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For And Against The Category Of Irish Gothic In The Novel Dracula And A Film The Butcher Boy

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This essay aims to argue in favour of the category of ‘Irish Gothic’ with reference to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and a film directed by Neil Jordan entitled ‘The Butcher Boy’. The themes of paranoia, Protestantism, anti-Catholicism and the desire or fear of the Other are typical of the reoccurring motifs found in Gothic literature generally (Hoeveler 2). Their inclusion within Irish literature does not in itself create the category of ‘Irish Gothic’ and Irish Gothic artists, both writers and directors copy many of the themes which were prevalent in England and elsewhere from the eighteenth century onwards (Killeen 35). At the same time this paper argues however that Irish Gothic is a substantive category and stands alone because it is derived from a pervasively gothic setting. Ireland has been identified as a Gothic space as suggested by Melville in the novel ‘The White Knight, or the Monastery of Mourne’ published in 1802 (Melville 1). In his text Melville portrays Ireland as a peculiarly gothic landscape reinforcing the stereotypically English perception of Ireland as a ‘spatial and temporal anomaly’ (Morin 113). Irish writers have traditionally accepted that there exists a colonial ‘version of Ireland as a Gothic madhouse’ and it is this that has dominated analyses of Irish Gothic literature (Morin 113). The works of Regina Roche, Charles Robert Maturin and Sydney Owenson amongst others helped to establish Ireland as a primary Gothic setting in the nineteenth century and beyond (Morin 113).

Secondly, this paper will also argue that Irish Gothic is a unique category of the Gothic genre owing to the influence of Irish history on the works of Irish literacy greats. Sir John Temple in exploring the Irish Rebellion of 1641 in his famous text in 1646 drew upon many gothic images that would re-emerge in later centuries in his adoption of a decidedly anti-Catholic stance (Temple 34). Much of the Gothic literature was developed and articulated by Irish Protestants who lived in fear of extinction at the hands of the majority Catholics as testified through the works of Archbishop William King and others in the eighteenth century (Hadfield 15). This second point then maintains that the Irish Gothic tradition is dominated by historical themes of colonialism, Protestantism and the fear of marginalisation influenced strongly by Ireland’s own history as far back as the seventeenth century which remerges within Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Neil Jordan’s ‘The Butcher Boy’. This paper will explore these two issues as they are explored within both of these texts in order to demonstrate and argue in favour of the category ‘Irish Gothic’. This paper will explore these two ideas through traditionally Gothic themes including ‘the other’, paranoia and anti-Catholicism as they permeate these texts.

This paper will firstly document why Bram Stoker’s Dracula reaffirms this paper’s argument that Irish Gothic is a substantive category in its own right. Dracula represents a Freudian projection of sexual anxieties and a perverted archetype existing within the context of Ireland’s social, political and cultural upheaval at the close of the nineteenth century (Ingelbien 1089). The Other as featured within Dracula, demonstrates Protestant’s unease and anxieties about their existence amongst a majority Catholic population in Ireland and about the survival of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. Purves (2) argues that the prevailing critical view is that Gothic is a vehicle for anti-Catholic anti-clerical sentiment with such work demonstrating a prejudice against Catholicism. Colm Toibin suggests too that Irish Gothic is distinct because its roots lie in Protestant paranoia, ‘a fearful colonial neurosis’ (Toibin 154). Dracula’s religious analogy is quite obvious and in one of a number of perversions of Catholic doctrine Count Dracula is the figurative ant-Christ who promises eternal life through the ingestion not of sacramental wine that is the blood of Christ but of actual human blood (Bruno 1). This paper will not argue that Dracula is anti-Catholic as its not expressible so (Bruno 1). One can confidently argue that Stoke’s characterisation of Dracula is anti-Semitic, modelled on a Semitic view of a blood sucking, baby-stealing Jews (Gelder 13; Yu 145). Rather Dracula articulates the fears of Protestants and of wider Victorian society in response to a number of issues, the weakening hold of creationism as a result of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, of increased industrialisation and its weakening of the traditional social fabric as well as a fear for the survival of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland (Bruno 1). “Indeed it is essential to see that the anxieties that animate these novels are inextricably bound up with the most deeply rooted dilemmas facing late Victorian culture (Glover 15). Indeed Stoker would have only been ‘too aware of the decline of the Anglo-Irish gentry’ (Bruno 1).

A strong theme of Irish gothic is a mingled repulsion and envy where Catholic magic is concerned such as when Van Helsing, a Dutch Catholic, who arrives with the Host, with a papal dispensation to combat the undead at Whitby (Toibin 154). Van Helsing is revealed as the Archangel Gabriel, the Left Hand of God who was the one to have originally killed Dracula (Toibin 154). Stoker was himself a member of the Church of England having grown up in Clontarf where he later attended Trinity College Dublin before moving to London after his marriage. Count Dracula for many represents the ‘Protestant Ascendancy in terminal decline’, a ‘blood thirsty caricature of the aristocratic landlord who remains clinging to feudal power who fears being engulfed by modernity and nationalist agitation (Ingelbien 1089). His novel represents an ‘indictment of a class incapable of adapting to new realities’ (Ingelbien 1089). The Other represents somebody who is seen by society as an outsider with Gothic literature giving a voice to the dark side of our collective unconsciousness (Beville 41). Otherness was drawn upon in the Romantic Gothic novel because it played on the fears of Victorian society’s values and morals. The other ‘comes to represent those parts of the self that society, and perhaps the individual as well, find unacceptable’ (Joshi 190). The Other is decidedly inferior, has sub-par intelligence and lacks those qualities that are respected by society. Gothic literature in Ireland is tied explicably to Irish Protestants.

The overriding consensus is that Protestants were fearful of the majority Catholic population who were subjugated by the English, torn of their rights and treated as second class citizens to the Protestant Ascendancy (Hoeveler 3). They expressed this through their literature at the time and this remains a central feature of Irish Gothicism which emerged from the eighteenth and nineteenth century. At the same time this was not on its own unique to Ireland with anti-Catholic sentiment lingering in England due to the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite rebellions and the 1780 Gordon riots (Hoeveler 3). British anti-Catholicism emerged as a political distrust of the clergy, theological disagreements about transubstantiation and popular fears about foreign invasions from the Catholic France and Spain all shaped anti-Catholicism which permeated through Gothic literature at the time where the devil found its embodiment as a lurking Jesuit, Dominican or Capuchin who sought to assassinate innocent victims, steal their inherit ate or seduce their hapless pretty (Hoeveler 3). Dracula himself is represented as the Other in Stoker’s novel in religious terms. Van Helsing uses the crucifix and holy water to make the vampire cower in fear and in drawing upon these symbols of Christ they instead become weapons possessed with divine power (Bartlett and Bellows 294).

Dracula is commonly viewed as a Christian heretic and he draws upon red wine to rejoice and ensure his immortality in contrast to Protestants who use wine to symbolise the blood of Christ’s eternal life (Arata 621). His Otherness was depicted by the descriptions of him as having strange features including a beaked nose, red lips and eyes and a strange smell coming fromhim (Bartlett and Bellows 294). Dracula subverts Christianity’s most valued icon, that of Jesus on the cross (Bartlett and Bellows 294). Indeed the text relies upon many traditionally Christian themes and motifs; the concept of conversion, the symbolic value of blood in religion, the importance of antiquity and the link with the eternal life (Arata 621). Dracula also relates strongly to the concept of the Wandering Jew which was an archetype pervasive during Bram Stoker’s lifetime and considered the ultimate expression of anti-Christian (Yu 145). The anxiety of the Protestant Ascendency concerning modernity is seen in the fact that Dracula is seen as foreign, somebody who represents the Monstrous Other and this Otherness is reiterated by his unusual appearance and activities (Bartlett and Bellows 294). Dracula is capable of granting immortality on all those he chooses and in turn creates the potential for a vampire colony which represents a threat of a foreign invasion by the Other (Bartlett and Bellows 294).

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Muskovits (43) suggests that the homosexual Other is that which is illustrated in the novel drawing on and stoking the fear and anxiety that was endemic in Victorian society about the desire of homosexuals to corrupt heterosexuals (Auerbach 22). Haggerty also highlights a connection between xenophobia, sexual transgression and gothic fiction during the Victorian era with a common view that sodomy arrived into England from Catholic countries including Catholic France and Italy (Auerbach 22). Auerbach (83) notes that the English of the 1890s were not only haunted by the Undead but by a monster of their own making, the homosexual. It is evident then that ‘Irish Gothic’ while strongly influenced by what was happening within the Gothic literacy tradition of the era was distinct too and dominated by a fear for the longevity of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland who were increasingly at the whim of Catholic violence. The antiquated feudal system that the largely Protestant Ascendancy had perpetuated through Irish history exacerbated the devastation of the Irish Famine of 1845-1852 and exaggerated the imperial condemnation of the Irish as a ‘diseased stock’ and the deaths of over one million people due to starvation and disease (Snow 114). As such it is evident that the Irish Gothic tradition was dominated and influenced by historical themes of colonisation, Protestantism and a fear of marginalisation that symbolised the growing fears of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland itself following the Land Acts in the decades before Dracula to the Second Home Rule Bill of 1893 which was subsequently defeated in the House of Lords (Valente 46).

Alongside the historical narrative that has shaped Irish Gothic as a category this paper maintains that Irish Gothic is a substantive category and stands alone because it is derived from a pervasively gothic setting. Literature has located Ireland within a ubiquitously Gothic space (Melville 1). Dracula is depicted as foreign to the English while the landscape surrounding him is described as remote, inaccessible and inhospitable while he also speaks broken English (Luckhurst 17). In his text Melville portrays Ireland as a peculiarly gothic landscape reinforcing the stereotypically English perception of Ireland as a ‘spatial and temporal anomaly’ (Morin 113). While Dracula himself may hail from Transylvania the landscape, the people, and the history reflect either facts, stories or legends about Irish life and Dracula himself resembles the dying Anglo-Irish landlord class (Valente xx). Dracula’s movement to London occurs on a boat that is filled with his coffin boxes of dirt where it is suggested that Bram Stoker is playing on the name ‘coffin ship’ which described the ships that would take the poorest Irish wretches from Irish famine shores to their new homes in England, Wales or the USA (Valente xx). Dracula’s coffin boxes end up in the East End of London which was where most of the poor Irish arrived where they earned a reputation for living in squalor and spreading disease (Valente xx). Bram Stoker was also influenced by his mother’s stories of the cholera epidemic in Sligo as a child and these brought with it images of debilitating disease, death and burial (Miller and Miler 63). It is suggested that the Irish landscape and culture influenced Stoker’s choice of ‘Dracula’ which may have been utilised because of its similarity to Gaelic ‘droch-fhola’ which is pronounced ‘drok-ola’ and which translates to ‘bad blood’ (Miller and Miller 63). In this respect this paper maintains that the category of Irish Gothic is distinctive and wholly justifiable in its own right. This paper will now draw upon film ‘The Butcher Boy’ to further support the distinctive category of Irish Gothic.

The Butcher Boy, directed by Neil Jordan and adapted from the novel of the same name by Patrick McCabe, was released in 1997 (Potts 82). The original novel has been described as bog gothic while this genre can be read as a ‘sub-category of eco-Gothic which provides us with a way of examining the intersections of colonialism, culture, natural history and the Gothic in Irish literacy and colonial production’ (Potts 82). This concept of the bog-gothic has been extended to Neil Jordan’s adaption of the novel to the big screen (O’Rawe, 2003). One way by which Jordan’s films reflect gothic themes is through genre dispersion whereby gothic images and motifs are dispersed across the film that may otherwise appear to not have any relationship to the genre otherwise (Maher 201). In this respect we can see gothic horror moments in many of his films including Michael Collins released in 1996 and The Butcher Boy released in 1997 (Maher 201). In Mrs Nugent’s murder scene at 1:19 minutes Brady shoots her in the head with his butcher’s stun gun, and attacks her repeatedly with a beat cleaver using her blood to write ‘Pigs’ on the walls upstairs (Maher 201). In the minutes before, during and after the brutal assault and murder we see pervasive Catholic imagery most notably statues of the Virgin Mary (Jordan 1:19).

We see an image of Jesus Christ in a picture beforehand while during the attack we witness blood spattered on the walls behind a small statute of the Virgin Mary (Jordan 1:19). The grotesque imagery continues and as Brady goes back to work we see Mrs Nugent’s foot sticking out of a cart (Jordan 1:20). Gothic themes include madness, blood and core and these are amply illustrated in this film. What makes The Butcher Boy a tenet of the category of Irish Gothic however is the allegory that is contained throughout concerning the confluence of social, ethnic and political violence along the border region in the 1960s and the historical subjugation of the Irish at the hands of both the colonial British and the Catholic Church (Terrazas 301). In this respect traditional Gothic themes are inherently intertwined with Irish social history and the challenging of the Catholic Church demonstrating its influence on Gothic literature and the rationale for the emergence of a uniquely Irish Gothic. Jordan is critical of the inadequacy of traditional Ireland and its institutions and particularly the Catholic Church and its ‘failure to nurture is young, to confess to its own sickness, to acknowledge that its various forms of denial have created and perpetuated mental illness’ (Schneider & Williams 134). O’Sullivan (11) argues that in Jordan’s The Butcher’s Boy, the world ‘deserves everything it gets’.

“Jordan’s film offers a dirt-poor Ireland, befuddled and priest-ridden, full of drunken, proud and feckless fathers with put-upon and irresponsible wives. In this way it comes very close to confirming the ‘bog-man’ stereotype that tortures (he never forgets Mrs Nugent calling him a pig) and structure Francie’s imagination’ (O’Sullivan 11).

Jordan’s film is set in the 1960s in Clones, Co. Monaghan and the main character is a twelve year old boy, Francie Brady who is strongly influenced by television and the themes that emerge from within it including that of aliens, Atomic bombs and communism (Stack and Bowman 46). Brady emerges from a difficult family life characterised by domestic violence, his mother’s ongoing mental illness and his father’s alcoholism (Stack and Bowman 46). His mother later dies by suicide and he is left in the case of his father who is emotionally distant and a short-tempered alcoholic (Stack and Bowman 46). When placed in reform school because of his deviance Brady is molested by Father Sullivan and on his return finds his former best friend having befriended his enemy (McCabe 33). Brady’s life spirals downward and he unleashes an uncontrollable brutality murdering Mrs Nugent in the process and shocking his local community to its very core (McCabe 134). Jordan depicts Brady’s schizophrenia through the use of voice-overs where the adult narrator Francie speaks to the child Francie (McCabe 143). As highlighted previously a key theme of Gothic literature is its anti-Catholicism and anti-clericalism and this is documented throughout The Butcher Boy (Stack and Bowman 46). Since independence the Irish State had been shaped by the Catholic Church and social policies heavily influenced by Roman Catholicism (Auerbach 22). The 1990s began a period which sought to challenge this traditional order in the wake of increased female emancipation and education and in response to the uncovering of sexual abuse perpetuated by priests within the Catholic Church (Auerbach 22). The Butcher Boy contains gothic elements of paranoia as well as a criticism of the Catholic Church and its abuse of children and its hold over Irish society (Auerbach 22). Irish singer Sinead O’Connor was cast in the dual role of the Virgin Mary and Irish colleen because Jordan believed that her face resembled many of the statues of Mary that existed in Churches across Ireland (McCabe 25). In the 1990s O’Connor was one of the most visible faces of abuse that the Catholic Church meted out to its followers (McCabe 25). Much of the ensuing success of The Butcher Boy was that it was able to tap into the anger and fury which the Irish people felt towards the church who they maintained betrayed Irish people (McCabe 25).

This paper had set out to argue in favour of the category of Irish Gothic with reference to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and a film directed by Neil Jordan entitled ‘The Butcher Boy’. The premise behind this argument was that Ireland itself has been identified as a Gothic space and ‘peculiarly gothic landscape’ which is believed to have inspired Gothic literature and Gothic motifs as evident to varying degrees within Dracula and The Butcher Boy (Morin 113; Melville 1). Rather than simply copying the themes explicit within gothic literature overseas Irish gothic writers and those influenced by gothic motifs were able to draw upon Ireland’s rich and traumatic heritage to inform their narratives. In Dracula anxieties within the Protestant Ascendancy concerning their fragility as a minority group in an increasingly hostile Catholic country appear to dominant the fear of the Other that pervades the film. In The Butcher Boy the criticism of the inadequacy of the State and the Catholic Church was brought to the fore by the graphic and brutal decent into madness of a twelve year old boy who murders a neighbour and smears her blood on the walls. In sum, the conceptualisation of an Irish Gothic category is very much evident through an analysis of these two texts which demonstrate strong gothic influences and a very distinctive gothic literature that draws upon features of the Irish landscape and culture and Irish history to shape and characterise the literature.


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