There is nothing quite like contemplating a full moon in the night sky. Although it can often be a solitary, fleeting experience, it is deeply humbling to contemplate the exact same object that millions of others are also viewing at that very moment; that was once witnessed by your ancestors. The moon is universal, a constant companion to human DNA, an all-seeing eye silently witnessing the earth. It can also be a quite beautiful sight: a glowing white orb against a tableau of deep navy velvet – and no wonder artists have sought to depict it throughout history.
Capturing an image of the moon on canvas can be problematic, unless of course the artist is working from a photograph. Imagine the greater challenge of being an artist in the eighteenth century, memorising the scene, the glow and the light redefections, before dashing back into lamplight to instantly record it. Or even working en plein air - outside with the canvas in front of the scene - in the dark. It’s always been considered a challenge and a special achievement for an artist to have been able to capture a moonlight scene convincingly.
The Poachers (1835) by James A O'Connor (1792-1841), National Gallery of Ireland.
Many Irish artists portrayed the moon beautifully. ‘The Poachers’ (1835) by James Arthur O’Connor (1792-1841) is one of the most famous depictions of the moon in art. He was an accomplished painter of moonlight and featured it in many of his works. Poaching was a necessary but dangerous activity especially in times of hunger (as Thaddeus’ ‘Wounded Poacher’ will attest to later). O’Connor’s painting marks the dramatic, terrifying moment when the poachers are momentarily exposed in their activities by the sudden brilliant illumination of the moon.
Moonlight (1926) by Paul Henry (1876-1958), National Gallery of Ireland.
One of the greatest Irish landscape artists of modern times is Paul Henry (1876-1958). One of his rare paintings of the moon is 'Moonlight' (1926). Here, there are no Henry-esque landscapes of Connemara or Achill, no looming mountains, cauliflower clouds or thatched cottages, just the twilight moon reflected in the sea. This is redolent of James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) whom Henry had studied under in Paris. Henry’s master’s influence is most apparent here as Whistler had pioneered the ‘Nocturne’, a term he to describe a painting of scenes suggestive of the night or subjects as they appear in veiled light or half-light. These are related to the Tonalism movement of the late 19th century art that featured soft diffused light filtered through a coloured atmosphere or mist, which gave mood and feeling to such paintings. Henry’s ‘Moonlight’ is a sparse Tonal seascape, it is almost monochromatic, and one can almost hear the sea while contemplating it.
Moon Over the Bog by Gerard Dillion (1916 -1971).
The artist Gerard Dillion (1916 -1971) was an outsider and saw himself as such: the Belfast man was considered ‘a blow-in’ to the rural Connemara communities he lived in. He was also a gay man at a time when homosexuality was a punishable crime in Ireland. The moon occurs frequently in his paintings in varied ways: sometimes floating in the background, or as a glowing orange orb, or massive in some paintings where it almost takes over the sky. In his ‘Moon over the Bog’ the moon is vast and given a theatrical man-in-the-moon face reminiscent of Georges Méliès’s 1902 film. Dillon’s moons are all watching, all knowing: sometimes bearing witness to illicit meetings, or symbolic of secrets, hidden desires or longings.
Connemara Coast by Ciaran Clear (1920-2000).
A severely underrated Irish artist, in my opinion, is Ciaran Clear (1920-2000). His moonlit paintings often feature the west coast of Ireland, its cottage dwelling inhabitants seemingly clinging on to the landscape. The dark, cold windswept nights he shows complements the harsh lives of his subjects. Clear was fond of showing moon reflections on a rippled sea – creating a dramatic high contrast effect. Often, the scenes feature diffused moonlight behind clouds, or the moon partially obscured by clouds: how typically frustrating of an Irish cloudy night.
“The shadows lengthen, we become aware of them again. And when the moon is full and the sky clear, the outside world fills with strange shapes – shapes with no substance”. (E.H. Gombrich, 1995).
The Wounded Poacher (1881) Henry Jones Thaddeus (1859 - 1929) National Gallery of Ireland.
Two further paintings of the night by Irish artists feature no moonlight but deserve an honourable mention in this article: these feature couples in interior domestic night scenes. The first is Henry Jones Thaddeus (1859 - 1929) ‘The Wounded Poacher’, (1881) which could be the sequel to O’Connor’s ‘Poachers’, a sort of what-happened-next. It shows a scene of high drama in a cottage: a poacher who has been shot is tended to by a woman (his wife?) who cleans his wounds. Although injured he still has managed to bring the spoils of his expedition back with him. The poacher’s pose allows Thaddeus to show off his talent for ‘foreshortening’ the figure, a technique that was used by many great artists of the past, often to depict the crucified or dead Christ, rendering the poacher Christlike in his sacrifice.
Night 2 by Sir William Orpen (1878 - 1931) National Gallery of Victoria.
The next is ‘Night 2’ by Sir William Orpen (1878 - 1931). The painting from 1907 shows the artist and his wife Grace in the happy early years of their marriage. The scene is presumably lit by gaslight, featuring a dark London sky outside the window. It is not one of Orpen’s better known works - it currently in the National Gallery of Victoria – and is certainly a little out of character in depicting a domestic setting of such intimacy that would be considered more than a little racy for an Edwardian audience.
This blogpost discusses the strange beliefs of Whitsuntide, which falls this year on June 9th. In Ireland, Hallowe’en is the time for ghosts and spooks, but true evil was thought to be present on earth at Whitsuntide. Until recent times, many interesting customs were practised including the sprinkling of blood to appease evil spirits and counter-spells cast on children born at this time.
Below: Howard Helmick (1840-1907) Le Mauvais Oeil (The Evil Eye) (1869) detail.
The unluckiest day of the year:
The seventh Sunday after Easter is known as Whit Sunday, traditionally regarded in Ireland as "a fatal and unlucky time” and thought to be the unluckiest day of the year. The name whit is thought to be derived from ‘white’ referring to the purity of Christ, that extends across baptismal robes. Whit week runs from Whit Sunday until the day before Trinity Sunday. This was considered a highly threatening time of the year, when evil was at its most potent, a time for accidents and bad things to happen. People therefore put counter measures in place to break any potential spells.
Below: An Irish Pattern in Co. Mayo, engraved by Eugène Froment, in The Graphic (23 January 1875). In Ireland before 1829, Whit Monday was a holy day of obligation, with fairs, patterns and devotions at holy wells taking place.
Don't make unnecessary journeys:
Any activity that might cause accidental harm was to be avoided at Whitsuntide and setting out on a long journey or commencing a dangerous occupation was discouraged . Games such as hurling were not played on Whit Sunday in case of accidents.
Water in particular was regarded to have “an evil spirit in it”  at this time, and sailing, swimming, crossing water or even walking along the waters edge were discouraged. An old myth was that all of those who had perished in water rose up on Whit Sunday to force the living to join them  so the risk of drowning was considered to be very high. Boats were at risk of overturning - unless steered by a newly married woman, in which case they were thought to be safe .
Anyone born at Whitsuntide was thought cursed and sure to cause future harm to others. They were known as ‘cingcíse’. It was foretold that those born at this time would grow up to kill another, known as the spell of "the wicked hand". If such a person injured another, even by accident, to whatever extent, it would end seriously - the wound would take long to heal and potentially cause death.
To counteract this prophesy, the baby cingcíse would be made to crush and kill something small in its hand (such as a worm or a fly). Alternatively, a shallow “grave” was dug, in which the child was laid for a few moments to break the spell .
Although cingcíse people were considered to be contrary and difficult, they also had some gifts, such as the ability to strike anything they aimed at .
Animals born at this time were also considered to be cingcíse, and a foal or a calf was thought especially unlucky. To counteract this, a sod of earth would be ritually placed on the baby animal’s head for a few moments. Farmers would resolve to try to sell such animals. Similarly, it was considered most unlucky to hatch eggs during Whit week as it was thought the chickens would either be deformed or die.
Sickness and Whitsuntide were interlinked. It was thought that if a person was sick on Whit Sunday, they would be sick for the entire year. A person who bathed on Whit Sunday would get ill and not recover. A person who slept outdoors on Whit Sunday would become insane.
The sick were thought particularly vulnerable at Whitsuntide. If one took ill at this time there was thought to be a great danger of death, as evil spirits were watching out for defenseless people to carry away. Sick people were not to be left alone at this time and certainly not left in the dark. Light was very important in guarding the sick against the evil spirits of Whitsuntide, so too was fire .
Below: Photo credit Peter Walsh in the following article: Barbra Walsh, ‘Lifting the veil on entrepreneurial Irishwomen’ in History Ireland Issue 4 (Winter 2003), Volume 11.
As evil spirits were thought to be about, holy water was sprinkled especially copiously in the home, on the farm and on animals. According to Lady Wilde, malicious fairies were most active to:
“bewitch the cattle, carry off the young children, come up from the sea to hold strange midnight revels, when they kill with their fairy darts the unhappy mortal who crosses their oaths and pries at their mysteries” .
In the more distant past, blood was poured out as an offering to the evil spirits. Some people made two bonfires and passed people and animals through them to safeguard against the evil that was thought to be most apparent at Whitsuntide.
In light of the upcoming Irish presidential election, this blogpost is about the official Presidential residence, Áras an Uachtaráin.
7. What does it mean?
Áras an Uachtaráin means ‘house of the president’ and has been the Official Residence of the President of Ireland since 1938. The house and its grounds have evolved into a homely but grand residence fit for hosting visiting world leaders and dignitaries, ambassadors and the general public. Yet, it is part of much longer history. When Ireland was a colony of Britain, the house was the seat of the vice regent, who was the official representative of the King.
6. Phoenix Park has nothing to do with Phoenixes
The house is so synonymous with its setting of Dublin's Phoenix Park that it is often simply referred to as ‘the park’. And, what a location: Phoenix Park is one of the largest enclosed public parks in a European capital city, at over 1,750 acres of grassland and tree-lined avenues. It also contains Dublin Zoo as well as other buildings, monuments and amenities.
The park's name has nothing to do with Phoenixes, however - it has Gaelic origins. It is an Anglicization of fionn uisce which means "clear water". Phoenix Park dates to medieval times when it was first used as a hunting ground In the 1660s - it was formally designated as a Royal deer park and was stocked with game for hunting. In the 1740s most of the park was opened to the public for the first time.
5. It started out as a red-bricked hunting lodge
In 1751, Nathaniel Clements MP became the ‘Park Ranger’ and built the house that would later become Áras an Uachtaráin as a ranger’s lodge, as a modest villa faced with brick. Following Clements’ death the lodge was acquired by the British government and the building was made into a residence for the British viceroy. It subsequently became known as the viceregal lodge until the end of British colonialism in southern Ireland.
In the nineteenth century the architect Francis Johnson worked on refurbishing the house, he had the walls plastered over and painted white, and added the portico and columns which give the house much of its neoclassical character. Under Johnson’s tenure it began to look like the familiar white house we know today, and its new look echoed its increased importance in Irish affairs at the time.
4. Tree planting in the grounds started with Queen Victoria
In the 1850s and 60s, Queen Victoria ceremonially planted trees in the grounds, and began a tradition of dignitaries planting trees there which Douglas Hyde would repeat as the first Irish president. It is a tradition that continues with Irish presidents and visiting VIPs to this day.
3. It was said to have inspired the White House in the USA
The best-known view of Áras an Uachtaráin is the garden front portico with its white columns. This view has drawn comparison with the White House, the presidential residence in the United States of America. It is also of neoclassical design, white, and its similar use have led to unfounded speculation that the Irish born architect of the White House, James Hoban, took inspiration from what is now the Áras for his design.
2. Áras an Uachtaráin could have been in Limerick
With the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, the vice regal lodge became vacant. In the early years of the Irish Free State, many options were explored for the house of the president. In the 1920s W.T. Cosgrove, had investigated the neo-Norman style Glenstal castle in Limerick (pictured below) as a possible future residence for Irish presidents, being ‘astounded’ by Glenstal’s ‘magnificence’. It would have made an interesting choice of residence for an Irish president with its mixture of medieval Irish and English architectural decoration. However, given the precarious economic climate and the long distance from Dublin involved it was decided not to use Glenstal (which subsequently became a boarding school).
1. De Valera wanted to demolish it
Although other possibilities were considered, the old vice regal lodge kept coming back into focus as the most suitable choice as a residence. Éamon De Valera suggested demolition and building a new residence on the site, in order to obliterate the memories of the former British associations. The outbreak of the Second World War put paid to his plans, and instead the emphasis became regeneration and refurbishment. By the time President Douglas Hyde became the first president in 1938, it was decided to install him temporarily at the old viceregal lodge - now re-named Áras an Uachtaráin or ‘house of the president’ – as his official residence. It turned out to be permanent!
In addition to official guests at the many state functions hosted by the President, over 10,000 people visit the house by invitation each year. It has accrued a distinctively Irish identity in the public imagination, who now know it simply as ‘the Áras’.
This is an excerpt from the book I co-authored with Dermot O’Donovan See The Wood From The Trees (2018) which focuses on how storm felled trees from Áras an Uachtaráin were used by students of GMIT Letterfrack. It is available from all good bookshops.
For more, see: https://artisanhouse.ie/
Images from https://president.ie/en/explore-visit/the-house/
This is the first in series of blogposts profiling ‘stars’ of the Victorian era aiming to show that people and culture of the past were not so different to those of today. Indeed, in an age before PR and spin, some figures from history were allowed to lead more bizarre, unfiltered lives in public than anyone of the modern era, and Lola Montez (pictured below) was no exception.
Although she later claimed Spanish ancestry (to make her more exotic to Victorian audiences) Lola was Irish-born plain old Eliza Gilbert in the village of Grange, Co. Sligo in 1821, the daughter of a British army officer. When she was still a child, her father was given a posting in India and it was while moving his young family here that he died of cholera. Thus, began several upheavals for Lola: her mother remarried, she was sent to live with the relatives of her stepfather in Scotland and then to boarding school in England. As she grew, it was noted that her behaviour was particularly troublesome for a young lady and at 16 she eloped with a soldier against her parents’ wishes. She soon embarked on a public affair with another man and her marriage ended in scandalous divorce. Ostracised by English society, she changed her name, moved to mainland Europe and embarked on a career as a dancer.
She was renowned for her lack of talent but that did not stop her. Although she had been taught formal dance when at school in England, her dance moves for the stage were largely her own invention. Her signature was the ‘tarantula’ dance, where she mimed being covered in invisible spiders as she shook them from her clothing and stamped on them. It was said that in doing so audiences could see her underwear. In an era when women were supposed to fully cover themselves and have a certain comportment, this dance caused a sensation and crowds flocked to see her.
She had an ‘excessive beauty’ and a fiery temperament and had many affairs - always favouring handsome men - notable conquests included the famous Hungarian composer Franz Liszt and the (not so beautiful, but well connected) author Alexandre Dumas: such contacts opened many doors financially and socially. However, in Paris she was ‘outed’: even though she had affected a heavy accent and wore exotic veils and dresses, her conversational Spanish was actually very poor.
After this she travelled to America with a new young husband, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. He would not be the last: Lola had trouble keeping partners the same way that Spinal Tap would have when trying to keep their drummers, with demises just as unfortunate and mysterious. Montez became a tabloid sensation in America, carrying a horse-whip on stage ready for those who might offend her (one story is that she confronted and whipped a theatre critic who wrote her a bad review).
Next, she toured mining towns in Australia, and was well established as a star at this point. However, many of her shows by now consisted of her appearing on stage, drunk, to shout abuse at audiences - who responded with rapturous applause.
She returned to the United States and began to tour again, but at this juncture she began to be laid low by syphilis. Having turned to religion, she spent her final days living quietly in New York helping other ‘fallen’ women. In the summer of 1860 she had a stroke which caused paralysis, and she later died with her hand resting on a bible. She was aged 39.
There are so many interesting characters in Irish history, but the most interesting are those who decide that the lives mapped out for them at birth are not enough. Lola Montez is one of those non-conformist characters. She was a scandalous celebrity in the mid nineteenth century when there weren’t many stars around. Her lack of talent and tempestuous private life meant that she was an early prototype of the type of celebrity so familiar to us today: famous for being famous.
In the past the production of linen was of major importance to rural communities in Ireland. Most farmers were involved with the trade (be it through growing flax and spinning it) and the rural built environment towns is still marked by defunct mills and linen halls. The logo for the Northern Irish Assembly is made of flax flowers which signifies the importance that linen production had in Ulster. In other regions throughout the country (notably Cork) linen was an important part of the rural economy. In modern times, the introduction of imported, cheaper cotton has seen the demise of the popularity of Irish linen, which today is produced on a lesser scale for luxury markets.
Linen is a natural fabric produced from the flax plant, which has distinctive blue flowers. From prehistory people produced the cloth domestically in Ireland and Irish linen was highly regarded. In the second half of the 18th century, factory production grew and by the 19th, power-driven machinery had become the norm for linen production in Ireland. Farmers supplied the raw or semi processed material to the mills yet many continued to process and weave the product in the traditional way, producing linen cloth as part of a cottage industry.
Below: Bleaching linen on the green: Photograph from the National Library of Ireland.
Growing flax for the linen industry or weaving linen supplemented many an Irish family’s incomes from farming. All the family were involved in the production. Apart from their farming duties, the women and younger children spun the yarn while the men and older sons harvested the flax or worked on their weaving looms (spinning was seen as women’s work and weaving was done by men). Most local trade was carried on by cottage industries, some with up to four looms in their homes. Traditionally, the bulk of the processing work was done on the farm. The rotted stem of the flax was beaten with a wooden mallet, then boiled before being rinsed and spun into a coarse yarn and woven into cloth.
Below: Woman in Co. Down, stitching linen. National Library of Ireland.
Irish linen is renowned for its superior quality. It is a cloth with a complex production process, that is delicately woven and intricately designed. The skills which were handed down over generations by Irish spinners and weavers led to a strength and fineness of the yarns and woven cloth. Irish ‘damask’ is woven from pure flax yarns in a way that shows up delicate patterns through the white cloth. Popular designs included chrysanthemum, shamrock and Celtic patterns. Although much of this was exported for the overseas market, some linen was reserved in Ireland for special occasions such as Station Masses and wakes.
Below: ‘County of Downe: Spinning, Reeling with the Clock Reel, and Boiling the Yarn’: an eighteenth century illustration by William Hincks from a series outlining the various processes involved in linen manufacture.
In the twentieth century mass-produced cotton led to the demise of the vast linen industry in Ireland, the production of linen persisted in some parts of Ireland on this same scale into the mid twentieth century. Irish flax production and linen spinning is no longer undertaken on the scale it was in the past. Some Irish linen continues to be mass produced to a high standard today.
Images below: Luxury Irish linen produced today by Francis M.
Tracing your ancestors? Information on the history of linen is today helping those undertaking research on their Irish ancestors who may have been involved in the industry. In 1796 the Irish Linen Board published a list of nearly 60,000 people involved in the trade. The list shows that spinning wheels and looms were awarded to homes based on the number of acres’ the farmers had planted with flax. The list includes the names and parishes of the farmers. The ‘Flax Growers List, 1796’ is available on-line and is essential reading for those who want to find out more about their Irish ancestors.
Above: Irish linen with Damask pattern by Francis M.
My recent blogpost, on Irish woodkerne, mentioned a curious portrait from 1594 showing an English army captain set in an Irish landscape, unusually with bare legs. The portrait is of Captain Thomas Lee: it was painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561-1636) and is in the Tate Britain.
Lee had been active on English military service in Ireland during a period of great political intrigue, and he was drawn to trouble like a moth to a flame. He was always involved in a conspiracy or convoluted drama of his own making. Although brave and chivalrous at times, he was also accused of terrible cruelty, of theft - even highway robbery - and on many occasions was imprisoned. Although it may look slightly ridiculous to the contemporary viewer, the painting includes complex symbolism which would have been understood by a Renaissance viewer. It was commissioned to show Lee in a good light to Queen Elizabeth I, at a time when he was accused of treason.
Lee (c. 1551 –1601) was of a middling rank and a cousin of Sir Henry Lee, Queen Elizabeth's wealthy champion. In coming to Ireland as an army officer in the 1570s, Thomas Lee’s ultimate aim was to secure vast wealth and lands, and he was prepared to do anything to achieve that: when he did not he complained bitterly and loudly. Initially things went well: through marrying an Irish widow he came into some wealth including Castlemartin Co. Kildare. He proved his usefulness to the Crown and was given the role of Provost Marshall of Connaught. He initially advocated negotiating with the Gaelic side, especially the leader Hugh O’Neill (1550-1616), Earl of Tyrone (pictured left). Lee came to consider O’Neill a ‘friend’ and the charismatic Gaelic leader had a type of hypnotic hold over him. However, in negotiations prior to the outbreak of the Nine Years War (1593 to 1603), he made an enemy of O’Neill and left one meeting lucky to be alive. This dangerous association with O’Neill led to accusations of treason from the English and to restore his reputation Lee later suggested that he assassinate O’Neill (he didn’t).
Through his various outlandish schemes, he made enemies on all sides quickly. On one occasion, he and his wife escaped a burning Castlemartin with just the clothes on their backs, an act he said was sabotage "by the means of lewd servants" possibly paid by his enemies. He spectacularly separated from his wife when she ‘betrayed’ him by informing of his plot to kidnap one of his adversaries. Curiously they remained on good terms and she later testified for him in court. He remarried an English woman in 1595, and he later abandoned her.
Below: The current Castlemartin in Co Kildare. It was rebuilt on the foundations of the old castle that Lee inhabited.
By now he owed the Crown large rents and decried that he was always in poverty, despite risking his life in the service of the Queen. He frequently complained to anyone who listened of being ‘slandered’ by his opponents. He became increasingly violent and was involved in some cruel acts and murders (most notably that of Rice O’Toole) and was even said to have pulled out the eyes of someone who was under his protection. He had Gaelic chieftains beheaded and had their heads sent to Queen Elizabeth personally. He gained a reputation as a successful, if notorious, assassin and mercenary intent on consolidating the English conquest of Ireland.
Pictured left: Sir Henry Lee (1533-1611), a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I and the cousin of Thomas Lee. Painted by Anthonis Mor (Antonio Moro) in 1568, National Portrait Gallery, London.
After the resounding Irish victory at the Battle of the Yellow Ford in 1598, Lee was imprisoned for treason. After arguing his case, he apologised on his knees before the council and was freed. Myers (1991) sees Lee’s quick release as suspicious: someone at the top seemed to be protecting him. Time and time again Lee landed himself in trouble only to be released or spared.
His feud with his arch enemy the earl of Ormond was his undoing in Ireland, and Lee left the country. By 1601, he was back in London where he again faced charges of treason, this time because of his support for his cousin the earl of Essex, who queen Elizabeth I suspected of treachery.
Prior to this Lee had tried to sway the queen’s opinion of him: he had commissioned the Gheeraerts portrait to show his loyalty and continued to protest his allegiance in letters to her and written documents.
When the queen ignored his pleas, he became desperate and hatched a bizarre plan: he hoped to ‘surprise’ her in her privy chamber at bed time and to ‘pin’ her there until she agreed to sign a warrant absolving the earl of Essex of treason charges (thus helping his own cause). As Lee sweated profusely and watched the door of her chamber in preparation for the assault, he was arrested by her guards who had been informed of his plans by a co-conspirator. In his subsequent trial, he tried to make out that he only meant, "to vex [the Queen] for half an hour, that she might live all the merrier all her life after". It all fell on deaf ears and he was put to death at Tyburn on 14 February 1601.
Decoding the painting:
Lee is depicted in a natural landscape (suggesting truth). Although he wears the visual markers of civilisation, his bare legs are a fantasy evocation of the woodkerne (a type of ‘wild’ Irish soldier renowned for their bare leggedness to facilitate their progress through the damp bogs of Ireland – see previous blogpost). In Renaissance times such nudity was associated with virtue and honesty. The verse on the painting refers to the Roman soldier Gaius Mucius Scaevola, who stayed true to Rome even when among barbarians. Thus, Lee protests, he is true to the Queen despite being acquainted with the barbarous Irish. The painting is currently in the Tate Britain gallery, London.
Myers, J. (1991). "Murdering Heart...Murdering Hand": Captain Thomas Lee of Ireland, Elizabethan Assassin. The Sixteenth Century Journal, 22(1), 47-60. doi:10.2307/2542015
Sligo is a town located on the north west coast of the Republic of Ireland, in the county of the same name, amid a rugged beautiful landscape that famously inspired the poetry of W.B. Yeats. Yet, events in it's history also honed one of literature's most famous fictional characters: Count Dracula.
Sligo had a more than significant role in shaping Count Dracula than has previously been thought. The following is well known: the mother of the author of Dracula, Bram Stoker, was Charlotte Stoker (nee Thornley) born in 1818. In 1832, Sligo was the worst hit town (in all of Ireland or Britain) by a devastating cholera epidemic. In just 6 weeks, an estimated 1,500 townspeople died from the disease. Charlotte’s family escaped, but she was forever haunted by what she witnessed. She wrote ‘Experiences of the Cholera in Ireland’ (1873) a first-hand account of events in Sligo. It is likely that Bram persuaded her to finally put to paper the stories she had told him throughout his childhood.
They were not just ‘stories’ however. I have found that Charlotte’s descriptions tally with what the Sligo historians William G. Wood-Martin and Terrence O’Rorke reported on the epidemic. It also appears that Bram consulted Wood-Martin’s account. By analyzing these sources and cross referencing the text of Dracula, it is apparent that Count Dracula himself can be partly read as the personification of Sligo’s cholera epidemic.
Cholera is a disease caused by the cholera bacterium (vibrio cholerae), which infects humans usually by ingestion of contaminated drinking water. In 1832 Sligo town's Garavogue river was contaminated by human waste yet was used for drinking water. Untreated, cholera advances within hours to cause death by painful vomiting, diarrhoea and dehydration. The disease still exists – in 2018 Yemen has seen a catastrophic outbreak - but thanks to scientific understanding people are less likely to die from cholera.
Below: A cholera victim drawn in the nineteenth century. Victims died within hours of contracting the disease and typical traits included blue lips and skin, sunken eyes and a deadened appearance. Source: Wellcome Images.
Summer 1832: the ‘Beast from the East’:
‘Asiatic’ cholera, from the East, had swept through Europe, laying waste to major urban centres. The belief was that cholera affected port towns and that it travelled by ships. By the summer, Sligo tensely watched as the disease struck Dublin, Belfast, Limerick then the smaller towns: Tuam, Ballinrobe, Castlebar. The people of Sligo thought they had escaped when the terrible news broke: the first victim died on August 11th. Wood-Martin wrote that this event was preceded by an unusual storm, with ‘thunder and lightning, accompanied by a close, hot atmosphere’.
August 11th: Dracula and Cholera:
The coming of the dreadful cholera from the East, which people knew offered a horrible death, is mirrored in Dracula. The Count, himself a contagion makes his journey by ship from the East, before his landfall “one of the greatest and suddenness storms […] the weather had been somewhat sultry, but not to any degree uncommon in the month of August” (Chapter 7, Dracula). He claims his first victim on English soil on August 11th . A chilling coincidence or an acknowledgement of Charlotte Stoker’s experiences? Other similarities to Count Dracula and cholera abound:
The heroic doctors:
During the Sligo outbreak approximately 50 a day died. Doctors were heroic in their attempts to treat the victims, yet most of Sligo’s doctors died from the disease. The scientific community lacked understanding of the causes or treatment of cholera in 1832. In Dracula the heroes of the book are doctors, who have to suspend their medical beliefs in order to understand and vanquish the vampire.
Mist and smells:
Charlotte says it was believed cholera travelled as a mist over land: Count Dracula too can change into a mist. When the epidemic eventually ended there remained a terrible smell in the town for months after. In Dracula places associated with the Count have a rotting smell.
Roman Catholicism as potent adversary:
To replace the deceased doctors and nurses, the Fever Hospital had to employ untrained staff. Charlotte described how they deliberately mistreated, even killed dying patients to free up beds. Father Gilern, a Roman Catholic priest, was so outraged by this he stayed at the hospital armed with a horsewhip to protect patients. Sligo’s Catholic clergy were thought miraculously immune to cholera: they suffered few casualties although they were in contact with victims. In Dracula the symbols of Roman Catholicism, such as holy water and the crucifix, are used to fight against vampirism.
Charlotte wrote how the burial of victims was done within hours of death in mass graves for fear of the spread of the disease. In haste, many people were buried before they had died. Early in the epidemic, one victim awoke while the undertaker was trying to fit him into the coffin. A man pulled his wife’s body from a mass grave for a proper burial, only to discover she was still alive. In Dracula vampires are living while dead, using graves to sleep in. Stoker was a voracious researcher who undertook library research to give his work a factual basis. He took care never to divulge his exact inspirations but made a rare slip in an 1897 interview, admitting that Dracula was inspired by the idea of ‘someone being buried before they were fully dead’. His working title of the book had actually been ‘The Undead’, which the publisher changed to Dracula prior to publication.
The novel is a rich tapestry inspired by various events and people and until now his mother’s tales were viewed as merely one aspect of that. But the storm, the date of August 11th, the avenging doctors, Catholic imagery, the undead rising from the dead all bear striking similarities to Sligo’s epidemic and Count Dracula himself seems the personification of it. This serves to underline Sligo’s remarkable links to the most enduring literary character created, yet we should also take time to remember the victims who succumbed to the epidemic.
This article was originally published in the Sligo Weekender newspaper, August 11th 2018. It is an excerpt of Marion McGarry’s paper “Dracula = Cholera” which she will present at the ‘How Sligo Shaped Dracula’ conference on 10th November 2018, open to all. The conference will feature talks by a panel of experts on Sligo’s Cholera epidemic, Bram Stoker and Dracula. Follow for updates: Facebook: SligoBramStokerSociety / Twitter: @SligoStoker
Below: A cholera victim awakening after being placed in a coffin (Antoine Joseph Wiertz, 1854, Wikipedia Commons).
Ireland currently has the lowest forest cover in western Europe, a dramatic contrast to when our environment once was covered in woodland. By the seventeenth century much of this had disappeared, yet until that time Irish forests were the envy of Europe and a marker of Irish identity. The word ‘Gael’ as in ‘Gaelic’ is said to be derived from meaning ‘forest people’ (Koch, 2004) and Irish people were noted their high regard for trees*. That, at the height of the brutal Elizabethan reconquest, a time when Irish identity was actively being supressed, Irish rebels sought refuge and claimed association with the forests is significant. This article will focus on these 'woodkerne', and how their association with the rapidly declining Irish forests ultimately fuelled their demise.
Figure 1: Gallowglass with woodkerne in the background by Marc Grunert
By the late sixteenth century, the term ‘woodkerne’ came to be used snipingly by the English to mean Native-Irish. At this time, the subject of Ireland consumed the English more than even their wars with Spain or the Netherlands (MacGregor, 2012). Their plans to subdue Ireland was thwarted by the Gaelic lords and rebels who were powerful outside the Pale. They were exemplified by the image of the Irish woodkerne, a type of bogeyman to the Elizabethans (MacGregor, 2012).
Professional mercenaries: Woodkerne had started out as being ‘kern’: a type of foot soldier available for hire to anyone: English, Irish, whomever paid them to fight. But as the conquest of Ireland accelerated to become more murky and difficult, they were associated with Irish rebellion and became ‘woodkerne’: feral and animal-like savages who dwelt in the woods and bogs, where many of them were said to hide out.
But kern had not always had a bad image. For centuries they had been known as light infantrymen, their lack of heavy armour meant they were fast and light footed. They were considered excellent for skirmishing and their local knowledge of the land made them valuable scouts. They would launch surprise attacks, harry their prey and then retreat quickly into the woods. Although they would accrue an uncivilised image, many came from relatively privileged parts of Irish society (Cannan, 2011) and considered their profession as proof of status and honour.
Figure 2 Rory Oge, a kern and defeated rebel is shown in the forest with wolves, depicted by John Derricke (1581).
Naked soldiers: Their tactics, armour and skills meant they were highly effective fighters in the boggy, forested landscape of Ireland. Like all Irish soldiers they were renowned for being lightly armed, and lightly dressed. Long established stories that stretch to Antiquity of Irish warriors going into battle ‘naked’ should be taken to refer to their lack of conventional armour rather than actual nudity. Kern typically wore a heavy cloak over a loose tunic and a short coat. They were barelegged and usually barefoot as footwear would have been a hindrance when navigating the land.
“They return backe to the wood, from whence they came before” (Derricke, 1581).
Forest Fighters: Their services were valued by the English who appreciated their local knowledge and essentially used them as counter-insurgency experts (Cannan, 2011). But the woodkerne switched sides often when the money was right, and when they joined Irish rebellions in the late sixteenth century they became especially despised by the English. The Battle of the Yellow Ford in 1598 saw the Irish earn a powerful victory (Cannan, 2011) and the kern now became known as treacherous ‘woodkerne’: symbolic of the lack of full conquest in Ireland, always lurking in the woods, awaiting their opportunity to strike. When rebellion broke out in the later sixteenth century they ‘came out of the woods’ to take part and became ‘the archetype of the nightmarishly elusive, indigenous forest fighter’ (MacGregor, 2012).
Figure 3: Albrecht Durer, 1521, Irish soldiers.
Anti-fashion: The woodkerne looked suitably menacing too: the archaic way they dressed and wore their hair showed they were immune to ‘civilization’. Rather than worry about keeping up with the latest Renaissance fashion the Irish seemed to wear their outmodedness defiantly, as a marker of Irish identity. A great example of this is the ‘glib’: the on-trend hairstyle amongst the native Irish during the 16th century and much associated with woodkerne.
The glib involved the hair at the side of the head cut short, while at the front and top it grew long, with a long fringe falling over the face (Moriarty, 2013). This had the effect of semi-obscuring the face and, as it was like a horse’s mane, added a further ‘beastly’ demeanour. Two of Renaissance culture’s stars were involved in commentary on the ‘look’ of the kern: William Shakespeare refers to kerns as being ‘rug headed’ referring to the close-cut, carpet-like aspect of the glib style. Albrecht Dürer drew some from life (looking gloriously shifty and likely muttering in Gaelic) when he having spotted them at a port on the Continent. Because it was a marker for Irish sedition the glib was banned by the English: such Irish identity was associated with savagery and lack of civility and had to be stamped out, nonetheless many woodkerne continued to proudly wear it.
Figure 4: Angus MacBride, Scottish Gallowglass and Irish woodkerne.
Throughout the history of colonization, the narrative goes that the natives are beast-like and unable to govern themselves, providing justification for the colonizer to step in to remedy the situation by providing responsible governance. The vast Irish forests now became targets, as they represented the wildness of a country that must be tamed. They offered shelter to the last vestiges of Irish savagery and became obstacles to colonization; their destruction was beneficial on practical and symbolic levels to the English. The forests were hiding places to woodkerne, and other rebels and miscreants as well as wolves. The forest environment itself could be used as a weapon by them; if hostile forces tried to enter the territory, the practice of ‘plashing’ or using the woodland cover for ambush, and traps with sharpened branches were used to ruthless effect.
Far left: Fig 5: Captain Thomas Lee as a woodkerne by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561-1636), Tate Gallery, London
Centre and Right, Fig 5 and 6: Illustrations show Irish kerns by Angus MacBride.
Increasing deforestation along with great number of executions meant many woodkerne went abroad to serve foreign masters. By the seventeenth century around 90% of forests in Ireland were destroyed (Whelan, Aalen, & Stout, 1997). The English saw Irish forests as a timber supply (particularly for shipbuilding) extracting large quantities of wood. Many are quick to point out that some Gaelic chiefs sold off and exploited this natural resource just as enthusiastically, but not for the same security and symbolic reasons as the English did. By the 1650s the woodkerne ‘threat’ was more or less over and by the mid-eighteenth century the destruction of most the last of the ancient forests of Ireland was complete.
For a while the woodkerne represented what it was to be truly Irish according to foreigners, however negatively. Uncivilised, feral, ultraviolent, scary but also extremely efficient and highly connected to the natural environment, they sought sanctuary from the woodland and turned these vast dark areas into terrifying blurred space and no-go areas for encroaching outsiders. The woodkerne were aware of their terrifying reputation and revelled in it, but their time ran out. When the forests were cleared so too were they, and with them the last vestiges of Irish identity with the ancient woodland.
This blogpost is a from a feature length article written by me on the topic. For more on Irish forests and contemporary woodcraft please see the book See The Wood From The Trees written by me and Dermot O’Donovan, published by Artisan House (2018).
*Trees had been worshipped; the Ogham alphabet and Old Irish poetry was influenced by trees while Brehon Laws included harsh penalties for the destruction of certain tree types.
Cannan, F. (2011, Jan/Feb). ‘Hags of hell’: Late Medieval Irish Kern. History Ireland, pp. 35-40.
Derricke, J. (1581). The Image of Ireland. London.
Koch, J. T. (2004). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopaedia. ISBN 9781851094400.
MacGregor, N. (2012). Shakespeare's Restless World: An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects. London: Penguin.
Moriarty, C. (2013, 08 08). 16th Century Irish Hipsters. Retrieved from Irish Archaeology: http://irisharchaeology.ie/2013/08/16th-century-irish-hipsters/
Murray, S. (2010, 08 06). The Robin Hood Of Laois. Retrieved from Laois People: https://www.laoispeople.ie/the-robin-hood-of-laois/
Tait, C. (2015, Nov 16). Civilising the hairy savage in 16th century Ireland. Retrieved from Wellcome Library Blog: http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org/2015/11/civilising-the-hairy-savage-in-16th-century-ireland/
Whelan, K., Aalen, F., & Stout, M. (1997). Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape. Cork: Cork University Press.
In rural Ireland from the nineteenth century cottage craft ‘industries’ were often used to supplement the home’s income from farming. There were two categories of crafts: products made for home use and goods made for sale or export. Crafted items made for the home included baskets, knitted goods, rush-work, minor tweed products, and patchwork quilts – these were items that were regarded as chiefly functional. The crafts produced for sale or export included lace and linen – these were regarded as luxury items and boasted great international reputations. However, the products were seldom enjoyed by their makers themselves. This article focuses on these luxury products made in humble Irish cottages.
By the nineteenth century, handmade Irish lace had become high-demand throughout Europe and America as a luxury product. Such cottage industries had evolved from philanthropy and the efforts of those who wished to ‘help the Irish poor help themselves’. Wealthy and socially connected women like the Marchioness of Londonderry and Countess of Aberdeen helped such industries enormously. Similarly, Catholic nuns and religious orders (such as Quakers) were involved, as were some individual enterprises that sought to profit. Schools were set up across Ireland to educate young girls in lacemaking.
Handmade Irish lace had a supreme reputation internationally for a time. There was a huge variety of lace styles from all over Ireland, many named after their place of origin. Some were distinctive and easily recognisable. Kenmare lace was a fine delicate needlepoint lace; Carrickmacross an intricate type of ‘appliqué’ lace; Mountmellick lace involved white cotton thread embroidered on white satin. Limerick lace was renowned for its daintiness, using a combination of ‘tambour and run’. Ardee lace was made by ‘tatting’, consisting of an intricate system of knots tied in circles using a tattle shuttle and thread. Youghal lace was influenced by Italian needle lace. A generic style of lace known as ‘Irish crochet’ was also popular, utilising thicker threads. Even to the untrained eye, the distinctiveness of each style is apparent. Clones lace was introduced as a Famine relief measure in 1847, a fact which poignantly reflects how dependent some of the poor producers were on the craft for income. Irish lace often used shamrocks and harps and other Irish motifs as design features. Celtic knot work and chrysanthemums were also popular patterns.
Lacemaking supplemented the household income of many families and was usually practised by women, for example, unmarried daughters or housewives. Having a lace maker in the family meant that money could be saved for expensive outlays, such as helping other family members to emigrate to better lives abroad. In cottages and homes where lace was made the cleanliness of the surroundings became all-important. In the homes of lacemakers, the underside of thatched roofs were closed in to protect against dust and debris falling onto the all-important product for example. Good light was also crucial to the lace maker, and oil lamps were invested in and windows in homes were made larger in order to assist the crafter.
The making of lace was criticised by some at the time as ‘interference’ in nineteenth-century domestic Ireland. The reality was the some of the poorest of the population were producing luxury products for the wealthy. Many workers were open to exploitation. There remains an uncertainty over the ‘philanthropic’ nature of these industries and whether they were fair to workers. Irish lacemaking as a countrywide craft industry had problems with bad management. Additionally, the majority of makers lacked education in art or drawing, thus were limited when it came to the design of their own styles. In the early twentieth century, machine lace replaced the need for handicraft, but by this time lace was falling out of general fashion and the Irish lace cottage industry went into rapid decline. However, the distinctive patterns of Irish lace are ripe for a broader revival, and lend the subtext of Irishness to any contemporary design.
Recent contemporary arts projects such as Hybrid: Limerick Lace Liminal Identity exhibition and conference (2016) represent a revival of interest in the topic. This event saw the Polish artist NeSpoon create a temporary web-like artwork paying homage to Limerick lace in the city, which was a truly stunning and innovative take on a worthy Irish craft tradition. Hopefully other contemporary designers will be inspired in a similar way by lace and other Irish craft traditions and incorporate them into forward thinking and innovative art and design.
‘The Lacemaker’ by Vasily Andreevich Tropinin (1776 –1857)
Nespoon, picture by Alan Place (2016).
Guild of Irish Lacemakers
Traditional Lacemakers of Ireland
Heritage Council of Ireland PDF on Irish Lace FREE to download below:
The month of June once marked the start of the traditional Irish wedding season, these were far simpler occasions than the lavish Irish weddings we see today. Until the early twentieth century, weddings were treated as occasions of celebration marked by feasting, but were low-key and often held in the home of the bride. Read on for more fascinating facts about traditional Irish weddings...
Amongst the Catholic rural peasantry, marriage was seen as a serious business rather than a romantic one. Marriage was tightly regulated by parents who used it to maintain or advance their family’s societal position, no matter how humble their means. The marriage of the eldest son was critical in maintaining the farm, and the marriage of the eldest daughter was also important. Arranged marriages were common well into the twentieth century – your great-grandparents’ marriages were likely arranged. Elopement was rare: if say, a marriage took place between a farmer’s eldest daughter and a landless labourer it would have been frowned upon and the couple would have had few financial resources to help them. By adhering to the traditional rules of marriage society was managed and structured.
Often, a hired matchmaker took care of the settlement and in doing so, had to consider the birth order of the bride or groom to be, rather than looks or personality. The Catholic rural Irish had families of a large size and had to carefully divide inheritance. In order to protect the most important asset - the family home and farm - and to provide parents’ care into their old-age, the convention was that the eldest son inherited. The farm was inherited in one piece, it was not broken up, with the implicit understanding that the eldest son would only inherit when he married and would manage the farm until his eldest child in turn would inherit. The eldest daughter got a dowry which allowed her to bring some means to a future marriage. The rest of the siblings in the family had to make their own way: many migrated to towns for work or became farm labourers or emigrated.
Below: A Wedding Dance (1848) by Daniel MacDonald (1821—1853) at Crawford Gallery, Cork.
Weddings could not take place during Lent or Advent and this led to the popularity of the June wedding. Many people believed that to leave a Child of Prague statue outside on the eve of the wedding would ensure good weather for the day, a tradition continued by many to this day.
A wedding ‘breakfast’ would be held after the church service (similar to receptions today), to literally break the fast that had been required before taking Holy Communion and this would take place at the bride’s parents’ house. The house had to be spring-cleaned, and all furniture freshly painted, and the interior and exterior whitewashed.
More prosperous brides bought a wedding dress but more usually, a new outfit was purchased which could be worn again on special occasions as ‘good’ clothes. The wedding ceremony would take place at the church used by the bride’s family.
Below: 'An Irish Bride is brought to the Church' London Illustrated, 1849.
The priest who conducted the church service was invited to the wedding breakfast at the bride’s house as were family and friends. It was believed that, for good luck, the wedding party should always take the longest route from the church. After the church service, a custom known as ‘The Drag’ took place in some areas: locals and guests would form a procession with donkeys, carts and horses, and would circuit the area making as much noise as possible. This is similar to how in Ireland today cars are decorated and the procession follows the wedding car from the church to the reception venue, sounding car horns. On entering the house, the newly married couple had to walk through the door side by side, as it was thought that if they went in one after the other, the one behind would die first. Another custom in some parts of Ireland is that bread is broken over the bride’s head by her new mother in law in a gesture of friendship (there were a wealth of wedding day superstitions).
Below: A bride dances with a Mummer (pic from the National Folklore Collection).
At the wedding breakfast neighbours helped with the food, and barns or sheds were used for extra seating and tables. Lavishness and generosity was and remains a feature of Irish weddings with lots of food and drink provided to guests.
Geese and bacon were popular meats accompanied by potatoes served mashed, followed by sweet cake and tea. Alcohol, such as porter, poitín and whiskey were served after the meal. Musicians were paid to play music and dancing was encouraged.
A highlight of the wedding was the appearance of the Mummers or Strawboys, ‘uninvited’ but expected guests to the wedding. They were a group of young men from the local community disguised with tall straw hats and costumes and their presence at the wedding was believed to bring good luck and health to the newlyweds. They would ‘demand’ to dance with the bride and amuse the other guests by their singing, dancing and feats.
Below: Print by Erskine Nicol from 'Tales of Irish Life and Character' (First Ed.) Book collection of Maggie Land Blanck
After the wedding the bride would go to her new husband’s house accompanied by her dowry. One tradition is that she was ceremonially given the tongs of the hearth to symbolise her new job of running her husband’s household, now that new couple were officially taking over the house and running of the farm from his parents.
If you enjoyed this article you may be interested to read more about our Irish ancestors in my book The Irish Cottage: History, Culture and Design (2017) available in all good book shops or at this link