Location is a big thing for me.
I need to know intricate details of where my books are set. Not just the layout and the names of streets – those are important, but you can get them off Google and on their own they’re soulless. I need the real nitty-gritty of a place.
I want to know how it smells. What the sounds of the place are like. How the ground feels underfoot and what stars you can see from there at night.
In my latest book, Lost Graves, I sent my detective team of Jessie Boyle and Seamus Keneally to Ireland’s least populated county, Leitrim, to one of the oldest tracts of woodland to solve an impossible mystery.
Derradda Woods stretches for five square miles in the South-East corner of Leitrim, close to its border with Cavan and close enough to the small town of Ballinamore you can see the tops of the trees when you stand outside the supermarket.
And as any old place does, it also has its legends, it’s stories and its myths.
Grace O’Malley the pirate Queen is alleged to have set up a base of operations there, hiding treasure among the dense trees and establishing a trading relationship with the local farmers to secure fresh fruit and vegetables for her ships.
During the war for Independence the Free-Staters hid caches of weapons in the woods, and in the early eighties the stolen racehorse, Shergar, is believed to have been hidden in the woods for a time.
The businessman Don Tidey, who was kidnapped by the IRA in 1983, was held captive in a derelict house on the outskirts of the woods.
My sister owns a small worker’s cottage in Leitrim, and a few summers ago and I became completely captivated by Derradda.
What really fascinated me was a Celtic burial mound I found in the centre of the woods at the end of a very strenuous hike one afternoon (the woods were, for many years, used as a military training ground, and once you really get into their interior, you see why – you need to have a fair degree of physical fitness to make decent progress).
In the pub that night I asked the barman about the tomb, and he informed me that locals give it a wide berth.
‘That’s the resting place of The Abhartach,’ he informed me, before sharing a story that amazed me so much, I booted up my computer as soon as I got home to check its veracity. As it happens, the publican had his facts absolutely correct.
In the 5th century the lands around what we now consider the border country between Northern and Southern Ireland were divided into a series of small kingdoms and fiefdoms, and Derradda was ruled by a terrifying and cruel individual known as The Abhartach, which in old Irish means ‘Dwarf’ or ‘little person, yet this did not prevent him from being a fearsome warrior, and even the most battle-hardened of his subjects were afraid to stand against him.
Intent on doing away with the tyrant, the locals hired Cathain, a famous swordsman from Mayo, to challenge him to a duel. The hero-for-hire did as he was bid, and in the ensuing fight killed the Abhartach. The little chieftain was buried in the woods, but during the party that followed a great cry arose from the men guarding the walls of the keep. When the guests came out to see what all the fuss was about, they spied the Abhartach, covered in the grey soil of his grave, lurching out of the trees.
In a voice so horrifying some who heard it were driven mad, he called out that he would kill every person in the hall unless he was given a bowl filled with blood taken from the maidens present. Too terrified to stand against the ghoul, the newly appointed chieftain complied, but not before he sent a man to ride West to summon Cathain, who, it seemed had not done his job very thoroughly.
The following night, Cathain was ready, and the moment the reanimated Abhartach emerged from the trees, he delivered a grievous wound, slaying him outright. Yet the following night, the very obviously undead Abhartach returned, looking for more blood. This time Cathain had remained on site and (rather testily) slayed the creature again.
He did the same the following night, and the night after. The keep’s druids were at a loss.
Finally one of the chieftain’s advisors suggested they seek advice from a Christian monk who lived in a hut near Camaragh Lough, a day’s ride away. The Cheiftain himself went, and begged the priest, who is now known as Saint Eoghan, for help. The saint seemed to have had some experience with vampires, for he immediately grabbed a flask of holy water and on the way back to Derradda, cut a branch from an ash tree and, as they rode, fashioned it into a stake.
That night when the creature stalked out of the shadow of the trees it was not the hulking Cathain who was waiting for him, but the brown-clad monk, who without preamble doused him in the holy water, which sizzled and hissed as it touched his pale flesh. The monster fell, writhing, to the ground, and Eoghan whipped the stake from under his robes and drove it right through the fallen vampire’s heart.
‘Bury him deep in the woods,’ the saint told the trembling chieftain. ‘And place a heavy stone with a cross marked upon it atop his grave. Leave the ash branch where it is, piercing his heart. As long as it remains, he will be held by death. Once it rots away, he will return, but that will not be for many generations, as ash is strong and slow to decay.’
They did as Eoghan advised, and to everyone’s relief, this time the vampire did not return.
Or did he?
Grace O’Malley’s people spoke, of seeing a strange child watching them through the trees, and they eventually abandoned Derradda when their people started vanishing. The men who hid their cache of arms in the woods in the 1920s left them there unclaimed, stating that they were haunted by a weird figure who kept calling to them through the trees. Rumour has it that the men who took Shergar panicked and killed the horse before any ransom demand was made, terrified by something they could hear moving about outside their camp in the darkest hours of the night. And stories have been told that the gardai who went into the woods to rescue Don Tidey saw something very strange during the gunfight that concluded that terrible incident: a child watching the aggression, a little way off among the denser foliage. They screamed for the kid to get undercover, as they were terrified it would be shot, but when one of the officers attempted to make his way to the spot so he could drag the child out of the line of fire, it simply vanished.
I remember sitting in the little cottage, deep in the Leitrim countryside, feeling that pleasant thrill one gets from a really good ghost story, particularly one that has endured for hundreds of years.
I knew, there and then, I needed to weave the Abhartach into one of my books. Folk tales deserve to be handed down, after all.
So it is that for the second in my Boyle and Keneally series of crime novels, criminal behaviourist Jessie Boyle and Detective Sergeant Seamus Keneally are sent to Derrada, where a dog has dug up some body parts. In the subsequent investigation, it comes to light that the woods are full of human remains. And no one is able to identify them – they are not showing up on any files, anywhere.
The woods are full of ghosts, for want of a better word.
And some of the locals believe the bodies should be placed right back where they were found. Because those woods belong to the Abhartach. Which means these disenfranchised dead are his too.
It isn’t long before more bodies start appearing, and soon Jessie is forced to go into the woods to save an innocent life; but will she survive this desperate rescue attempt?
(c) S.A. Dunphy
Lost Grave: Boyle and Keneally Book 2 is available on all digital platforms right now.
About Lost Graves:
The only sound in the forest was the wind through the branches; the only light came from the campfire. Jessie stood up, suddenly gripped by a powerful sense of dread. There was something – someone – beyond the darkness, through the trees…
When single father Joe Keenan and his young son Finbar make camp for the night in the ancient forest of Leitrim, little do they imagine their rural escape is about to turn into a nightmare. For deep in the woods they find a corpse… As the remains of dozens more victims are uncovered by police, it becomes clear this is the burial site of a serial killer who has obviously been active, unnoticed, for years.
Arrested for the murders, while his beloved son is sent into care, Joe pleads his innocence to no avail. But criminal behaviourist Jessie Boyle is convinced the killer is still out there. Determined to reunite Joe and his son, Jessie’s investigation turns towards the local community. Who knows the shadowy depths of the forest well enough to hide not just one, but many bodies?
Then someone else goes missing, and the situation takes a terrifying turn: it’s clear the killer is escalating their gruesome spree. Forced to enter the woods alone to save a life, Jessie runs from a killer so skilled at hiding and so clever at hunting, it will take every ounce of her strength to make it out alive…
A gripping, nail-biting crime thriller that will have you hooked from the first page to the final line. Fans of Patricia Gibney, Lisa Gardner and Lisa Regan will not want to miss this.
Order your copy online here.