Abhartach, The Irish Vampire.

Every country has its legends of terror, and one of the most common and persistent of these legends, is worldwide, the vampire. A creature who has died but who returns to the world in order to feed on the warm vital blood of the living.

Irish writer Bram Stoker introduced his Dracula novel in 1897, and the world became more knowledgeable in both vampires, and Transylvania, in Romania. Of course, everyone tends to believe that the Dracula, in Stoker’s story is based upon Vlad lll Dracul (dragon), also known as Vlad the Impaler, who had no problem bringing his enemies to a gory end.

However, the author could have very well been inspired by stories at home, because Ireland, like most countries in Europe, has tales of the undead, or as they are known in Gaelic, na Neamh-Mhairbh.

One such story, was well known throughout Ireland and was based in the County Derry parish of Errigal in the townland of Slaghtaverty, and the story goes that many moons ago, there lived in the lands east of the Foyle, between Dungiven and Garvagh, in the glen of the eagle, (Glenullin), a Chieftain or Lord called Abhartach.

Anyhow, according to local legend, Abhartach rises from his grave to drink the blood of his subjects. Although most probably a folk legend. It was written down as actual history in Dr. Geoffrey Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Eireann, (A General History of Ireland), between 1620 and 1631, making it one of the oldest written vampire stories outside Europe. It was reprinted in 1880 in A History of Ireland by Patrick Weston Joyce, and has been suggested, that Abhartach may have been the prototype for Bram Stoker’s classic vampire figure, Dracula.

During the 5th and 6th centuries, in the north Derry area, between the towns of Garvagh and Dungiven, a district known as Glenuilin, (glen of the eagle), there existed a patchwork of tiny kingdoms, each with its own local ruler, or Lord. These lords may have been little more than the local boss, yet the countryside is dotted with hill forts, ancient raths and early fortifications which once marked those respective territories.

Abhartach, according to tradition, was small, (maybe deformed), but is believed to have been a wizard, and a tyrant. Old tales say he was detested by his subjects who wished to be rid of him, but because of his powers, were too frightened to kill him themselves.

You have to understand that folklore in Ireland, as it did in Scotland, England and Wales, travelled, and was carried from town to hamlet by Bards, and journeymen. I’m from Belfast, and my childhood, fireside tales, told to me by my Mother are now mine to tell, but there are many tales proposing different angles on him, but tend to liken him as evil, hated, and feared by his own clann as the neighbouring ones.

One tale suggests he was a jealous man, and suspected that his wife was having an affair, so decided to spy on her. He climbed out the window of his castle one night in an effort to catch her in the act, but slipped and fell to his death. His body was discovered in the morning and his people relieved that he was gone, quickly buried him, standing him upright as befitting his status. But they were in for a shock when the very next day he appeared demanding bowls of his peoples’ blood fresh from cuts on their wrists.

Terrified they complied, but one of them contacted a neighbouring chieftain, named Cathain, to do the job for them, and Cathain killed the little tyrant, and re-buried him standing up as befitted a Celtic chieftain.

The next day, Abhartach was back, demanding a bowl of blood from the wrists of his subjects in order, says one tale, to sustain his vile corpse. Cathain, when he heard this, returned, killed him again, and reburied him, but the next day Abhartach was back, demanding the same gory tribute.

Cathain, knew devilry when he saw it and consulted with a Christian saint, who told him that Abhartach was neither alive or dead. He was one of the marbh bheo, (walking dead), and could not he be killed, because of his magic powers, and would continue to torment his people unless struck in the heart with a sword made of yew wood, bury him upside down, place ash branches and thorns around his grave, and set a great stone on top of him, sealing him in.

Cathain did all this, even going so far as to build a leacht, (sepulchre) over the grave, and this monument is what gave the townland outside Garvagh its name—Slaghtaverty, (Abhartach’s leacht).

Today, the sepulchre is gone, although it is said that one massive capstone remains over the actual burial site, and a tree has grown there, supposedly from the original thorns. A large rock with two smaller ones beside it lay on the ground under the tree, probably the remains of the dolmen. Also, a circle of red mud surrounds its trunk, the exact diameter of the tree.

In 1997, attempts were made to clear the land, and workmen who attempted to cut down the thorn tree arching across Abhartach’s grave, had their chain saw malfunction three times. The same workforce attempting to lift the great stone, and the steel chain snapped, cutting the hand of one of the labourers, and his blood dripping onto the ground there, and as you can see by the photo, the tree, the grave, is still there.

Abhartach’s grave is now known as Slaghtaverty Dolmen, and is referred to by locals as The Giant’s Grave, not the Dwarf’s grave, and comprises a large rock and two smaller rocks under a hawthorn… of course it should be said that Hawthorn is held sacred in Ireland, and is protected by the faerie people.

Truth is, that sometimes because stories are passed down orally, while substance to them, real facts can be lost. Was Abhartach actually one of the faerie people, a leprechaun? I don’t know, but I do believe there is more to the story.

One can visit the grave but they should be aware that local people are still wary of the site and avoid it, particularly after dark. Indeed, the land around it is considered bad and unholy ground, and has changed ownership several times through the years. Today, in the area, they still talk about, the wee man who was buried three times.

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