From Abhartach to Dracula, a Story to Get Your Teeth Into

“No man knows till he has suffered from the night how sweet and dear to his heart and eye the morning can be.”

Bram Stoker

Just north of the town of Maghera in Co. Derry there lies an ancient tomb known as the Slaghtaverty Dolmen. Named after the townland on which it sits, or so I thought, that is until the locals told me that the townland is named after it. On initial inspection it looks innocuous, marked simply by a lone hawthorn, comprised of one large rock and two smaller ones strewn to the side. It looks lonely and forlorn on an incline of a large field. It marks the grave of Abhartach the Dwarf Magician, a Chieftain of the area. Strange happenings occur at this site though, enough to put the heart crossways in your chest, one realises very quickly that all is not what it seems at this site.

Abhartach who lived in the 5th or 6th century was not a popular overlord, he was a stunted man and a powerful wizard, and he took pleasure in terrorising his subjects, or so the story goes. He was a paranoid and possessive man and took it into his head that his wife was having an affair. So, he climbed the high walls of the castle keep intending to spy through the bedroom window and catch her in the act. This did not go well for him though, and in a moment of jealous pique he slipped and fell to his death.

He was duly buried by his subjects, standing upright, as was customary for a Chieftain. Now, whatever potent magic he performed is not known, but Abhartach returned the next day and plonked himself at the head of his table. He proceeded to demand that the blood from the wrists of each of his subjects be drained into a bowl for him to drink. He continued this gruesome practice daily, so vile and evil was his behaviour that his subjects thought him to be one of the “marbh bheo”, the living dead. These foul deeds made his vassals wish him proper dead and it wasn’t long before they hatched a plan to have him assassinated.

“He was buried in a standing posture, but the very next day he appeared in his old haunts, more cruel and vigorous than ever.”

Joyce, The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places

The warrior chieftain Cathán was asked to slay the evil Abhartach, which he did
without delay and had him buried in the manner which befit his status, standing upright.
Abhartach returned again the next morning with his bowl, baying for blood. Three more times Cathán killed and buried him and three more times he returned demanding blood. At a loss as to what to do next Cathán consulted with the druid Eoghan as to how to succeed in his mission.

The druid advised Cathán that as Abhartach was already dead he could not be killed again. The only way to stop him was to pierce his heart with a sword made from the yew tree, bury him upside down and cover him with ash branches and thorns. He had to plant a thorny tree over him and place a heavy stone slab over the grave which could never be raised otherwise, Abhartach would once again come looking for his bloody breakfast. Cathán followed the druid’s advice and duly impaled and interred the deadly dwarf as instructed and that is where Abhartach rests to this day. Or does he?

“The chief then consulted a druid, and according to his directions, he slew the dwarf a third time, and buried him in the same place, with his head downwards, which subdued his magical power, so that he never again appeared on earth.”

Joyce, The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places

This folktale was collected in the late 1800’s by the Folklorist and historian Patrick Weston Joyce who was a contemporary of Bram Stoker when he worked in the Dublin Civil Service. The Gaelic term “droch fhola” meaning “bad blood” is thought to be the inspiration and etymology for the name “Dracula” the world’s most renowned blood drinker. The parallels between Abhartach and Bram Stoker’s Dracula are extremely interesting. The idea of an evil man who has a magical way of overcoming death and rises from the grave, is familiar to anyone who has read Dracula.

Both demand blood sacrifices from their subjects, that image of taking blood from weaker people is powerfully interwoven with the vampire myth we know of today. Familiar too is the notion that there is a special way to kill the undead, vampires must be killed by a wooden stake through the heart, or buried upside down, just like the druid Eoghan said Abhartach could be killed over a thousand years ago.

If local lore is to be believed the land is still considered to be an unlucky place. Many stories of people meeting with bad luck and injuries causing them to spill blood into the ground abound.

One such story from two decades ago tells of an attempt being made to clear the site for agricultural use. The chainsaw broke down three times and finally the chain snapped cutting the hand of one of the workers and allowing blood to seep into the ground. A man employed to move the stone also met with an injury and his hand was cut and dripped blood into the ground also. The project of clearing this site has since been abandoned. Locally it is considered to be ‘bad ground’ and has been the subject of a number of family disagreements over the years. The soil around this monument has a darker hue than the rest of the field and grass has stopped growing there. No local will approach this site after dark.

The Hawthorn and in particular the lone Blackthorn are trees to be avoided according to Irish mythology. This may be a remnant of the ancient Irish regard for sacred trees and the development of the Ogham alphabet, the letter associated with hawthorn is “hUath”, thought to mean “fear”. These trees that grew of their own accord, unplanted by human hands, are those most regarded with fear and superstition. They have huge associations with the Sidhe and are associated entrances to the otherworld. The Schools’ Collection of Irish folklore holds several accounts of lone Hawthorn growing over tombs, concurrently with tales of people coming to a bad end if they interfere with or cause damage to these trees or utilise their fallen timber. The lone hawthorn at Abhartach’ s tomb has a sinister quality about it and is best avoided.

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