Gothic Dublin by Pat Liddy

Ireland, along with its capital city, Dublin, would not be the first place that springs to mind when considering blood-drenched vampires, the shambling, vacuous ‘undead’, the terrifying threats of the damned or the ghoulish happenings on the dark side of Halloween. Yet, in many ways, this is where it all began way back in the creepy mists of time and in the shadowy literature of the Victorian era.

The medieval and later periods in Dublin saw massacres of citizens, plagues and pestilences, hunger and poverty, public hangings and beheadings, tortures, religious persecutions, unjust imprisonment in dungeons and exile as slaves or deportees. A hapless place to live for many and reason enough for a myriad of ghost stories and tales of hauntings. Even place names carry reminders of a distressed past: Misery Hill, Hangman’s Lane, Gallows Hill, Hell and Blackpitts (where Black Death victims were buried – sometimes alive – in mass graves).

The stories of ghoulish body-snatching from Dublin cemeteries are legion at a time before the Anatomy Act was passed in 1830, fearless men, in the pay of the city’s several medical schools, would disinter freshly-buried bodies for dissection by the students. Only a few years ago the bones of some two hundred of these corpses were found in a former pit in Trinity College. As you would expect there are rumours of ghosts in Trinity College, in theatres, in Dublin Castle, in old libraries, around the Old City Walls, under Smithfield Square and so on. The most unfortunate ghost is that of Robert Emmet, a revolutionary who was beheaded in 1803 and his ghost is said to haunt the Brazen Head pub. Most unfortunate for him; headless in a pub!

Thousands of years ago, when Ireland was still covered in forests, the scattered communities handed down, from generation to generation, their stories of unavoidable intercourse with the underworld of ethereal spirits and avenging spectres out to wreak havoc among the living. Irish mythology, springing from pre-history into Celtic times and beyond, has produced copious narratives of the weird and the nether regions. Because the Roman armies never came to Ireland, the old Gaelic order survived in parts of the county right up to the 16th century and the memory of that system lasted even into the modern era.

It is from these earliest times that the stories of Banshees (avenging female spirits) and the Sidhe (fairies) emanate. Warriors on their way to war supposedly saw Banshees washing blood from tunics and severed limbs, a portent of their own demise in the coming war. In more recent times to hear the wailing of a banshee was the dreaded signal that someone in the family was about to die. Fairies descended from a defeated prehistoric tribe called the Tuatha de Danann who were banished to live underground where they lived on their wits and mischief, thus giving rise to the myth of the Leprechauns. Their entrance to the nether regions was through the Sidhe or fairy mound and to this day some farmers are too superstitious to level little hillocks on farms that according to local legend are believed to be fairy mounds.

Altogether more sinister are the ancient tales associated with the Celtic feast of Samhain, traditionally held at the end of October when the harvest was gathered in and the long, cold winter was looming. It was then that the ‘undead’ emerged from the mysterious, dark recesses of the next life and stalked the land to ruin crops, to slay herds and to seek vengeance on their former enemies. The only way to protect yourself and your household was to hang erstwhile enemies’ severed heads outside the door to dissuade their entry. Samhain has evolved into today’s Halloween and the skull has morphed into the hollowed-out pumpkin. Irish emigrants in the 18th and 19th century brought many of their legends and customs over to the New World and Halloween was one of them. The Christian Church took the pagan festival of Samhain and turned into the feast of All Saints or All Hallows and the day leading into this feast was simply know as All Hallows Eve or Halloween.

But we Irish have taken the world of ghouls, demons, goblins, zombies and vampires into a whole new realm. In fact, it was a pair of Dubliners who released the image of blood-sucking vampires onto an unsuspecting world. Vampirism was not a new phenomenon but it received a more international audience thanks to these two authors. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, of Huguenot descent, was a reclusive writer who specialised in ghost stories but his most chilling work was Camilla, the riveting story of a female lesbian vampire – a characterisation that was a bit risqué for publicly prudish Victorian society. Le Fanu inspired a fellow Dubliner who brought the genre to a whole new level. This was Bram Stoker who published his horrifying and gory novel Dracula, published in 1897, twenty-five years after Carmilla. Stoker’s working title for the book was The Undead, a reference to the stories his mother used to tell from Irish mythology and from more contemporary cholera epidemics when his mother witnessed people who were afflicted with the disease being literally buried alive lest they contaminate others around them! Dracula has since inspired more than a thousand movies and countless books and is one of the most successful publications of all time. Every October in Dublin, true to its Gothic reputation, the city hosts the Bram Stoker Festival which this year takes place 27 – 30 October.

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