ABHARTACH THE VAMPIRE

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In the north of Ireland, between the towns of Garvagh and Dungiven, is a district known as Glenuilin (glen of the eagle). In the middle of a field in the remote townland of Slaughtaverty, is an area known locally as the 'Giant's Grave' but which may be more properly described as Leacht Abhartach (Abhartach's sepulchre). On the grave itself is a curling thorn bush under which lies a large and heavy stone. Originally there were more stones, the remnants of an old monument, but these have been removed over time by local farmers for building purposes. There is little doubt that the sepulchre was once an imposing place and that it has given the townland its name. But who was Abhartach?

During the fifth and sixth centuries, the Glenullin area was a patchwork of petty kingdoms, each with its own local ruler or 'king'. These kings may have been little more than tribal warlords and there is ample evidence of their rule, for the countryside is dotted with hill forts, ancient raths and early fortifications which marked their respective territories. Abhartach, according to tradition, was one of these chieftains.

Local descriptions of him vary. Some say that he was a dwarf, others that he was deformed in some way, but most agree that he was a powerful wizard and was extremely evil. So evil, in fact, that those over whom he ruled wished to get rid of him.

However, so terrified of him were they that they would not kill him themselves and so they persuaded another chieftain, Cathán, to perform the deed for them. Cathán slew Abhartach and buried him standing up in an isolated grave. However, the following day Abhartach returned, evil as ever and demanded a bowl of blood, drawn from the veins of his subjects, in order to sustain his vile corpse. In great terror, the people asked Cathán to slay him once more. This Cathán did, burying the corpse as before. But the following day, Abhartach returned again, demanding the same gory tribute from his people.

Cathán was puzzled and, depending upon the variant of the folktale, consulted either a local druid or an early Christian saint, as to why Abhartach could not be killed. There are several 'hermitages' in the area, according to tradition the dwellings of particularly holy men. The most notable is in Gortnamoyagh Forest on the very edge of Glenullin where local people will still point out 'the saint's track'-a series of stations near to a holy well. Close by was said to have been the hermitage of a saint known as Eoghan or John who is credited with founding a place of Christian worship in the area (the site is still known as Churchtown although any related foundation has long since vanished). A 'footprint' on a stony prominence in the forest is also attributed to this saint and it is said that from here he flew from Gortnamoyah to say Mass in his own foundation. His name further appears in several local placenames - Killowen in Coleraine (about fifteen miles away) and Magilligan (about twenty miles away). It was to this saint that Cathán is believed to have gone. The venerable old man listened long and hard to the chieftain's tale.

One of the neamh-mhairbh

'Abhartach is not really alive', he told the astonished Cathán. 'Through his devilish arts he has become one of the neamh-mhairbh [the undead]. Moreover, he is a dearg-dililat, a drinker of human blood. He cannot actually be slain but he can be restrained.' He then proceeded to give Cathán instructions as to how to 'suspend' the vampiric creature. Abhartach must be slain with a sword made from yew wood and must be buried upside down in the earth, thorns and ash twigs must be sprinkled around him and a heavy stone must be placed directly on top of him. Should the stone be lifted, however, the vampire would be free to walk the earth once more.

Cathán returned to Glenullin and did what the holy man told him. Abhartach was slain with a wooden sword and was buried upside down with thorns placed all around the gravesite. On top of the actual grave, Cathán built a great leacht or sepulchre which could be seen for miles around. This has now vanished but the stone remains and a tree, which grew from the scattered thorns, rises above it.

The land on which the grave is situated has acquired a rather sinister reputation over the generations. Locally it is considered to be 'bad ground' and has been the subject of a number of family disagreements over the years. In 1997, attempts were made to clear the land and if local tradition is to be believed workmen who attempted to cut down the tree found that their brand-new chain-saw stopped without reason on three occasions. When attempting to lift the great stone, a steel chain suddenly snapped, cutting the hand of one of the labourers and, significantly, allowing blood to soak into the ground. Although legends still abound in the locality of the 'man who was buried three times' and of a fantastic treasure which was buried with him, few local people will approach the grave, especially after dark!

 

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