Dracula’s Irish Origins: Was Bram Stoker’s Vampire Actually Inspired by the Celtic Chieftain Abhartach?

black and white image of man putting a stake through a vampire's heart

Irish Myths is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn a small affiliate commission.

We all know the story:

Count Dracula, that infamous Transylvanian blood-sucker conjured from the mind of Bram Stoker, was based on the historic Wallachian warlord, Vlad the Impaler

I bet you’ve seen a documentary linking the two, and in said documentary I’m sure you were presented with images of bodies impaled on tall poles. Hollywood has reinforced the Vlad/Dracula connection (see: Dracula Untold) to the point that Stoker’s vampiric invention being a facsimile of the Eastern European fascist has become common knowledge. It’s moved beyond the realm of Halloween-party knowledge-drop (“Well, actually, Dracula was based on a real-life person, Vlad the Impaler…”) and into the popular zeitgeist.

Here’s the thing though: it’s probably bullshit.

1499 German woodcut showing Dracule waide dining among the impaled corpses of his victims
Woodcut from the title page of a 1499 pamphlet published by Markus Ayrer in Nuremberg. It depicts Vlad III “the Impaler” (identified as Dracole wyade = Draculea voivode) dining among the impaled corpses of his victims.

The theory was first popularized by historians Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally, authors of the 1972 book In Search of Dracula: The History of Dracula and Vampires. And on the surface, it makes a lot of sense.

Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, better known as Vlad the Impaler, was the son of Vlad II, a.k.a. Vlad Dracul. The elder Vlad earned that menacing last name after getting inducted into a knightly order, the Order of the Dragon. (Drac = the old Romanian word for dragon.) Vlad III thus became known as Drăculea, meaning “son of Dracul.” Couple the name with the Eastern European location, sprinkle in a couple of stories of Vlad III being a blood-lusting maniac, and voilà: obviously this is the man Bram Stoker took inspiration from when creating his Transylvanian vampire. Right?

Not so fast.

To quote Elizabeth Miller, Dracula expert and professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland:

First of all, Stoker did not get any information about vampires firsthand in Transylvania. He never went there; in fact, it  was not even his original intention to have his vampire come from Transylvania. Secondly, he did not base his vampire story on legends connected with the historical Dracula, Vlad the Impaler. Not only […] did Stoker know little about Vlad, there was (in spite of numerous outrageous claims to the contrary) never any association of Vlad with vampires, either during his own lifetime or in the intervening years between his death and the writing of Dracula.

source: Vampires: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil

But what about the name?! I can hear some of you shouting. Obviously Stoker read that name — Dracula — somewhere. He didn’t just make it up. That must be proof enough that his vampire was based, at least in part, on the historical Dracula, Vlad the Impaler.

According to Stoker himself, however, that simply isn’t true. Amongst the extensive notes he took while planning his Gothic masterpiece, we find the following tidbit:

Dracula in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous either by courage, cruel actions, or cunning.

source: Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula

These are not the words of a man with a deep understanding of Vlad the Impaler’s history. Instead, these are the words of a man with a cursory understanding of Wallachian culture, someone who read a name and thought, “Damn, that sounds cool.”

But if Dracula wasn’t inspired by Vlad, who (if anyone) was he inspired by?

Meet Abhartach: The Bloodthirsty Irish Tyrant Who Was Killed With a Wooden Sword and Buried Upside Down

While Bram Stoker was a master of the English language, he was, in fact, Irish. Born in Clontarf, a seaside suburb of Dublin, Stoker often visited the family home of Oscar Wilde. And it was there, according to retired Ulster University lecturer and author of Vampires: A Field Guide to the Creatures That Stalk the Night, Bob Curran, that Stoker likely learned about the legend of Abhartach.

Lady Wilde, Oscar Wilde’s mother, certainly knew about it and Stoker was a regular visitor to the Wilde’s house in Dublin.

Source: “Never mind Transylvania, Dracula was Irish” (BBC)

The legend, which, according to Curran, was well-known in Irish literary circles, sees a group of peasants in County Derry rebel against a despotic Celtic chieftain named Abhartach. With the help of a neighboring chieftain, Cathain, they attempt to kill Abhartach on multiple occasions — the operative word being “attempt.” Each time the peasants believe Abhartach to be dead and buried, he rises from the grave and demands bowls of blood in recompense.

In a final act of desperation, Cathain consults a local druid (or in later versions, a Christian hermit) and the proper remedy for dealing with a member of the neamh-mairbh (walking dead) is given. The peasants run the tyrant through with a sword made of yew wood, bury him upside down, surround his grave with thorns, then, for good measure, they top the grave with a large rock. This has the desired effect, and Abhartach rises no longer.

At least that’s how one version of the story goes. This being folklore, of course, there are many variations of the Abhartach tale. One of the earliest *printed* accounts comes from Patrick Weston Joyce’s 1879 work, The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places.

Just a quick note before you read the excerpt from Joyce’s work below: there are a bunch of resources — including Wikipedia and Sharon M. Gallagher’s book, The Irish Vampire — that quote this same passage, but weirdly, there are slight differences in the wording depending on the resource. Rest assured, what I’ve included below is what’s found verbatim in Joyce’s original work.

It is very curious that, in some parts of the country, the people still retain a dim traditional memory of this mode of sepulture, and of the superstition connected with it. There is a place in the parish of Errigal in Londonderry, called Slaghtaverty, but it ought to have been called Laghtaverty, the laght or sepulchral monument of a man named Abhartach [Avartagh], who was, it seems, a dwarf. This dwarf was a magician, and a dreadful tyrant, and after having perpetrated great cruelties on the people he was at last vanquished and slain by a neighbouring chieftain; some say by Finn Mac Cumhail. He was buried in a standing posture, but the very next day he appeared in his old haunts, more cruel and vigorous than ever. And the chief slew him a second time and buried him as before, but again he escaped from the grave, and spread terror through the whole country. The chief then consulted a druid, and according to his directions, he slew the dwarf a third time, and buried him in the same place, with his head downwards; which subdued his magical power, so that he never again appeared on the earth. The laght raised over the dwarf is still there, and you may hear the legend with much detail from the natives of the place, one of whom told it to me.

source: The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places

And in case you were wondering, yes, you can still visit the laght that was, according to legend, raised over Abhartach’s head. It’s formally known as the Slaghtaverty Dolmen, but, funnily enough (given Abhartach’s apparent stature), locals refer to it as the Giant’s Grave.

“The grave of the earliest recorded vampire, in Garvagh, Co Derry today.” –@pgmmcauley

Other Evidence for Dracula’s Irish Origins

On its own, the Abhartach story is a compelling piece of evidence for Dracula being rooted primarily in Irish mythology and not Romanian history. In Abhartach, we have an actual vampire: an undead blood-drinker who can only be dispatched in a specific, ceremonial way. And when you consider Bram Stoker’s original intentions for Dracula, the case only becomes stronger.

For example, we know from Stoker’s notes that the central character of his 1897 novel was originally going to be called “Count Wampyr.” The idea to insert the name “Dracula” came later, after the crux of the story had been developed. In fact, Dracula wasn’t even Stoker’s original title for the novel. We know from his 541-page manuscript (discovered in a barn in the 1980s, and now owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen) that Stoker’s original title for what would become Dracula was The Un-Dead.

There is another clue to be found in Stoker’s naming conventions. Enter the character Lucy Westenra, the novel’s damsel in distress. When Dracula’s not busy lustily draining her blood, the other male characters, foremost among them Professor Abraham Van Helsing, huddle around Ms. Westenra’s bed in an effort to save her.

Interestingly, an approximation of this very scene can be found in a memorial sculpture inside an Irish church: St Patrick’s Church of Ireland in Monaghan. The sculpture, known as The Parting Glance, portrays a woman on her deathbed while her grieving husband is restrained by a friend. And here’s where things get really cuckoo-banana-birds (to use a technical term): The sculpture was dedicated to a one Mary Ann Westenra by her husband Lord Warner William Westenra.

Mind. Blown.

Of course, unless we can prove that Stoker actually visited St Patrick’s Church of Ireland in Monaghan, we’d be forced to accept this as an extraordinary coincidence. Fortunately, there’s a case to be made that Stoker did indeed visit the church.

Long before he published Dracula, or any of his other novels and stories, Stoker was an Inspector of Petty Sessions. This civil service job saw him visiting hundreds of magistrates or “petty sessions” courts scattered across Ireland. Thus, it is very likely that his work would have brought Stoker to Monaghan at some point. What’s more, the courthouse in Monaghan is located next-door to St. Patrick’s Church! To quote local historian Sinead O’Reilly:

It’s possibly as simple as he was on his lunch break and happened to walk into the church.

source: “Never mind Transylvania, Dracula was Irish” (BBC)

Final Thought: Dracula as Social Commentary

Say we ignore Abhartach, and Bram Stoker’s notes and original manuscript, and the Ireland/Westenra connection — our friend Bob Curran would still make the case that Dracula is an inherently Irish novel. And that’s because the social conditions of late 19th-century Ireland mirror those found in Stoker’s portrayal of Transylvania.

Remember, Stoker never traveled to Transylvania himself. He was not particularly knowledgeable on the local goings-on there. And yet, he makes it a point to describe the local peasantry, and how they resent the power wielded by Count Dracula, a wealthy landlord. What’s more, despite Stoker himself being an Irish Protestant, he puts Catholic devotional objects in the hands of the peasants, who in turn offer them to Jonathan Harker, a self-described “English Churchman.” One of these devotional objects, the rosary, ends up protecting Harker from Dracula’s advances.

Now, what was happening in Ireland while Stoker was writing Dracula? The Home Rule movement was in full swing. At the time, English landlords, many of them absentee, controlled the majority of Ireland’s farmland and had undue political influence over local conditions. In response, Irish nationalists, the bulk of them Catholic, campaigned for self-government. Stoker, a Protestant, supported Home Rule. And one can interpret his favorable treatment of Catholic symbols in Dracula as the extension of an olive branch (source: Dickinson College).

When you take all of these points together, a case can be made that Dracula isn’t about a Transylvanian bloodsucker at all, it’s about a kingdom sucking power and resources from its Irish subjects. To quote Curran:

“All the elements of Ireland are there and you’re not looking at a horror novel but at a novel of contemporary issues and about contemporary Ireland.”

Further Reading

Encyclopedia of Vampire Mythology by Theresa Bane

Dracula’s Crypt: Bram Stoker, Irishness, and the Question of Blood by Joseph Valente

Vampire Handbook: An Essential Guide to Vampires and, More Importantly, How to Avoid Them by Robert Curran

Bram Stoker and the Irishness of Dracula by Dennis McIntyre

Want to meet more monsters from Irish mythology? Check out…

Irish Monsters in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 3)

In the Ireland of myth and legend, “spooky season” is every season. Spirits roam the countryside, hovering above the bogs. Werewolves lope through forests under full moons. Dragons lurk beneath the waves. Granted, there’s no denying that Samhain (Halloween’s Celtic predecessor) tends to bring out some of the island’s biggest, baddest monsters. Prepare yourself for (educational) encounters with Irish cryptids, demons, ghouls, goblins, and other supernatural beings. Learn more…

Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy

“A thrilling romp through pubs, mythology, and alleyways. NEON DRUID is such a fun, pulpy anthology of stories that embody Celtic fantasy and myth,” (Pyles of Books). Cross over into a world where the mischievous gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes of Celtic mythology live among us, intermingling with unsuspecting mortals and stirring up mayhem in cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, from Limerick and Edinburgh to Montreal and Boston. Learn more…

Want to learn the full story of Samhain? Check out…

Samhain in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 2)

Perhaps the most important holiday on the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new pastoral year. It is a liminal time—a time when the forces of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and blight, are in conflict. A time when the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead is at its thinnest. A time when all manner of spirits and demons are wont to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld. Learn more…

More the listenin’ type?

I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: