This blogpost is an abridged version of a longer article by Marion McGarry published in the Corran Herald in 2019, available from Ballymote Heritage Society.
Did Bram Stoker ever visit Sligo town? The Dracula author’s mother was from Old Market street and her mother and brother (Bram’s grandmother and uncle) are buried in the churchyard of St. John’s cathedral. During his life, was Bram ever inclined to pop up, out of curiosity, to see the town where his mother grew up, and the graves of his relatives? I have found no evidence that he did – yet - but he did visit the county of Sligo, and the towns of Collooney and Ballymote, staying in the latter. This provides a great excuse to explore what Ballymote was like, and where Stoker was in his life, when he spent a night in the town in 1877.
Bram Stoker, below, pictured in the 1880s.
To set the scene for the Stoker/Sligo connection we must briefly go back to 1832. It is generally accepted by Stoker scholars that his mother Charlotte’s stories of Sligo’s cholera epidemic were hugely influential in his horror writing.
Cholera was the nightmare disease of the early nineteenth century and Sligo’s claim to fame in medical history is that it was the worst affected provincial town in all of Ireland (or Britain) by the cholera pandemic of 1832. There is still uncertainty about the exact death toll with estimates varying from 650 to up to 1500 in a six-week period. Adding to its horror, the cause or cure of the disease was not fully understood, and it offered an agonizing death .
Charlotte witnessed terrible things. She called Sligo “a city of the dead” and heard of cholera victims being buried while still alive, of people dropping dead in the street and of whole families being wiped out within hours. There were sickly smells from the decomposing dead . Her family were spared but she could not fail to have been traumatized.
Years later, she married and Bram was born in Dublin in 1847, he later attended Trinity College and started working at Dublin Castle as a civil servant. In 1873, perhaps still haunted by her experiences, Charlotte wrote an essay Experiences of the Cholera of Ireland a highly regarded and credible first-hand account of Sligo’s outbreak.
Having worked for many years in the courts service, Bram was promoted and between 1877 and 1878 his job as an inspector of petty sessions was to monitor the duties of court clerks in the system. The counties he visited were Kerry, Mayo, Sligo and Monaghan and the towns were Limerick, Wexford, Howth and Dundalk . It was dull work but he got to travel on the still relatively new train network. His journeys took him to rural towns that an urbane young Dubliner, even today, might consider quite otherworldly!
Ballymote was and is a compact market town and a hub for a surrounding agricultural community located in south county Sligo. When Stoker visited in 1877 it was thriving, with new buildings and facilities, such as the new railway station. It is likely Stoker arrived here and walked the short distance to town. He couldn’t have failed to see the wonderful ruin of Ballymote castle  before walking up Teeling street  where the courthouse was located.
He, like other visiting court staff, would have been booked into the best hotel in the town, which was Flannerys. Its interiors on the two upper floors remain largely preserved behind the modern additions of PVC windows. Fine wrought iron fireplaces, floral wallpaper, wainscoting, wooden window reveals and a dumb waiter are still preserved largely as Stoker would have seen it. Rooms were large, with two windows. It would have been more luxurious compared to the smaller and more down-market coaching inn nearby . Flannerys was the ‘good’ hotel - the one that the judges and court clerks stayed in.
For a slideshow of images of the hotel today, featuring photography by Val Robus, see below.
He may have got to Ballymote early, did his inspection, stayed over, travelled to Collooney  next day and then got the train back to Dublin. But perhaps he stayed two evenings? And what did he do in the evening(s) he stayed?  Perhaps he dined in the hotel and returned to his room to work on his book or on his journals.
Exactly what Bram Stoker thought about Ballymote is not known, but he described the neighboring town of Collooney as ‘the most unbusy place in Ireland’ noting that the policeman there looked like a scarecrow stuffed with straw. There, he quoted one local referring to the political parties as going “round an’ round an’ round an’ round, jist for all the world like a dog lookin’ for the head of his bed" . Similarly, he wrote: “in Ballymote (Co. Sligo) 1877 I heard an angry man outside the hotel say: […] They wouldn’t give yet not so much as a biled nail for yer coffin’”. He was tickled at local names he discovered, especially one from Carrowkeel he delightedly wrote about: “found one man who flourished about 1690-1732 called Tumultuous McDonagh" .
Pictured below: Ballymote courthouse (built c.1860).
And still we come back to the question: did he ever visit Sligo town? There is currently no evidence, but future historical research might change this. He was just three stops away on the train… yet, Bram did not need to go to the places that inspired his writing – he never visited Transylvania or the Carpathian Mountains to write Dracula – it was all based on library research. Perhaps his mother’s description was vivid enough for Sligo’s past horrors to rest uneasily in his imagination – providing impetus to write his future masterpiece.
See below for a slideshow of images of the hotel in Ballymote Stoker stayed in:
The author acknowledges the assistance of Val Robus (photographer), Joe McNulty and John Coleman in researching this article.
1. Cholera is caused by contaminated drinking water. In Sligo, like many other towns, the disease was aggravated by the Garavogue river, which was the chief source of the town’s drinking water but was polluted with the town’s sewage.
2. Charlotte Stoker wrote Experiences of the Cholera in Ireland an unpublished account, in 1873. It is an important first-hand account of Sligo’s cholera epidemic.
3. Dacre Stoker and Elizabeth Miller, The Lost Journals of Bram Stoker: the Dublin Years, London (Robson Press 2012), p.239.
4. It was where the Book of Ballymote was written in the 14th century. For more on this see: https://www.ria.ie/book-ballymote
5. Teeling street was where Matthew Phibbs had lived and murdered three people in one night. He was hanged in 1861 in Sligo Gaol. He gained notoriety and was dubbed the 'Ballymote Slasher'.
6. A number of buildings in the town still have coach arches to permit entry through to the rear.
7. Stoker was in Collooney perhaps for a day-trip to inspect their sessions-records. The small town is the next stop on the train towards Sligo from Ballymote.
8. More information is required here on the duties of inspectors: did they pore over documents after hours or did they just work during court time? I also need to examine train timetables to see how frequently or infrequently trains travelled on the lines.
9. Dacre Stoker and Elizabeth Miller, The Lost Journals of Bram Stoker: the Dublin Years, London (Robson Press 2012), p.254.
10. Ibid., p.255.
11. Ibid., p.100. In the actual records of the petty sessions, there is a James Tumultuous McDonagh recorded who was noted as a witness in the Ballymote records in 1880.