St. Michan’s Church

A view into one of the vaults in the crypt beneath St. Michan’s Church, Dublin (photo by Stephen Morris)

A view of another vault beneath St. Michan’s, in which some of the mummies are exposed. The corpse on the left is an early medieval nun, the one is the middle had a hand cut off (accident? criminal punishment?), and the one on the right is a medieval man.

The church of St. Michan in Dublin is a fascinating place! Dublin was first settled by Danish Vikings (“Dublin” is derived from the Viking word for “Black Pool,” referring to the swampy ground the city was founded on) and Michan was apparently a Danish or Danish-Irish monk from that early 10th-11th century period. The church itself was first built in AD 1095 although the current building was erected in 1686 on the older foundation. It was the only parish church on the north side of the River Liffey (i.e. outside the city walls) for centuries.

In the crypt beneath the church are several vaults that were used to inter the coffins of the dead. These were preserved and expanded during the reconstruction of the building. Many of the coffins in the underground vaults date from the early Middle Ages although many also date from more recent times: leaders of a failed rebellion in 1798 are also interred here.

Because opening a sealed coffin is illegal — it is part of the crime of grave-robbing — no one realized there was anything unusual about the corpses below St. Michan’s until the older coffins began to break open as the weight of the newer coffins stacked atop them became too heavy. The coffins that broke open revealed that the corpses, which had not been treated in any unusual way, had all been mummified and preserved. This was probably due to the limestone used to build the vaults and the methane gas of the swamp below the foundations of Dublin. Limestone absorbs moisture and the constant cool temperature of the vaults helped preserve and mummify the bodies as well. The presence of methane reduces the amount of oxygen in the crypt and therefore reduces the amount of bacteria etc. that leads to more normal decomposition. (We presume that the corpses in the newer coffins are also becoming mummies as well although we won’t know for sure until the newer coffins break open as well. The vaults are still used on occasion for new internments so there is always the possibility of additional weight to break open the coffins that haven’t broken open — yet.)

Bram Stoker is thought to have visited the vaults in the crypt below St. Michan’s and possibly to have found inspiration there for at least a few of the scenes in his classic Dracula.

The church of St. Michan is very near the new Teeling whiskey distillery in Dublin, making a visit to both sites an easy excursion.

Happy Birthday, Bram!

Bram Stoker, an Irish author-actor-playwright, is best known for his novel Dracula.

Bram Stoker, an Irish author-actor-playwright, is best known for his novel Dracula.

Abraham “Bram” Stoker (born November 8, 1847 – died April 20, 1912) was an Irish novelist and short story writer, best known today for his 1897 novel Dracula. During his lifetime, he was better known as personal assistant of actor Henry Irving and business manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London, which Irving owned. (Stoker’s residence and parish church can still be visited in Dublin.)

Although Stoker himself never visited Romania or the Carpathian Mountains, he spent several years researching European folklore and mythological stories of vampires. He also met Ármin Vámbéry, a Hungarian writer and traveler, whose dark stories of the Carpathians may have also contributed to Stoker’s inspiration.

Stoker’s most infamous character, the vampire Dracula, has gone on to appear in many “incarnations” or guises. In the Dresden Files series, Stoker’s novel is said to be a hunter’s manual for the Black Court vampires, now all but extinct as a result. Bela Lugosi played the vampire in both stage and film versions of the story. The new Something in the Blood by David Skal was reviewed in the New York Times at the end of October; it is an examination of where all the sexual energy and tension in the book comes from. One study, Who was Dracula? explores and uncovers the wide range of source material – from folklore and history, to personas including Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman. There are many versions of The Annotated Dracula and each opens new windows into the world of Stoker and his famous, bloody creation.

Dracula Arrives in New York

Dracula Rare Original 1927 progm

The play Dracula opened in New York’s Schubert Theatre on September 19, 1927. Originally a 1924 stage play adapted by Hamilton Deane from the novel of the same name by Bram Stoker, it was substantially revised by John L. Balderston in 1927. It was the first adaptation of the novel authorised by Stoker’s widow, and has influenced many subsequent adaptations.

In 1927 the play was brought to Broadway by Horace Liveright, who hired John L. Balderston to revise the script for American audiences. The American production starred Bela Lugosi in his first major English-speaking role, with Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing; both actors reprised their roles in the 1931 film version, which drew on the Deane-Balderston play.

In addition to radically compressing the plot, the 1927 rewrite by Balderston, reduced the number of significant characters, combining Lucy Westenra and Mina Murray into a single character, making John Seward this Lucy’s father, and disposing of Quincey Morris and Arthur Holmwood. In Dean’s original version Quincey was changed to a female to provide work in the play for more actresses.

The play was revived in 1977, in a production featuring set and costume designs by Edward Gorey and starring Frank Langella as Dracula. The production won Tony Awards for Best Revival and Best Costume Design, and was nominated for Best Scenic Design and Best Leading Actor in a Play (Langella). Langella, like Lugosi, went on to reprise the role in the 1979 film version. Subsequent actors in the title role for the Broadway revival included David Dukes, Raul Julia and Jean LeClerc, while the London production starred Terence Stamp and American touring companies starred Martin Landau and Jeremy Brett.

(Related to the theatrical opening of Dracula, the popular television series The Addams Family debuted on September 18, 1964 and Romania issued a stamp depicting Vlad Dracul in honor of the 500th anniversary of the founding of Bucharest on September 20, 1959.)