When is a Bram Stoker Festival not a real Bram Stoker festival?
When it’s really a “science fiction, Star Wars-y” Halloween festival, and “a million miles from Bram Stoker”, maintains Stoker expert Dennis McIntyre.
This weekend's big public event in Dublin, the sixth Bram Stoker Festival, is a citywide bank holiday celebration in venues from museums to nightclubs, for grown-ups and families and with events from discussions to tours to street spectacle, much of it free to the public. It was set up by Dublin City Council and Fáilte Ireland, at what is a quiet time of year for tourists, and it is put together and run by Schweppe Curtis Nunn Ltd on their behalf. What's not to like?
But Stoker scholar McIntyre – an authority on the Stoker Dracula gothic genre, author of Bram Stoker and the Irishness of Dracula (2013) and who set up the Stoker Dracula Organisation in 1991 – is not happy.
McIntyre says this is a Halloween festival, and little to do with Stoker, a Dubliner from Clontarf. "Stoker was nothing to do with Halloween or the pagan festival of Samhain. He drew on the famine, the landlord system, the upstairs-downstairs society in 19th-century Ireland, the mummified bodies in St Michan's church. He was a product of his times.
“In going to the festival, you wouldn’t know much about Bram Stoker at the end of it.”
Alison King, head of events at Dublin City Council says "Dublin City Council wanted to create a festival inspired by Bram Stoker and his legacy as a Dublin citizen, and drawing on the gothic and supernatural traditions of Dublin."
McIntyre, who is director and CEO of Clontarf Toursim, is dismayed there are no festival events planned for Stoker’s home place, Clontarf. He says it would be better, says McIntyre, to call it a ghostly or Halloween festival.
Looking at the festival line-up, events such as Al Porter’s Camp Dracula comedy show sounds great fun but doesn’t sound like the stuff of a Stoker symposium.
In Case of Emergency, a late-night grown-ups party in the Science Gallery, promises to explore all types of doomsday disasters such as plagues and pandemics, disease and pestilence, but the Stoker connection may not be very strong.
But there's also the BRAM Audio Ghost Experience, promising an exploration of "Bram's catalogue of nightmare novels and shivery short stories"; a live Rick O' Shea Book Club event discussing Dracula; and the world premiere of Whitby, with dance artist Colin Dunne, created by theatre maker Joan Sheehy, which uses the captain's log as the central framework for a multi-layered performance piece re-imagining the power of the novel.
The key to the festival seems to be the word “inspired by”; it pulls together an impressive range of serious, fun, imaginative events all over the city, taking Stoker, Dracula and scary stuff generally as its jumping off point to give a lot of people pleasure, and maybe learn a bit of Stokereque stuff along the way.
McIntyre says the timing is all wrong – a better time of the year for a Stoker festival would be around the time of his death April, or his birth in November, or the first publication of Dracula, in May.
Although Stoker's main focus was drama (he worked with actor Henry Irving in London and managed the Lyceum Theatre), arguably his greatest achievement was Dracula, says McIntryre. It's certainly his most well known work.
He says he and his colleagues in the Stoker Dracula Organisation have spent the past 25 years raising the profile of the Irish author of Dracula. “We won Stoker back for Ireland. He was the forgotten man of Irish literature. We have been slowly educating people about his Irishness,” says McIntryre.
Stoker was born 1847 in Clontarf, Dublin and went to Trinity College. He was a civil servant at Dublin Castle and wrote about drama for the Dublin Evening Mail. "Yeats, Gregory and Synge picked up on what Stoker started, but he gets no credit for his part in it," says McIntyre.
Stoker married Florence Balcombe (who was also seeing Oscar Wilde) in 1878 in St Ann's Church, Dawson Street, just before moving to London at the age of 30 to work for Irving. One of the novels he wrote while in London was Dracula, published in 1897.
The Stoker organisation is putting on its own events this weekend too, despite the lack of a Halloween connection: seasonal gothic readings at the Viking theatre in Clontarf on Sunday afternoon; a historical walk on Monday starting at Clontarf Castle at 1pm, and Dennis McIntyre’s presentation on Stoker’s life story and the origins of Dracula in Raheny Library.
McIntyre claims the Stoker organisation was not consulted and was, he says, dismissed when it tried to engage with the festival. But both King at the city council, and the festival producers, had meetings with McIntyre, though it “wasn’t possible to reach an agreement” on a role for McIntyre, says King.
The council has financially supported many events the Stoker Dracula Organisation has run over the years – McIntyre says he appreciates its ongoing support.
The festival has a considerable budget and one that McIntyre and the Stoker Dracula Organisation marvels at, saying €280,000 is a huge investment for a single weekend. “It’s debatable what the city gets out of it. It must be lucrative for someone,” he says.
Of the €280,000 funding, King says, two-thirds comes from Dublin City Council and a third from Failte Ireland. The events in the weekend festival are roughly 50-50 between paid and free attractions, and ticket sales are estimated to bring in a maximum of €50,000.
King says the council and Failte Ireland regard the festival budget as good value. In 2016, 48,000 attended the various event. Five years earlier, for the first festival, some 4,000 people attended. Failte Ireland says about 20 per cent of the 48,000 attendees were from abroad and claims a visitor spend of €5million.
Of up to €330,000 (including ticket sales) that the festival will have to spend, King says, about 25 per cent goes on staff (festival director, producer, marketing, publicity, crew, box office), about 65 per cent on the shows and performances (including the big Macnas street parade on Monday evening, Stokerland, a Victorian funfair beside St Patrick’s Cathedral, the big Turning Vampire concert at Vicar Street – a total of 25 events, big and small.
McIntyre says that if the Stoker Organisation had “half, or even a quarter, of that budget, it would set us up. We could establish a small museum that would be a resource year round.”
The organisation promotes events four or six times a year, and has a huge collection of memorabilia “but no home for it”. This isn’t sour grapes, says McIntyre; “I’m not saying this out of bitterness or to be confrontational”.
The council and the tourist agency are looking for different things to what the Stoker expert thinks is appropriate to a Stoker celebration.
“It’s a pity we couldn’t work together,” acknowledges McIntyre, “for the everlasting legacy of Bram Stoker. Afterall, Dracula never died.”