ON THE TRAIL OF THE IRISH VAMPIRE

Vampyre

“The last I saw of Count Dracula was his kissing his hand to me, with a red light of triumph in his eyes, and with a smile that Judas in hell might be proud of.” 
― Bram Stoker
Dracula

For generations there has been a fascination with the vampire, creature of the night and blood sucking demon.  The origins of such a demonic entity stretch back to ancient civilisations and trail across countries and oceans – from Ancient Greeks writing of blood drinking revenants to current sightings of the South American Chupacabra.

Modern folklore and popular culture have ultimately taken tales and accounts from 18th Century Europe and created a distinctive, deadly and dark evil force that has spawned countless best-selling books, TV shows and films.  Transylvania in Romania is recognised as the number one hotspot for discovering the legend of the Vampire, however unknown to many, Ireland has an historic and altogether dark Vampiric trail of its own dating back to the 5th Century at least!

ABHARTACH – VAMPIRE CLAN CHIEF

Abhartach.jpg

During the 5th Century in what is now known as Derry, the area was in a constant state of battle between rival clans seeking power and dominion over one another.  The leader of one of these clans was the cruel and twisted Chieftain Abhartach.  His name roughly translates as dwarf and he was believed to either be such or had several deformities.

Regardless of either Abhartach was a formidable opponent and vicious warrior.  He was the definition of pure evil and such was the clan chief’s passion for darkness and depravity he was feared as a powerful and sadistic sorcerer.

So much so in fact, that his own clan cowered in his presence and plotted his demise.  They hired the services of a rival Chieftain who slew Abhartach and buried him in a solitary grave standing upright, as was the tradition for warriors of that time.

Celebrations were short-lived however, as a somewhat disgruntled Abhartach returned from the grave the following night, demanding fresh blood from his clan to sustain his life.  Clan Chief Cathan was both perplexed and furious that his efforts had failed and knew his reputation was at stake.  Once again he killed the dwarf and buried him exactly as before.

In scenes reminiscent of the accounts of Rasputin, it would appear Abhartach was immortal as he returned to his village once again to seek vengeance and drink the blood of his people.

Convinced that Abhartach was indeed wielding some black magic influence, Cathan sought the advice of a Druid Priest and finally cut down the wicked creature with a sword carved from the Yew tree, possibly the most powerful mystical reference for Druids.

Abhartach was interred for the final time head first, never to resurface – or so we are led to believe.  In the current area of Derry known as Glenullin, there is a location known as the Giant’s Grave which is itself is interesting when one thinks of the dwarf Chieftain.  It is also known as Abhartach’s Sepulchure, or Leacht Abhartach. Upon the grave lies a weighty boulder and through it grows a thorn bush, the thorn being another important Druid symbol.  If the Vampire Chieftain does indeed lie within, one most hope he does not rise again.

DEARG DUE AND VAMPIRIC RETRIBUTION

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Arranged marriages have always been prevalent in Irish culture, particularly to increase power and wealth between families.  The story of the Dearg Due is no exception.  A girl in Waterford with exceptional beauty was born into such a family.

As fate had it, she was humble and content and sought love in the arms of a local farm hand.  They made plans to wed and have a family of their own. Her cruel father however, was fuelled by avarice and prosperity, regardless of the cost to his own kin.  He gave his daughter to a notorious vicious and nasty clan Chief in exchange for land and riches.

With the marriage set and the young woman condemned to a life of cruelty, the wedding day she had dreamed of had become a horrific nightmare. On the day of the wedding the reluctant bride was a vision of blinding beauty, dressed in red and gold.  As all the guests revelled long into the night, the girl sat alone, angry and bitter – damning her father to hell and vowing to seek revenge on those who had cost her love and life.

The Chieftain turned out to be far more abusive and controlling then his new wife could ever have imagined.   To him the poor girl was nothing but a trophy to be locked away for his pleasure only, savouring the knowledge she was his and his alone.  With a complete absence of hope and only darkness ahead, she simply existed – no longer eating or drinking, her life gone long before her body gave in.

Her burial was poorly attended and without ceremony.  Her wicked husband had taken another wife before she was even cold and her family were too engrossed in their wealth and greed to give her a second thought.  Only one man grieved for the tragic young woman, her lost love. He visited her grave every single day telling her of his undying love and praying for her return.

Unfortunately, his love was not the driving force for her resurrection – revenge was the force that pulled her from her grave on the first anniversary of her death.  Consumed with hatred and the need for retribution she burst from her coffin and headed home.  As her father lay sleeping she touched her lips to his and sucked the worthless, selfish life straight out of him.

Revenge not yet sated, she called upon her callous husband finding him surrounded by women, fulfilling his lustful desires, oblivious to the dead bride in the room.  In a furious rage she launched on the Chieftain sending the women screaming.  His former wife was so full of fury and fire that she not only drew every breath, but drained every ounce of blood from his twisted and cruel body.

The scarlet liquid surging through her, leaving her more alive than she had ever been and she had a hunger for blood that could not be sated.

The corpse bride used her beauty to prey on young men, luring them to their demise with seduction, the promise of her body their reward.  Instead she sank her teeth into their exposed necks and drank their blood to quench her thirst and desire, but it was never enough.  The warm elixir gave her strength and immortality and drove her to her next quarry.  That is until the terrified locals restrained her and buried her in a mystical place known as Strongbow’s Tree.

The Femme Fatale’s lustful yearning can only be satisfied on the day she died, so on the eve of her anniversary locals would gather and place stones upon her grave so that she would not rise and fulfill her blood-lust.  Sometimes though the rocks are dislodged, forgotten or her insatiable desire is stronger than any boulder could ever be. That is when she can walk into the night, ill-fated men falling victim to the beauty and bloodthirstiness of the Dearg Due.

DEVIANTS – THE RISING OF THE DEAD

zombie ireland

The Kilteasheen Archaeological Project was a joint effort between Sligo Institute of Technology and Saint Louis University. They were tasked with searching for a Medieval Bishop’s Palace in use until abandonment following the arrival of the Plague in the middle of the 14th century.  They began their excavation beneath flagstones in quiet fields in Kilteasheen, County Roscommon in 2005.

The first shock discovery was that directly under the stones were the crushed skeletons of many humans, piled several deep in shallow graves.  The shallowness, together with the positioning of the flagstones indicated that the builders knew they were building directly on top of a graveyard containing upwards of to 3000 corpses.

It was further discovered that on the perimeter of the graveyard were two further burial plots.  Once excavations began it became clear that these were no ordinary interments.  The deceased had been buried in a manner conducive to what is historically known as a deviant burial. Once the skeletons were revealed, the violent, horrific nature of their post-mortem treatment became clear.

The men had been buried during different time periods.  There were no genetic similarities and their ages varied by some twenty or so years, however they were connected in a most disturbing manner.  Each body was subjected to the breakage of arms, legs, hands and feet.  These limbs were then folded inwards and bound around a large boulder.  Both men had a rock wedged so firmly into his mouth that his jaws were close to snapping apart.

These men were not being laid to rest, they were being grotesquely violated and weighted down to ensure they would not return from the dead.  The other interesting observation was that the men had not died of natural causes.  Blade marks were clearly visible upon the bones.

In medieval times it was believed that the mouth was the portal to the soul.  By placing an object such as a stone into the mouth of the deceased, the corrupt soul that had departed could no longer return.  By breaking and binding the flesh and bones, the deviant could not walk among the living again.

The extent of mutilation together with the stone in the mouth of the dead pointed to one possibility.  That the people who carried out these actions believed they were in the presence of vampires.  It was believed at first that the archaeological team were on a Black Death site, as it was thought plague was spread by vampires and the violent nature of the burials was consistent with those thought to be involved in vampirism.

Bone dating however, showed that the corrupt corpses had gone through the most gruesome of rituals centuries before the Black Death took hold.  So long before Vampires were written into folklore, before they were romanticised and turned into best-selling stories, the undead were believed to be walking among the Irish, bringing sickness and death to animals and people alike.   In a small village in the West of Ireland, locals were using every ritual and method they had to make sure it didn’t happen to them.  In Kilteasheen the Deviants would never rise again.

THE DUBLIN MAN AND THE ULTIMATE VAMPIRE

Bram Stoker

In 1897, a fifty-year-old Dublin man by the name of Bram Stoker published a book with a simple cover and a simple title.  That book was Dracula.  From humble beginnings, the gothic horror novel was initially met with lukewarm public interest but to great critical acclaim.  Like many writers, Stoker was forced to maintain a day job and published his most recognised work during his time as manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London.

Book Dracula

The book itself was set between the seaside town of Whitby in England where Stoker had holidayed and Eastern Europe, which the writer had never visited.  So where did his inspiration come from?  After making acquaintance with a Hungarian writer, he became fascinated by the folklore tales from the regions of Eastern Europe and took it upon himself to conduct detailed research into the tales of vampirism from those very localities.

Interestingly however, Stoker was said to have visited Killarney in County Kerry and in particular the ruins of 15th century Muckross Abbey and graveyard.  The ruins of the church, cloister and graveyard are well preserved and stand in the shadow of ancient Yew trees.

The site contains a graveyard and was the burial place of local chieftains.  Three of Ireland’s great poets of the 17th and 18th century are entombed here which could well be reason behind the famous Irish writer’s visit.  There are two local accounts that Stoker may well have heard that may have been catalysts for ‘Dracula’ as Stoker was in Killarney prior to the creation of the world’s most famous vampire.

The first account is of a religious hermit named John Drake lived in the deserted Friary for more than a decade in the 18th century.  He had no worldly goods and slept only in a coffin left in the grounds.   The second is the legend of the Brown Man, a newly wed whose bride came looking for him one night, to find her husband knelt over a recently dug up corpse, feasting on its flesh.

With so much in the way of centuries old Irish folklore and legend pertaining to the vampire, together with anecdotes and tales Bram Stoker picked up on his Irish travels, it would not be a far stretch to surmise that this in part contributed to the spark of creation that became ‘Dracula.’ 

 

 

WITCHES OF IRELAND PART 1 – ALICE KYTELER, THE BLACK WIDOW OF KILKENNY

alice

Long before the publication of Malleus Maleficarum, attention was brought to bear on the small medieval town of Kilkenny in the Kingdom of Ossory.  One of the earliest ever recorded witch trials took place in the early 14th century against a local businesswoman and serial bride by the name of Alice Kyteler – and what a sensational trial it was.

So who was the local entrepreneur and femme fatale who caused uproar in the Irish legal system and brought the Ecclesiastical authorities of Ireland to their knees?

THE BLACK WIDOW

Alice Kyteler’s family were Flemish brokers and they had settled in Kilkenny sometime towards the end of the 13th century with just one child, a daughter.  Alice learned the ropes of the family business and grew up to be very shrewd, so it came as no surprise that her first husband was an affluent local businessman and financier by the name of William Outlaw.

Believed to have married in 1280 when Alice would have been only sixteen or so, they went on to have a son, also called William.  The banker’s wife groomed her son for great things and by an early age he had gained positions of authority within the local community.  By 1302 William’s father was dead and Alice was already onto her second marriage.  Husband number two was another moneylender by the name of Adam le Blund, from the market town of Callan on the Kilkenny/Tipperary county borders.

Both parties were already wealthy before the union, however marriage brought them a new level of power and prosperity.   The couple’s wealth and status had left feelings of acrimony running high in the parish and rumours had already began to circulate that Alice’s first husband had not died from natural causes.  The locals were convinced that Alice and Adam had in fact, committed murder.

The fire of fear and distrust aimed at Alice Kyteler was beginning to take hold, however it would appear that Alice and the events surrounding her insisted on adding fuel to the growing flames.  In 1307, Adam le Blund relinquished all legal entitlement to his own wealth and gave what was effectively full Power of Attorney to his stepson William, together with the complete nullification of William’s debts agreements.  This incident was deemed all the more suspicious as Adam had offspring of his own from a prior marriage and was in seemingly good mental and physical health.  Two years later he was dead.

1309 saw Alice wed for the third time.  Richard de Valle was an affluent landowner from the neighbouring county of Tipperary and once again the marital union was short lived.  A seemingly fit and well Richard died mysteriously, leaving all his wealth to Alice.  The son of the unfortunate deceased, also called Richard, kept hold of the assets and was the subject of legal proceedings, as the widow demanded her rightful wealth.

By the time Alice Kyteler married yet another wealthy landlord, Sir John le Poer, the local rumour mill was in overdrive and the whispering of foul play continued.  In frighteningly similar circumstances to her first three husbands, John’s health began to decline, in spite of his relatively young age.   John’s finger nails and toe nails were discolouring and falling out, he was rapidly going bald, and the little hair he had left was devoid of pigmentation.  As his ailments increased and his already poor health took a decided turn for the worse, two game changing events took place.  First of all, with no regard for his own blood kin, John made a will bequeathing all his money and assets to Alice and her son William.  The second, fearing for his life, John turned to the church for help. By 1324 he was dead and the whispers had turned to shouts of witchcraft.

KYTELER’S INN

kytelers-inn

Despite marrying prosperous landowners, Alice insisted that she remain in her birthplace on St. Kieran’s Street in Kilkenny.

As a rich wife and ultimately an incredibly wealthy serial widow, Alice did not need to work, however her focus was on building and maintaining a thriving business.  She continued with her practice of moneylending, made easier by having the perfect location to conduct her affairs.

Kyteler’s Inn wasn’t just any old hostelry. It was a meeting place for local businessmen who all vied for the attention of the bewitching Alice, showering her with gifts and money.   It should therefore come as no surprise that this was the very place Alice set eyes on her ill-fated husbands to be.

Whilst the attention of so many of the wealthy local male population was scintillating for Alice, she was a canny businesswoman first and foremost.  She hired the most luscious and alluring of young women to work in her premises, enticing men from their wives and responsibilities and spending their money in Kyteler’s Inn, making her establishment the most successful in Kilkenny.

It was also here in the inn that Alice was said to work her sorcery and that her patrons were bewitched by Alice and her alleged coven.

SORCERY, THE CHURCH AND THE LAW

Contrary to popular belief, the Church often turned a blind eye to sorcery, accepting that some forms of Malficium were minor offences and that the medical benefits offered by those who practiced such arts outweighed the ‘crime’.  As such, any issues relating to witchcraft were dealt with by the local authorities and not the Church, except in the case of direct heretical doctrine.

Unfortunately for Alice, this all changed when Pope John XXII came to the Papal Throne in 1316.  He was genuinely terrified of witchcraft and was convinced his life was in jeopardy, leading to the granting of sweeping powers to his Inquisitors.

Pope John XXII published a definitive list of practices that would constitute heresy and subsequent prosecution by the Church, particularly in relation to demon worship and pacts with the devil.

pope-john-xxii

Unfortunately for Alice, this canon law reached Ireland and in particular, Richard Ledrede, the Bishop of Ossory.

ACCUSATIONS, ARRESTS AND ABSCONDING

Whether out of bitterness of being cheated from their respective inheritance or genuine concern that Alice Kyteler was indeed a witch, the children of her last three deceased husbands joined together and called upon the assistance of Richard Ledrede.

Richard was a devout Christian and fanatical with seeking out and punishing heretics.  He was unhappy that respect for the Church and canon law were fading and that the law of the land took precedent.  He had the necessary background to implement Church doctrine and proceed with charges of heresy against Alice and her son William Outlaw, however he was up against resistance from local law enforcement and Alice’s very powerful contacts.

Having heard the allegations from Alice’s stepchildren, Ledrede went ahead and charged Alice, her maid Petronella and her son William with heresy.  The charges included denying the Faith, desecration of the church with black magic rituals, sorcery, demonic animal sacrifice, murder, controlling members of the local community with potions and spells and fornicating with a demon known by many names including Robin Artisson, in exchange for power and prosperity.

Richard’s first attempt at arrest was thwarted by the Chancellor of Ireland, Roger Outlaw, a relative of Alice’s first husband.  He advised Ledrede that there could be no warrant issued for the arrests without the accused having first been excommunicated for at least 40 days and a public hearing.  Meanwhile the well timed intervention of another relation by marriage, Sir Arnold de Poer, senior steward of Kilkenny allowed Alice to flee to Dublin and saw the imprisonment of Richard Ledrede.

While Richard was in prison, the whole of the diocese of Ossory saw an embargo on funerals, baptisms and marriage.  As the majority of the population believed in Hell and eternal damnation, the public outcry was too much and the Bishop of Ossory was released.

Incarceration left Ledrede incensed and he heightened his efforts to prosecute Alice, her son and maid by involving the Justice of Ireland, who insisted upon a full witch trial.

William Outlaw pleaded guilty to the charges of heresy, illegal money lending, adultery and perverting the course of justice.  His punishment was to attend three masses a day, donate to the poor and agree to reroof the cathedral with lead.

WITCH

In the meantime, Alice had absconded and the trial continued in her absence.  The alleged depths of her depravity and heresy began to be revealed to the court.  The witch Kyteler was said to have used a human skull to brew her potions, with ingredients including parts of corpses, the innards of fowl, worms and insects and the clothing of deceased infants.  The concoctions were said to rouse her innocent victims to do her bidding, with acts of love, hatred or murder.

Alice and her coven were said to have conducted black masses in the churches, sacrificed and dissected livestock to bargain with demons at crossroads and Alice herself was accused of continued carnal relations with a powerful demon in order to maintain her position of influence over the local community.

The final accusations were of the murder of each of her four husbands.  Evidence regarding her last husband, John le Poer was put forward.  He had no nails, they were ripped from their beds and left bleeding, all bodily hair had fallen out and he was completed withered away to a skeleton at the time of his death.

While Alice had disappeared, some say to England with the help of her well positioned male acquaintances, her maid was not so fortunate.

Petronella de Meath was tortured repeatedly in Kilkenny Jail until she confessed to being a witch and a member of the coven of Alice Kyteler.  On 3rd November 1324, Petronella was the first woman in Ireland to be burned at the stake as a witch.

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THE LEGACY OF ALICE KYTELER

So what of Alice? Well Alice Kyteler was never heard of again – whether she used witchcraft to cloak her whereabouts or was helped abroad by calling on infatuated men of position we will never know.

What we do know, is that the accusations and the trial were very real indeed.  They remain documented as they have been for centuries and the trial changed the balance of law and power back in favour of the Church.

The most exciting revelation of this account is that the locations remain.  The Jail still stands, bars on windows.  As you stand on the street, peering into the eerie darkness of the cold, cramped cells, a shiver runs up your spine at the realization there could be something ethereal staring back at you, perhaps the tormented blackened soul of Petronella de Meath.

Kyteler’s Inn is still the most famous hostelry in Kilkenny and the spirit of Alice is said to remain, watching over her establishment and the revelers within for eternity.

So was Alice Kyteler indeed a witch, or just the most successful and richest business woman in medieval Ireland? Perhaps if you come across her in Kyteler’s Inn, you can ask her yourself!

alice-sculpture

I shall leave you with Alice, immortalised in the words of W. B Yeats:

"A sudden blast of dusty wind and after
Thunder of feet, tumult of images,
Their purpose in the labyrinth of the wind;
And should some crazy hand dare touch a daughter
All turn with amorous cries, or angry cries,
According to the wind, for all are blind.
But now wind drops, dust settles; thereupon
There lurches past, his great eyes without thought
Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks,
That insolent fiend Robert Artisson
To whom the love-lorn Lady Kyteler brought
Bronzed peacock feathers, red combs of her cocks."

 

 

ON TRIAL FOR WITCHCRAFT – IRISH WOMEN OF SORCERY OR POWER?

Witch trial

Were some of Ireland’s most powerful and notorious women in actual fact Witches? Or were they victims of their own success falling foul of the jealous and fearful?  Let’s take a look at three of the most well-known ‘Witches’ to be put on trial and find out!

DAME ALICE KYTELER

Alice Kyteler

In Kilkenny you will find Kyteler’s Inn, the home and business of Alice Kyteler.  Alice was the first person to be accused and charged with witchcraft in Ireland in 1324.  A moneylender in the town, Alice was married a total of four times, with each husband dying under mysterious circumstances, leaving her more wealthy each time.

Kyteler’s Inn was a meeting place for local businessmen who all vied for the attention of the bewitching Alice, showering her with gifts and money.  With her staff of luscious women, the premises were by far the busiest in Kilkenny.

As local envy and suspicion reached its peak, the surviving children of Alice’s four husbands had her charged with using poison, Sorcery, favouring her first born, denying the faith, blasphemy and animal sacrifices to the demons of the underworld.

Alice had many connections and her manipulative ways meant that she managed to avoid arrest for some time.  After several twists including her accuser, the Bishop of Ossory being jailed himself, Alice was finally imprisoned to await trial.

First up for trial was Alice’s maid, Petronella de Meath who was tortured and confessed to practising Witchcraft with her mistress.  Petronella was found guilty and burned at the stake.  Alice’s first son William was also found guilty of among other things, perjury, extortion and heresy, however his was a more lenient sentence of three masses a day for a year and feeding the poor.

In 1325 Alice escaped, only to be tried in her absence and found guilty of Witchcraft.   Alice Kyteler remained at large, never to be heard of again.  Did she use magic to finally be rid of the threat of execution, or was she simply a smart woman, able to use her skills and charm to be a success and escape the stake?

Kyteler's Inn, Kilkenny

Kyteler’s Inn, Kilkenny

FLORENCE NEWTON, THE WITCH OF YOUGHAL

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Another sensational witch trial for Ireland was that of Florence Newton in 1661.  She was accused of enchanting Mary Langdon, the maid of a prominent figure in the town called John Pyne.

Florence had called to the house during the winter of 1660 asking for meat from the master’s table.   The maid refused and the slighted beggar left muttering curses.  When Florence met Mary Langdon on the street, she grabbed her and gave her a vicious kiss, after which time Mary became violently ill.  She suffered seizures and visions and the house of her master became subject to poltergeist activity.

When Newton was brought into Mary’s presence her sickness became worse and she began vomiting needles and nails.  Mary claimed that Florence would appear in visions, sticking pins into her body.

Newton was also accused of causing the death of her jailer through sorcery, as his widow accused Florence of kissing her husband on the hand shortly before he dropped dead.

So important was the trial of the Witch of Youghal that the Irish Attorney General came to Cork to preside and it was assumed that Florence was found guilty and hanged.  You see, despite well-kept records of the beginning of the trial, the remainder of them vanished completely so we will never know exactly what happened to Florence Newton.  Did she also use Sorcery to survive?

BIDDY EARLY AND THE MAGIC BLUE BOTTLE

blue bottle

Biddy Early was born in 1778 in Kilenena, County Clare and took her mother’s maiden name.  Ellen Early taught her daughter herbal cures, however both parents died when Biddy was sixteen and she was left in poverty and living in the poorhouse.

Marginalised for being aloof, rumour had it that Biddy had been talking to the fairies since she was a child and could control them at will.  A good looking woman, Biddy met the first of her four husbands at market, a man twice her age.

Already making a name for herself as a healer, Biddy also opened a successful Shebeen, were the local folk would drink illicit alcohol and play cards.  Within five years her husband Pat had died from alcohol consumption and she married her stepson John who also died from alcohol related issues. Her third husband died in 1868 when she was 70 and in 1869 she married a man in his thirties in exchange for a cure.

Biddy’s healing powers seemed to have centred on a mysterious blue bottle that was supposedly brought to her by a dead relative from the fairies.  No one was allowed to touch the bottle and only true believers would receive help from Biddy.

If she knew you had been to a physician you were thrown out and priests in disguise would be regularly hunted away as they tried to get to the root of her power.  Biddy publicly denounced the Catholic Church and was accused and charged with Witchcraft in 1865, which was very unusual this late on.

Fear took hold of those who had agreed to testify and Biddy was acquitted.  On her deathbed she repented and at her funeral a gathering of priests asked the community to pray for the soul of Biddy Early.

Her cottage stands in ruins and her grave in Feakle is unmarked, however her blue bottle was not to be seen after she died.  Did the fairies reclaim the source of Biddy Early’s power?

The Ruins of Biddy Early's Cottage, County Clare

The Ruins of Biddy Early’s Cottage, County Clare

Skilled, manipulative and powerful all three, but were they Witches? That knowledge is lost forever, by way of Witchcraft or otherwise!