Howls of Halloween are upon us….

With the spine-chilling howls of Halloween approaching and the door between the living and the dead opening ever so slightly, I’m reminded of midnight hours cutting my teeth on research for a proposed book later published under the title ‘DIGGING FOR DRACULA.

I had been living in Romania for several years, wearing two hats – professor of journalism at the University of Bucharest and foreign correspondent for The Times – when a fax came through from the news desk in London (those were the days before emails).

Halloween gift, book in a coffin

Funky Christmas gift for vampire-lovers! A book-in-a-coffin.

Under the headline ‘First-ever World Congress of Dracula’ were details of an upcoming, week long international event focusing on those strange Long-Toothed creatures that simply refuse to die.

Being from Ireland, the homeland of the famous vampire’s maker, Bram Stoker, I was intrigued, so much so I promptly set off on an adventure – to find out why his classic character created more than a century ago could attract such global fame.

Whitch trial, Transylvania vampires stories

Daily Telegraph, London. I ended up marrying this sexy witch. It was the only way to save her from being burned at the stake. Or worse.

That adventure brought me through the breathtaking landscapes of Transylvania to the princely lair of Vlad the Impaler within the craggy peaks of the Carpathian Mountains; to a seat beside Bram on a cliff-edge in the eastern port of Whitby, England, a place pivotal in the unfolding vampire drama; and to ‘Tinseltown’ Hollywood where Stoker’s creation won immortality on stage and screen.

Along the way, I visited the Mummies of Dublin; the ‘Agony Aunt’ of vampire lovers in New York; voodoo artists in New Orleans; a Los Angeles graveyard filled with larger than life characters; and the world’s largest garlic festival.

On a search for literary truths and the meanings of centuries-old myths, I learned that Celticism might just explain the elusive meaning of the word ‘Dracula’ – ‘droch fhola’ (pronounced ‘druc ula’) meaning ‘bad blood’ in Gaeilge, the native language of Ireland.

Forrest Ackerman science fiction, Los Angeles science fiction museum

Hollywood, California. Forrest Ackerman (left), known as the ‘Father of Science Fiction,’ famous collector of vampire books and movie memorabilia, shows me how vampires trap their prey.

As for the ‘First–ever World Congress of Dracula,’ it attracted many idiosyncratic people from all walks of life – professors, psychologists, writers, historians and teachers from many countries including Japan, France, Canada, Germany and the USA.

Some had their teeth artificially sharpened. Some slept in coffins. One man offered 10,000 dollars for anyone who could bring him a vampire, having arranged doctors in California to verify the find.

Digging for Dracula book, Vincent Hilliard Los Banos

Vincent Hilliard (left) offered 10,000 dollars to anyone who’d bring him a vampire. He lined up some doctors to verify the find. Here he poses in his home in Los Banos California, with Columbia, a Transylvanian visitor.

Those were just some of my experiences. So grasp your garlic and join me on a journey. Prepare to enter the ‘Lovable House of Horror’ and the ‘Land of the Living Dead.

Advertisements

Scuba-diving plankton make Donegal waters sparkle

Ever seen luminescent plankton sparkle at night like scuba-diving fireflies?
If not, then maybe you should take an island tour with Captain Gareth Doherty of Selkie Sailing as I did several days ago on his 22-foot Drascombe long boat.

Land ahead! Captain ‘Columbus’ Doherty’s first sighting of America, or some such landmark (Photo courtesy Selkie Sailing).

Setting off from what I call ‘Ernie’s Place’ (Bun An Inver harbor, opposite Teac Jack) just as the sun was setting, we headed across tranquil water to Sceard Iompainn (Umfin’s Blowhole) near Béal Scealp Uí Dhúgáin (Duggan’s Sea-Arch), its russet-red rocks sliding smoothly to the sea.
sunset on the wild atlantic way, Donegal boat trips,
Interestingly, as Pól Ó Muireasáin, our Gaelic linguist on board, pointed out, the island of Iompainn may have derived its name from the older spelling, ‘Iompthoinn,’ meaning ‘turning wave.’ Opposite Béal Scealp Uí Dhúgáin is where I normally fish off the side of my boat ‘Radharch na Coco’, catching sizeable pollock, but also losing plenty of lures and weights in the process, tangled in the heavy seaweed there.
Pól Ó Muireasáin, Gareth Doherty, Selkie Sailing

(l to r) Sea-mates Gareth Doherty and Pól Ó Muireasáin enjoy a light-hearted moment. Photo by Sean Hillen

Dare I say it for fear of ridicule, but once I even lost a fine rod there – left unattended in the stern of the boat, a group of conspiratorial avenging fish dragged it down to the murky depths before I could scamper back and rescue it.
From Béal Scealp Uí Dhúgáin, we floated gently on the placid surface for a while indulging in a spot of fishing while marveling at the glittering plankton in the water beside us dancing mightily as if high on ecstasy at a fairy rave party.
Our night tour then took us to Gola (Gabhla – the place of the fork, alluding to the two hills as seen from the mainland); Tororragaun (Tor Uí Arragáin, Harrigan’s Outcrop); Inishmeane (Inis Meáin, Middle Island); and Inishsirrer (Inis Oirthir, East Island).
sailing in Donegal, boats on Wild Atlantic Way

A chat at sea with local coastguard, Joe Curran (in orange) and Antonia Leitner from Austria (front left) helps pass the day away. Photo by Sean Hillen

There’s nothing as peaceful on a lovely evening than to be on a boat on calm seas in good company, chatting idly about this and that. And that’s exactly what we did, with subjects ranging from the fate of the Irish language to the wealth of wildlife off Donegal’s shoreline and Gareth’s peck on the nose from a nervous gannet (And, on a more cultural vein, needless to say Daniel ‘Travolta’ O’Donnell’s chances of capturing the Sam Maguire Cup of classical dance for the glory of Donegal – just joking).
Several things impressed me about Strabane-born Gareth Doherty on this trip.
The slim, bearded sailor loves the sea and all things associated with it, including a heartfelt concern for the environment and the birds and sea creatures that inhabit it.
 As a keen naturalist, the bird and wildlife around the coast here is truly spectacular,” he says. “And there’s so many different ways to enjoy them. Every time I cast off from the shore I have a feeling of anticipation, knowing the rewards that await me. The moment I switch off the engine and hoist sail, this transformation encapsulates for me an ancient tradition.”
Fishing on Wild Atlantic Way, Gareth Doherty

Gareth hand-catches a 15-pound sunfish near Umfin. Photo courtesy of Selkie Sailing

Illustrating his concern for wildlife, Gareth and his wife, Amanda, from Sunderland, helped establish the ‘North West Whale & Dolphin Support Group’ consisting of local like-minded people keen to learn how to save stranded sea mammals. The initiative followed the ill-treatment of a pod of 13 pilot whales left to suffocate after five days on Ballyness beach near Falcarragh. It was the 13th such stranding last year in Donegal.
wild life northwest Donegal, birds and sea life

Gareth’s son, Aran, watches over a young Great Black-backed Gull. The bird’s tongue got tangled in fishing lure, which Gareth skillfully removed. Photo courtesy of Selkie Sailing

Gareth, who lived in Black Isle, near Inverness and Dunoon in Argyll before moving to Donegal seven years ago, (his three children are named after Scottish islands – Skye, Rona and Arran) is a gold mine of marine information.
Well-qualified – he is a dinghy instructor, day-skipper, offshore yachts-master and is trained in advanced power-boating – his deep knowledge ranges from details on wildlife to be found around the Continental Shelf lying 50 miles off the Donegal coast to the characteristics of the waxy oil that dripped from a sperm whale stranded on Magheraroarty (Machaire Rabhartaigh) beach several weeks ago.
The 44-year-old’s passion for the sea originates in great part with his grandfather, Paddy McCauley, who spent much time in Inver, Donegal. “As he was a keen sailor and fisherman, some of my earliest memories are of being on the sea,” he recalls.
Now Gareth has transformed his indefatigable passion into a creative entrepreneurial venture. Aside from the Drascombe long boat, Selkie Sailing, based in Derrybeg, has many other craft – a gaff rig, topper sailboats, a catamaran, kayaks, a rib and a banana boat: more than enough to host guests on adventurous excursions among the many islands, sea arches and caves. Sailing classes take up much of Selkie’s activities.
Gareth Doherty saving sea life, Donegal wild life

Gareth caresses a blue shark, four miles off Inishsirrer near the wreck of the steamship, Boniface, torpedoed during World War One. Photo courtesy of Selkie Sailing

Gareth says different seasons bring different sights. “Spring sees a migration of Arctic Skuas, Sandwich Terns and Gannets with occasional rare visitors like the Short-Eared Owl,” he explains. “Summer days are filled with the song of the Skylark and ground-nesting birds like Oyster Catchers and Ring Plovers, with sea-cliffs harboring colonies of shags, cormorants and fulmars. Chances of seeing an otter, a basking shark, a bottlenose dolphin or a porpoise are higher then. With autumn come Sandlins and Dunlins while seal pups rest on the rocks and the sandy beaches of the islands. Brent and Barnacle Geese rule winter, taking advantage of the sea swells to feed. Sometimes, a long-tailed duck may make an appearance.”
Two proposed projects excite Gareth. One is in education – to teach children in local schools about the marine environment and its sea and air inhabitants. The other focuses on Minke whales. “They’ll start to appear over the next month and I’ve organised two underwater photographers and a cameraman on a drone helicopter to shoot their behaviour,” he says excitedly. “It may be the first time this has ever been done in Ireland.”
whales Donegal, Minke whales

Efforts by Amanda and Gareth Doherty aim to save many stranded whales, dolphins and other sea life such as this.

As to the name ‘Selkie.’ It’s a mythical creature; half man, half seal which comes on to the land and removes its outer layer of skin to reveal itself as a beautiful, dark-eyed human. Like the mermaid, selkies have been both praised and feared. Stories describe how they helped sailors in rough storms but also how they lured people into the sea. Another yarn tells of a man stealing the skin of a female selkie to trick her into being his wife.  
As Selkie Sailing’s motto states – “Where the shore ends, the advenure begins,’ you never know, perhaps a trip with Gareth might end up in a fortuitous meeting with one of these intriguing creatures.