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The Sligo epidemic that stoked Bram's interest in all things

John Meagher

This weekend marks the centenary of the death of Dracula author Bram Stoker. The Dubliner -- who adorns a new series of An Post stamps -- was responsible for one of literature's most famous creations, but what is not as widely known is the role that Sligo played in his enduring vampire story.

Stoker's mother, Catherine .Thornley, came from Sligo town, and witnessed at first hand the devastating cholera epidemic that swept the county in 1832.

Bram -- or Abraham, as he was christened -- would avidly listen to Catherine's sobering accounts of what she had witnessed in Sligo before he was born.

Mother and son had an especially strong bond, fostered as it was during Stoker's early years when he was considered too sick to attend school.

And Stoker experts believe Catherine's vivid descriptions of the suffering she had seen stayed with young Stoker and helped fuel his macabre novel later on in life.

Outbreaks of cholera had been experienced in Ireland before, but the one that hit Sligo 180 years ago on August 18 was more brutal than any epidemic the country had suffered.

It's not known how it started, but the first signs of the disease were noted shortly after a heavy thunderstorm. A market was being held that day and thanks to the large concentration of people in a comparatively contained space, it struck with a brutal swiftness.

A farmer was infected as he mounted his horse on one side of the town and was dead by the time he reached the other.

Another man who attended the funeral of an employee in the morning became ill during the burial and was dead by evening. One family saw six of its members die in the course of a single night.

The death rate was so rampant that carpenters ran out of wood for making simple coffins and the dead had to be wrapped in pitched sheets and rolled into mass graves.

Local legend has it that some people were buried alive, so great was the haste to dispose of the corpses.

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The scenes at night around Sligo only served to heighten the sense of dread in the town.

Tar barrels were lit in the streets in a misguided attempt to purify the air. Plates of salt and acid were put outside windows and doors in yet another fruitless attempt at fumigation.

Food soon ran out. Farmers refused to come into the town with goods for fear of contracting cholera -- and some children reportedly starved to death.

Doctors valiantly attempted to stem the outbreak, and had to contend with widespread ignorance about the disease.

There was also suspicion that the medics themselves may have brought the disease upon the town -- they had conducted tests on the water to see if the epidemic had started there, and word spread that the water had been tampered with.

Even when five of the doctors contracted cholera and died, the allegations continued.

Some 15,000 people were forced to flee the county and it is thought more than 1,500 people died from the epidemic.

The events of 1832 would scar Sligo for generations, and the suffering of those who survived would be exacerbated by the Great Potato Famine, which struck just 13 years later.

Furthermore, another cholera epidemic hit the town in 1849, although it wouldn't be as severe as the one that had gone before.

The scale of the devastation became apparent as recently as 1978 when, in the course of demolishing the Sligo Fever Hospital, a mass grave was discovered.

Meanwhile, Bram Stoker's great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker -- the author of a Dracula sequel, The Undead -- has acknowledged Sligo's influence: "The time when Bram was a sick child was hugely important because of the stories he was told by his mother. Many of them concerned Irish folklore but she also spoke at length about the cholera epidemic she had lived through."

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