The Blake-Thornleys

Bram Stoker’s mother was Charlotte Maria Blake Thornley, the daughter of Captain Thomas Thornley and Matilda Blake.

Captain Thomas Thornley (Bram's Grandfather)

Captain Thomas Thornley was born in England, enlisted young, and fought in the Peninsular war. In 1816 he was pensioned from the British army and joined the new police force in Ireland. In 1817 he married Matilda Blake. Captain Thomas Thornley is supposed to have received head injuries in the course of duty in 1849, and died of his wounds the following year. However his death notice states that he was on ‘half-pay’ indicating he was a pensioner, and makes no mention of any recent injury.

The Blake Family

On we have a Landed Estate Court sales brochure dated 1855 in the name of Abraham Stoker and Charlotte Stoker his wife, for lands in Garracloone and Knock in County Mayo (click to enlarge). This record proved to be one of the main springboards to our significant discoveries in Bram Stoker’s matrilineal line.

Rental and particulars of the land of Garracloone and Knock in County Mayo
Rental and particulars of the land of Garracloone and Knock in County Mayo

This is land that Charlotte inherited from her own mother Matilda Blake, who came from a landed family. By 1855, the lands were sold under this government scheme which allowed bankrupts to remove all claims made on the estate, and offer the lands with clear title to prospective buyers.

On the basis of the Blake family connection we have traced Bram Stoker’s Blake family back five generations to the early 1700s. It’s unusual to be able to trace any Irish family back this far, but the Blakes are not just ‘any’ Irish family.

In fact, we can trace the direct line of the Blake family back to the 14th Century when they arrived from England and established themselves as a landed gentry family in Connacht (the western province). The Blake family were one of the ‘Tribes of Galway’, merchant princes that owned ships and traded goods along the western coast of France, and Spain. Exporting leather hides and timber – and importing wines, spices and silks.

Matilda Blake (Bram’s grandmother) had an interesting family to say the least. She was a younger daughter of Richard Blake and Eliza O’Donnell and her brothers included the famous dueller Richard ‘Pistol’ Blake and the rebel General George Blake. In 1798 George Blake led the Irish rebels and fought alongside General Humbert’s troops.

George Blake (Bram’s Great-Uncle)

George Blake was said to be the only “man of name” that joined the rebel army. He had previously enlisted in the British army as an officer, and served in the West Indies. On we found what appears to be his service record, showing that in February 1791 he was a Lieutenant:

George Blake
George Blake

In the 1798 Rebellion, ‘General’ George Blake led the Irish forces, estimated as 1,500 mainly pikemen and cavalry, in the Battle of Ballinamuck Co. Longford, which took place on the morning of 8th September 1798. General Humbert led the French force of 800.

The Irish rebels were hopelessly ill equipped, they were armed mainly with pikes and fought against an army equipped with guns and heavy artillery. Virtually every state army across Europe had stopped using pikemen 100 years earlier, as guns and heavy artillery became more important in fighting. Ireland remained a poor country however and the only weapons available were pikes which they used as bayonets.

Even so, Blake’s men managed to blow up the English artillery position on the hill to the north of the village, and defended their position against three cavalry charges before their lines were broken by government troops which effectively ended the battle.

The rebels were outmanoeuvred and massively outnumbered. The French surrendered without terms. The British General Lake now undertook a wholesale slaughter of the Irish rebels, an estimated 500 to 600 were killed in battle and another 200 hanged afterwards.

Local tradition records that the government forces began to hang the croppies from two up-turned spoke-wheeled carts, but there were so many of them that they began to choose the condemned by drawing lottery cards marked 'life' and 'death'. Those who drew ‘life’ were set free. Those prisoners that drew ‘death’ were taken to be hanged at Ballinalee, and all were buried at the Bully's Acre. All the Irish killed in the battle were buried in big pits near the top of Sean Mullach (Shanmullagh). The government troops were not buried but thrown into Cílldre (Killdre) Lough.

George Blake was captured several days after the battle and was hanged at Kiltycreevagh Hill. We found a contemporary newspaper account of Blake’s death:

"Blake, the insurgent leader, who had joined the French, and was lately deservedly hanged as a traitor; begged to be shot. When that was refused, he requested to be indulged with the noose of the rope that was for his execution being soaped, that it might run free to shorten the time of dying. This, we hear, was granted, and he prepared it in that manner with his own hand."
- Freeman’s Journal 15 September 1798

These stories about 1798 and about the gruesome end met by ‘General’ George Blake and the rebels were widely known across Ireland. When Bram heard them, he would have had the added frisson of knowing that this was his great-uncle they were talking about, and that he led an estimated 800 to 1000 Irishmen to their deaths.

1. MacGréine, 'Traditions of 1798', pp 393-5; 1798 Commemoration, p.12

2. The English brought the prisoner's to Jack Griffin's house in Coillte Craobhach, and the first man they hung was General Blake'. IFC 1858 97-8 IFC S758: 55, IFC S760: 477 Irish Folklore Commission, University College Dublin.