A few miles west of Garvagh, Co.Derry in the area of Glenullin, and townland of Slaughtaverty, stands a lone Hawthorn in a field, atop a hill, a large quarried stone lies at it’s base. So far so normal, at least for us Irish; our rural areas are dotted with Fairy Thorns, but this is no ‘mere’ fairy site, this particular tree and it’s long flat stone is said to mark the grave of the Chieftain Abhartach.
Folklore tells us Abhartach lived, and importantly for the story, died in the 5th or 6th century C.E. Accounts vary, some say he was deformed, some say he was a dwarf, but all agree he was a powerful and evil magician. He was a possessive and jealous man and suspecting his wife of having an affair her designed to climb outside her bedroom window to catch her in the act. However he slipped and fell to his death. He was buried in a manner befitting a chieftain; standing upright. Yet the following day, come dusk Abhartach had returned, demanding each of his subjects let blood from their wrists into a bowl for him to drink. He instructed that this gruesome meal be prepared for him daily, and terrified of his evil the people fed him their blood, sustaining his unnatural life as one of the marbh bheo; the living dead. Soon his subjects grew weary of living in fear but none amongst them were brave enough to attempt an assassination and so they asked the warrior chieftain Cathán (now O’Kane) to slay Abhartach for them.
Cathán killed the evil chieftain and again buried him standing in his grave. The next day however Abhartach had returned, in a foul mood and demanding more blood. The terrified people recalled the warrior and he again dispatched their king and returned him to his grave. But the next day, as the shadows grew dense he returned once more, now in a rage and craving more blood. Cathán was at a loss, the man had died three times; twice by his own hand and he’d put him in the ground himself, so he asked the local Druid (some tales tell of a local saint but in early Irish christianity the lines between our ancient paganism and the new religion are incredibly blurred, there is however a local ‘saint’s track’ and holy well attributed to St.Eoghan or John, yet it is certain this would have been a pagan site long before christianity took hold). The wise man informed the perplexed warrior that to kill the undead chieftain he must be slain with a sword made of yew wood, buried upside down, feet towards the sky and a large stone placed on top of the grave to help hinder his resurrection. The stone was then to be surrounded by branches of sacred Irish trees such as hawthorn and rowan. The druid gave a grave warning that should the stone ever be removed Abhartach would be free to walk amongst us once more. No less puzzled Cathán carried out the holy man’s orders and the people were finally rid of their undead ruler. The twigs grew into a thorn tree and a huge dolmen was built upon the site so no one would forget what lay there and unwittingly release him. However now only one stone and the tree remain.
The folktale was collected in the late 1800’s by the Folklorist and historian Patrick Weston Joyce and would have certainly been in circulation in Dublin whilst Bram Stoker was a civil servant there. Additionally the Irish term “droch fhola” meaning bad blood bears more than a passing resemblance to “Dracula”. I’ve always said we Irish invented Tall, Dark and Moody, I mean Broody, just spend a little time with our men…
If local lore is to be believed the land is still considered bad ground and when an attempt was made to clear the site just over twenty years ago the chainsaw brought to cut down the tree broke down three times and the chain wrapped around the stone to remove it snapped cutting the hand of one of the workers and allowing blood to seep into the ground. No more attempts have been made.
The site is not signposted, it’s private land and is tricky enough to find, although we had a lot of luck, so head to Garvagh and try yours this Halloween.
Should you find Arbhartach or not definitely take a wander in Garvagh’s leafy, mature forest where you’ll find a Pyramid amongst the trees. Built as a final resting place for Lord Garvagh, who became enamoured with the structures in Egypt on his Grand Tour, the tomb was never used and now stands as a folly atop a hill in the woods.