Bram Stoker, Dracula and the Irish Gothic

Posted on: 2 April 2024 by Dr. Niall Carson in Blog

On the 20th of April 1912, legendary author Bram Stoker passed away. He is most famous for penning Dracula, published in 1897. The novel, and characters within it, have left a long, exciting legacy of adaptations, in various forms. Now, over 100 years later, we look into the teaching of Dr. Niall Carson on Dracula, within the context of the Irish Gothic in his teachings on Irish Literature at the University of Liverpool.

About Bram Stoker

Abraham Stoker, novelist and theatre manager, was born on the 8th of November 1847 at 15 Marino Crescent, Clontarf Dublin. He was the second of the five sons and two daughters of Abraham and Charlotte (maiden-name Thornley) Stoker. Bram Stoker’s father (1799-1876) was a clerk at Dublin Castle, while his mother (1818-1901­) was a social activist and advocate for the poor.

Dracula and the Irish Gothic

Most of us reading Dracula have access to a number of obvious readings of the text: it is a Gothic tale (although apart from the Gothic novel proper) that is filled with dark and sinister imagery of tombs, castles, and imposing landscapes. Another way to look at the text would be through the threat of the modern world to more established and traditional ways of living. The undead Count has to be brought to heel by the forces of rationalism, science, and intervention from the New World in the form of Quincey Morris and his ubiquitous Bowie Knife. If we try to situate the book within the context of Victorian morality, it offers us a number of Freudian readings with its suggestive sexual undertones that played to fears of contamination, contagion and female sexual desire.

"For Stoker – and for late Victorian culture – race was essentially a matter of blood, and the ease with which Count Dracula enters the mainstream of British society plays on anxieties about its relationship to disease, heredity, and cultural intermixing." - Luke Gibbons, Gaelic Gothic.

Think of Dracula as a distinctly Irish novel, one that relies upon its author, Bram Stoker’s, sense of self and place within the Ireland of his time. Stoker was born in 1847, the worst year of the Great Famine in Ireland. The Dublin he grew up in was one inhabited by emaciated wraiths and skeletal famine poor, looking for work or passing through on their way to Liverpool and the world beyond. It was also one of radical political change, with a growing Catholic middle-class replacing the predominantly Protestant Ascendency as the dominant political power. 

"Disruption rather than stability is a function of Irish Anglican psychology, and this psychology expressed itself in rhetorical strategies which eventually came together to form the Irish Gothic of the late Eighteenth Century. Irish Gothic is the means by which late eighteenth-century Irish Anglicanism expresses itself’." - Jarleth Kileen, Gothic Ireland.

Dracula can be read within the politics of its time. There are multiple conflating and contradictory Irish readings of the novel that can enrich our understanding of the text. Stoker himself can be seen within an Irish Gothic tradition with writers such as: Charles Maturin, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Oscar Wilde and Elizabeth Bowen; all from established Protestant families whose fortunes reflected their declining social position.

"Gothic fiction is hardly “Gothic” at all. It is an entirely post-medieval and even post-Renaissance phenomenon. Even though several long-standing literary forms combined in its initial renderings – from ancient prose and verse romances to Shakespearean tragedy and comedy – the first published work to call itself “A Gothic Story” was a counterfeit medieval tale published long after the Middle Ages: Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, printed under a pseudonym in England in 1764 and reissued in 1765 in a second edition with a new preface which openly advocated a “blend [of] the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern,” the former “all imagination and improbability” and the latter governed by the “rules of probability” connected with “common life”. Jerrold E. Hogle, 'Introduction: the Gothic in western culture’ The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction

Consequently, Dracula can be looked at as a form of guilt for Ascendency misrule of Ireland. The eponymous Count embodies the absentee landlord, tied to his home soil, but present in the metropolis of London, but not from there. Conversely, he can also be looked at as belonging to an older aristocratic tradition in the form of the Catholic landlord, returning to reclaim his birth-right. He is supported by a band of rabidly loyal peasants, speaks in strange tongues, and has an older and more established claim to the soil than his bourgeois opponents.

"the central issue in the analysis of nineteenth-century Ireland was precisely the links between the two [the duality of being an agent and object of colonialism], insofar that it was the landlord class that was responsible for the coffin ships, and offloading the remnants of the pauperized Irish peasantry onto the advanced working class of the metropolitan centre.’"- Luke Gibbons, Gaelic Gothic

As we can see, the novel Dracula, is open to many readings, but the political and social conditions of Stoker’s Ireland are important to consider and they place it within a wider Irish Gothic tradition.    


About Dr Niall Carson

Dr. Niall Carson is the Joint Patronage Lecturer in Modern Irish Literature at the Institute of Irish Studies, the University of Liverpool. He has published on topics such as Irish print cultures, working class poetry, and transnational Irish literature and has written a monograph titled 'Rebel by Vocation: Seán O'Faoláin and the Generation of The Bell'. He achieved a PhD from the University of Liverpool and in addition to this, he holds degrees from The University of Hertfordshire, the National University of Ireland: Cork, and the London School of Economics and Political Science.

This lecture is a snippet from a wider series taught by Dr. Carson. Entitled English literature in Ireland: Jonathan Swift to WB Yeats, it is one of the year one modules on the Irish Studies (BA).