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 pictured in 1884.
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.
For Bram Stoker's birthday on the 8th November, and two days before our first conference, the Sligo Dracula Society organised for one of Sligo's London diaspora to place a rose at Stoker's final resting place. This is at Golders Green crematorium and our thanks to Julie Siggins, Annabelle Crane and Eric Willis for their assistance in this endeavour. And for photographing the area and some of the notes that Dracula fans have left there over the years!
Dracula is a late Victorian novel that created the enduring archetypal vampire and one of the most popular characters in literature. Yet, how much do you know about the Count and his creator Bram Stoker (1847-1912)? Here are ten fascinating facts.
10. Stoker the Dubliner:
Bram - short for Abraham - Stoker was born in 1847, in Clontarf, Dublin to parents who had come from the north west of Ireland. He graduated from Trinity College and became a civil servant, working for the Irish courts service for 13 years. Although he emigrated to London when he was in his thirties, he never lost his Irish accent.
9. Stoker’s mystery childhood illness:
For the first seven years of his life, Stoker suffered from a mystery illness which left him confined to bed and unable to walk. What caused this illness has been much speculated on but never solved. It meant that young Stoker was mostly in the company of his mother Charlotte who told him stories of her childhood in Sligo. Thankfully, Stoker was cured of his illness as he grew to adulthood. It had no lasting effects on him as he went on to become a champion rugby player and athlete in his college years.
8. Stoker the ‘blogger’:
When Stoker worked in Dublin castle he wrote theatre reviews for the newspapers in exchange for free tickets to the shows, a bit like a modern-day blogger. He was quite pioneering in that he introduced next-day theatre reviews to the Dublin papers for the first time.
7. Dracula could have been called The Undead:
It took Stoker seven years to write Dracula and during that time the working title for the novel was ‘The Undead’. It was changed by the publisher at the very last minute, just before publication in 1897.
4. Heroic doctors:
In Dracula, two of the heroes are doctors: Dr Van Helsing and his former student Dr Seward eventually lead the hunt to defeat Count Dracula. There has been much speculation that Stoker’s real-life brothers, both doctors, were the inspirations for these characters. Stoker’s older brother Sir Thornley Stoker was a successful neurosurgeon who served as president of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. Bram’s younger brother Dr George Stoker was a surgeon the British army who later became a pioneer in ozone therapy. It is apparent that Bram sought advice from his brothers on matters relating to medicine in his fiction.
3. Stoker’s invented the archetypal vampire:
Stoker’s novel Dracula was the book that certified the author’s place in literary history. There had been vampire stories and novels before, but it is in Dracula that the archetypal rituals surrounding vampires first appeared. For example, the bite on the neck that passes vampirism on to the victim and the use of garlic to repel a vampire attack were invented by Stoker. The inability of a vampire to reflect in a mirror, shapeshifting into a bat, the fear of running water and the cloak and protruding teeth of the vampire were also first used in the novel. The novel codified vampirism in a way that has profoundly influenced the horror genre ever since.
2. Stoker had a vampiric boss:
Bram Stoker moved to London to manage the Lyceum theatre, which was owned by a famous actor named Henry Irving. Stoker also managed Irving’s private life. Although Irving was narcissistic, self-absorbed and manipulative, Stoker hero-worshipped him. However, Irving’s exploitative work-demands meant that Stoker had to spend much time away from his own wife and family. It is widely assumed that Dracula was based on Irving, Stoker’s energy depleting boss.
1. The most successful literary character:
After it was published Dracula sold well, but by the time of Stoker’s death in 1912 it was nothing near as popular as now. After the novel was portrayed in film it became wildly successful, especially after the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi gave the Count his distinctive look with red lined cape and slick black hair in the movie of 1931. Today, Dracula is the most portrayed movie character, having appeared in almost 300 films and inspired countless similar vampiric characters and stories.
This article by Sligo Dracula Society's Marion McGarry appeared on RTE Brainstorm October 30th 2018.
Many are unaware of the Irish origins of the creator of Dracula, the 1897 novel that codified vampirism and profoundly influenced the horror genre. The author Bram Stoker was born in Dublin and attended Trinity College and worked as a civil servant in Dublin castle. He moved to London in his thirties and never lost his Irish accent. Yet although middle-class, he was not shielded from the horrors that people living in nineteenth century Ireland often witnessed. It has long been suspected that he wove metaphors for these real-life revulsions into his famous novel which has been endlessly mined for metaphors ever since, especially in the context Stoker’s Irishness. It is possible to view the Count as Irish, or influenced by the Ireland of Stoker’s time, in many ways.
Below: page one of Charlotte Thornley Stoker's essay on Sligo's cholera epidemic.
Dracula and the Famine
Stoker’s parents saw at first hand the effects of many famines which wrought havoc on the Irish poor. Stoker himself was born in 1847 (known as Black ‘47), which was the very height of the Great Irish Famine when around a million people died of starvation and another million emigrated. The effects of the Famine were witnessed by all levels of society: Dr Daniel O’Donovan memorably wrote of seeing one of his emaciated patients "crawling" along the road to visit his dispensary "as if the grave had that moment vomited her forth".
The Famine period is one which was cloaked in shame for many Irish who became imbued with a sort of "survivor’s guilt" and silence on the subject. When Stoker moved to London, he may have incorporated such real-life disturbing imagery into Dracula.
Dracula and Sligo’s cholera epidemic
Stoker’s parents were from the north-west of Ireland and his mother Charlotte lived through the Sligo cholera epidemic of 1832. She wrote a credible account describing the disease which killed around 1,500 people in the small town in less than two months. She explained how people at that time believed cholera came from the sea and travelled overland like a mist, just like her son would later write of Count Dracula.
Charlotte witnessed people being "accidentally" buried alive in mass graves, along with other chilling events. She noted that the local catholic clergy seemed immune to the disease while continuing to tend to victims, with one priest armed with a horsewhip guarding cholera patients from murderous staff at the local infirmary. Charlotte’s essay has parallels to Dracula in so many ways that Count Dracula himself can be read as the personification of Sligo’s cholera epidemic.
Dracula and Irish landlords
Many see Stoker’s vampire as a metaphor for the absentee landlords of large estates in Ireland, whose poor management aggravated the Famine. Many of these were English and seen as a predatory plague on poor Irish peasants. Count Dracula is technically a landlord who buys many properties and, like them, he is a foreign intruder who plans to take over a native population with the contagion he carries.
Dracula and Parnell
Paradoxically, it has also been noted that the agitator for tenants’ rights Charles Stuart Parnell (1846 –1891), may also have influenced Stoker’s creation. Like Dracula summoning the "creatures of the night" to help him, the charismatic and influential Irish MP might potentially summon the Irish peasant masses to rise up in a febrile time of Land Wars and rural unrest.
Parnell supported the cause of Irish Home Rule (as did Stoker) and became known as the "uncrowned king of Ireland" because of his popularity. Naturally, he was disliked by the British establishment and was painted as the "Irish Vampire" by Punch in 1885. Dracula as both absentee landlord and Parnell is a testament to how the novel can be interpreted and ‘read’ in many different, often opposing ways.
Dracula and Irish folklore vampires
When Stoker lived in Dublin he frequented the home of Oscar Wilde’s parents, whose salons were a haven for enlightened discussion. The Wildes were well known for their knowledge of and interest in such Irish folklore topics as banshees, fairies, old magic and even vampires.
At one such gathering, Stoker may have heard the tale of Abhartach, the 5th century chieftain who kept coming back from the dead demanding a bowl of blood from his terrified people. They managed to finally slay Abhartach the vampire by stabbing him in the heart with a timber sword and burying him under a cairn of stones. The stones remain in Derry, the home county of Stoker’s father’s family.
Was Dracula's castle a metaphor for Dublin castle? The plot of Dracula involves a legal clerk imprisoned in a castle by what gradually is revealed to be a vampire. Stoker had a real-life experience of being trapped in a castle as he worked for 13 years in a government job as a legal clerk in Dublin Castle. As a creative soul, he found the job stiflingly boring with duties he would later describe as "dry as dust".To liven up his existence, Stoker wrote theatre reviews for the newspapers in exchange for free tickets to shows. This made him valuable connections in showbusiness and eventually allowed him to escape to a job in London managing the famous Lyceum theatre.
Yet Stoker never forgot his time in the castle. Legend has it he suffered nightmares while working there about "damned, headless corpses". It wasn’t until the late 20th century, and long after Stoker had died, that archaeologists excavating the foundations of Dublin castle would discover many decapitated skeletons from the medieval period buried beneath.
The following article by Marion McGarry was printed in the Sligo Weekender, 11 August 2018.
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 Teeling Street 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 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 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 the 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 – see Yemen - but thanks to scientific understanding people are less likely to die from cholera.
Pic below: a cholera victim.
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’.
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:
1. 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.
Pic below: This cartoon from later in the nineteenth century is from a time when cholera was better understood and science was making the connection between contaminated water from communal pumps like these. Such a pump once stood at Water Lane in Sligo, near the pub Shoot The Crows.
2. 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.
3. 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. Thus in Dracula the symbols of Roman Catholicism, such as holy water and the crucifix, are used to fight against vampirism and its significant that Stoker who was Church of Ireland, chose catholic symbols in this context.
Pic below: a drawing of Sligo Abbey from close to the time of the cholera epidemic. The Abbey was a ruin then, just as it is now and became the site of a mass grave for cholera victims. It stands around the corner from the site of Charlotte Thornley's house.
4. The Undead
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.
Pic below: A cartoon from the French cholera epidemic, showing a victim waking up in a tomb.
Cholera is a disease caused by the cholera bacterium (vibrio cholerae), which infects humans usually by ingestion of contaminated drinking water. The disease is still existent in the world today, but thanks to advances in scientific understanding and increased hygiene people in the western world are less likely to get cholera.
If untreated, cholera is a truly atrocious disease and it can advance within hours to cause death. It starts suddenly and quickly causes dangerous fluid loss. Symptoms of cholera infection include diarrhoea, characterized by a milky appearance known as ‘rice-water stool’. In addition, persistent painful vomiting occurs. Dehydration develops within hours after the onset of symptoms, and can be mild or severe depending on the amount of fluid lost. This can cause lethargy, sunken eyes, shrivelled skin, low blood pressure and irregular heartbeat. Cholera also causes a characteristic blue tinge to the nails and skin.
It is this dehydration that is most dangerous: it can lead to a rapid loss of minerals in the blood, which are known as electrolytes. These maintain the balance of bodily fluids. Sudden loss of electrolytes leads to muscle cramps and shock, and can lead to death in a matter of hours, even in people who were healthy beforehand.
Cholera is better understood and easily treated today. The severe dehydration that can lead to death can now be prevented with a simple rehydration electrolyte solution easily available in the western world.
Although modern sewage and water treatment have eradicated cholera in industrialized countries, cholera has not fully gone away. The disease is still in poorer countries in Africa and Southeast Asia. Outbreaks of cholera may still occur today, anywhere circumstances such as war or natural disasters force people to live in crowded conditions without satisfactory sanitation.
Illustration below: Microscopic image of the cholera bacterium.
Sligo is located on the north west coast of Ireland. Hemmed in between mountains, Lough Gill and the Atlantic Ocean, the town was founded in the 13th century on the river Garavogue which drains into Sligo Bay.
Sligo in 1832 was far different to the town we know today. Some key streets that give the town its current character had not yet been built and many buildings we recognise now did not exist. The Mail Coach Road was still relatively new having been opened around 1805, Sligo Gaol had been partially built by 1818 and Calry church was newly constructed on the Mall in 1823. The Methodist chapel on Wine Street had been built in 1832 and works had begun on a new road now known as Temple Street.
Indeed, much of Sligo in 1832 still had the skeletal layout of the old medieval town from the 13th century. Some buildings in the story of the cholera epidemic of 1832 are still standing in Sligo: the medieval Abbey stood, still a ruin, but without iron railing-topped wall; and St John’s cathedral was in use. The Sligo Fever hospital had been built in 1822 on a site behind the current Sligo University Hospital, it is no longer in existence having been demolished in the 1970s.
One of the oldest streets in Sligo is Old Market Street. It still retains its distinctive winding shape, but in 1832 continued uninterrupted onto the junction of Castle Street. Pearse Road was not yet built and instead of branching off at that point, Old Market Street was one long continuous street including what is now known as Teeling street, where Sligo courthouse now sits.
This lower part of Old Market Street was in the early nineteenth century known variously as Correction Street or Gaol Street. This is because it was the location of the old courthouse, the old gaol and the old RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) barracks. Because Charlotte Thornley’s father was an RIC officer this is where many speculate she was born in 1818 and may have lived with her family in 1832: the building that currently occupies the site of the old barracks (Louis Doherty’s Antiques) and this contains a plaque commemorating her.
By 1832, Sligo still retained the urban layout of a medieval town, and many of its buildings did not face the river Garvogue rather the whole town had ‘its back turned to the water’. Throughout the eighteenth many Irish towns had been redeveloped to ‘face’ their rivers, for example Dublin gradually turned to face the river Liffey with many of its major public buildings, such as the Four Courts and Customs House, facing the river surrounded by handsome Georgian buildings.
Aesthetics aside, it was also a time of poor sanitation and most towns that had been built, like Sligo, on a river, took their water from, and drained most of their waste back into, that river. Town residents took their drinking water from pumps which contained untreated water from the river and from wells which contained stagnant water.
In 1832 Sligo had a small number of short sewers which drained into the river and in the water supply (Wood-Martin, 1882). It was not until the 1890s that a modern sewage scheme was laid out and piped water was brought to the town.
“Being without pavement, without sidewalks, and with runnels of muddy water, which have been since covered, flowing over some streets, as Market Street, and Old Market Street, the passer-by had to pick his steps, when moving along” (O’Rourke, 1889).
Many of the buildings on Old Market Street were thatched cabins and people lived in crowded conditions in these. The cabins would have had a pile of waste or ‘middens’ located outside that contained the domestic waste from the home.
Sligo in 1832 with its poor sanitation and people living at close quarters, was ripe for the devastating cholera outbreak to come.
Much of what we consider the be the ‘old’ buildings Sligo were not yet in existence in 1832. The grand public buildings that form pivotal identifying reference points had not yet been constructed: the town hall and railway station did not come until 1860 and the Sligo RC cathedral was not built until 1874; the ‘new’ courthouse in 1875. Hyde Bridge (at the Glasshouse) did not yet exist and neither did ‘the line’ or Markievicz road (where Thomas Connolly’s now is).
For a much more comprehensive study of the history of Sligo’s streets see the excellent book by Fiona Gallagher, The Streets of Sligo: Urban Evolution Over the Course of Seven Centuries (2008).
There were possibly varied and many Irish influences on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula including the Great Irish Famine, the mummified bodies in St Michan’s crypt in Dublin and the political leader Charles Stuart Parnell (1846-1891) who the British press labelled the ‘Irish Vampire’. But specific focus has surrounded the influence of Stoker’s mother, and the stories she told to her young son of her upbringing in Sligo and the terrible Cholera outbreak of 1832.
Charlotte Matilda Blake Thornley was born in Sligo in 1818. Charlotte’s mother was Matilda Blake who married Lieutenant Thomas Thornley, from Ballyshannon. The family lived near Old Market Street.
In August 1832, Cholera hit Sligo. The disease had been moving through Europe, Britain and other parts of Ireland, notably Limerick and Tuam. Sligo suffered more than other town in the country. Cholera is a rapid disease and can cause death in a matter of hours. For three months, as the cholera rapidly moved through the town, local doctors tried heroically to contain it, and many succumbed to the disease themselves.
Medical knowledge of cholera at the time was vague, and no-one knew how it was spread or what caused it. Sligo’s workhouse and fever hospital was overcrowded. Deaths were estimated at around an astonishing fifty per day and some estimate the total death toll to be around 1,800 during the epidemic, which lasted from August to September. Panic, terror and confusion spread through the town. There was a curfew on the streets and people began to evacuate the town. Soon, checkpoints occurred on the main roads to stop people entering or leaving the town.
Charlotte later wrote in her journal the tales she told to her young son. She wrote how people in Ireland had heard of the march of the terrible disease from the East through Europe. She heard it was in France, then in Britain ‘and then, with wild affright: it was in Ireland’. She witnessed frightening scenes such as mass graves being dug. She heard stories about people she had known succumbing to the disease, and being buried so quickly that they were still alive. She saw one victim, falling down with the illness, being pushed by others into a makeshift grave using long wooden poles – he was still not dead. Cholera has the distinctive effect of making victims’ skin shrivel and take on a bluish hue.
After 6 weeks, Charlotte’s family evacuated Sligo to Ballyshannon (Donegal) where they had cousins. But on entering Ballyshannon they were surrounded by a mob who refused to allow the ‘diseased from Sligo’ into their town. When the epidemic was over the family resumed their life in Sligo. There is speculation that Charlotte then worked in service in Longford House, Skreen.
In the early 1840s she met and married Abraham Stoker Senior from Coleraine, who was 20 years her senior. They moved to Dublin where he worked as an official in Dublin Castle. They had seven children: William, Mathilda, Abraham (Bram), Thomas, Richard, Margaret, and George. The family lived an existence of middle class comfort at various Dublin addresses including Clontarf.
When Bram was a small child he suffered an undisclosed illness which meant that until seven he was confined to bed. This does not seem to have had a lasting impact on him, as he became a sportsman in his student years at Trinity College Dublin. It seems his mother told the children tales of the Sligo cholera epidemic. In the 1870s, Bram requested she write the tales down, and she wrote an account of her experiences during Sligo's cholera epidemic.
Charlotte Stoker was also a charity worker and was involved with social reform. She encouraged her children to do well in life: William became a respected surgeon, Thomas worked in the Indian Civil Service, Richard was a Colonel in the Indian Medical Service, George worked in medicine in South Africa, while Mathilda and Margaret married wealthy professional men.
Charlotte died in Dublin in 1901. There has been some suggestion she was buried in the family plot in the cemetery of St John's Cathedral in Sligo, but records are inconclusive. Other sources say she was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery in Dublin.
Pictured below: Sligo courthouse was built in 1878 is close to where Thornley's family home once was.