Ireland’s Abhartach

AbhartachbyDavidDaleTrust our Irish friends to come up with a monster of a cryptozoology legend! This time, it’s a horrible dwarf that may have influenced the legend of Dracula due to its propensity to come back from the dead – and demand a bowl of human blood! Let’s investigate this mysterious creature and see if there’s any truth in it – or perhaps it’s just a dose of blarney! ( Artwork right by David Dale.)

Happy St. Patrick’s Day friends of CryptoVille! Here’s a tale I think you’ll like, especially on this festive day! Here’s how it begins:

In 1875 Patrick Weston Joyce wrote of the creature called the Abhartach in his book, The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places.  This is the excerpt from his book about the Abhartach:

“There is a place in the parish of Errigal in Derry, called Slaghtaverty, but it ought to have been called Laghtaverty, the laght or sepulchral monument of the abhartach [avartagh] or dwarf. This dwarf was a magician, and a dreadful tyrant, and after having perpetrated great cruelties on the people he was at last vanquished and slain by a neighbouring chieftain; some say by Fionn Mac Cumhail. He was buried in a standing posture, but the very next day he appeared in his old haunts, more cruel and vigorous than ever. And the chief slew him a second time and buried him as before, but again he escaped from the grave, and spread terror through the whole country. 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. The laght raised over the dwarf is still there, and you may hear the legend with much detail from the natives of the place, one of whom told it to me.”

ClanDoyleChieftainWiki quotes another version of this tale wherein the creature is described as a “meamh-mairbh” which means “walking dead” in Gaelic. He was killed by a man named Cathan (according to the Irish article listed below in the References section), believed to have been a local chieftain. He had to kill the Abhartach twice because it kept coming back from the dead. (Artwork left actually depicts a chieftain from the Clan Doyle.)

After it came back a second time, Cathan consulted a Christian saint to determine how to dispatch the monster. The saint told Cathan that the Abhartach was an undead, which is why he kept coming back from the dead demanding a bowl of human blood each time.

The saint told Cathan it could only be killed with a sword made from yew, and it had to be buried upside down with thorns strewn around the grave, and a large stone placed on top of it. It wouldn’t kill the Abhartach permanently, but it would subdue him and his magic. Cathan did as he was advised and the Abhartach never returned.

EvilWizardIs there any truth to this tale? Believe it or not, some people think so. Remember, though he’s called a Dwarf, he was considered a very evil wizard. Others say he was deformed in some way, regardless of his appearance, he was a creature to be feared – one with terrible magical powers.

Truth Stranger Than Fiction

It turns out there is a place in Ireland to this day called “Giant’s Grave,” sometimes called Leacht Abhartach (Abhartach’s sepulcher). It lies out in the open in the middle of a great field. The area where it’s located is called Glennullin (eagle’s glen) in the county of Derry, in its northern region. There is a mess of thorns covering the grave, almost obscuring a huge stone lying beneath it. Right next to it is a big Hawthorn tree that grew from the thorns originally strewn on the grave.

AbhartachGraveTodayWith HawthornTreeAccording to an article for, professor Bob Curran (who specializes in Celtic History and Folklore at the University of Ulster, Coleraine), “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.” (Photo left of the actual site with the Hawthorn tree in place.)

Trouble began in 1997 when the locals attempted to clear that land and get rid of the gravesite. According to the locals, several strange things occurred:

  • When trying to cut down the tree, a brand new chainsaw malfunctioned three times.
  • As they began to lift the great stone lying over the grave, a steel chain snapped, injuring one of the workmen and his blood poured out soaking into the ground – a detail the locals dwell upon given the creature buried below.
  • Bob Curran himself reported having “a severe and inexplicable fall after visiting the site.”

Folklorist Curran goes on to explain in his article, “The spilling of blood was not uncommon amongst the ancient Irish. … The roots of this tradition undoubtedly go back into pagan times and may have a connection with the returning dead. The horrors of the Famine considerably added to the lore.”

Abhartach01He continues, “Although most cultures have vampire stories, such tales have a particular resonance in Ireland. Here, interest in and veneration of the dead seems to have played a central part in Celtic thinking. One of the great festivals of the Celtic year – the Failte na Marhh (Feast of the Dead), celebrated 31 October (Hallowe’en) – honored the returning dead from beyond the grave or from the ‘Otherworld.’”

Connected to Dracula?

Curran credits Patrick Weston Joyce for connecting the legends of the Abhartach and what Curran calls “an Irish vampire tradition.” Interestingly, Joyce published his findings in 1880, which Curran points out was seventeen years before the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula classic. At the time, Stoker was a civil servant working in Dublin.

Curran believes Stoker must have read Joyce’s book and used the Abhartach as a basis for his vampire legend, Count Dracula. Here’s how Curran connects the dots:

dracul“Might not 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? Certainly, 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 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.”

Isn’t that interesting? First of all I never knew Bram Stoker was Irish. Then, I never realized how this fascination with bloodletting permeated the ancient Irish landscape. Further, I thought Stoker had been to Eastern Europe, at least prior to writing his classic tale.

I think both Joyce and Curran make a good case that the legend of Dracula was actually born in Ireland. But is this Abhartach still causing trouble for the local residents today?

Well, I’ll let you decide. 😉

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!




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