s grave in the concluding story of Dubliners. His wife’s early sweetheart, Michael Bodkin – the figure on whom he had based Michael Furey – had, in fact, been buried in Rahoon Cemetery in Galway city. Nora, a contemporary recalled, had been “very fond” of Bodkin, a “very handsome young man with a beautiful head of black wavy hair”. Later, in “She Weeps for Rahoon”, Joyce attempted to express what he felt were her thoughts about her dead lover:
Rain on Rahoon fallssoftly, softly falling,
Where my dark lover lies.
Sad is his voice that calls me, sadly calling,
At grey moonrise.
Love, hear thou
How soft, how sad his voice is ever calling,
Ever unanswered, and the dark rain falling,
Then as now.
Dark too our hearts, O love, shall lie and cold
As hie sad heart has lain
Under the moongrey nettles, the black mould
And muttering rain.
Joyce as a young man was intransigent in his rejection of the revivalist project, including the revivalist privileging of folklore. He combined this with an intense, and apparently intuitive, ability to absorb the popular culture of his day, in its broad themes and its nuances, at an extraordinary level of intimacy. Nora Barnacle was, after his father, perhaps the most significant conduit through which he gained access to that culture. Unlike John Joyce, Nora had direct exposure to Gaelic culture. The 1901 census records that her mother, Annie Barnacle nee Healy, had Irish, as almost certainly had her grandmother, Catherine Healy, by whom she was partly raised. It was no doubt due to Nora’s influence that it seems possible to hear in the cadences of “She Weeps for Rahoon”, in the dead young man ever calling, and the young woman’s melancholy awareness of that call, an echo an older Irish attitude towards death. That attitude shares little with what we find in Dracula.
A Note on Sources
Some months before his early death in December 2011, I spoke to Dáithí Ó hOgáin, Emeritus Professor of Irish Folklore at UCD. When I mentioned that I was investigating the possibility that, in writing Dracula, Bram Stoker was able to draw upon a vein of Irish lore dealing with vampires, Dáithí immediately responded “I know it was not so.” This emphatic opinion reassured me that I was on the right track. In what proved to be our last conversation Dáithí was, as always, generous and enthusiastic in sharing his knowledge and insights. Go ndéana Dia trócaire ar a anam. I am also grateful to Professor Séamas Ó Catháin, of the Department of Irish Folklore in UCD, for sharing with me valuable insights regarding the exclusionary relationship of Irish fairy lore to vampire beliefs. Finally I am grateful to Professor Bo Almqvist, of the Department of Irish Folklore in UCD, for discussing Gerald Griffin’s “The Brown Man”, and the tale type to which it belonged, with me.
In writing this essay I have tried, as far as possible, to provide information within the text regarding sources. It is hoped, on the basis of the signposting provided, that the relevant passages from Roy Foster, Terry Eagleton, Seamus Deane, Declan Kiberd, Luke Gibbons, JG Robertson, Aodh de Blácam and Douglas Hyde can be accessed without undue difficulty. I have also assumed that nineteenth century classics ‑ Carleton, Griffin, Le Fanu, and indeed Stoker ‑ are readily available. For Edward Walsh, who may be less familiar, see John J Ó Ríordáin ed A Tragic Troubadour: Life and Collected Works of Folklorist, Poet and Translator Edward Walsh (1805-1850), (Duhallow, 2005), p 550, 495-501.
For information on Stoker’s biography I have drawn heavily on Paul Murray’s From the Shadow of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker. The best overview of claims regarding Stoker’s debt to Irish, and specifically Gaelic, sources – including the reflections of Cathal Ó Sándair and PW Joyce – may be found in Peter Haining and Peter Tremayne’s The Un-Dead: The Legend of Bram Stoker and Dracula, pp 36-92. In his survey of Stoker’s sources, Paul Murray touches on possible debts to folklore at p158 and intermittently, as part of an extended discussion of Dracula’s genesis and imaginative roots, between p 170 and 201. See also Bob Curran, “Was Dracula an Irishman?”, History Ireland, Summer, 2000, pp 12-15.
For the emergence of the vampire figure in east-central Europe see “The Decline of Witches and the Rise of Vampires under the Eighteenth Century Habsburg Monarchy” in Gábor Klaniczay’s The Uses of Supernatural Power, (Princeton University Press, 1990).
Stoker’s story of Saint Patrick and the King of the Snakes seems closest to the legends included by Máire MacNeill in appendix 1G (“Saint Confines Pagan in Rock, Hole or Tarn”) of The Festival of Lughnasa, (Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann, Dublin, 1982). The Patrician legends recorded by Caesar Otway and Sir William Wilde are reproduced in MacNeill, p 497, 502. JH Delargy’s assessment of Lady Wilde may be found in Studies, September 1929. For Sir William Wilde’s reputation as a raconteur see WB Yeats, Letters to the New Island, (Macmillan, New York, 1989), p 13. Quotations from Lady Wilde are from Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, (London, 1888), pp 17-20, 83.
Other folklore sources quoted are National Folklore Collection, Ms 1486, p 141; Ms 1487, p 14; Ms 1487, pp 13-14; Ms 259, p 116; Ms 703, p 512. Lady Gregory, Visions and Beliefs of the West of Ireland, (Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross, 1970), p 24, 359, 68, 70. Jeremiah Curtin, Tales of the Fairies and Ghost World, (The Talbot Press, Dublin, 1974), pp 108-9. Seán Ó hEochaidh and Máire Ní Néill, Síscéalta Ó Thír Chonaill: Fairy Legends from Donegal, (Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann, Dublin, 1977), pp 34-5, 27. Séamas Ó Catháin ed, Scéalta Chois Cladaigh Stories of Sea and Shore, (Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann, Dublin, 1983), pp 13-19. O’Donovan Rossa, Rossa’s Recollections 1838 to 1898, (The Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut), p 63. Seosamh Laoide, Tonn Tóime, (Dublin, 1915), pp 10-14. For the Lenore story see Ríonach Uí Ógáin and Anne O’Connor, “‘Spor ar an gCois is gan an Chois Ann’ – A study of ‘The Dead Lover’s Return’ in Irish tradition”, Béaloideas: The Journal of the Folklore of Ireland Society, Vol 51, 1983, pp 126-144.
For the religious climate in nineteenth century Ireland see MD Petre, Autobiography and Life of George Tyrell, (London, 1912), Vol 1, p 145, 118, 115, 80. William O’Brien, Evening Memories, (Dublin and London, 1920), p 200. The quotation from Samuel Ferguson may be found in National Library of Scotland, Ms 4045 f 155. For Queen Victoria’s views on travel to Ireland see Tom Corfe, The Phoenix Park Murders, (Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1968), pp 21-22. Other sources quoted are Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, (Oxford University Press, 1961), p 102, 80. Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, (Oxford University Press, 1965), p 164, 335-6.
Brian Earls is a former diplomat. His published work focuses on the relationship between oral tradition and printed literature, principally in the nineteenth century.