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This article is Copyright of Fiona Fitzsimons of Eneclann
Bram Stoker, the Blakes and the O’Donnells
For a truly superstitious and supernatural country like Ireland it is quite the surprise that most are unaware that it has a rich vampire folklore. One such individual that did was of course the great Bram Stoker the creator of the wonderful Gothic novel Dracula.
Bram Stoker was a sickly child, he saw more of his mother (charlotte) than any of his other siblings. She liked to entertain him with stories drawn from her early life in Sligo and Donegal, and from her own family history of the Blakes and O’Donnells..
The Blake family were one of the ‘Tribes of Galway’. They settled in Connacht (the western province) by the 14th Century, and were mariners and merchant princes. They owned sea-going ships and traded goods with ports on the western coast of France, and Spain. They exported timber and leather hides, and imported wines, silks and spices. Matilda Blake (Bram’s grandmother) had an interesting family. She was a younger daughter of Richard Blake and Eliza O’Donnell. Her oldest brother ‘General’ George Blake led the Irish rebels in Connacht in 1798, and fought beside General Humbert’s troops.
George Blake (Bram’s Great-Uncle)
In the 1798 Rebellion, ‘General’ George Blake led the Irish forces, estimated as 1,500 mainly pikemen and cavalry, in the Battle of Ballinamuck co. Longford, on 8th September 1798. General Humbert led the French force of 800. The Irish rebels were hopelessly ill equipped, armed mainly with pikes which they used as bayonets, they faced an army equipped with guns and heavy artillery.
The rebels were outmanoeuvred and massively outnumbered by General Lake’s crown forces. The French surrendered without terms. General Lake then undertook a wholesale slaughter of the Irish rebels. Best estimates indicate approximately 500 to 600 were killed in battle, and hundreds hanged afterwards. Local tradition records that there were so many Irish rebels, that the crown forces held a lottery using cards marked ‘life’ and ‘death’ to reduce the executions to more manageable numbers. Those who drew ‘life’cards were set free. Those prisoners that drew ‘death’ were taken to be hanged at Ballinalee (MacGréine, ‘Traditions of 1798′, pp 393-5; 1798 Commemoration, p.12).
George Blake was captured several days after the battle and was hanged at Kiltycreevagh Hill (The English brought the prisoner’s to Jack Griffin’s house in Coillte Craobhach, and the first man they hung was General Blake’. Irish Folklore Commission, University College Dublin). We found a contemporary newspaper account of Blake’s death:
Blake, the insurgent leader, who had joined the French, and was lately deservedly hanged as a traitor; begged to be shot. When that was refused, he requested to be indulged with the noose of the rope that was for his execution being soaped, that it might run free to shorten the time of dying. This, we hear, was granted, and he prepared it in that manner with his own hand.
Freeman’s Journal 15 September 1798
These stories about 1798 and about the gruesome end met by ‘General’ George Blake and the rebels were widely known across Ireland. When Bram heard them, he would have had the added frisson of knowing that George Blake was his great-uncle and that he led an estimated 800 to 1000 Irishmen to their deaths.
Charlotte had other family stories about her O’Donnell ancestors, including one which provided a link between the ancient past and Bram’s early childhood. Bram Stoker’s great grandmother was Eliza O’Donnell, daughter of Colonel Manus O’Donnell (died 1767), of the O’Donnell family of Newport. The information we have discovered has NEVER before been connected to Bram Stoker. Through this maternal line, we can trace Bram Stoker’s descent in 12 generations from Manus O’Donnell (Manus ‘the Magnificent’), Lord of Tír Conaill (corresponds to the North and North-West portion of Ireland) who died in 1563. We can further trace this direct lineage back to the 11th Century, because the O’Donnell lords from whom Bram Stoker is directly descended, were one of the oldest recorded lineages in Ireland. This makes Bram Stoker one of the very few Irish people who can trace their family history back over 1000 years. He was not simply a ‘clan member’ he was a direct descendant.
Manus 'The Magnificent' O'Donnell
The most informed description of Manus 'The Magnificent' O'Donnell comes from the article by Dr. Brendan Bradshaw "Manus 'The Magnificent' : O'Donnell as Renaissance Prince". In his article Dr. Bradshaw paints a picture of a flamboyant character know for his dramatic clothing and appreciation of art and culture. Manus is known as the first great Irish lord of Tyrconnell who ruled between 1537 and 1555.He is recognised as one of Ireland's leading political figures of the time.He was also well known in Britain and in mainland Europe. He is described in The Annals of the Four Masters as "a learned man, skilled in many arts, gifted with a profound intellect, and the knowledge of every science." He wrote love poetry and satiric verse and undertook to supervise the writing of a life of St Colmcille at Lifford Castle, where he was captive. This was completed in 1536. He described the 6th-century monastic founder as his ‘high saint and kinsman in blood'. This project, because of its commitment to sources and interest in religious reform, has been claimed as an example of Renaissance humanist influence.
Webb (1878) notes in A Compendium of Irish Biography that his clothing is described by St. Leger in a despatch to Henry VIII.: "He was in a cote of crymoisin velvet, with agglettes of gold, twenty or thirty payer; over that a greate doble cloke of right crymoisin saten, garded with blacke velvet; a bonette, with a fether, sette full of agglettes of gold." Manus was deposed by his son Calvagh O'Donnell in 1555. In 1843 Sir Richard O’Donell, Charlotte Stoker’s close cousin, deposited some ancient artefacts with the Royal Irish Academy. These artefacts – - the psalter of St. Columbcille and the shrine that held it – had been passed down by descent within the O’Donnell family, between 561 A.D. and 1843 A.D. O’Donnell’s decision to donate them was inspired by the ‘Celtic Revival’ – a renewed interest in the lost classical history and culture of Ireland. His donation was enthusiastically covered by the Irish newspapers, and was a cause célèbre.
What was the Psalter of St. Columbcille?
The psalter of Columbcille, also known as the ‘Cathach’ is the earliest surviving Irish manuscript. Linguistically it has been shown to date from the second half of the 6th Century or early 7th Century. The psalter is a vulgate copy of the Psalms 30(10) to 105(13), by tradition it was copied by St. Columbcille’s own hand. Vulgate means it was written in the everyday latin that was spoken in the Roman empire in the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D.
Who was St. Columbcille?
Columbcille was born c. 521, and died 597. He was a great Grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages and therefore kin of the O’Neill clan. The defining act of his life was to leave Ireland, to be ‘a pilgrim of Christ in Britain’. He founded the monastery of Iona and monasteries in Derry and Durrow. Columbcille was revered in Ireland as the patron saint of poets.
How did the O’Donnells become hereditary keepers of St. Columbcille’s Psalter?
In 561 A.D., after the battle of Cul Dremna, Columbcille’s Psalter passed into the hands of the O’Donnells, who remained the hereditary keepers of this manuscript book until 1842. Ca. 1092 A.D., the O’Donnells commissioned a new shrine to hold the psalter. The shrone was decorated with cystals, pearls and silver tracework, with an inscription in Irish around the base.
How did the Psalter become known as the Cathach?
In the medieval period the manuscript was used by the O’Donnells for another purpose: the manuscript was named ‘Cathach’ or ‘Battler’ from the practice of carrying it thrice right-hand-wise … as a talisman [before battle].It was taken to France in 1691 and brought back to Sir Neal O’Donel, Newport, Co. Mayo, in 1802 (Royal Irish Academy)
How did the psalter came into the possession of the O’Donnells of Newport?
In 1691 the manuscript-book and shrine were taken to France. When the last of this family died without children, the book and shrine were bequeathed to their closest O’Donnell relatives in Ireland – the O’Donnells of Newport. In 1802 the book and shrine were returned in a trunk to Ireland.In 1813 the renowned genealogist William Betham, was invited to inspect the contents of the chest. He opened the trunk, to discover the battered but elaborately decorated box, containing the book.
What was the relevance of all of this to Bram Stoker’s family?
In 1813 the ‘rediscovery’ of St. Columbcille’s psalter in a trunk bequeathed by the last of the O’Donnnells in France, had a dynastic importance. William Betham wrote “it was a tacit acknowledgement that the O’Donnells of Newport [were] now the chief of this illustrious family.”Charlotte Stoker knew that her own grandmother was born into the O’Donnell family of Newport, and that she could claim descent from this line too.
Through his maternal line, we can trace Bram Stoker’s descent in twelve generations from Manus O’Donnell (Manus ‘the Magnificent’), Lord of Tir Conaill who died in 1563. We can trace this direct lineage back even earlier, because the O’Donnell lords from whom Bram Stoker is directly descended, were one of the oldest recorded lineages in Ireland. Bram Stoker could trace his own direct family line back not as a ‘clan member’ but as a direct descendant. In fact, through the evidence of the ‘Cathach’ and the shrine, which were passed by descent within the O’Donnell family, we have de facto evidence of Bram Stoker’s O’Donnell direct lineage, back to 561 A.D.
Do these artefacts survive today?
The Cathach or Psalter of St. Columbcille is held by the Royal Irish Academy on Dawson Street. The reliquary was also deposited, and today is on display in the National Museum of Ireland on Kildare Street.
What is new about our research? And how does it impact on Stoker’s ‘Dracula’?
The research completed by Fiona Fitzsimons, Helen Moss and Jennifer Doyle is new research, and is directly relevant to Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. The key aspect of our story, is that the O’Donnells were not simply “a landed family”, but were the direct descendants of the O’Donnell lords of Tir Conaill. We can trace Bram Stoker’s direct descent in 12 generations from Manus O’Donnell (d. 1563), a warrior lord who led a rebellion against Henry VIII.
Because we can link Stoker to this main line, its possible to trace Stoker’s documented lineage back to the 11th Century.
We also have de facto evidence that Bram Stoker’s lineage can be traced back to 561A.D. In 561 A.D. the O’Donnells became hereditary keepers of the manuscript of St. Columbcille’s psalter. More than 500 years later (ca. 1092) they had a shrine made to hold the manuscript.
The O’Donnell’s remained hereditary keepers of the manuscript and shrine, which passed by direct descent through the main O’Donnell line.
In 1843 Sir Neal O’Donnell deposited the Manuscript with the Royal Irish Academy, which still holds it today. The shrine can also be viewed in the National Museum of Ireland in Kildare Street. This deep family history was not previously known, and we would argue that it provides a new context to interpret the text of Dracula. Instead of trying to “shoe-horn” the story of Dracula into a metaphor for sexual repression or sexual deviancy, which are the main current interpretations, the new information we provide allows the text to be read as Stoker originally intended - i.e. Dracula is the story of a decayed aristocracy, with a glorious warrior past, bypassed by history, which now survives hiding in the shadows. We hope that this new information will allow readers to ‘rescue’ Stoker’s Dracula from its critics.
On behalf of the association of O’Neill clans we hope you enjoyed the story Bram Stoker and his connection to the O’Neill and O’Donnell clans of Ireland