Irish Blood – origins of Dracula?

Irish blood

We all know that  our dear friend Count Dracula may have been a Transylvanian, but it was an Irish man who introduced him to the world; Mr. Bram Stoker.  What often puzzles people for a while is how did a middle class civil servant/theatre manager from Dublin happen to create not only one of the most famous characters in literature but also a whole genre. On the face of it, this seems like a strange starting point for such a literary legend. However, you only have to peel away the surface layers of history to begin to understand why.

To have written such an undertaking you would need a certain amount of motivation and appreciation for the subject. Growing up in Dublin, Stoker had the benefit  of learning from the best, as it were. The Wilde family (surgeon father, nationalist mother and witty son etc.) were family friends and young Bram grew up listening to the famous story telling of Jane Wilde.  She would have filled the young Bram’s head with the myths and legends of Ireland.

We also have to remember that, although Stoker is often credited with giving us the modern Gothic vampire novel, he was not the first.  An earlier work by fellow Dublin-man Sheridan Le Fanu entitled Carmilla was published 25 years before hand. We’’ take a look at the work  further down, much of what we recognise from Dracula may have been inspired by this work the central European castle, the doctor, the lonely hero etc.

Although there is much written regarding Irish ghost stories, they usually involve just that, ghosts, or a people such as faerie folk or other such, but there are a few vampire legends, the most famous being that of  An Dearg Due – The Red Bloodsucker, not as famous today as Count Vlad today, but certainly a much older legend, still lingering today.

An Dearg Due

An Dearg Due or “The Red bloodsucker” tells the story of a female daemon that seduces male victims and drains their blood in the process.  The story of this daemon is a familiar one. The story is set about the early 12th century.  Alive she was a woman of famed beauty with red lips and pale blonde hair known the length and breadth of the country. Men travelled from all over the country to seek her hand in marriage. It was said that the beauty in her heart out-shined her legendary beauty  As was her wont she fell in love with a local peasant he was by all accounts a good match for her;  strong and generous according to those who knew him . The problem was he was of too low a station and did not meet with the approval of her father.  She was forced in to an arranged marriage with another an older far richer but much more cruel man, and with any good legend of its type, she was mistreated. In this case she sadly committed suicide. Legend has it that she was buried near Strongbow’s tree in Waterford. The tree is long gone, either way she would have been buried in un-consecrated ground. Not lying at rest, she would have her revenge and so she did, rising to revenge her suffering on her husband and father, sucking the blood from them. Legend now has it that she rises once per year to continue her vengeance. Even today rocks are still placed over graves in various parts of the country, to stop her rising.

As we mentioned despite her father’s intentions to marry her well, she fell for the peasant we mentioned above, by the accounts of the legend this man was a good and decent person with one major failing, no land or money, without these there would be no secure future and so any such match built on these grounds would not be permitted.

Her father did find her a husband though, and older wealthy man of land and means, the family would be financially safe. Married off, and now secure, her family did not concern themselves with her wellbeing, they were more concerned with their. This is said because of the daily hell and torture she  suffered at the hands of her husband

All of this to secure a name and a fortune for the family. While the Father relaxed in his newly acquired riches, he gave not a thought to his poor daughter. She daily suffered terrible mental and physical abuse at the hands of her new “husband.” His particular pleasure was found in drawing blood from her…watching as the deep crimson welled up on her soft skin. When she was not being abused, she was kept locked away in a tower cell, so that only her husband could see her…touch her…bleed her.  And she waited, in vain, for the day that her former love, the  peasant, would somehow rescue her. That hope kept her alive for many months.

Finally one day, she realized there was no hope. The months of abuse were too much. No one would come for her. So she saved herself, the only way she knew how. She committed suicide, some say she hung herself.. It was a slow, and no doubt painful, death. She is buried in a small churchyard, near “Strongbow’s Tree,” in the County of Waterford, Southeast Ireland. Her human spirit broken and suffering twisted her into the daemon she was to become after death, before finally dying she renounced God and vowed vengeance on those who made her suffer. She was a suicide, so for the faithful she, her soul could never rest.

Tradition, even before this event was to place a pile of stones on the graves of the dead to prevent them from rising, but the legend tells us,  for whatever reason, there were no stones placed on the grave that first night. Some say it was out of pity, they just wanted to let her rest in peace without restriction, she had suffered enough, was it guilt that stopped them, everybody knew the kind of man she was married to, everybody knew her suffering, all ignored it or just turned a blind-eye.

They say, the only person to mourn her death was her peasant lover, and that  he prayed at her graveside every day for a year, praying for her to return.  However her nature may have been when she was alive;  one year later one the first anniversary of her death,   she arose, her nature now far different from what it used to be. With the blood still in her veins wanting more, she arose as the Dearg Due, the Red-Blood Drinker.

Full of revenge in her cold heart, her first victims were those who made her suffer most, when they found him, her father had been drained of all blood, his face a vision of horror and terror, they say his heart stopped even before his blood had been drained, his daughter returned as evil and malevolent now  as she had been kind and loving in life. Before the night was out her husband, who had not wasted time in seeking the affections of another, was also dispatched to the afterlife.  The fresh blood woke a taste in her for more blood and as the years went on and her loneliness grows, she rises now and  steals blood from children, from the innocent, and especially from young men. Calling them with a haunting siren song that invades their sleep, she lures them out into the night with her…tempting them to follow her, to her grave.  Punishing them, as she was punished. Keeping them with her, as she herself was kept.  Those who go missing, those taken mysteriously ill, those children who die inexplicably, are all attributed to the cursed, wandering, and insatiable Dearg-Due.

Legend has it that she was buried under Stronbow’s tree in Waterford, no one knows where this tree stood, there are a couple of graveyards in the area which are likely to have been near any burial site and close to “Stongbow’s Tower” or Reginald’s Tower as it is correctly called. Saint Michael’s church was believed to be associated with the legend. Some say Strongbow was buried there and not in Saint Patrick’s cathedral where his tomb rests.

It is said that the Dearg-Due rises from  her grave to seduce her victims and lure them to their deaths, draining them. Like many of her kind, she lured her victims to her, much like a succubus, but visiting not in the dreams of her victims. Depending on the version of the legend you are introduced to, some say she rises every new moon to feed while others say it is a couple of times per year, or on special occaisions like her birthday and the day she died. It is said that the only way to kill her is to pile stones on her grave. Some say she can change for to a bat, other say to a rat.

Leacht Abhartach

Next to the Dreag-due, there is also the legend of Abhartach. In the hills of Derry in Glenullin,  the homeland of the O’Kane clan, members of the O’Neil sept Their Chieftain had the honour of inauguration of the Chief of the O’Neill clan (by tossing a shoe over the new Sept Chieftain’s head  in acceptance of his rule). The story revolves around Cathrain (The O’Kane) , the Chieftain at the time, and Leath Abhartach, Avile and evil creature who some said was an evil dwarf, while others described his as apowerful wizard and  by many others  as a vampire (an all-round nice-guy then!). all agreed he was a nasty piece of work.

There is a village called Slaghtaverty (previously called “laghtaverty” which would have translated as (The monument of the [abhartach] or dwarf). The dwarf in question was a magician. A person known for his nasty behaviour and cruelty to people. His evil continued until a neighbouring Chieftain finally killed him. He was buried standing in his grave. It was thought that was the end of him, but no. The next day after he was killed he appeared back again at his home places, now more cruel and evil than ever and demanding of those alive that they feed him with bowls of blood. The O’Kane chieftain once again killed him and buried him again as before. This was no different, once again he rose from his grave spreading fear throughout the country.

Looking to finally put an end to the scourge The O’Kane went to the hermitages of the area seeking out advise, he finally met with the most noted of the druids who was in Gortnamoyagh forest.  People say the Druid was actually one of the first Christian monks in the area. The area where he lived is still today known as “Churchtown”.There is still also evidence of old structures and living areas in the ruins of Gortnamoyagh.

 The Druid informed him that the monster was dearg-dililat, a drinker of human blood but more dangerously he was a neamh-mhairbh. One of the undead, who kept himself “alive” by drinking the blood of humans. To  defeat the dearg-dililat, you can only restrain or trap him but not kill him., The O’Kane would have to pierce his heart him with a sword made of yew  wood and then buried with his head downward and then covered in thorn bushes and ashes. A heavy stone must then be placed on top of the graver to cap it; if not the vampire dwarf would be free to walk the nights and feed at will.  

The O’Kane did as he was told and went to find the evil creature, whatever it was. In the struggle that followed the neamh-mhairbh was trapped and stabbed through the heart as needed. With that he was buried as told, and a great stone monument placed above it. The monument is gone now, but the cap stone is still in place. Alongside the stone is a tree which grew from those first thorns and ashes placed on the grave.

Today in the area around Glenullin in Derry, the grave still lies, itself growing in infamy and notoriety as the years go on. The local people consider the grave site to be “bad-ground” with it causing much unhappiness to owners and others over the years. In the late 1990’s there was an attempt to clear the land but according to local reports, this could not happen. When they attempted to cut down the tree standing guard it is said that a fully functioning chainsaw broke down multiple times and when they tried to lift the great cap-stone the chain snapped.

Local legend speaks of a fortune buried with the creature, but strangely enough nobody has been willing to dig for it.

An Du’n Dreach-Fhoula

The Irish word dreach-fhoula (pronounced dracula) means bad or tainted blood. The expression is believed to refer to blood feuds between people or families. However, there is an earlier legend associated with it. There is a site which is called Dún Dreach-Fhoula 

A former Registrar of the National Folklore Commission (Seán O’Sullaebhán) during a talk in 1961 mentioned Dún Dreach-fhoula (pronounced (Droc’ola), the Fort of the Bad Blood or The Fort of Blood Visage. The fort supposedly guarded the pass through the Magillycuddy Reeks  in Kerry which  was inhabited by blood-drinking fairies. It was said to guard a lonely pass but travellers in the region had to beware lest they become the prey of the dearg-diulai, the blood drinking faeries.

Despite the provenance of the speaker, searches for the Dún in the recent years have shown-up no remains of a fort or other such clues. It is suggested that the legend of this castle may have been an inspiration for Dracula, coming from Dreach-fhoula, bad blood.


Gothic vampire novels were not new when Stoker wrote his, he is simply the best known. In 1819 John Polidori, an English man of Italian descent wrote the short story The Vampyre, inspired by his time with Lord Byron, he was Byron’s personal physician and travelled Europe with him on his grand tour. The culmination of this was the famous night in the house by Lake Geneva with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley who would marry Mary,  and Claire Clairmont. Dismissed by Byron, he travelled some more and then on his return to England published his short story the Vampyre, which was mistakenly ascribed to Byron by many in the early years.

There were various other works continuing the gothic style of story, one which stood out and which is comparable to Dracula is Carmilla.  Written by Sheridan Le Fanu who lived from 1814 to 1873 who wrote gothic and mystery novels.  His works stand by themselves and not just in Stoker’s shadow. His best known are Uncle Silas, Carmilla and The House by the Churchyard. The Sheridan connection was to the famous theatrical Sheridan family (Richard Brinsely Sheridan was his uncle). His father was an Anglican clergyman and ensured Sheridan had a conservative almost home-schooled education. Married in 1844, the marriage ended in tragedy when his wife Susanna died in 1858.

His earliest selection of short stories are what became known as “The Purcell Papers” from 1838/1840 which are supposedly the written records of an 18th century catholic priest. In the main they were set in Ireland and include a lot of the horror elements we insist on today; gothic horror, gloomy castles, apparitions and madness.

His most famous work however is Carmilla. It tells of the family of an English army officer who having been in military service in Austria bought a small schloss for himself and his daughter. The story is from the view of young Laura. The schloss is only reached through thick forest and after passing a deserted  village and ruined fortress. Speaking of her life, she recalls a strange dream she had when she was only six.

The family hears of the death of a friends daughter and a little while later meet Carmilla who arrives with them by coach following an accident. She stays with the family, her mother must continue away on a mission,  the details of which she did not share. Carmilla stays with them and while once talking Laura tells of the dream she had as a child. Surprisingly Carmilla also had a similar dream and can remember meeting Laura, she looked exactly as she does now. In the dream Carmilla bit Laura. Laura later writes  how she feels “drawn towards” Carmilla. However they talk and about what ever, the topic of Carmilla’s background is never discussed, she is strident in asserting her origins and intentions must remain a mystery. As they get to know each other a caller to the castle selling trinkets as protection from evil which  is reportedly killing  young girls in the nearby villages. About this time also, Laura mentions she had another dream, one where again Carmilla bites Laura.

The dreams continue in different forms including one where she is told to “beware of the assassin” and Carmilla appears covered in blood. Each morning after these dreams where her ghostly lover appears also, she awakes tired and drained each morning.  Laura speaks of the 2intoxicating, hypnotic charms played and sung to her. Out of the dream a deep relationship develops between both young women. As time goes on Laura’s health deteriorates while Carmilla seems to have taken to the castle as her health improves with each day.

The doctor prescribes a cure, but one which must not be told to Laura. As part of this cure Laura and her father set out for Karnstein castle a ruin. While travelling there they meet The General, a friend of Laura’s father. The General is the man who recently lost his daughter. He recalls how both he and her daughter were persuaded to take in a stranger, her name was Millarca. As the friendship between the General’s niece and Millarca developed, Millarca bloomed as his niece faded. The General agrees to accompany them on their journey.

On reaching the ruins they meet a woodcutter who tells them that the village once thrived but became infested with vampires and was destroyed.  He was able to direct the visitors to the Karnstein family plot in the neglected graveyard, here the visitors found generations of Karnsteins, but could not find the grave of Millarca Countess Karnstein. The wood cutter leaves and the General finishes his story of how his daughter died. He discovered Millarca  drawing the last blood from his niece, he tried to kill Millarca but she escaped, he is now hunting her. Just as he finishes his story The Countess appears in the graveyatrd in the form of Carmilla. The general immediately tries to destroy her, but she easily deals with him.  Just as this battle is lost to her, a new figure joins the fight; Baron Vordenburg, the noted enemy of vampires.

Together they manage to keep Laura safe during the night and the next morning following the previous appearance of Carmilla, they find her tomb. When they open her coffin there were no signs of decay from the 150 years she had been in the coffin. Another sight greeted them, within the lead-lined coffin the body of the countess lies immersed in seven inches of blood. They drive a stake through her heart, behead her, burn her body and throw the ashes on flowing water.

Comparisons and conclusions

It does not take long to draw the comparisons between both great vampire novels, based in central Europe, involving people out of their home place, mysterious attacks on our heroes, the doctor (Hesselius and Van Helsing) and even names being used; Carfax for Karnstein, Renfield for Reinfeldt. The stories evolve the corruption of power to the individual want and desire. Although we may not be as familiar with Carmilla as with Dracula, she still has her place in popular culture;

Hammer Horror’s The Vampire Lovers (1970) is one end of the spectrum while the very dodgy comedy Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009) is firmly at the other end.  There is also a new movie in the works, Styria,  to be released  in 2014.

She also appears on TV, you might remember Hotel Carmilla (the one in season 2, when they visit Dallas) in True Blood.

Through-out Europe, especially around the Balkans vampire legends have been long established and in some places in modern Romania, they still persist. Over the years graves have been unearthed showing the deceased with large stones in their mouths or their head decapitated from the body and turned round 180 degrees to prevent reanimation. Vampire folklore became popular in Europe around the sixteenth century. There have also been occasional findings of such in Ireland, but not to the same extent as in Europe. Recently an archaeological dig near Kilteasheen on the banks of Lock Key carried out a study of graves containing 137 skeletons believed to be from the period between 700 and 1400 AD. Among these were two deviant burials, both from the 700’s but both separate from the other. One of the men was likely between 40 and 60 while the other was around 20-30. Both were laid side by side and both had a stone about the size of a tennis ball in their mouths. It is likely that the stones in their mouths was to stop them from coming back from their graves. The stones in the mouth are believed to stop them eating through their shrouds and spreading their infection.

These Walking tended to have been outsiders from society when they were alive.  Both men would have been seen as a potential danger in death as in life. The surviving people would fear any grudges or issues which would attract the dead back. If a soul was to reanimate a body, it was felt it would enter the body through the mouth, so blocking the mouth would prevent the soul re-entering.

As the researchers point out, these burials predate similar burials in Eastern Europe by about 500 years. Another aspect worth recording is that, although both bodies were buried at different time, they were both buried in the same area and in the same manner, suggesting a specific forethought in both cases.

Other examples of these burials have been found through-out the country and wider Europe but usually are much later in time.

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