Monday, April 16, 2012

Dracula Was Irish Not Transylvanian!

Says Genealogist Who Last Traced Obama’s Irish Roots

First Obama, now Dracula … Like Obama and 40 million Americans, Dracula has Irish ancestry

Monday, April 16, 2012: Count Dracula, the Transylvanian nobleman and daddy of all vampires, was originally Irish rather than Transylvanian, according to new research by the genealogist who previously traced Barack Obama’s Irish roots.

Dracula is the title character of the 1897 Gothic horror novel by Bram Stoker, the Irish writer who died 100 years ago this week – on April 20, 1912.

But how did Stoker (1847-1912), a one-time Dublin civil servant, and chum of Oscar Wilde, come to imagine the gothic horrors of Dracula? The question has puzzled critics for over a century.

Now, new research into Stoker’s family tree by the genealogy website findmypast Ireland (www.findmypast.ie) provides the answer. It does so by uncovering previously unknown facts about Stoker’s family history, which also reclaim the story of Dracula as essentially Irish.

The new findings are the fruit of months of research by Fiona Fitzsimons, a director of www.findmypast.ie and the genealogist who last year identified Obama’s closest living Irish relatives, enabling the U.S. President – one of 40 million Americans with Irish ancestry – to meet them on his state visit to Ireland.

“I myself am of an old family…” Count Dracula informs Jonathan Harker, one of the novel’s narrators. Dracula tells Harker of his pride in his noble lineage, rooted in a lost age of feudal warriors, valor and heroism.

Bram Stoker, we now discover, also turns out to have been “of an old family” with a glorious history. His direct ancestor, Manus “the Magnificent” O’Donnell, once ruled much of Ireland and led a rebellion against Henry VIII.

“We have discovered that Bram Stoker could trace his own direct family line back almost 1,000 years”, says Fitzsimons. In short, his own lineage turns out to have been remarkably similar to Dracula’s. What’s more, Stoker himself knew of this ancestry, says Fitzsimons, but the wider world did not – until now.

“Stoker did not use overtly Irish references in Dracula, but his main theme is taken from Irish history – the history, we now learn, of his own family – recast in the writer’s imagination”, says Fitzsimons.

“The tale of a decayed aristocracy with a great warrior past, the survivors displaced by the passage of history and now living in the shadows, is the story of Dracula, as envisioned by this descendant of Manus O’Donnell.”

Although the Stoker family – Bram’s father’s side – were of humble stock, it was already known before now that Bram’s mother Charlotte was descended from the Blakes, a landed Irish family.

What Fitzsimons has now discovered, with the help of land records found on www.findmypast.ie, is that Charlotte was also descended from the O’Donnells, one of Ireland’s greatest families, with one of its oldest recorded lineages.

Through painstaking research, Fitzsimons has been able to document Bram Stoker’s direct descent in 12 generations from Manus “the Magnificent” O’Donnell, Irish clan leader and Lord of Tr Conaill, who died in 1563.

“We can then further trace this direct lineage back to the 11th Century, because the O’Donnell lords from whom Bram Stoker is descended, have one of the oldest recorded lineages in Ireland.”

Nor is that all. The story goes back farther than that, since, from 561 A.D. the O’Donnell lords were the hereditary keepers of the psalter [holy book] of St Columba, revered in Ireland as the patron saint of poets.

The psalter survives to this day, and the shrine that the O’Donnells commissioned to house it, is on display in the National Museum of Ireland.

These objects remained in the O’Donnell’s keeping until 1843, when the O’Donnells gave them to the Royal Irish Academy. Their donation received wide press coverage and was a cause célèbre.

“Our research has proven links between the writer’s family, the oldest surviving Irish manuscript in existence, and one of the greatest treasures held in the National Museum of Ireland.” The manuscript book and its reliquary [container] provide evidence that Stoker’s O’Donnell family could trace their direct lineage back more than 1,300 years to 561 A.D.”

A key inspiration for Dracula is reputed to have been Vlad the Impaler, the 15th century Transylvanian-born prince also known as Vlad III Dracula of Wallachia, with whom Count Dracula shares not just a name but also some characteristics.

But the true inspiration for Dracula, believes Fitzsimons, was not Vlad the Impaler at all. Instead, it was Manus the Magnificent, Stoker’s direct ancestor. This is not to say that Manus was either a vampire or a tyrant, since he was neither. But he was a feudal lord, with vast territories and the power of life and death over his subjects. In 1555, he was deposed by his own son, with a ruthlessness worthy of Vlad himself.

“Intriguingly, our research shows that Bram Stoker himself knew of these family connections, and was influenced by them when he wrote his best-known novel”, says Fitzsimons.

Bram Stoker’s mother knew that her own grandmother was Eliza O’Donnell of the illustrious O’Donnell family. She remained in contact with the family and cannot have failed to understand the significance of the rediscovery of the manuscript book and shrine in 1843.

“Bram himself wrote that his mother told him stories about his family history and ancestors”, says Fitzsimons. But even the few literary scholars who knew this, would not have understand its significance – until now.

Young Bram was a sickly child, bed-ridden until the age of seven. “He was at home, listening to all these tales from his mother”, says Fitzsimons. “These were tales not just about Irish history but of his own ancestry. They gave him a direct link to the very pulse of Irish history. Can you imagine the impact that they would have had on a young, sickly, imaginative child?”

Indeed, Stoker himself has written of this period, "I was naturally thoughtful, and the leisure of long illness gave opportunity for many thoughts which were fruitful according to their kind in later years".

About www.findmypast.ie

www.findmypast.ie is the world's most comprehensive Irish family history website, providing easy-to-search, online access to some of the most significant Irish records that have ever been made available. Launched in 2011, it is a joint venture between two experts in the field: findmypast.co.uk, one of the leading family history websites and part of the brightsolid family, while Eneclann is an award-winning Trinity College Campus Company specialising in genealogical and historical research and the publication of historical records.

Based in Dublin, findmypast.ie has a dedicated team committed to providing the best experience possible when researching Irish family history.

About Fiona Fitzsimons (… and Barack Obama)

Fiona Fitzsimons is a noted historian and genealogist. She is a Director of www.findmypast.ie and Research Director of Eneclann, an Irish history and heritage company, which she co-founded in 1998.

In 2008 Fiona researched President Obama’s Irish ancestry back from Falmouth Kearney, Obama’s 2nd great-grandfather to Obama’s 7th great-grandfather, Joseph Kearney born ca. 1698. Read more about the Kearney Family.

In May 2011, Eneclann’s researchers announced that they had identified President Obama’s closest living Irish relatives in Ballygurteen, Co. Tipperary – Dick Benn and Tom Donovan. The story of the discovery was broadcast on RTE 1′s Nationwide programme on 20th May – watch the Nationwide programme on the Benn Family now.

You can also find out more about the research, led by Fiona Fitzsimons and Helen Moss, in their account of the Benn Family History.