By JULIA STUART
DERRY - As we trudge up the stone path hedged by yellow gorse, Bob Curran's excitement increases. "It's just around the next corner!" he cries, his pace quickening.
Surrounding us in this patch of peaceful County Derry countryside are gormless-looking cows with their noses stuck into the grass.
As we turn left, Curran, aged 51, suddenly comes to a halt. "This is it!" he announces, with a sweep of his arm towards a small grassy hillock topped by trees. It looks like the perfect spot for a picnic.
"This," says Curran, "is the real Castle Dracula." A lecturer in Celtic history and folklore at the University of Ulster, Curran says the hillock, which lies between the towns of Garvagh and Dungiven, was once the fortress of a fifth-or-sixth-century chieftain and wizard called Abhartach. And it was he, Curran suggests, who was the inspiration for Dracula, written by Dublin-born Bram Stoker.
"Abhartach was a great tyrant and his people wanted rid of him," says Curran. "They were so terrified of his powers, they were frightened to kill him themselves. They persuaded another king from nearby, a guy called Cathan, to come and kill him, which he did, and he buried him standing up, as befitted an Irish chieftain.
"Within a day, however, Abhartach was back and demanded a bowl of blood from the wrists of his people in order to sustain his vile corpse. Cathan slew and buried him again, but the next day he was back demanding the same bowl of blood." After a brainstorming session with the local druids, Cathan killed Abhartach with a sword of yew wood, buried him upside down and covered his grave with a large stone to prevent him from rising. It did the trick.
The tale of Abhartach was included in Geoffrey Keating's history of Ireland written between 1629 and 1631. It was recounted by the historian Patrick Weston Joyce in his History of Ireland, published in 1880, 17 years before Stoker's Dracula.
"We do know that Stoker read this and enthused about it," says Curran, whose theory is published in the current issue of the magazine History Ireland. Stoker never did in fact visit Romania.
"You say 'Dracula' and immediately everyone thinks of ruined castles in Transylvania. That was not the case."
Despite his enthusiasm at finding 'Castle Dracula,' Curran is keeping a safe distance. "I wouldn't go any nearer," he says, taking a step backwards. "I had a bad experience over there last year."
He is pointing behind him to a field, where Abhartach is said to be buried. One evening, after returning home from taking a group of students on a visit to the grave site, Curran suddenly found himself flying down the stairs and was rushed to hospital. "For two seconds on the operating table my heart stopped. I genuinely think there are some places that you shouldn't go," he says.
Surely you just fell down the stairs?
"I've been up and down those stairs piles of times. I'm an Irishman, I take these things seriously."
Despite Curran's near-death experience, we troop back down the path and head for Abhartach's grave. Aren't you supposed to be wearing a bag containing a mixture of salt and human urine? I inquire. The concoction, as any vampire aficionado knows, is a sure fire way of coming out of a chance encounter with the walking dead with one's neck still intact.
"No, that's because ..." he fumbles in his pocket for something. "Oh crikey! I've left it out of my pocket. That means something will happen to me before the week's out. I normally carry with me a silver coin that has been through a church service. If I'm dead before the end of the week, I know who to blame." We arrive at a field of perfectly aligned stripes of green barley shoots.
In the middle is an incongruous patch of wilderness boasting a solitary hawthorn tree (when Abhartach was buried it was said thorns were scattered around his grave) and a pile of stones.
"Those stones are said to be from the original sepulchre. That is your main stone there - he's underneath that," says Curran, smacking its side like prize pig. "There was talk years ago that somebody tried to dig this place up because they imagined there was treasure buried here, and the person involved and their entire family died. I'm not joking you."
There was also the time, Curran says, when the owner of the field, Eugene Mullan, and some workmen attempted to chop down the tree and clear away the stones.
"They came down with a new petrol-drive saw. As soon as they came up to the tree the saw stopped. They walked back up to the corner of the field, and the saw started. They walked back down again, and the saw stopped. They had the saw checked, it worked perfectly, they came back up here and the saw refused to go once again. They then tried to lift the stone using a digger and chain, which snapped. The guy who was working it cut his hand and blood fell into the earth. They said the vampire was drinking again."
Mullan, 43, says that he has remained spooked ever since. "I knew about the grave, but I thought it was only fool's talk. But I would never go back there again. Never. And I'm not a superstitious person."
Curran will no doubt add the experience of the Independent's photographer, Crispin Rodwell, to his long list of weird goings-on involving the grave. "It was very, very strange," says Rodwell. "One of my two cameras refused to respond to anything when I was at the grave. It was new and had been working perfectly earlier in the day. When I got back up to the car, it was working again. It was very odd, and I'm the biggest cynic in the business. I was astonished."
While most have not heard of Abhartach, many are familiar with the 15th Century prince Vlad the Impaler, also called Dracula, and assume he was Stoker's inspiration.
But according to Professor Christopher Frayling, rector of the Royal Society of Art and one of Britain's leading vampire experts, Stoker simply pinched his name (which means "the lion of the dragon"). "He just loved the sound of the name, it sounded devilish and nasty and villainous."
Frayling believes there is every chance that Stoker could have heard of Abhartach. "We know that he went to visit the Oscar Wilde family in Dublin, where Wilde's mother would retell folk tales from all over Ireland, of which this may well be one. There are many about people coming back from the dead or creatures who sucked the vitality out of living people."
However, Frayling, who has studied Stoker's working notes for Dracula, believes that the character belongs much more to the theatrical world of 1890s London than he does to Ireland. While Stoker was writing the novel he was working as business manager of London's Lyceum Theatre for the actor Henry Irving. "Some people think that Dracula is a parody of Irving, this ham who used to wander around wearing a cloak and shouting at people.
"Dracula can't bear good music, he can't bear looking in a mirror, whenever someone tries to paint a portrait of him it always ends up looking like someone else - all these characteristics are just like some sort of camp luvvy wandering around 1890s London. And I think that's the world of Dracula."
Several days later I ring Curran to see if he is still in the land of the living. "I'm still hale and hearty. But I haven't been out of the house. I'm sitting here with my bag of salt and human urine. You never know"
(Extracts from Dracula)