Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Origins of Dracula in Dublin

St. Michan's Church, Dublin.

Bram Stoker and his book Dracula (1897) may not freely associate in your mind with Dublin. But the author was born in Dublin, attended Trinity College, and began his career as a free-lance theater critic in the city.

In Ireland, there is speculation that what he saw in a tiny north side church, may have played a part in the vampire story that made him famous.

On a gloomy day I went to visit the ancient church of St. Michan's with its infamous mummy-filled crypts.  As I crossed the River Liffey, it felt as if I were entering a somewhat dodgy neighborhood. 

The old church is almost hidden by the surrounding buildings.

The neighborhood can't be too dodgy, I said to myself, since it includes Ireland's law courts. It is true the area looked as if it could use a good scrubbing--but the sidewalks are nevertheless filled with well-dressed toffs in old-fashioned collars and robes.

Just when you feel you are in the heart of creepy-ville at St. Michan's ...

... a posh barrister strolls by and adds a bit of Dickensian cheer to the scene.

The foundation of St. Michan's goes back to 1095, so its crypts may be a millennium old. When the church was rebuilt in the 17th and 18th centuries, workers discovered that the caskets beneath the church, filled with the oldest of the remains, had rotted away, and some of the bodies had mummified.

St. Michan's is consecrated ground: and yet ...

The mummies caused a sensation and became a tourist attraction. One of the remains, about 800 years old, had his legs crossed Crusader fashion. Another is missing a hand. And both feet.

The vaults are indeed strange, and though pictures aren't allowed, I can show you Peter, our guide, opening the doors as we prepare to enter ...

Peter was so good at telling his ghoulish stories, I feared he might start dragging a leg--like Igor.

The heavy lead doors actually do creak on their hinges ...

 ... and you see the entry, which one needs to be a little acrobatic to negotiate.

I can also share with you the eerie ambience of the surrounding churchyard.

Bram Stoker did grow up nearby. Dubliners believe he visited the mummies. He did write a gothic tale about characters who retreated to coffins. About the rest: we can only speculate.

Coincidentally, one of his contemporaries--also a Trinity college friend----Oscar Wilde, wrote a haunting book with a theme that is not dissimilar to Stoker's most famous work.

The Oscar Wilde statue in Dublin.

Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), explores--as Dracula does--the dark dream of earthly immortality. I  have long thought it is Wilde's most interesting work. 

Today, we think of both Dracula and Dorian Gray as horror stories. But both are much more than that as they examine the price men and women might be willing to pay to gain some edge on old age and death.

Stoker died a successful, middle class, family man and Wilde died in infamy. But they had these tales in common. Maybe it was something about Dublin--maybe not.

But their works survive and brought each a literary immortality. 

To the generations that follow, that's the most valuable legacy of all.

The remains of Ireland's Norman conquerer Strongbow in Dublin's Christ Church.

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