Have you ever heard the legend of Abhartach, the Irish vampire? Probably not. But no doubt you will be familiar with Bram Stoker and his seminal work ‘Dracula’, first published in 1897 and adapted so many times since in literature, radio, TV and film. Stoker’s famous tale was of course set in the province of Transylvania, but what most people don’t realise is that the story was at least partly inspired by Abhartach, an Irish legend rediscovered and published by Patrick Joyce in 1880.
Many centuries ago, in pre-Christian times, there was a tradition amongst Irish clans of spilling and drinking animal blood in ritualistic sacrifices. There were practical reasons for this macabre tradition too, as blood would have been drunk or mixed to create cakes in order to supplement the population’s poor diets.
Historians will argue that vampire legends originate from these ancient rituals, with such tales becoming corrupted and embellished over time, but they’re wrong. Abhartach is real, and I’ve seen him in the flesh.
His story begins in the 6th century AD. Abhartach was originally a deformed and cruel Gaelic chieftain who practiced black magic and terrified the subjects of his small fiefdom, located in the townland of Slaughtavery in rural County Derry.
Abhartach ruled over his kingdom from a fortified rath and was notorious throughout the land, known as an evil and paranoid tyrant. He trusted no-one, not even his own wife. Convinced she was having an affair, he fell to his death whilst trying to spy on her, and he was buried upright, as was the Gaelic tradition at that time. But the vile chieftain would not stay dead.
He returned to the townland the following day, demanding each of his subjects give some of their blood to sustain him. The people were terrified and so complied with his orders, providing Abhartach with fresh blood every night. But eventually the people grew tired of submitting to the monster’s wishes, and so they secretly sent word to a rival chieftain called Cathan, begging him to get rid of Abhartach once and for all.
Cathan agreed and attempted to make good on his promise, duly dispatching the vampire at the point of his sword. But it didn’t work. Once again, the bloodsucker was buried, but again he rose the next day, demanding blood from the terrified locals.
Cathan repeated this grisly task several times over, and on each occasion Abhartach arose from his tomb. Cathan soon realised the futility of his actions and so sought counsel from a holy man in the neighboring village. The priest confirmed what Cathan already suspected – Abhartach was undead and so could not be killed by any mortal man. The best he could achieve was to prevent the monster from coming back. Therefore, he instructed Cathan to bury his adversary upside down and cover his tomb using a stone with magical properties, known as a ‘leacht’.
Cathan succeeded in his task and – much to the joy of the local people – Abhartach was no longer able to stalk the land and demand their blood as tribute.
The holy stone remained to mark the vampire’s tomb for the next few centuries. Eventually it was removed, instead being replaced by a mighty thorn tree which was similarly blessed to ensure Abhartach could not arise from his grave.
I’m very familiar with the legend of Abhartach and the site of his tomb, because the ancient tree which marks the spot lies on the land my family has owned and farmed for generations.
The old thorn tree on the edge of our farm was a subject of fascination for me growing up. The land around it was dead, yet the tree lived on, maintaining a foreboding presence on the edge of our farm. My father avoided it while carrying out his daily rounds, and my mother only spoke of the tree in whispered, fearful tones.
Our parents told us to keep clear of the old tree but of course we didn’t listen. My brothers and I dared each other to climb or swing from the branches or dig up its roots, but our nerves always got the better of us. We never dared to approach it after dark. I tried once but could only get within 10 yards of the trunk before I fled.
It wasn’t just the foreboding nature of the old tree and the frightening legend attached to it that scared me. There was a strange feeling I would experience whenever I approached the spot, a chill which shot up my spine and a distinct sense that I was being watched. And the longer I stood there, I began to imagine voices in my head – a sinister call trying to draw me in. I would never make out any words, but then I never stayed there long enough to find out.
In time I choose to ignore the sinister thorn tree and forget whatever legends were associated with it. I told myself it was just my childish imagination running away with me, even though deep down I knew this wasn’t the case. But I grew up and moved to Belfast for university when I turned 18, temporarily forgetting all about the old tree and any talk of vampires and ancient curses.
Years later, I moved back home and took over the running of the family farm after my parents became ill and could no longer manage the workload. I still remember one of the last things my father said to me on his death bed. He told me to avoid the old thorn tree, to not farm the land around it, and never – under any circumstances – to cut the tree down.
I was shaken by his words, as they seemed to breathe life into the old legend and my childhood nightmares, but I honored his last wishes and for years avoided the spot as I ran the farm and got on with my life. And no doubt that’s how it would have remained, had it not been for the events of one fatal autumn night.
I’m a heavy sleeper and so I might not have been aware of what was occurring, had I not been awoken by my trusty German Shepherd, Colin. At about 3am, my dog began barking maniacally and scratching at the front door, indicating that he’d heard someone or something outdoors.
I experienced a rush of adrenaline as I jumped out of bed and threw on some clothes. It was the middle of the night and – needless to say – I wasn’t expecting any visitors. However, there had been a spate of robberies in my local area around that time, with farm equipment being stolen and houses broken into, so my initial fear was of common criminals.
I considered calling the police but knew they would never get here quickly enough. So, I unlocked my gun cabinet and removed my shotgun, loading two cartridges. I didn’t really anticipate needing to use the weapon but reckoned I was better off having it in case the intruders had violent intentions. I locked Colin inside the house for the same reason, electing to search the perimeter alone, wielding a battery-powered torch and carrying the shotgun on a strap over my shoulder.
It was a bitterly cold night, but the stars shone in the sky above me, and the moon was full, thus providing a natural illumination. I walked through the farm I knew so well, checking the sheds and livestock. Everything appeared to be in order. I should have felt relieved to find my property intact, but instead my anxiety only increased as I approached the boundary of my land.
Its difficult for me to describe the fear I experienced on that night. It was something dark and primal; an ancient terror buried somewhere deep in the human psyche. A horror which rational minds have long since confined to the realms of fantasy.
I knew where I was going of course – the old oak tree, allegedly covering Abhartach’s tomb. And, when I got closer, I heard a noise that chilled me to my very bones – the sound of wood being chopped. I covered the remaining ground at a sprint, shining my torch to confirm my worst nightmare come true.
A man was working frantically under the moonlight, swinging an axe and cutting deep into the tree’s trunk. To my horror I saw he’d almost completed his reckless task, as the old tree was on the brink of falling. I was left in a state of shock for a moment, not believing what I was seeing. Finally, I mustered the courage to shine my torch in the axeman’s face, hoping the light would scare him off, but instead he didn’t seem to notice my presence. He appeared entirely focused upon his task.
I didn’t recognise the man and was sure he wasn’t a local. He appeared disheveled, with ripped and soiled clothes, a filthy matted beard, and a crazed look in his dark eyes. He continued chopping, perspiring and breathing heavily as he took each swing. I couldn’t imagine how long he’d been at it or how much effort he’d exerted.
The torch light had no effect upon him and so I called out to the crazed man.
“Who are you? And what the hell do you think you’re doing?” I shouted angrily.
My words had the desired effect, making him stop mid-swing as he looked up in shock, apparently only noticing me for the first time. He glared at me across the void, temporarily looking like a deer caught in headlights, before he opened his mouth to speak.
“I have no choice.” he exclaimed maniacally, “He speaks to me in my dreams…His voice is in my head…I won’t stop. I must set him free! It’s the only way!”
My worst fears were confirmed. He’d come for Abhartach, obviously believing the legend of his tomb. Clearly, I was dealing with a madman, and he needed to be stopped.
“This is private property!” I cried, trying to project confidence in my shaking voice. “You need to stop what you’re doing right now or face the consequences!”
The intruder surprised me by laughing loudly in open mockery of my words.
“You really think that’s an option? He must be set free! It’s the only way!”
After that, he swung his axe once again, slamming its head into the shattered trunk. My fear soon turned to anger, as I couldn’t comprehend the man’s behaviour. In an instant, I pulled the loaded shotgun from my shoulder and aimed it at him.
“I’m warning you!” I screamed, “Drop your axe or I’ll shoot!”
He took no notice and aimed another swing. The tree creaked as the trunk was weakened, and soon it would surely collapse under the weight of its branches. I held my finger on the trigger, staring at the axeman down the sights of my gun. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to shoot this madman. Looking back, I know it’s a decision I’ll regret for the rest of my living days.
I stood there in the cold, my hands shaking as I held the shotgun. Frozen to the spot, I could only watch on in abject horror as the crazed axeman took his final swing and the tree came collapsing down, its mighty trunk crashing heavily into the mud. The noise made me jump and the sight of the felled thorn tree terrified me, as my father’s dying words came back to me. I’d failed to keep my promise to him and now there would be hell to pay.
But then, nothing happened. The axeman and I simply stared at the stump where the mighty tree had once stood, expecting something dramatic to occur. The axeman appeared visibly disappointed, panting heavily as a result of his exertion and looking like he was on the verge of tears.
In contrast, I felt an immense relief, as if a huge burden had been lifted from my weary shoulders. Perhaps it had all been nothing more than a myth – an old story to scare children. In that moment, I truly thought that Abhartach was not real, and this had proved it. But I’d counted my chickens too early.
It all happened so quickly that it’s a blur in my memory. What I do remember is the ground suddenly opening up, a hole in the earth emerging as the stump and roots were forced upwards by something digging from below. And suddenly, a figure shot out of the gap, appearing like an acrobat performing a reverse somersault, landing gracefully on his feet and facing the shocked axeman head on.
The monster that emerged from the ancient tomb resembled a man, but clearly he was not a human being – not any more at least. He was short and hunchbacked, his head bald and his skin yellow and appearing like leather. His eyes were cold and calculating, like those of a reptile, and his gaping mouth contained long and sharp fangs. I was truly horrified by the sight of him, not wanting to believe what my eyes were seeing.
Abhartach had risen. The legend was real, and this fool had set him free – an ancient terror unleashed upon the modern world. The axeman had achieved his task – but he seemed to be as shocked as I was at the vampire’s sudden appearance. However, he soon recovered sufficiently to drop his axe and fall to his knees in an act of submission, greeting Abhartach emotionally as he bowed his head.
“Oh master…I am so happy to see you! I’ve waited so long for this glorious day!”
The vampire surprised me by smirking. He opened his mouth and spoke through bone dry lips, his voice deep and inhuman. To my astonishment he spoke in perfect English.
“My dear child,” he began, talking directly to the now disarmed axeman. “I have waited for longer than you can possibly imagine. And you have set me free. For this I am forever grateful. Now child, stand tall so I may look you in the eye.”
The axeman did so, standing upon shaking legs. Ironically, the man was a few inches taller than the hunchbacked vampire, but his body language was entirely submissive, and there was no doubt who was in control. I watched on impotently as Abhartach reached out with his wrinkled hand, extending nails as long and sharp as claws, and he touched the man gently on his cheek.
“Oh my poor child, you have sacrificed so much,” he whispered, “Let me take away your pain…”
“Anything for you, master.” The man stammered, with tears visible in his eyes.
What happened next was the most horrifying event I’ve ever witnessed. With one powerful motion, Abhartach grabbed the man’s long hair, cracking his head back before lunging forward and biting deep into his victim’s exposed neck.
Dark blood poured from the wound like water from a tap. The victim tried to scream, but his mouth was soon filled with blood, and his body violently convulsed as Abhartach continued to feed. I should have intervened or at least made some attempt to stop the brutal attack, but I was terrified and literally could not move a muscle. Mercifully, the assault soon came to an end. Abhartach had his fill of fresh blood and allowed the man’s limp body to fall into the dirt, his life force extinguished. And then, the vampire turned his attentions towards me, his head turning, with dark blood still dripping from his lips as he focused his predatory gaze upon me.
Suddenly, I came back to reality, my temporary paralysis turning to action as I raised my shotgun and aimed. I was determined to kill this monster before he made me his next victim. I centered the vampire in my crosshairs and squeezed the trigger, feeling the heavy kickback against my shoulder as the mighty blast filled the air.
Abhartach moved at the last possible second to avoid the buckshot, and damn, he was fast. The vampire ducked sideways and rapidly approached from my left, as I desperately tried to re-aim. Before I could act, Abhartach grabbed the shotgun, easily pulling the weapon from my hands and leaving me defenseless.
I tried to run, but he was on me in an instant, knocking me down into the mud and pinning me to the ground. His vile face was only inches from mine, with the blood from his last victim dripping down from his fangs. The stench off him was nearly unbearable, and I could barely breathe.
I couldn’t believe how strong the creature was, as my desperate attempts at squirming free were in vain. I was entirely at his mercy. Somehow, I managed to plead for my life through quaking lips, speaking just one word – “Please…”
Abhartach laughed in open mockery as he continued to hold me down, his cold reptilian eyes surveying me like I was a piece of meat.
“You are nothing but a pathetic worm!” he sneered, “Just like the rest of mankind – weak and stupid, little better than cattle. For years I have been trapped beneath ground, only able to observe as your kind continues to breed and corrupt the earth. But finally, after all these long centuries in captivity, I am free to seek my vengeance.”
I continued to shake uncontrollably, unable to move or speak as tears rolled down my cheeks. I was sure Abhartach meant to kill me, to drain my blood and leave my body in the dirt, but as it turned out, he had other plans for me.
“You may cease your pitiful performance, lowly worm.” he sneered in disgust, “I have decided to show you mercy. Had I not already fed, I would take pleasure in drinking your blood, but instead I will give your pathetic existence meaning. You may go forth and tell your people that Abhartach has risen. Tell them that I have returned to claim what is rightfully mine. Tonight is only the beginning, and soon blood will spill across these lands…”
I looked into his hateful eyes and knew he was serious. Abhartach despises mankind and blames them for his suffering, and he means to wreak bloody vengeance in his former dominion.
I nodded my head meekly and closed my eyes. A moment later, the pressure on my chest and wrists was lifted, and when I opened my eyes, Abhartach had fled into the night, leaving me bruised and shaken in the mud.
I have no desire to become Abhartach’s emissary. Nevertheless, I’ve tried to warn people of the deadly threat he poses, only to be mocked and called crazy. I phoned the police immediately after the incident but unsurprisingly they didn’t believe a word of my story.
I was questioned at length over the dead body found on my land, but eventually got released without charge. Given the bite wounds on the dead man’s throat, the PSNI concluded that he’d been a victim of an animal attack, and they put out an alert for a rabid dog.
I’ve also spoken to clergymen from both denominations, only to be accused of heresy. So, all my warnings have fallen on deaf ears, and in the weeks which have followed, there have been a spate of attacks on livestock, and two missing persons reported in our locality alone.
What’s more, there have been reports of a hunchbacked figure darting through the streets of Garvagh and Dungiven late at night, terrifying locals and prompting frightened parents to keep their children indoors after dark. Abhartach is on the loose and he won’t stop. Not ever. As long as he has access to flesh blood, he’ll continue to cause mayhem and terror throughout the country.
I’m racked with guilt at my part in letting him escape, knowing I should have done more to confine the monster to his tomb. And now I’m desperate, hoping against hope that somebody on this forum will have the knowledge or ability to stop Abhartach once and for all. Please help me, before this monster kills again.
Credit : Finn MacCool
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