As Irish as the Vampire

(Originally published by Universal Studios Horror Online, February 2000;
Revised 17 March 2018)

shamrock-knotForget the leprechauns and the green beer. If everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, then consider celebrating that most Irish of modern monsters, a true creature of the Ould Sod—the vampire.

Aye and begorrah, ’tis the truth I am telling ye, though it may take a while in the telling, so settle in…

Many a dread beastie found its beginnings in the somber valleys and melancholy mountains of Eire. Ancient Celtic legends and customs mixed first with Roman mythology and then with Christianity to beget a rich potion of dark lore. Some of this commingling of cultures can be found in our present-day holiday of Halloween. Many of the traditions first popularized in the U.S. by Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century have origins in the Celtic holiday of Samhain. The mortal and spirit worlds were said to merge during this festival marking the end of summer and the beginning of winter. Folks protected themselves from evil spirits by adopting disguises as ghosts and goblins. To show proper respect, they offered food to the dead who returned home on that day. The Christian holidays of All Saints (All Hallows) Day and All Souls Day (November 1 and November 2) became replacements for the pagan holidays with celebration beginning on the evening of October 31—All Hallows Eve.

Saint Patrick

Saint Patrick

Not that St. Patrick himself had such an easy time bringing Christianity to—or inflicting it upon—Ireland. Many were the magical fights between the future saint and the Celtic druids. In one match-up, the druids’ incantations covered a hill and surrounding plain with a cloud of stygian darkness. Patrick’s prayers brought the sunshine back. His prayers also curtailed the Arch-Druid Lochru’s power of flight and the druid was dashed to pieces upon a rock.

Since Christianity prevailed, most of the tales that survive cast Paddy and his holy side as the good guys with the Celtic druids portrayed as bad guys.

Brought into the bosom of the church just in time for the Dark Ages, the Irish survived invasion, rival kings, unfortunate weather, and other indignities until they were finally left to fend for themselves in an existence dominated by a corrupt church, oppressive landlords, complicated politics, and an absentee government. Little wonder that belief in strange unseen powers seemed a good way understand the workings of the world. Much of what might be explained rationally in other cultures was attributed to the power of the fantastic in Ireland and became fodder for generations of storytellers.

In some cultures supernatural beings don’t get much weirder than the run-of-the mill phantoms, giants, witches, ghosts, shapechangers, and the like. Eire has all of those, of course, but Ireland bred a raft of particularly interesting dark forces.

A banshee from  Thomas Crofton Croker's FAIRY LEGENDS AND TRADITIONS OF THE SOUTH OF IRELAND (1834)

A banshee from Thomas Crofton Croker’s Fairy Legends & Traditions of South Ireland (1834)

Among the Irish sidhe (fairies), for instance, you’ll find the banshee, a female death messenger who does no harm herself, but her unearthly keening (the English word keen is from the Irish caoineadh, meaning “lament”) signifies the death of a member of the true Irish race. Her sister-force, the Lianhan Sidhe seeks the love of mortal men and their desire for her ultimately destroys them. The Far Darrig (“The Red Man”) is a near relation to the leprechaun, but he dresses in red from head to toe and, much amused by mortal terror, he’s been known to give evil dreams.

The female merrow (mulrruhgach) is a mermaid who attempts to attract fishermen and sailors, but her presence always ensures a storm or a disaster at sea. Far Dorocha (“The Dark Man”) rides on his black horse into our world to abduct humans the queen of the fairies desires. Although he never speaks mortals invariably understand his commands and, unable to disobey, surrender their wills to his and mount up behind him. The Gray Man or Far Liath appears as a fog and covers land and sea with his mantle. He obscures rocks so ships crash upon them and darkens the road so that travelers unwittingly stumble over cliffs to their deaths. The Dullahan (Gan Ceann) is a headless horseman who rides an equally headless horse during the dead of night; wherever he stops a mortal dies. The Demon Bride, a beautiful but evil spirit, seduces her mortal victim with a kiss that steals his soul. He dies the death of a raving lunatic, haunted by the knowledge of his fatal mistake.

With an imaginative heritage this rich, it’s no wonder that the most renowned of Irish authors—James Joyce, Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, John Millington Synge—all had their forays into ghost or horror stories. Charles Robert Maturin’s melodramatic Gothic Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) is the archetypal accursed wanderer story. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu‘s (1814-73) name is synonymous with the ghost story. Bram Stoker invented Dracula (1897). Lesser known, but accomplished Irish writers like Charlotte Riddell, Dorothy Macardle, and Elizabeth Bowen wrote riveting supernatural stories. Pulpmeisters like Sax Rohmer (Arthur Sarsfield Ward, whose parents were Irish immigrants to England) invented indelible dark entertainment.

Eire’s eerie atmosphere inspired many non-Irish writers as well. Many of the tales of Lord Dunsany were set in Ireland. Francis Marion Crawford‘s chilling “The Dead Smile” (1899), H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Moon Bog” (1926), William Hope Hodgson‘s House on the Borderland, and more than a dozen of Ray Bradbury‘s stories are just a few of the classic weird tales that evoke or are set in Ireland.

And the tradition continues. Bestselling crime/horror fiction author John Connolly, was born and raised on the Emerald Isle. Caitlín R. Kiernan was born in Dublin. Galway-based Maura McHugh was born in the U.S., but moved to Ireland as a child.

Aye, but I promised ye vampires, now didn’t I? And no, I didn’t mean the dearg-due, Ireland’s rather lackluster native vampire that can be defeated by building a stone cairn over its grave. I meant the very essence of what we think of as a vampire these days. The monster who has become a cultural phenomenon that is often portrayed as more desirable than malign.

Illustration from The Dark Blue by D.H. Friston (1872)

Illustration from The Dark Blue by D.H. Friston (1872)

As mentioned above, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu is noted for his ghost stories, but he is also remembered for his novella Carmilla. Published in 1872, it tells of a lonely English girl who meets a beautiful aristocratic vampiress in an isolated castle. But there’s as much of the banshee and the Lianhan Sidhe (although with lesbian rather than heterosexual orientation) in Carmilla as there is eastern European vampiric influence. And, according to Richard Davenport-Hines in Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin, Carmilla is also a political allegory; its setting somewhere in the Austro-Hugarian empire a substitute for nineteenth-century Ireland. The English narrator, Laura, and her father live an isolated existence that parallels that of the Anglo-Irish gentry of the period. They live near “a ruined village” that resembles the results of Irish depopulation after the great famine of 1845-49. The extinct “proud family of Karnstein” is a parallel for the extinction of much of the Irish peerage after the Act of Union of 1800. After 1800, no new Irish peerage could be created without the extinction of three old ones, thus the aristocracy was “only able to regenerate by a sort of legalistic vampirism.” Carmilla, an undead member of the otherwise defunct Karnsteins, “[l]ike the Irish peerage…needs extinctions to revive.” The three young women who expire in the story equate with the “three Irish peerages required before a new one can come alive.”

Carmilla was certainly an influence (some go as far as to say a plagiarized source) of another Irish writer, Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. Although not a social and political parable like Carmilla, the Irish folkloric and literary influences are definitely there. And, Stoker’s vampires, according to Davenport-Hines, can be seen as a metaphor for the assimilation of capital; the American character of Morris as symbolic of a future that is dominated by the new world, not the British Empire.

Hollywood eventually turned Stoker’s evil nobleman into a glamorous, debonair film image with Tod Browning’s suave count, portrayed in the 1931 movie by Bela Lugosi. Stoker, having served as Victorian theatrical luminary Sir Henry Irving’s “manager” for 27 years, knew something of the dramatic, but even he could not predict his creation’s dramatic impact. The book has been adapted more than one hundred times for the screen.

Movie poster 1936

Movie poster 1936

Anne Rice, a writer who is greatly responsible for our current cultural interpretation of the vampire mythos, was inspired by the 1936 Universal sequel to Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter. Rice’s maiden name was O’Brien. Her father is described by Rice biographer Katherine Ramsland as “a son of the Irish Channel” in New Orleans; her mother, Katherine Allen, “came from an old and respected Irish family.” As for her vampiric anti-hero Lestat , despite his aristocratic French antecedents, there’s something of the stereotypical Irishman about him—the irresistibly charming canny outsider; the compulsive sinner with an addictive thirst.

Not convinced, are ye? Well, no two people ever lit a fire without disagreeing. But come this St. Patrick’s day, if ye cannot envision the vampire as more Irish than those pesky leprechauns, then at least to all these Irish storytellers and their dark tales.

Sláinte!

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