02 Dec 2021

Did you know of the connection between Dracula and Ballyshannon?



Halloween has just passed but believe it or not one of the monsters most celebrated at this time of the year, Dracula has local connections. Read on ...if you dare!

Ballyshannon has a unique association with one of the world’s most famous gothic writers - Bram Stoker. His mother was Charlotte Mathilda Blake Thornley from the town itself.

Bram's grandfather, Lieutenant Thomas Thornley, 43rd Regiment, married Matilda Blake in St. Anne’s Church on October 3, 1817. They moved to Sligo but returned to Ballyshannon in 1832 to escape from the cholera plague, which killed five eighths of the population there. This, it has been claimed, could have planted the ideas for Stoker’s horror masterpiece.

The story goes that all along the way large crowds angrily tried to repel travellers from Sligo but the Thornleys managed to smuggle into their cousins’ house on the Mall.

After a medical examination, they were allowed to stay but were kept in quarantine for a while.

It was said that when Bram was a sickly infant, his mother recounted her memories of that 1832 cholera outbreak. At that time, the disease was so rampant that carpenters ran out of wood for making simple coffins, and many of the dead were wrapped in pitched sheets and rolled into mass graves.

Local legend has it that some people were buried alive, so great was the haste to dispose of the diseased bodies. It is believed that this burying of the “undead” may have sparked the idea in young Bram’s mind for his enduring classic horror story.

So, did a desperate coach journey to Ballyshannon influence him when he wrote the classic gothic horror novel Dracula in 1897? Many think this to be the case.

The word vampire only came into the English language in 1732, its image developing in fictional works culminating in Stoker's powerful novel.

The main focus of vampire lore comes from Eastern Europe although variants of the vampire are found throughout the world. The real roots of the vampire are based on a mixture of early beliefs and folklore concerning death, the dead and disease.

The real emergence of the vampire into common knowledge came with its appearance in the pages of fiction. The 1819 novel Vampyre - by Doctor John Polidori - Lord Byron's physician - was the first vampire of British fiction, then came Varney the Vampire written by Thomas Pecket Prest in 1847, as a series of Penny Dreadfuls, and then Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1897.

Dracula - originally entitled The Undead - was based on the bloodthirsty Vlad VI, known as 'Vlad the Impaler' for his gruesome penchant of impaling his enemies on sharpened spikes. Vlad ruled in Transylvania during the 15th century.

Stoker brought together many separate strands of folklore for his book, and is responsible for defining the image of the vampire, which remains to this day.

Vampire folklore within the Donegal borders is unsurprisingly scarce. This is mainly due to the fact that the contemporary image of a vampire is relatively recent, being the result of Hollywood portrayals of vampires, and the gothic Hammer House Horror productions of the 1960s.

Today the popularity of the vampire in fictional portrayal is greater than ever before, there is a long list of recent films about their nocturnal exploits.

Another monster, Frankenstein has also got local connections. That’s due to the town’s connection with its author, Mary Shelley. Her grandmother was Elizabeth Dixon of Main Street, Ballyshannon. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818.

The story of Dracula is a legend, but strange things did occur in these parts back in the old days.

According to one local: “We inherited this legend from our ancestors and we must keep it alive for the younger generations."

Vampire legends have played a prominent part in the Balkans for centuries - most prominently Dracula from Romania’s Transylvania region.

In the 18th century, the legends sometimes triggered mass hysteria and even public executions of those accused of being vampires. If Romanians could profit on the Dracula legend with the tourists visiting Transylvania, why can’t we do the same with Ballyshannon?”

Ballyshannon beware; get the garlic, crosses and stakes ready: a bloodsucking vampire is on the loose… you have been warned!

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