by Alan Nolan
“Here, Alan,” said my Granny, tossing a book in my direction, “you like the scary stuff, don’t yeh?” I made an effort to intercept the fast-moving paperback missile, but like every GAA ball, rugby ball and basketball that had ever been thrown to me, I fumbled the catch and the book hit the floor. I picked it up, looked at the cover, and was immediately sorry that I did.
The cover was an illustration of a white faced, shiny-haired fright of a man, with red rimmed eyes, jet-black hair and a wide open mouth filled with razor sharp teeth. His overall demeanour suggested that he was quite willing to bite the fingers of any hand that dared to pick up the book whose cover he graced. In short, a nice sort of chap. Written over this demon’s head were three words: Dracula, Bram and Stoker.
I was 10 years old when I first read Dracula, and I became almost as infatuated with Bram Stoker as I was with my other literary love at the time, Charles Dickens – the difference being that the works of Charles Dickens didn’t leave me waking up with screaming nightmares at 3am in the morning (Thanks, Granny!).
Bram was a Dubliner and I remember pleading with my long-suffering Dad to bring me to Bram’s childhood homes at Marino Crescent in leafy Clontarf and slightly less leafy Buckingham Street, so I could see where he played and imagine what he had been like as a child. I even inveigled my long-suffering father to bring the family on a summer holiday to Scarborough in England, just so we could visit the pretty harbour town of Whitby, a little further up the coast, and the place where Count Dracula landed in the book, emerging from his Transylvanian-earth-filled coffin to take his first evil steps on British soil.
But I loved Charles Dickens too and over the years I had often wondered what Dublin would have been like in Dickens’ day; I had read so much about Dickensian London, with the Artful Dodger, Ebeneezer Scrooge and Uriah Heep, et al roaming the streets, but I had never read anything about Dickensian Dublin. Until, that is, I came across a book about Dickens in a second-hand bookshop. The book was old, big, full of illustrations, and, best of all, only a fiver. I picked it up and it opened on a spread with had a reproduction of a playbill from when Dickens had visited Dublin in 1858, performing dramatic readings from his books at the Rotunda Round Room.
Dickens had visited Dublin!
I immediately thought again of Bram Stoker. How old would he have been in 1858 when Dickens visited? Only 11 years of age! Was there a chance he would have gone with his family to see Dickens perform? Or maybe he was a bit of a rebel who may have ditched his family and gone with his friends … I could feel a story coming.
Now, what friend or friends could I give Bram in this story? Bram was upper-middle-class, one of the ‘Quality’, well-educated and well cared for, a sporty boy with an unshakeable ambition to be a writer and a thirst for adventure. The friend would have to be the polar opposite: a poverty-stricken orphan, one step away from the workhouse, a girl who lived by her wits, without any adult supervision or help. I already had Bram and Dickens, two well-known characters, why not have Bram’s pal being the best-known Dublin character of all – a person whose name is sung by countless voices, the length and breadth of Temple Bar, on a nightly basis; a fictional character whose name is known far and wide but whose story has never been told? A legendary girl who I might be able to bring to life-alive-oh?
Yup, the one and only Molly Malone.
In my story, Molly would be 11 years old like Bram, a part-time fishmonger (as she is in the song) and a full-time sneak thief. She would meet up with Bram, become best friends, and they would have the most amazing adventures around Dublin, visiting places that the reader can still visit today. To this end I took long exploratory walks around the city, scouting for possible locations – locations that eventually ended up driving the narrative of the book. There was Molly’s tumbledown shack beside the Royal Canal at Newcomen Bridge, where she and her pre-teen gang of young thieves, The Sackville Street Spooks, stored their ill-gotten gains. There was the Debtors’ Prison where, in a pre-MABS 1858, people who owed money were locked up – we could have a jailbreak there. There was Smithfield Market, the site of a monthly horse fair and carnival. Maybe there would be sideshows at the carnival with strongmen, dog-faced boys and, oooh, fortune tellers!
The only location that ended up featuring heavily in the book but doesn’t exist today is the much-missed Nelson’s Pillar – in its place in O’Connell/Sackville Street now stands the Dublin Spire – but my Granny had told me enough stories about climbing the 168 steps to the viewing platform under Admiral Horatio Nelson’s imposing statue, and the amazing views over the rooftops of Dublin and out into the bay, that I felt I could bring it to life.
But every story needs a villain – who might the villain of The Sackville Street Caper be? Who would be capable of terrifying and terrorizing the master of macabre himself, the great Bram Stoker? Well, maybe a Transylvanian Count might do the trick. A creepy Count might also inspire the 11 year old wannabe author in my book to write his greatest work! So, Count Vladimir was added to the Sackville stew; a hissing, covetous, Scrooge-like old sinner, intent on stealing the Irish Crown Jewels from Dublin Castle, and desperate to recruit the best sneak thief in Dublin to help him do it. Will his evil plan succeed, or will Bram, Molly and the Sackville Street Spooks thwart his wicked scheme? Weee-eeell … the book is now available in bookshops, libraries and from www.obrien.ie, so yiz can all find out for yizzerselves!
This book, from start to finish, has been a joy to work on, being so rooted in the books of my childhood, and in the history of my home city of Dublin; I loved working again with my amazing editor Helen Carr; I treasured every trip I made and every precious page of research I pored over.
And I have my Granny, Nanny Gigg, and her good aim to thank for it.