Did you know that the cholera epidemic of the early 1830’s in Sligo may have inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula? Or that on May 5th the Banshee would come looking for souls to bring into the afterlife? For those of you interested in delving into stories about Sligo’s murky past, then an upcoming series of Hallowe’en walks may be just the thing.
The first of these walks, on October 30th, is already full, but there are spaces available on the walk of October 31st, which will bring you on a short tour of the grisly places in Sligo most associated with the dark side. But, speaking with the guide for these walks, Mel Ní Mhaolanfaidh last week, it’s evident that the focus is on history and entertainment rather than giving you nightmares.
“I was always interested in history and in doing walking tours when I go to different places in Ireland and abroad,” she says, “and I was always thinking that it would be great, if I could create a tour for Sligo centred on its past related to crime and punishment.” And so Mel’s Dark Tours came into being, and, despite cancellations due to the pandemic, more recently things have begun to get busy again, and she has been booked for both private and public tours of the town.
The tour begins at Riverside, where an old distillery once stood, before moving on to Sligo Gaol – which can also be visited as a tour in itself. From there it’s on to Sligo Abbey, and then the Courthouse. This magnificent building was built in 1878 but masks its own troubled history. The previous Courthouse and Gaol, built on the same site, was the setting for some dreadful events, in particular at the turn of the 19th century when public hangings took place there with some regularity.
This era also coincided with the breakout of a cholera epidemic, which happened in Sligo in 1832. This was one of the most troubling periods in the town’s history, when up to 1,500 people died from this mystery ailment. Much like today with the coronavirus, this must have been a terrifying time, especially for the poor and malnourished. Modern science has taught us that cholera is brought about by drinking contaminated water, but at the time, people were unaware of its cause.
Charlotte Thornley, mother of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, lived in Sligo with her family at the time of the cholera epidemic. She lived with her parents and two brothers in a house on Old Market Street, close to the original Courthouse, which was turned into a temporary mortuary and coffin workshop during the cholera outbreak.
“Cholera decimated the town’s population. They ended up having mass graves at Sligo Abbey – they just couldn’t keep up.”
“She witnessed many of the events that happened during the cholera epidemic, and later on she goes to Dublin and marries Abraham Stoker and has seven children and one of them is Bram Stoker. She used to tell him stories of the cholera epidemic. He used them in some of his short stories, and in Dracula. Originally he was going to call the novel The Undead, and his mother, in the account she wrote for Bram, she called Sligo – the town of the undead.”
And although the cholera outbreak was mercifully brief – lasting just six weeks, it decimated the town’s population. “The men were working around the clock to build coffins. They ran out of wood so they just buried people in sacks. They ended up having mass graves in Sligo Abbey, because they just couldn’t keep up.”
Not only were the poor effected, but many of the doctors, nurses and other emergency services charged with helping the sick also succumbed to the disease themselves. And with over ten per cent of the town’s population wiped out in a short period of time, it must have been a time of desperation for all.
“It was the time of year where the dead would come back for the night and people would leave out food for people who had passed away, or they’d leave out a stool at the table or beside the fire for that person. I tell a few stories like that, some of the traditions of Hallowe’en and I try to bring in some of the more local Hallowe’en stories from Sligo.”
As part of the tour, Mel also describes some of the customs relating to Hallowe’en, which derives from the ancient season of Samhain, which signalled the end of the harvest and time to tighten the belts as we faced into the cold of Winter. And while some of the modern traditions we still practice have drawn on old customs, it seems that in time past, we really believed in making a connection with those that had gone before.
So, with the evenings closing in and the Winter approaching, maybe now it’s time to find out more about our town. For these and other fascinating insights, you can find information on Mel’s tour on her website at SligoWalkingTours.com. Numbers are restricted to 16 per tour, so get in touch to avoid disappointment.
With a laugh and a glint in her eye, Mel gives a word of warning to anyone brave enough to come on her tour. “A lot of people are surprised by some of the stories I tell, and they don’t realise a lot of the history that Sligo has. They might only have a passing idea of it. But usually they’re just glad that they survived, but they’ll have to come along and find out!”
For more on walking in Sligo visit www.SligoWalks.ie.