Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Original Van Helsing

It is widely believed that Bram Stoker based his character of Dr Van Helsing on a real character, also a doctor from Holland who carried out real life research into vampires. Gerard van Swieten (1700–1772) was born in Leiden, Holland and at the age of forty fives became the personal physician to the Austrian Empress Maria Theresia. His statue is given place of prominence on Vienna’s ring right underneath that of his employer.
As well as being someone in whom the empress placed great trust, he was also her personal librarian and did Trojan work for the health service and medical studies. The 18th century was a time of Enlightenment and the empress was eager to spread reform and learning throughout her vast empire, which encompassed most of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. It was from the latter territories that age old superstition challenged modern thinking. There had always been a strong belief in vampires in the Balkans and several cases of vampirism from the region had been documented when the phenomenon reached its peak in the 18th century. The first case was that of the Croatian vampire Giure Grando from the Istrian peninsula who died in 1656. According to the locals he rose from the grave and knocked on the doors of his neighbours. Wherever the knock was heard someone died from that house. When his grave was opened, sixteen years after being interred, his body was not decomposed and he had a smile on his face. Attempts to stake him with a hawthorn stick failed and it is said that his body groaned as his head was sawn off. The two most famous vampire cases were those of Arnold Paole and Peter Plogojowitz both from deeply impoverished parts of Serbia which had been recently ceded to Austria from the Ottoman Empire. It is not known how Plogojowitz died but returned from the dead to ask his son for food. It was a widely held belief that the dead got hungry and thirsty. His son refused and was found dead the next day. Several neighbours also died from loss of blood, claiming on their dead beds that Plogojowitz had visited them at night. The locals demanded from their Austrian Imperial Provisor, a man called Frombald, take action. He wanted to seek further advice on the matter from the authorities in Belgrade but hysteria among the villagers was so great that immediate action had to be taken. He was compelled to acquiesce to a vampire slaying, something of which, as an outsider, he understood little. A priest was present as the grave was opened. The body was not decomposed, hair and a beard had grown as had new skin and nails and there was blood in the mouth. The assembled crowds staked the corpse and fresh blood spurted out. Today these symptoms with the aid of medical knowledge would not be considered abnormal, but the assembled crowd knew nothing of modern medicine and followed an age old ritual. The Serbian Arnold Paole had been a soldier, who had been attacked by a vampire in Kosovo. He had told his neighbours that he had cured himself by eating the soil from the vampire’s grave. Years later he became a farmer in his native village of Meduegna and died suddenly when he fell from a hay wagon in 1726. Within three weeks of his passing four people claimed that he had visited them at night. They all died soon after. His grave was opened and again his body was not in a state of decomposition. Fresh blood had flown from his eyes, ears, nose and mouth. His finger nails had apparently grown since death. A stake was driven through his heart, to which he apparently groaned and his body was burned. The same was done with his victims. The whole affair was well documented by the local authorities, which seemed to confirm the existence of vampires. Word reached the seat of the empire in Vienna and Johann Flüchinger, a regimental field surgeon was sent to investigate. His report Visum et Repertum (Seen and Discovered) was published in 1732 and became a European bestseller and Paole became known throughout Europe. Indeed, the word vampire itself entered the English language from German at this time. Academics and thinkers began to debate the existence of vampires. While some argued it was premature burial or rabies, which causes thirst and makes the victims light sensitive, others such as Dom Augustine Calmet, a well respected French theologian and scholar, brought out an influential treatise in 1746 which supported the existence of vampires. Even Voltaire seemed to believe in them and gave a description of them in his Philosophical Dictionary. The European wide discussion prompted the empress to send van Swieten to Moravia to determine once and for all whether or not vampires existed and he commenced his work in 1755.Van Swieten was not impressed by what he found. His findings were published in a report entitled Abhandlung des Daseyns der Gespenster (Discourse on the Existence of Ghosts) in which he put forward offered natural explanation for a belief in vampires. Lack of decomposition he argued was due to the lack of oxygen in the coffin and dismissed the fears of the people as peasant superstition.
Van Swieten’s conclusion was simple- “Vampires appear only where ignorance still rules.” Given his influence over the Empress she passed laws prohibiting the opening of graves and desecration of bodies by impaling, decapitating or cremating, which largely put an end to the vampire epidemics. Medical knowledge and the strange phenomena and appearances that the Austrian officials witnessed are now known to accompany the natural process of the decomposition of the body. Despite this there is still a belief in the undead in some corners of Europe as documented in the case of Petre Toma. When he died in 2003 relatives claimed he was coming back from the grave to haunt them. Three weeks later they opened his grave, removed his heart and burnt it at the village crossroads, which put a stop to his nocturnal visits.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Memoir of Rural County Dublin

Accounts of country life in bygone days are not uncommon and although Dublin is usually only associated with city living, one of the most interesting accounts I have read is from Dublin. Written by his friend Doctor George A. Little, who himself had served a medical officer in the Dublin Brigade of the IRA; Malachai Horan Remembers is a testimony of long forgotten Dublin. Even in 1945, when the book was written, the world Malachi Horan describes was a world far removed from contemporary Dublin. In the memoir Malachi recalls his life and the social conditions of the time. Memories of 1798 and the Night of the Big Wind in 1839 were still fresh in peoples’ minds when he was born in Killinarden in 1847, ten miles from Dublin between Saggart and Old Bawn, where he spent his entire life. The famine was at its height, though the Horans were largely, due to living in the hills, which form The Dublin Mountains and where the blight did not reach, were largely spared this affliction. Those who were starving went to nearby Tallaght to get their Indian meal. Speaking nearly a hundred years later he made the interesting observation: “I was born the year it started. It was not that it made them that lived after poor-God knows they were used to that-but it made them so sad in themselves. It made many a one hard, too. The people have not got rid of the effect of it yet.” The stable diet of most people at the time was stirabout, wheaten bread, cabbage, potatoes and a little meat. His first school was a Hedge School in a barn at Killinarden Four Roads where the master worked and lived. The master was a really a labourer who had received only very little education himself and was both hated and feared by the children. For their education they brought a sod of turf and a penny a week. He later went to the Belgard school in Ballysack where he claimed the mistress did not each. When she beat him the sally switch he left and never went back. Malachi says that at the time it was not unusual for a man to work from six in the morning until eight in the evening and even longer if his master so desired. Men prided themselves in their physical strength and how much they could work. Up until the beginning of the twentieth century there was a hiring fair in Tallaght. Those who wished to be hired stuck their clay pipe in their hat bands and then into their pockets when hired. The farmers would meet and decide on a common wage- a crown a day without keep and about a shilling with bed and board. The men were expected to reap an acre a day. As a form of entertainment people went to watch and bet on cock fights which are now illegal. Malachi speaks of Mass paths which were just short cuts to mass that had been public rights of way for centuries. Landlords hated people using these paths and erected fences, which the locals tore down. Going to the doctor at the time would have been an expensive option that people could ill afford and they had their own cures-dandelion tea for yellow jaundice and scalded buttermilk and whiskey for sore throats. For the common cold scalteen-a drink of boiled whiskey, water, sugar, butter, pepper and sometimes caraway seeds, was used. For stomach complaints the water from the Holy well of St. Moling at Toolmaling was good. Belief in piseogs was much stronger back then and Malachi believed firmly in the féar gorta or The Hungry Grass, a spot where someone from the Famine had died and describes how when out walking with a friend near the Sally Gap in Wicklow they took a short cut through the furze and he suddenly felt weak. His friend knew what it was and put food into his mouth. Most people at the time never undertook a journey without food in case something like this happened. There is a description of wakes and the games played at them. As he points out staying awake all night by the corpse after a long day’s work was hard going and the people needed some form of entertainment. It was a time when people were still being hanged in public, usually in their own neighbourhood or even in front of their house. There are several descriptions in the book, one such event was the Kearneys of Bohernabreena, a farmer and his two sons who were hanged for the murder of a land agent called Kinlon, although there was very little evidence to support this. The book contains a description of resurrection men who stole corpses from the graveyard in Saggart to sell them on to doctors. Officially only the bodies of criminals were to be used for dissection but not enough people were being hanged to meet the demand. It was usual for the relatives to stay by the grave until it was filled in to deter body snatching. The resurrection men used to shoe their horses with leather to make less noise. It was a lucrative business and they were vicious people who would murder anyone who interrupted their activity. Malachi describes how his father met them on the road and they pursued him until he reached the safety of an inn and explained what was happening. The people in the inn, some of them relatives of the deceased caught up with the resurrection men and gave them a severe beating. Malachi also describes how the son of a well known surgeon was shot dead while body snatching. Malachi was still living in his little thatched cottage when Little interviewed him at the age of 98. He never married and died the same year the book was published. The book which was reprinted three times has since proven to be a valuable and rare resource and a gateway to rural County Dublin, which would have otherwise been lost forever.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Budgies By Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill Budgies were introduced to Europe from Australia in the late 19th century and are sometimes referred to as budgerigars or parakeets. Originally pale green, yellow and black in colour there are now several mutations giving us a wide variety of colours. Keeping budgies is a great and inexpensive way for younger people to learn responsibility and commitment. They do not make much of a mess and do not require much food. Even for adults they provide great companionship. They will communicate with people, mirrors and toys and just about anyone or anything they think will listen. They are playful and affectionate, each with their own separate character. Watching their antics can prove to be very therapeutic and entertaining. The lifespan of a budgie depends on their diet and general living conditions. It may be as little as four years if they only eat seeds, while with the right amount of exercise and vitamins they can live up to the age of fifteen or even longer. Depending on the budgie they will also eat a variety of fruit and vegetables such as pieces of apple, broccoli and shredded carrot. Avocado, chocolate and coffee are however toxic for budgies. Budgies do no chew their food but have powerful intestinal muscles and the food can be eased along with a little grit. With the seeds care is required. Budgies open the husks, remove the seed and leave back the empties, which looks as if the seed dish is full, when in fact your budgie may be starving. They can be left alone with adequate food and water for a number of days, but no more than five. Males are easily recognisable with their blue seres above their beak, while the females have a brown sere. The breeding season in Ireland is usually around March and budgies mate if they are at least a year old, like each other and their owner provides a nest box. The months that follow is a good time to buy a budgie. A young budgie will have lines on his forehead and will have black eyes with no rings. As a pet, it is better to buy a young budgie as they are easier to train, less aggressive and not as set in their ways. Budgies can see in colour, can turn their heads 180 degrees and have the ability to count up to three as well as learn basic tricks. It should be noted however that not all budgies will speak and the chances are less if they have a companion. As with a lot of other animals they are active by day and tend to rest in the evening. They tend to sleep on their perches with their heads turned back. Placing a blanket over the cage, with space to breath, will help them sleep and quieten them down. A healthy and happy budgie should be let out of their cage for at least an hour a day. A budgie that is never let out will puff his feathers and start self plucking in frustration and boredom. When out of the cage they should be supervised. Windows should be closed and toilets lids should be down. Budgies may fall behind fridges or book cases and will not be able to get out. In the wild budgies forage for food on the ground so it is not unusual for them to be seen to walking around the floor, which is why you need to be careful walking around the room. Some people will have their budgies’ wings clipped which stops them flying around the room and also makes them easier to train, but may mean that they do not get enough exercise. Training a budgie should be done in a room where the cage is not in view as they tend to be more cooperative. A budgie should be taught to jump onto your finger before being let out of the cage. Otherwise there is the tendency for them to ignore their owner. Budgies do not always like to be petted and will let you know with a peck. A budgie that trusts you will have no problem sitting on your shoulder. A budgie may bite your finger. Sometimes this will be a little bite as it prepares to step up onto your finger and sometimes it will be stronger. The bite is best ignored; otherwise it only encourages such behaviour. Do not raise your voice as this will only frighten the budgie. Catching the budgie can be problematic and certainly requires patience and careful handling. They are after all fragile creatures, albeit with very fast reflexes. It may be coaxed back into the cage with food or caught with a towel. Some people close the cage doors and the budgies return when they are hungry. If the lights can be turned off the budgie is easy to catch as they cannot fly in darkness. If you only have one budgie and introduce a new one this may lead to tension in the beginning. The newcomer could be regarded as an invader and fights are brief but sharp. On the other hand there might be an immediate bond. Ideally, budgies should be bought as a pair. A budgie is a living creature with feelings that responds to its environment and a budgie alone in a cage even with toys will require a lot of attention or it will become frustrated, bored and lonely. A decent cage, two budgies and food can be purchased for under a hundred euro. Sometimes they are even given away as people move house. Given that a budgie is such a sociable pet the joy it gives in return is well worth any investment.