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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Shipwrecks, puppets and mechanical creatures – opportunities for cultural tourism

An earlier post – Cultural tourism: its time is nigh – highlighted the immense potential for cultural tourism in the Donegal Gaeltacht to help fill the vacuum left by failed government policies, mainly by Údarás na Gaeltachta, to provide jobs and prevent the departure of our dynamic young to foreign shores.

With the pursuit of major manufacturing companies a lost cause mainly due to difficult and expensive transport logistics and call centres being a short-term band-aid, cultural tourism has been an underused weapon in the battle against rising unemployment and severe economic decline in the Gaeltacht.

While some say a minority of people such as language-based entrepreneur Liam Cunningham in Glencolmcille have become tourism millionaires, mainly based on national and international grants with Cunningham perhaps reaping the benefits of his chairmanship of Údarás for over a decade (whether questionable or not, meaning within ethical parameters, is a topic for future discussion), the depth of funding to other local cultural tourism entrepreneurs has been sparse.

The reason, according to Udaras officials, is that cultural tourism doesn’t create long-term jobs. Asked why, officials are at a loss to explain, so what this long-held and somewhat irrational attitude is based on is a matter of pure conjecture, with some critics saying the real reason is unrelated to accepted principles of economic development but rather linked to cronyism, influence peddling and continued support, financial and otherwise, to Fianna Fail, a party that ruled the roost for so long and put certain people in key executive positions.

While the accuracy of this allegation requires further investigation, what is important to note is what other parts of Ireland and beyond have done – and are doing – to reap healthy benefits from committed policies to cultural tourism development and analyze whether the Donegal Gaeltacht has – to put it succinctly – ‘got what it takes.’

At a largely EU-funded conference earlier this year under the auspices of CeangalG and with the catchphrase ‘Selling Our Story,’ speaker after speaker talked about interesting cultural tourism ideas that have produced positive measurable results, including increased job creation. Many of the speakers agreed that key components for such success include ‘identity,’ ‘authenticity’ and ‘memorability.’

In my opinion, the Latin term ‘genius loci’ (spirit of place) best describes what the central element is – the specific nuances of any given place that separate it from the rest of the world.

So, does the Donegal Gaeltacht have what it takes?

In a word, yes!

Cherishing an ancient language that proudly holds its place among the oldest in the known world; with the singing tradition of sean-nós, whose ornamented, rhythmic intimations are an inspirational reminder of the primordial beginnings of Man; and with the area’s unique traditional dance and music, disparate elements of ‘genius loci’ are plentiful. Not to mention the intriguing Celtic legends such as those related to Balor and Lugh, thus the Mount of Lugh (now called Errigal) named after the ancient Sun God.

Having had the privilege over the last 30 years of travelling as a journalist on assignment to many parts of the world, I considered some of the places I’ve visited and successful cultural tourism projects there, projects that have not only strengthened the economic vitality of deprived areas but also uplifted the innate spirit and pride of the local population.

Here are a few, some which might just provide models of excellence for the Donegal Gaeltacht.

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Creative engineering in Nantes, France, has led to economic revival based on cultural tourism.

Nantes, France – Earlier this year, I travelled to this western town in the Pays Loire region to see such a project. Faced with empty industrial estates, local officials had decided to invest in cultural tourism to create jobs using the existing space and infrastructure.

Realizing how watching ships return to this riverside port with exotic cargo from around the world inspired a young Jules Verne to later write science-fiction classics as ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ and ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth,’ the officials embarked on a project that now attracts tens of thousands of visitors annually. Entitled Les Machines de L’Ileand opened in 2007, it is a 21st-century mechanical wonderland consisting of monumental structures including the, ‘Grand Elephant,’ ‘Mantra Ray,’ ‘Sea Snake,’ ‘Heron Tree,’ and ‘World Carousel’ in what is known as the ‘Gallery of Machines’ upon which visitors enjoy adventure rides and experiences. Last year alone, almost 100,000 people rode on the Grand Elephant; 190,000 people visited the gallery and 250,000 the ‘World Carousel.’ Total investment – in various stages – was 17.7 million euro, a sum that was recouped within a few years. In comparison, according to Údarás, Largo Foods received around seven million euro in funding and left the area earlier this year.

Not only did the project increase business revenues, it also created permanent, long-term new jobs in central workshops employing such tradespeople as plumbers, carpenters and engineers. Could a project like this – using local legendary Celtic figures as central subjects – not help deal with the empty industrial spaces throughout west Donegal, while attracting more tourists to the area?

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Puppetry, an age-old tradition in Sicily, attracts tourists and locals alike, providing both entertainment and cultural education.

Palermo, Sicily – Like west Donegal, this rocky island at the toe of Italy has generally been ignored by the central government in Rome. Faced with worsening employment, local officials took matters into their own hands. Seizing on a peculiar and unique vein of cultural heritage dating back hundreds of years to the time of Socrates – puppetry – they created a flourishing tourism attraction that has boosted business and employment.

Opera dei pui’ (puppet theater) has a long tradition in Sicily, reaching its peak around 100 years ago on the island. With support from the Association for Conservation of Popular Traditions, visitors to the downtown Palermo puppet museum can now see hundreds of beautifully designed puppets, their masters’ equipment (mestiere), as well as other memorabilia, and regularly-staged shows involving cultural characters and chivalrous heroes such as Orlando, Rinaldo and Gano di Maganza. So strong has been the resurgence of interest in this long-held tradition, puppet theatre performances – that also play an important educational role in highlighting the island’s history –take place in other parts of Sicily. Again, using local legendary figures and stories, can the Donegal Gaeltacht not avail of a similar cultural tourism initiative? A creative team under the guidance of Kathleen Gallagher has already shown the level of know-how required for such a project.

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Donegal flag flies high over one of the area’s most well-known shipwrecks opposite Ostan Gaoth Dobhair. Many others lie offshore, spanning centuries of history.

Key West, Florida – before it became a hotspot for tourism, this area on the tip of the peninsula was a backward, forgotten place in the 1800s where local fishermen and their families led difficult hand-to-mouth existences. Only when the phrase ‘Wreck Ashore!’ rang out did hope for better things arise. ‘Unloading’ the many ships that ran into difficulty was a chore, but a most rewarding one.

Seizing upon this colourful aspect of the area’s history, local officials decided to create an attraction that would be both entertaining, as well as educational. Thus, the ‘Key West Shipwreck Museum,’ where visitors step back in time to discover Key West’s unique maritime heritage. The museum combines actors, video and actual artefacts from the rediscovery of wrecked vessels such as the Isaac Allerton, which sank in 1856 on the treacherous Florida Keys reef.

Narrator and master wrecker, Asa Tift, and his wrecking crew tell the story of how this unusual industry created livelihoods for the early pioneers of Key West. Visitors can even climb a 65-foot lookout tower in search of wrecks.

West Donegal, with its rich maritime heritage and its record of shipwrecks, including the sinking of Spanish Armada galleons off Tory and Gola Islands plus other vessels, both military from the two world wars and commercial, offers a similar historical backdrop to Key West. What’s to prevent officials funding such a project – except, of course, narrow-minded thinking and lack of specialised business acumen?