Friday 19 July 2019

'It was quite something to grow up with the ghost of Bram Stoker' - novelist Joseph O'Connor

As a boy, novelist Joseph O'Connor was spellbound when his grandmother told him a tale about a meeting with Bram Stoker's spectre. Why does it haunt him still?

Author Joseph O’Connor (pictured) says Bram Stoker is the ‘greatest supernatural story teller of all time’
Author Joseph O’Connor (pictured) says Bram Stoker is the ‘greatest supernatural story teller of all time’

Joseph O'Connor

Although some of her girlhood had been spent in rural Ireland, I think of my late maternal grandmother as a Dubliner. Often as a child I stayed in her house on Keeper Road, Crumlin. A chain-smoker, a gently spoken, willowy woman, she was the most skilled teller of ghost stories.

I remember her in smoke, her hands moving quickly, as the stories arose from the ashtray and were glittered by her eyes. The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall in Norfolk ("the only ghost ever to be photographed"), the weeping Grey Man who haunted London's Theatre Royal, the banshees she had heard on wintry nights as a little girl.

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Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker

She would tell of the old library in Dublin that was haunted by its founder, the wonderfully named Archbishop Narcissus Marsh. His young ward had run away with her lover and had left a farewell letter in one of the books; every night his ghost searched frantically through the volumes.

But the greatest of my grandmother's stories concerned a relative of her own, a cousin or uncle by marriage, who in his twenties had held, if not the most beautiful job in a Victorian city, certainly the most beautifully named. He walked the night-streets of Dublin as a lamplighter.

Like London or Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow, the streets of Victorian Dublin could be thick with smoky fog. Not fog as we know it but filthier, almost touchable, ashy, roiling, full of smuts and stinking cinders. But he found beauty in his work, so my grandmother would tell me. The glow of his lamps through the filth, he had said, was not light but "the smiles of the ghosts".

By my grandmother's account, he was a personable, dapper man who enjoyed nattering with his fellow nightwalkers as he went about his mission of dispensing the ghostly glow. A passer-by here, a policeman there. He prided himself, said my grand-mother, on never forgetting a name or a face, and "on being able to peel an orange in his pocket".

One midnight, behind the Four Courts, on Church Street, which takes its name from St Michan's Anglican church, he noticed a young man standing alone, staring up at the steeple. The neighbourhood was desperately poor, but the man was well-dressed.

The lamplighter approached and asked if he was lost. No, the diffident young man explained. He was looking at the church, a fascinating building; there were said to be mummies in the crypt. There were indeed, the lamplighter confirmed. Some mineral quality in the air had preserved, in their rotting coffins, the medieval bodies of several departed Dubliners, including a 300-year-old nun and a one-time soldier in the army of the Crusaders. Such stories were fascinating, the young man said, offering a cigarette, which the lamplighter accepted. His name was Stoker, said the young man. Abraham Stoker, a writer of ghost stories, by day a government clerk.

Months and seasons passed. Every once in a while, the lamplighter would notice the same well-dressed nightwalker, often in the same spot, or on the corner of Arran Quay. They'd exchange a wave or a nod. And then, after a time, Mr Stoker wasn't there anymore. The lamplighter assumed he'd moved away from Dublin.

Years later, on an April night in 1912, the lamplighter, now retired, was walking his old beat. As though to greet him, as a one-time sparring partner now become a friend, the Liffey fog was swirling and thick. As he turned on to Church Street, he saw, in a shaft of cold moonlight, the figure of a man he recognised, but had not seen in several decades.

"Mr Stoker, sir," he said. Stoker turned to him, weeping, looked him in the eye and strode away wordlessly into the fog.

I like to think of the silence in the kitchen, or the crackle of the fire, when, later that night, the lamplighter's wife told her husband, on hearing his story, of something she had happened to read in the Dublin newspapers that morning: Bram Stoker had died the day before in London.

I've no doubt my grandmother's story has elements of the tall tale. But it was quite something to grow up with the ghost of Bram Stoker, the Dubliner who gave Dracula to the world. It made me see the hometown of my ancestors differently.

Growing up in Dublin, it seemed that you were living in a book of ghost stories, an anthology of the city's past. You walked the streets of Narcissus Marsh and the spectral Dean Swift who was whispered to roam the Liberties at night. Taken, perhaps on a school trip, to visit Kilmainham Gaol, you would come away enthralled by the story of rebel prisoner Joseph Mary Plunkett, who married the artist Grace Gifford the night before his execution.

If you went to see rock band The Virgin Prunes, you would hear spooky lyrics written by Oscar Wilde, now screamed with the punk fury of the era. No other city in the world had music like this. In London, Johnny Rotten was snarling of anarchy. In New York, the Ramones were setting fire to guitars. In Dublin, Gavin Friday was quoting De Profundis as he made with the eyeliner and the rouge. We had renegades, but they defied even the conventions of rebellion. Absence was a presence. The dead felt close.

The street-songs and Dublin ballads Stoker would have heard were touching, dark, and as alive to the stench of the eddying Liffey as to the possibilities of truth and beauty. It was a world of broken lovers and tough survivors that had far more in common with the gloomy braggadocio of the Chicago blues than with the tweedy jollities of sanitised Irish folk music.

Molly Malone, doomed starlet of Dublin's most emblematic song, is herself a ghost who died of fever. Father Holly, the old priest who, in 1979, taught me English for the Leaving Cert, had once seen Yeats's beloved Maud Gonne crossing O'Connell Bridge. When we came to Yeats's line that she had "beauty like a tightened bow", he paused and regarded us with sternest gravitas before saying: "I saw her, boys. She was otherworldly. Like a vision."

James Joyce and John Synge had walked the seafront at Dun Laoghaire. On summer evenings their ghosts seemed to hover as you walked the breezy expanse of the pier. The phantom of executed patriot Robert Emmett haunted The Brazen Head inn. Soldiers' ghosts lingered at Collins Barracks. Statues of Edmund Burke and Thomas Davis stood sentry over the streets.

Through all of it, for me, walked the king of Dublin ghosts, Stoker, the greatest supernatural storyteller of all time. An eternally elusive man, nothing was named for him, but it was always his inscrutable face I saw when I pictured Dublin as a person, as though glimpsing him through a rainy windowpane. For me, he is the Easter Island god of the ghost story. Everyone else will always be in his shadow. Having known scant literary success in his lifetime, he is now recognised as the genius he was, as immortal as his infamous antihero.

My novel, Shadowplay, sees him in London, where he lived most of his life, a theatre manager wrestling with demons of sexuality and doubt, at other times a gentle, funny person, seeming comfortable in his skin, driven by intense love for his friends Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. Perhaps he remembered his home town sometimes, as emigrants will. Perhaps, in his way, he brought it with him.

The lost Dublin in which Stoker night-walked was a shadowplace of contrasts, a provincial Victorian backwater throbbing with crusty elegance and pitiless squalor; the desolation of a scandalised diva now reduced to the dole. Chandeliers illuminated her mansions, candles glowed in chapels; red lights flickered in the backstreet brothel doorways. Joyce described his hometown as having "a faint odour of corruption", a pungency that arises from every page of his masterwork, Dubliners. It is so like how Stoker writes about London in Dracula.

Dublin has changed, but you still see haunting glimpses of the vanished city, an erased draft of a long lost story. The ruins of tatty dancehalls, the one-time mansions now converted into bedsits, or you sense a weather-beaten lonesomeness expressed by the poet Louis MacNeice in that aching line about the city of Stoker's birth, "the bare bones of a fanlight over a hungry door".

A quiet clerk who, in life, was never a bestseller, Stoker lamp-lit our subconscious, shimmered our nightmares and made the darkness sexy as Hell. I don't care if my grandmother's story was fiction. Every time I'm on Church Street, I'm a true believer. Especially on a foggy night.

The Daily Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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