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, perhaps making it the oldest written vampire story in Western Europe.
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It was later reprinted in 1880 in A History of Ireland by Patrick Weston Joyce and, it has been suggested, the Celtic chieftain 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) 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. He was small (possibly deformed) but said to be a mighty magician and a tyrannical monarch. He was hated by his subjects who wished to be rid of him, but they were too frightened to kill him themselves because of his alleged magic powers.
So they brought another chieftain named Cathain from a neighbouring kingdom to do the job for them. The name “Cathrain”, or “Catháin” is one of the forebearer of the O’Kane family.
Cathain killed the tyrant and buried him standing up as befitted a Celtic chieftain. But the next day, Abhartach was back, demanding a bowl of blood from the wrists of his subjects in order, says the tale, to “sustain his vile corpse.”
Cathain came again, killed him, and reburied him, but the next day the dreadful cadaver was back, demanding the same gory tribute. Cathain then consulted with Christian saint instead of a druid. He was told that Abhartach wasn’t completely dead, nor could he be killed, because of his magic powers.
He was one of the marbh bheo (walking dead) who would torment his people unless he was suspended. Cathain could do this by killing him with a sword made of yew wood, burying him upside down, placing thorns around his grace, and a great stone directly on top of him.
Cathain did all this, even going so far as to build a leacht or sepulchre over the gravesite. This monument 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. A tree has grown there, too—supposedly from the original thorns, although this growth is much younger.
A large rock with two smaller ones beside it lay on the ground under the tree, probably the remains of the dolmen. A circle of red mud surrounded its trunk, the exact diameter of the tree.
The grass had stopped growing here. The land around is considered “bad ground” and has changed ownership several times and local residents will not approach the place after dark, even today. In the region they still talk about “the man who was buried three times.”
In 1997, attempts were made to clear the land; in conformity with folklore, workmen who attempted to cut down the thorn tree arching across Abhartach’s grave allegedly had their chain saw malfunction three times. While attempting to lift the great stone, a steel chain snapped, cutting the hand of one of the labourers, and ominously, allowing blood to soak into the ground.
Abhartach’s grave is now known as Slaghtaverty Dolmen, and is locally referred to as “The Giant’s Grave”. It comprises a large rock and two smaller rocks under a hawthorn. The dolmen is located in the townland of Slaghtaverty (Irish: Sleacht Aibheartaigh), just north of Maghera in County Londonderry.
Sources: Encyclopedia of the Undead: “A Field Guide to the Creature that Cannot Rest in Peace” by Dr. Bob Curran; Mysterious World: Ireland by Ian Middleton and Douglas Elwell