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.’

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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.

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(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.

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(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.

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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).

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

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Flesh-eating plants, soaring eagles, Pagan wishing stones – all in a day’s work

His reputation was spoken of highly by good people – Mary McFadden, former headmistress and organizer of the lively ceilidh dances at Teac Jack’s and John Curran voluntary sector leader and aspiring politician. There seemed no-one better to uncover the anthropological and natural wonders of west Donegal for us than this fellow.

Seamus

So that’s how my wife, Columbia, our two small sheepdogs, Siog (‘fairy’ in Irish) and Lugh (who, according to Celtic legend, slew Balor of the Evil Eye) and myself ended up cowering for dear life under the branches of chubby furze bush as hailstones the size of a rabbit’s droppings – though much, much, much harder – pummeled down on us mercilessly from above.

But the drenching we got was worth the wetting (and sure didn’t the sun break out just a few minutes later as if to reassure us we’d be dry soon). For that’s how we got to know about flesh-eating plants, soaring eagles, Pagan wishing stones and Colmcille’s guide to the joy of sex all along the newly-Christened ‘Wild Atlantic Way.’ And many’s another thing that’s in Seamus Doohan’s head about our wee area tucked away in the far corner of this, the Forgotten County.

An electrical contractor by trade, the jolly, bald-headed 48-year-old became fascinated by the immense diversity of natural and anthropological features around him in his native Gaeltacht area of Cloughaneely after he participated in a sports endurance charity event for cancer victims three years ago. There and then he decided to study the local flora, fauna and history in greater depth and to launch a guided walks and navigation service, Walking Donegal, as an added attraction for visiting tourists and for local people. So far, he has taken several hundred on tours, including visitors from countries as diverse as Italy, the US and Japan, as well as guided walks with the Errigal Arts Festival and for schools.

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“We are spoiled for landscape choice in west Donegal, with such a wealth of intricate and colourful plant species and a fascinating history dating back to the time of primitive man and Pagan worship, not to mention the Christian era that came afterwards,” he said.  “There is something mysterious and magnetic about the mountains around us here, with so many routes for walkers of all ages and aspirations.”

Seamus’s walks, which include forest, island, hill and beach, range in duration from one to five hours and are graded 1 through 5 in terms of difficulty, from flat terrain to challenging gradients. They traverse places such as Horn Head, Ards Forest Park, Sli an Earagail, Dunlewey Glen, Tory, Innisboffin and Arranmore, as well as the Joey Glover Challenge, a walk from Muckish to Errigal “taking in all the mountains in between.”

devil's matchstick

Halting momentarily on the way up rolling fields to Lough Altan near Errigal, Seamus suddenly bends down and parts some blades of grass. Hidden beneath is a tiny plant with a vivid red head. ‘Devil’s matchstick, or cladonia cristatella,” he says, then points to a spot a few feet away. “And over there, some Devil’s chalices.”

devil's chalis

Running his fingers over a spread of soft lime-green moss, he adds, “Sphagnum. During the First World War there was a shortage of bandages and they used this to stem the flow of blood, especially from bayonet wounds. But there are a hundred other varieties.” He swings round on his hunkers to gaze at a small plant with what looks like a set of animal horns on top. “That’s staghorn. And there’s club and fern over there. Beside them, that’s bell and ling heather. You can dry their flowers and make healthy herbal teas out of them.” Turning again, his eyes searching closely, he adds, “There’s some tormentil flowers. They’re yellow in summer, natural antiseptic to ease toothaches. And there, sundew plants. They’re carnivorous, the glands on their leaves emit a sticky gel to traps insects. They then eat them to supplement the poor mineral nutrition of the soil in which they grow.”

Spagnum

Further along, by the side of an old pony and cart track used more than a hundred years ago to get to Altan Farm, he stops again, this time beside a strange rock formation that resembles the open pages of a book.  “I call this ‘leabhar cloch Cholm Ciolle’ (Colmcille’s book of stone). It’s believed the monk, who would have wandered these hills, secretly copied a mysterious text. Who knows? This could be it – magically petrified.” Somebody nearby says the book in question was probably ‘The Joy Of Sex” – a particularly delightful illustrative book that helped enlighten me greatly in the face of strict Catholic doctrine on the sacrosanct subject. But Seamus rightly ignores my nostalgic ramblings. And rambles on up the hill.

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Below in the sunshine, the ruins of a once sturdy, castle-like structure stands at the head of the lough, still defying the elements after all these years. To our left a herd of deer dart away on to higher ground while above us two eagles glide effortlessly, on the sharp lookout for unwary prey.

eagles

Later, up a steep climb behind Gortahork, Seamus, who is secretary and training officer of the North West Mountaineering Club, points to two round indentations carved out of bare stone, resembling an alien’s head. “Cup or ring marks, prehistoric art,” he says. “Sometimes known as wishing stones in Pagan times. Supposedly the water that gathers in them heals warts, thus the Gaeilge name, Tober na bhFáithní (the Wart Stone). ”

alien

Out at Ray, he stops at a ruined church and flat run of fields beyond, “This is known as ‘Lag na gCnámh,’ the resting place of bones, after a massacre that occurred here in the 17th century,” he ssays. “No-one knows exactly where the bodies are but there’s a lot of them under this soil somewhere.” In a hillside graveyard outside Falcarragh, he stands in the wind and rain, gazing east, “Amazing to think that druids long ago in their big, flowing cloaks stood right here with this amphitheater of hills in front of them and prayed to Nature.”As he spoke and the hailstones started pouring down again, I wondered if he might just take on the role, burst into a chant and invoke the Sun God to smile upon us.

Ray church