Halloween surprises and other encounters in the company of Dracula

Meeting someone who travels the world investigating fairytales and a Gothic expert who specialises in all things spooky and supernatural as well as seeing a vampire killing kit – these were among highlights of my pre-Halloween sojourn this past week in Dublin.

Asked to give a lecture separating historical fact from literary fiction associated with Irish author, Bram Stoker, his arch character, Dracula, and medieval warlord, Vlad the Impaler, I was delighted to stand Saturday afternoon before a capacity audience in the Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s official residence, relating my adventures researching ‘Digging for Dracula.’

photo 1

Imagine my surprise when confronted by Dracula Junior and his mother in the ghostly grounds of Dublin Castle last Friday night.

Now an annual event, the Bram Stoker Festival took place at various suitably atmospheric venues including the eerie, shadowy Chapel Royale inside the grounds of Dublin Castle and the Samuel Beckett Theatre deep within the cobbled-confines of Trinity College, where Ireland’s 19th century best-selling novelist was once a humble student.

photo 2

(l to r) Enjoying the company of Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin founder of the Inkwell Group and organiser of the festival’s literary programme; Professor Bill Hughes, Bath Spa University; and Angela Dinu, an authentic Transylvanian from Brasov.

Such is the fascination with Stoker’s immortal long-toothed Transylvanian Count, the festival events earlier this week attracted hundreds of people, both speakers and participants. Before and after my talk I was approached by people from places as diverse as Rome, Warsaw and Las Vegas, all keen to discuss ‘beyond-the-grave’ mysteries.

Christa Thompson, from Florida, travels throughout the world investigating and writing about folk stories, while Ed Mooney, from Kildare, combines his passion for photography with his deep interest in history, ancient sites, folklore and mythology. Much of Edwards’ free time is now spent traveling around the Irish countryside in search of his next adventure, which he fondly refers to as ‘ruin-hunting.

photo 3

(l to r) In the delightful company of Intrepid folklore investigators from Ireland and the US.

Lara Musto, a highly-qualified librarian and researcher, originally from Rome was among the participants. She said she had been fascinated by Bram Stoker’s work ever since she was a child, “Believe it or not, my father used to read me vampire stories at bed-time, and they helped me sleep. So you can imagine, I’ve really enjoyed the talks I’ve attended here in Dublin during the festival.”

Asked the inevitably question whether I believed in the infamous nocturnal blood-sucking creatures (known as ‘strigoi’ in Romanian folklore), I answered, both evasively and diplomatically, I must admit: “Just because something is written about doesn’t mean it’s true. But then again, just because we don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not.” What else could I say? Not having seen either Donegal fairies or Transylvanian vampires, I remain doubtful but very much open-minded.

Credit must go to the Bram Stoker Festival organisers who provided a plethora of delightful activities for everyone. These ranged from walks with experienced guide, Pat Liddy who brought to life spine-chilling tales such as Stoker’s ‘Dracula;’ Irish Gothic writer Sheridan Le Faanu’s ‘Carmilla’ and Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray;’ book readings and a cosy Q&A with authors Lynne Truss  and Joanna Briscoe who penned ghostly tales for Hammer Classics, an imprint of Random House; and lively music every night. Light-hearted humor was the hallmark of a funky ‘Literary Death March’ at Smock Alley Theatre, where writers such as Lynn Shepherd read their work and competed with others before a panel of judges, with audience participation in a rousing literary quiz finale.

photo 4

Flying witches, goblins and vampires – all part of the Bram Stoker Festival in the Oak Room of the Mansion House in Dublin.

The festival – sponsored by Failte Ireland and Dublin City Council – also featured a tantalising discussion entitled ‘Madness and Sexuality’ at which Paul Murray, a former cultural attaché at the Irish Embassy in London and a Stoker biographer, and two doctors, one a psychiatrist, discussed Stoker’s state of sanity when he penned his macabre bestseller.

Much to my surprise, the ‘vampire killing kit’ was among strange artefacts at a special exhibit entitled ‘BLOOD’ at the Science Gallery beside Trinity College, hosted to coincide with the Stoker festival. The ‘kit’ was neatly arranged inside a glass case and included a gun with silver bullets and a hammer and wooden stake (best, I suppose, to be prepared for all eventualities).

photo 5

Gun with silver bullets, a crucifix and a hammer with wooden stakes of various sizes – all elements in a vampire killing kit.

Meeting the IRA chief of staff on the steps of a New York library

library

New York Library’s ornate limestone building – an unlikely place to to meet the IRA’s former chief of staff.

Standing on the broad steps of the New York Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street awaiting the arrival of the IRA’s former chief of staff was quite an exciting experience, especially for a naïve teenage undergraduate such as I was then.

Living in west Belfast in the midst of ‘The Troubles,’ I imagined it could conceivably have been a key scene from a movie about a clandestine guerrilla operation.

But it was nothing like that.

By then, Seán Cronin, the IRA’s former chief of staff and mastermind of Operation Harvest, a campaign that carried out military operations on British security installations, was a well-respected author, academic and US correspondent for The Irish Times. In contrast, I was a humble humanities student at the Ulster Polytechnic, now the University of Ulster, working part-time in the Celtic Bar on the Falls Road for disco money.

Seán Cronin

Dungloe-born social activist Peadar O’Donnell – about whose  life a conference was held this week (see news story below) – had brought us together.

Months before, I had – by chance, for an undergraduate thesis – become one of the last persons to interview Peadar in Dublin just before his death. And Seán was writing a book about the 1930s, a tumultuous period in Irish history when Peadar with Frank Ryan, George Gilmore and others had launched the Irish Republican Congress (the subject of my thesis).

It being a time before Google, Facebook or e-mail – in fact, fax was a new-fangled machine I had only vaguely heard of – neither Seán nor I knew what each other looked like. And as there were scores of people lingering on those broad library steps that sunny summer’s day so many years ago, meeting up wasn’t so easy.

But eventually we did, Seán saying later – half-jokingly – that his past training had helped him scope out the situation and pick me out as “the Belfast boy among the Yanks.’

After introductory formalities including my proudly handing over my thesis (part of which he later published in his book), we retreated out of the hot sun into a nearby coffee house. There we spent some time chatting about this and that – his days in the IRA, his arrest and imprisonment, his work as a journalist and not least, the man who had brought us both together, Peadar O’Donnell. Little did I know then, of course, that I too would become an international journalist and live and work in west Donegal as Peadar had.

 

Peadar O’Donnell

Teacher, social activist, soldier, author

As people attending this past weekend’s annual conference in Dungloe learned, Peadar was one of the foremost radicals of twentieth-century Ireland. Born in that town into an Irish-speaking family, he was a teacher on Arranmore Island but by 1919 was a leading organiser of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and had also attempted in Derry to set up a unit of the Irish Citizens Army. Later he joined the IRA and remained active during the Irish War of Independence, leading guerrilla activities in the border area, becoming commander of the IRA’s Donegal Brigade in 1921. He gained a reputation as being headstrong, and sometimes launching operations without orders. Summing up aspects of his character, a speaker at the conference this week said if at a wedding Peadar wanted to be the groom and if at a funeral, the corpse.

Opposing the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty, Peadar was among the IRA leaders who took over the Four Courts in Dublin and helped spark the outbreak of civil war. Imprisoned in Mountjoy, he participated in a mass Republican hunger strike, resisting for 41 days.

civil war photo

Turbulent times in Ireland’s revolutionary history – radical changes that deeply affected leaders like Peadar O’Donnell and Sean Cronin.

Through it all, the west Donegal man saw himself as closely following the principals of James Connolly, seeing the republican cause not solely in Irish nationalist terms. In 1923, while still in prison, he was elected as a Sinn Féin TD for Donegal and after his release took over as the editor of the republican newspaper, An Phoblacht. He did not take his seat in the Dáil and did not stand at the 1927 general election. He tried to steer the IRA in a left-wing direction and founded organisations such as the Irish Working Farmers’ Committee and the Anti-Tribute League, which opposed the repaying of annuities to the British government owed since the Irish Land Acts. He also founded the short-lived socialist republican party, Saor Éire.

The Irish Republic Congress that he helped establish was a left-wing movement that met with success in organising Belfast Protestants under the Republican Congress banner, leading to a march by the Shankill Road branch to Bodenstown churchyard in June 1934 to honour Theobald Wolfe Tone. The Congress ultimately split, however, on a proposal to turn it into a political party, O’Donnell rejecting this idea, arguing that it had more power as a united front. Like Gilmore and other Irish Republicans, he ended up fighting in the Spanish Civil War for the International Brigade against Franco.

After the 1940s, O’Donnell devoted more of his time to writing and less to politics, publishing his first novel, Storm, in 1925. This was followed by Islanders (1928), which received national and international acclaim, The New York Times describing it as a novel of ‘quiet brilliance and power’, the London Spectator ‘an intensely beautiful picture of peasant life.’ Other books followed – Adrigoole (1929), The Knife (1930); On the Edge of the Stream (1934); The Big Windows (1955) and Proud Island (1975). He also edited the Irish literary journal, The Bell, having founded it with well-known writer, Seán Ó Faoláin.

Peadar married Lile O’Donel in 1924, even though they had never met before. But they had communicated extensively during his time in prison. They began their honeymoon in a Dublin hotel that evening but by the following morning he was on the run once again as he had been identified.

Dying at the tender age of 93, he left strict instructions –  ‘no priests, no politicians and no pomp.’ His wishes were granted.

Looking back down the years, remembering my discussions on this larger-than-life character over a cup of tea in a downtown Manhattan café with someone as distinguished as Seán Cronin, whose own life was every bit as colorful and adventurous, seems now to have been a figment of a lively imagination.

I probably didn’t fully appreciate then the incredible opportunity that had been presented to me to turn the pages of history in the company of great men who wrote them. Now, with the wisdom of age and hindsight, I think I do.

 

Conference celebrating life of Peadar O’Donnell highlights key social issues

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

(l to r) Clare Daly TD for Kerry and social activists Paula Leonard and Clarrie Pringle describe the struggle by women in Irish society to gain recognition.

Analysis of a women’s co-operative in the Rosses that attracted over 200 knitters and of a left-wing movement, the Irish Republican Congress, were elements of a three-day conference this week celebrating the life of Dungloe-born socialist, teacher and author, Peadar O’Donnell.

At a panel chaired by community leader, Paula Leonard, social activist Clarrie Pringle described how collective efforts “cut out greedy middlemen who took hefty profits from the hard work and knitting skills of local women.”

“Knitting needles were known as ‘poverty sticks’ then as Donegal women attempted to stave off hardship,” she said. “So successful was the co-operative that not only did women get more money for their work but greater independence by learning business skills, including working with banks and statutory bodies.” Later still, some women started their own small companies, quite unusual for the time, she added.

Also speaking on the panel entitled ‘Women in Struggle’ held at Ionad Teampaill Chroine in Dungloe, Clare Daly TD in Kerry, praised the efforts of Pringle and her colleagues “as showing what women can achieve if given a fair chance.” Daly said the key role women have played in Irish history, including the Ladies’ Land League, has been “skewed or silenced by certain bodies for political and social purposes, but now thinking must change to meet modern reality.”

The two speakers agreed that difficulty of divorce and restricted access to contraception in the emerging Irish state made it hard for women to progress socially and politically.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

( l to r) Author and Dublin Sinn Fein councillor, Eoin O’Broin, TD Thomas Pringle and Eugene McCartan, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, analyze the success and failure of the Irish Republican Congress.

Both Daly and Pringle blamed the Catholic Church for “holding back the progress of women in Irish society.” Daly said, “There is no place for the church in political life, in selecting core curriculum in schools nor in governing women’s bodies” while Pringle added, “When we look back on the oppression of women and children in Ireland, we must inevitably view the Catholic church as a predominant influence. Shame of sexuality was bred into women for over a hundred years.”

They both called for a human rights module to be introduced into the national school curriculum,

In a second panel chaired by TD Thomas Pringle, Dublin Sinn Fein councillor, Eoin O’Broin, and Eugene McCartan, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, discussed the merits of the 1934 Irish Republican Congress, an effort by Peadar O’Donnell and others to create a stronger left-wing republican base to combat poverty and inequality.

“In many ways, the Congress, though short-lived, was a high point of left-leaning Republicanism of that era but it was also a lesson in abject failure,” said O’Broin. “It showed the immense challenges involved in linking nationalist and socialist traditions then and building socio-economic bridges, especially in northern Ireland.”

He added, “With the IRA’s ambivalence towards such a radical movement, Fianna Fail’s continued platform building then and the inability of Congress leaders to read the political situation and devise proper strategies, it, in effect, helped result in sixty years of Fianna Fail rule.” Saying there are “many lessons to be learned from the Congress,” McCartan added, “Greater appreciation of working-class issues is key to a fairer society as is the building of a common consciousness and a confidence in ordinary people that they can change things.”

John Crowley, who travelled from Scotland to attend the conference, said, “Overall, there were some very interesting analyses and from diverse viewpoints with many of the issues still relevant in today’s society.”

 

Vampire season approacheth

A strange invitation popped into my mailbox this week – and it being October, with Halloween approaching fast – perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised whom it came from: that most infamous of blood-thirsty vampires, Dracula.

Or at least from some people close to him, those at Fáilte Ireland and on Dublin City Council who together next week are organizing a special international Bram Stoker Festival in honor of the Long-Toothed Count and his maker, Dublin author Bram Stoker.

Quite right too: after all, ‘Dracula’ is believed to be the most printed book after the Bible, making Bram Ireland’s all-time, best-selling author.

Ever since I penned a tongue-in-cheek (note I didn’t say teeth-in-neck) travel book entitled “Digging for Dracula” almost 20 years ago while a foreign correspondent in eastern Europe, I’ve receive periodic invitations to speak at events focusing on Man’s fascination with blood-sucking immortals (‘strigoi’ as they’re known in the deepest, darkest Carpathians).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But the invitation that popped into my mailbox this time was stranger than most – to speak next Saturday at no less prestigious a residence than the Mansion House, official home of the Lord Mayor of Dublin.

Why there – no idea? Your guess is as good as mine. But it’s certainly a sign from on high that we’ve long passed the era when a classic novel such as this was not even acknowledged as part of our literary heritage nor studied in school, for fear it might make us feel a little  too erotic, Catholic and all, as we are.

who is dracula

But go I will and enjoy a nostalgic journey back in time – to Bram Stoker at the turn of the 19th century, a time when a general obsession about a shadowy, little-known region of eastern Europe called Transylvania and gory, bloody deaths (Jack the Ripper was alive and well and doing his stuff in Whitechapel) combined to focus peoples’ minds on all things dark and macabre.

Thus, Bram, then manager of prominent actor Henry Irving’s London theater, the Lyceum (having earlier eloped with Oscar Wilde’s former girlfriend – yes, Oscar was bisexual once), dusted up his research at the British Library (Bram never actually went to Transylvania) and penned his blood-riddled masterpiece. While his tale has been made into a zillion movies (the first being the German-made ‘Nosferatu’) and lots of TV series, poor old Bram barely made a penny from his work. When he died, his obituaries barely mentioned he was even a novelist.

After his death, the German company tried to avoid paying copyright by changing Dracula’s name to Count Orlok. Bram’s widow, Florence, sued, the court ordered all copies of the movie burned but one copy had already been distributed around the world and this was duplicated, making it an example of an early cult film.

big screen

For me, writing ‘Digging for Dracula’ was a quirky idea that emerged from an even quirkier fax received one morning at my Bucharest apartment from The Times foreign news desk in London asking me to cover a rather bizarre event – the ‘First-Ever World Congress of Dracula’ in Romania. Initially I thought it a joke (foreign newsroom editors have a black sense of humor akin to those in hospital emergency rooms, it helps in dealing with everyday catastrophes).

whitch trial

A much younger version of yours-truly stepped forward chivalrously (or, more likely, was pushed from behind) and ever since has been bound in wedlock to a woman from Transylvania for all eternity.

With hundreds of participants attending from many different countries including Japan, the US, England, France and Germany (strangely, aside from myself, none from Ireland, home of the author) and many different professions – doctors, nurses, academics, writers, psychologists, teachers – the week-long affair proved to be quite an eye-opener. Some people admitted to having coffins in their living rooms and slept soundly there when the notion took them; others had paid a hefty sum to their dentists to have their teeth sharpened.

Many of the speakers at the conference proved interesting, ranging from a psychologist’s view on what he termed ‘energy vampires, ’ those people whose company we sometimes share who leave us drained of energy; to a colorful history of the medieval warlord (‘voivod’ in Romanian), Vlad the Impaler, who some say was the model for Bram’s lead character.

vlad

While mysterious places in Romania such as Snagov Island and the Transylvanian village of Arefu, the ancient site of Vlad’s castle, proved intriguing for me to visit on my travels for the book, so did the mummies of Saint Michan’s in Dublin and Whitby (where Dracula’s ship arrives in a storm) – all major influences on Bram, the dramatic storyteller.

But seeing crooner Bing Crosby of ‘White Christmas’ fame laid out alongside the world’s most famous vampire in a Los Angeles graveyard proved more than anything that fact can indeed be stranger than fiction.

Fangs for stopping by and, in the words of the Count, “Come freely, go safely and leave some of the happiness you bring.”

Yet another Irish political fiasco

I was shocked to read in a leading Donegal newspaper editorial over the last few days that John McNulty had behaved ‘with dignity’ over his recent Fine Gael botched Senate nomination.

Let’s call a spade a spade.

The last thing Mr. McNulty behaved with was dignity. He condoned the onward march of cronyism and ‘stroke politics’ thus giving his full support to this age-old blight on Irish society.

John McNulty – guilty as charged, complicity to hoodwink. Photo courtesy Independent Newspaper.

Selling Mars bars at a Mace grocery shop in Stranorlar hardly qualifies Mr. McNulty to contribute much, if anything, to the development of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) (unless his business is merely a front for a secret network of art collectors storing priceless Van Gogh’s under the petrol pumps). There are many throughout the country with decades of high-level experience in the arts sector and thus much more qualified than he.

Yet when Fine Gael spin-doctors whispered in his ear they’d pull a few strings and shove him on the (already full) board, thus giving him an easier ride into the Senate, he leapt like a deer in heat, omitting to point out the simple fact that he was completely unqualified for such a key position.

In doing so, the 37-year-old Kilcar man is as guilty as those people – mainly under Fianna Fail’s governing stewardship – who greedily grabbed places on other boards such as FAS and the Central Remedial Clinic and proceeded to claim hefty payments and generous expenses on the backs of struggling tax-payers. (Fianna Fail actually rushed 182 of their members on to public boards in the dying days of its last reign).

It must also be remembered that, far from being a credible Senate nominee, Mr. McNulty failed to even get elected to Donegal County Council having won just over 800 votes in May, less than half of the quota required for the six-seat electoral area. In fact, he finished the race at the rear of the pack at a distant 10th place.

Choosing him shows just how desperate Fine Gael are to shore up its political representation in Donegal, especially with the additional failure of John Curran, its choice for the Udaras board, to get elected to the local council (in great part over his willingness to hand over more than a million euro of tax-payers money to the Catholic nuns to run an addiction center in Falcarragh when there’s already one in Donegal, and after the dead babies scandal in Tuam). With Donegal South-West deputy Dinny McGinley due to retire at the next election, Curran’s failure and now McNulty’s means there’s nobody in place as a successor.

John Curran – until recent local elections, was being groomed as potential successor to TD Dinny McGinley?

Public boards or private clubs?

In a bizarre twist to the tale, Fine Gael Arts Minister Heather Humphreys said in the Dail this week that Mr. McNulty was appointed to the board of IMMA “on the balance of talent and experience.” That’s a joke. The minister then added that she and her party were committed “to using the public appointments procedure in line with the guidelines.” That’s an even bigger joke. It recently emerged that at least two of the six appointees to the Board of the Heritage Council last year were made by her colleague Minister Jimmy Deenihan in contravention of that very same formal application process.

Further, a 2012 report by the Institute of Directors In Ireland on state boards showed concern at the lack of transparency around the appointment process and the lack of consideration given to the skills required to fill them. Since then, board positions have featured on Government department websites and advertised via the Public Appointments Service but some describe this as ‘pure window-dressing’. The McNulty situation, and perhaps the Curran one too, are cases in point.

Plain-speaking (maybe too plain) Minister for Health Leo Varadkar said election to the parliament of a candidate who has withdrawn – as McNulty has done to avoid further embarrassment – would not be good thing for the political process. Duh, really?

Obviously, the only way forward is to make the recruitment process entirely transparent, minimise government involvement in choosing appointees, and actively engage individuals with the appropriate skill set to fulfill these positions.

Fine Gael’s Arts Minister Heather Humphreys in the Dail struggling to deflect accusations of cronyism and stroke politics. Photo courtesy RTE News

No crying over spilled milk

Ultimately, however, we have only ourselves to blame.

Most of those who voted for Fine Gael over Fianna Fail three years ago knew deep in their hearts exactly what they were doing. Being conservative, as we Irish are by virtue of our Catholic upbringing, we voted for one party knowing full well deep down it was little different to the other. Then we deigned to pat ourselves on the back for ‘taking a bold stand.’

What baloney! Ours was nothing less than a cowardly act.

To make matters worse, when we had the chance to regain some degree of pride and do away with a Senate that is, and always has been since the foundation of the state, a complete and utter waste of public money, we declined to follow our instincts and put pen to paper. How could any of us vote for such an anachronistic and discriminatory institution highlighted by the fact that with so many worthy universities and colleges throughout Ireland, only two – Trinity College Dublin and the National University of Ireland – are permitted to have Senators? Not to mention that 11 Senators are simply appointed on the whim of the Taoiseach. No elections, no vote.

Padding expenses? Investigations well underway on shenanigans of Fianna Fail’s Brian O’Domhnaill: Handsome salary as Senator not enough?

Today the Irish Senate, unlike the American one, stands as a perfect model of cronyism and stroke politics, with even appointed party members such as Donegal’s very own Fianna Fáil Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill under investigation for milking the system by duplicating expenses.

We tossed away the opportunity to fling the Senate into the bin of history where it firmly belongs. Let’s not now cry over spilled milk. Like McNulty’s reluctance to apologise publicly for his complicity in attempting to hoodwink us ordinary folk, it’s so undignified.