Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Was Dracula inspired by a Celtic tyrant?

Bram Stoker's Dracula is one of the most enduring work of gothic fiction and a personal favourite, but current research suggests that the famous vampire may have had his roots firmly in Celtic Ireland.

If you were to venture to Glenullin in Co Londonderry, you may come across a tomb called Slaghtaverty Dolmen, or 'The Giant's Grave'- a grave with an intriguing and bloody tale.

According to local legend, the tomb is home to a cruel tyrant called Abhartach, a chieftain who demanded a bowl of blood from each of his subjects which he would guzzle down to quench his ravenous thirst.

There are a number of different versions of his story - including one where Abhartach was a magical dwarf, although also a cruel tyrant.

From The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places comes this chilling description:

"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 (see p. 61, supra). 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."

In other versions of the tale the chief who slew Abhartach is called Cathrain and in others he is called Cathan. It's likely that the name Cathrain came later, as instead of consulting a druid as Cumhail did, he spoke with a Christian saint. 

Dr Bob Curran, a folklorist who studies the legend says that the later version also contains the method of killing Abhartach: "Slay him with a sword made of yew wood, bury him upside down, put thorns round him and put a massive stone on the top to keep him from rising."

Now, we can see this as a relatively familiar way of killing off a vampire, particularly the wooden sword or 'stake'.

Curran himself has suggested that Bram Stoker, a native Irishman, used the legend of Abhartach as inspiration for Dracula. This is obviously different to the common theory that Dracula was modelled on Vlad the Impaler, which is a tenuous one at best considering that the only book Stoker read on Vlad was one that didn't cover the atrocities committed by him.

Personally, there is good evidence to support Curran's theory that Dracula is Abhartach, particular from the latter tales.

Resources: UTV (2013), Celtic Vampire 'Inspired by Dracula'

Joyce, Patrick (1875). The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places. Internet Archive: McGlashan & Gill. p. 319.