Davida and I first crossed paths with Bram Stoker in January 2000, on the moors of North Yorkshire. With daylight bleeding out and many miles till Edinburgh, we arbitrarily decided to seek lodging in a brooding little waterfront town on the North Sea.
It was by chance, for us, that Whitby bears the literary distinction of being the point at which Stoker deposited his greatest creation, Count Dracula, on Albion shores. Although I had read Dracula, it had been many years since, and I had no recollection of the town or its role in the novel. However, this connection, we soon learned, has made Whitby, with its lurid tourist draws and ruined cliff-top abbey overlooking the sea, the Coney Island of goth culture that it is today.
We still travel this way – every January, often spending the night wherever the day has taken us. Ireland in the off-season, we figured, would be no exception. In fact, when planning our January 2015 road trip of the Emerald Isle, we had booked lodging for only one of our seven nights – the first, not far from Dublin Airport.
Online, Clontarf Castle had appeared a bit more upscale than our usual digs, but we figured some comfortable sprawling room might be in order following a full day and night of travel; plus, our son would enjoy the prospect of spending his first night abroad in a castle.
Now an affluent suburb on the north side of Dublin, Clontarf was, a thousand years ago, the site of an epic battle that in the annals of Irish history commands a hallowed status comparable to that of, say, Gettysburg for Americans. It was here, in 1014, that Irish Ard Ri (or high king) Brian Boru defeated a joint force of Viking marauders and contentious Irish factions from the kingdoms of Dublin and Leinster. Nearly every commander on all sides , including Brian, died that April 23 – Good Friday – but the bloody Battle of Clontarf effectively ended 200 years of Viking raids in Ireland. Unfortunately, with Brian’s death, it also spelled the end of the fragile alliance between various Irish clans that he had spent a lifetime crafting, setting the stage for socio-political unrest that would pave the way for invading Normans in 1169.
In the 1960s, songwriter Dominic Behan (brother of author and playwright Brendan Behan) poetically summarized the Battle of Clontarf in his oft-covered tune, “The Sea Around Us”:
The Danes came to Ireland with nothin’ to do
But dream of the plundered old Irish they slew
“Yeh will in your Vikings,” says Brian Boru
As he pushed them back into the ocean
Those combatants would recognize nothing of Clontarf today…save, perhaps, for nearby Dublin Bay. However, the extant Clontarf Castle, which dates (only) to the 19th century, might be a familiar sight for the area’s most renowned native son – one Abraham Stoker, born here in 1847, at the height of the Great Famine. Fifty years later, Stoker would turn loose upon the world one of the most enduring icons of gothic horror with the publication of his magnum opus, Dracula.
While I knew Bram Stoker was Irish by birth, I could not have told you his particular place of origin – that was, until Clontarf, where, to our mutual astonishment, we once again found ourselves in his presence. Fifteen years and who-know-how-many-thousands-of-miles had found us on the very grounds of the ruined church in which he had been baptized, and but a short walk from his birthplace. Indeed, it was enough to render the most rational mind superstitious.
But that could be said for much of Ireland – and this was only the beginning…