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.