Saturday, August 28, 2010

Droch-fhoula (pronounced droc'ola).

The Legend of Abhartach.

It has always been assumed that the original Dracula story, written by the Irishman Abraham (Bram) Stoker in 1897, was based on the Transylvanian folk hero Vlad III Tepesh Dracula, known as “the impaler” because of his favourite method of punishment.

However, an alternative inspiration for Stoker's story was put forward by Bob Curran, lecturer in Celtic History and Folklore at the University of Ulster, Coleraine, in the Summer 2000 edition of History Ireland, a peer-reviewed journal edited by historians, where he suggested that Stoker may have derived his inspiration from the legend of Abhartach, but who was Abhartach?

In the north Derry area, between the towns of Garvagh and Dungiven, a district known as Glenuilin (glen of the eagle) might give us a clue as to Dracula's origins. 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.

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 consulted a local druid as to why Abhartach could not be killed. The venerable old man listened long and hard to the chieftain's tale.

'Abhartach is not really alive', he told the astonished Cathán. 'Through his evil arts he has become one of the neamh-mhairbh (the undead). 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 druid 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.

This is the legend of Abhartach in Irish Folklore. Could this be the influence of Bram Stoker’s Dracula? Although most cultures have vampire stories, such tales have a particular resonance in Ireland. Here, interest in and veneration of the dead played a central part in Celtic thinking.

It was the historian and folklorist Patrick Weston Joyce who actually made connections between Abhartach and the Irish vampire tradition. Joyce enthusiastically recounted the legend in his own book A History of Ireland (Dublin 1880). This was seventeen years before Dracula was published and it is believed that Stoker, then a Dublin civil servant, read Joyce's work (and presumably the Abhartach legend) with some relish.

Around the same time, manuscript copies of Geoffrey Keating's History of Ireland(which made much of the neamh-mhairbh, the un-dead) were placed on public display in the National Museum in Dublin. They were on loan from Trinity College Library (which possessed two manuscript copies) and the display included chapter ten on the un-dead. Although Stoker himself could not read Irish, he had many friends and acquaintances that did and he may have received at least part of the work in translation.

Could the legend of the vampire-king coupled with the strong tradition of blood-drinking Irish chieftains and nobles recounted to him as a child by his Sligo-born mother and the Kerry maids who worked about his Dublin home, have eventually coalesced into the idea of Count Dracula? Bram Stoker was not writing from any great experience of Eastern Europe. He had never been there and was relying heavily on tourist accounts of the region. His experiences may have come more directly from Irish folklore.

Even the name Dracula has Irish resonances. In Irish, droch-fhoula (pronounced droc'ola) means 'bad' or 'tainted blood' and whilst it is now taken to refer to 'blood feuds' between persons or families, it may have a far older connotation.

So can we really consign the vampire to some remote part of Eastern Europe, where he is unlikely to do us any harm?

Lower of the two images:
This caricature is from a humor periodical The Looking Glass or Caricature Annual, which was issued monthly between January 1830 and December 1832. The artist, Robert Seymour depicts ‘Two species of Irish Vampire’.


  1. Fascinating!
    Thank you so much for posting this - all new to me.
    J x

  2. "Definatly wise"? That definitely speaks for your 'wisdom'.

    1. Your post is rather ambiguous and so I cannot decide whether you expect me to respond in some way.

    2. Rudie, now I understand. The spelling of the word 'definatly' is obviously wrong. It should read 'definitely' but unfortunately it was on the logo when I downloaded it and even though I have tried removing it the thing refuses to respond. You are the first to point this out and I congratulate you for being so observant. However, don't let it spoil your visits to this site as I'm sure you will find many things to interest you. Keep smiling. SilentOwl.