Bram Stoker Festival 2023


This was Bram Stoker weekend and there were activities all around Dublin.  The events I attended , while not directly connected with Bram or his character Dracula, celebrated blood and gore worthy of any horror story.  Both took place in the National Museum.



Hands-on History: Malady, Mourning and Mystery

I didn’t realise that there were “hands-on” collections in the National Museum. They are taken out for particular events and occasions.

For Hallowe’en weekend the Museum educators presented a range of objects from the Museum’s handling collection that reflect a history of life, disease and death.


Beef bone with marrow spoon

Stories about how bone marrow was extracted, the use of mercury to cure STD’s, mourning broaches which contained hair of the deceased, vials and measures of potions and powders, bandages, first aid kits, and booklets about health and safety.

Mourning brooch

I was particularly fascinated by the quotes from Bram Stoker’s Dracula:

I know what sorrows you have had, though I cannot measure the depth of them.

I fear no weapon wrought alone by man’s hand would have any effect on him.

There is a poison in my blood, in my soul, which may destroy me.

Now, little miss, here is your medicine. Drink it off, like a good child.

A world full of miseries and woes and troubles: Life, Disease and Death in Collins Barracks

The second event was billed as a tour with a Museum guide to “discover the chills, ills, and kills in Collins Barracks’ 300-year long history”. Our guide told a detailed and very graphic story of the trials and tribulations of life as a soldier living in the Barracks from the 1700s until the late 1900s, with a focus on (ill) health, as well as the transition from one of Europe’s oldest occupied Barracks into one of Ireland’s National Museums.

It certainly lived up to expectations. The horrors of Dracula are nothing compared to the grim stories of the residents of this building over the years.

I hadn’t realised that our overpopulated country of the late 1700’s provided the Commonwealth with a steady valuable resource – man power. Over half the British army was Irish and they carved out the Empire, playing a significant role in the Napoleonic war, Crimean War, Zulu War, Boer War and WW1.

The Royal Barracks, as it was called, was one of the oldest and largest inhabited barracks in Europe, housing up to 1500 men and two troops of horses. Life was hard for the ordinary soldier, with harsh discipline and cruel punishment for infringements. The Provost Jail was quite literally two black holes dug under the Provost House for about five prisoners each but frequently accommodating forty to fifty.

Living accommodations was dangerously inadequate and the levels of disease very high. A limited number of families were housed in the most unsanitary conditions of the barracks. Cholera and Typhoid were rampant.
When their husbands were away fighting, the women also faced frequent attacks from soldiers on the base. Life for wives and children in the slums outside the barracks was even worse with their husbands absent for years, many of the women were forced into prostitution. The Lock Hospitals which were established close to many military barracks caused huge social problems as women could be incarcerated there for many months for merely living beside the barracks.

Hundreds of prisoners were housed in the barrack prison after each of the many Irish rebellions. Our guide described the severe methods of interrogation and torture practiced, very often for the entertainment of the troops rather than for information gathering. Flogging with “the cat” was common. Edward Heppenstall, “the walking Gallows” gave many performances of his skills in the barracks square. Pitch capping was also a frequent source of amusement.


The importance of the Irish fighting in France

We were all delighted to escape the stories of misery and disease, when our guide took us inside to see the Stokes Tapestry. British army soldier Stephen Stokes made this amazing textile while he was stationed in Ireland.

Military life

More than 30 panels tell the story of his career, first in the cavalry (the Royal Dragoons) and then in the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Stokes spent more than 15 years working on the tapestry and showed it to Queen Victoria when she visited in 1849.

Note the imposing size of Irish compared to the diminutive militia

He omitted telling her of his Irish sympathies, although they were cleverly hidden in the tapestry.

The Royal Coat of Arms is depicted with the shamrock intertwined with roses and thistles all coming from the same stem. I doubt Queen Victoria would have supported its display at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851

Author: Breda Fay

I'm retired since end August 2016 and loving the new life! More time now for family and friends and to explore craft, history, travel and certainly more of a chance for, me-time. To paraphrase Seuss: I've no tears that (teaching) is over; but many smiles that it happened!

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