This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

November 2003


8 November 1847:   Bram Stoker, Irish author of Dracula, born in Clontarf, Co. Dublin

The early life of Bram Stoker gave little indication that he would write one of the world’s great horror novels. Born in Clontarf, just north of the River Liffey in Dublin, Ireland, the young Abraham Stoker, Jr. (later shortened to “Bram”) studied science at Trinity College and graduated with a degree in Higher Mathematics. Urged into his father’s career in the Irish civil service, his first book would be on the distinctly unexciting topic of the Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland (1878).

Stoker had a number of interesting Irish connections. His mother, Charlotte Thornley, had witnessed the horrors of a cholera epidemic in her native Sligo, and the experience inspired her to a career of activism on behalf of emigrants and social outcasts in Ireland. Her interest in establishing schools for the deaf introduced her to Dr. William Wilde, who supported the cause of education for the hearing impaired and gathered the first statistics on the incidence of deafness in Ireland.

As a young man, Bram Stoker was a frequent guest of the Wildes at their house on Dublin’s Merrion Square. There he attended literary salons hosted by Jane Wilde, who, under the name of “Speranza” had been a leading voice of the revolutionary “Young Ireland” movement in the 1840s. Her son Oscar was a schoolmate of Bram’s at Trinity, and legend has it that the two were rivals for the affections of Florence Balcome, whom Bram eventually married.

His connection with the Wildes proved valuable for a creative mind itching to escape the confines of a civil service job. Bram began writing theatrical reviews for the Dublin Evening Mail, whose part-owner was Sheridan LeFanu, a neighbor of the Wildes and himself a noted writer of gothic novels, one of which in particular, Camilla, is said to have been an inspiration for Dracula. The Wilde family had an even closer link to the field of gothic fiction: Oscar’s great uncle was Charles Maturin, author of the classic Melmoth the Wanderer (1820).

Bram eventually entered the world of the theater full-time when he became the house manager for the flamboyant actor Henry Irving, and the unflappable Stoker achieved a sort of minor celebrity in this role, accompanying Irving and his leading actress Ellen Terry on tours to America, meeting such literary luminaries as the American poet Walt Whitman (whom Stoker particularly admired) and the Manx novelist Hall Caine. In between his activities as Irving’s manager, Stoker began to write novels and short stories.

A great deal of the conventional wisdom about the origins of his great novel Dracula is at best debatable. It is fairly certain that the oft-repeated tale of the book being inspired by the nightmares following a crab dinner are in fact baloney, as Stoker spent several years conceiving and researching the book.

What with the literary and folkloric antecedents that Stoker could have drawn upon, Dracula may owe almost as much to Ireland as it does to Transylvania. What is certain is that the name “Count Dracula” never existed until Stoker wrote his book. It is also certain that Stoker never set foot in Transylvania or anywhere in Romania for that matter, having researched his work mainly in the Round Reading Room of the British Museum in London. There his main source was William Wilkerson’s 1820 book An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, which mentions the story of the warlord “Voivode Dracula” who fought the invading Turks in the 1400s. In an erroneous footnote Wilkerson claimed that “Dracula” meant “devil” in Wallachian. This seems to have inspired Stoker’s choice of name for his character, which surely beats his original choice of “Count Wampyr.”

There is one further intriguing Irish connection with Dracula. Stoker’s parents were members of the Protestant Church of Ireland, and attended services at St. Michan’s Church in Dublin, just behind the Four Courts. Originally built in the eleventh century, St. Michan’s is notable for its burial crypts beneath the church, where bodies laid to rest are naturally mummified, and where they could be seen strewn about in open coffins. (In Stoker’s day Dublin legend held that it was good luck to shake hands with one of the corpses.) In the church itself, a human skull lies alongside the communion table, the remains of a nameless victim of the uprising of 1641. Although she died in 1901, four years after the publication of Dracula, it is interesting to note that Stoker’s mom was laid to rest at St. Michan’s.

Although sales were disappointing at first, Dracula has remained in print to the present day, unlike Stoker’s other novels and stories, most of which are little known, apart from the occasionally reprinted The Lair of the White Worm, which some years ago inspired a movie starring Hugh Grant.

Less than a year after completing The Lair of the White Worm, Bram Stoker died on 20 April 1912.

For more information on Ireland, see the Ireland Nation Page.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2004 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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