Tullaghoge Fort, Cookstown

Play Button

Tullaghoge Fort, a scheduled monument in State Care, is located in the townland of Ballymully Glebe near the village of Tullyhoge, some four kilometres to the south of Cookstown. The site comprises a circular earthwork enclosure set on a prominent drumlin hill that offers the visitor wonderful panoramic views across the surrounding Tyrone countryside, even on the most overcast of days. Planted with mature trees, Tullaghoge is a prominent feature on the landscape, but why is this site so important?

The placename Tullaghoge translates as the Mound of the Warriors and this was the inauguration place of the O’Neills, the rulers of Tyrone during the Medieval period. As such, it was once a major centre of political power in Ulster, the place where the dynasty assembled to crown their new ruler. The O’Neills originated from within the Cenél nÉogain who expanded their territory across the Sperrins into east Tyrone in the 11th century from Inishowen in modern County Donegal. It is quite probably the case that Tullaghoge was taken over by the Cenél nÉogain from the previous rulers of the region, the Uí Thuirtri of the Airgialla, and that this was where the Uí Thuirtri had inaugurated their own kings.

Tullaghoge is first mentioned within the Annals of Ulster under the year AD913 when it was the location for a peace agreement between the Cenél nÉogain and the Ulaidh; this certainly indicates that the site evidently had political importance in the early 10th century AD, prior to the arrival of the Cenél nÉogain into the region. Archaeological evidence obtained during excavations in 2014 revealed evidence associated with this Early Medieval activity in the form of a corn drying kiln located on the southern slope of the hill and radiocarbon dated to between the 8th and 10th centuries AD.

Dr Colm Donnelly, Senior Research Fellow, School of Natural and Built Environment, Queen’s University, Belfast

The first explicit reference in the historical record to the use of the site for an O’Neill inauguration dates to AD1432 when the Annuals of Ulster inform us that Eogan, the son of Niall O’Neill was made king, “and he went to Tullac Og and was crowned on the flagstone of the kings there by the will of God and men, bishops and poets”. The flagstone mentioned in this account was the Leac na Rí, the Stone of the King, the stone chair on which the O’Neills were inaugurated. Such an important location required security and this duty fell to the O’Hagan lineage who held the prestigious position of hereditary guardians of the site. The O’Hagans were part of the lucht tighe, the household families that supported the O’Neills, and by hereditary right their taoiseach, or leader, presided over the crowning of the O’Neill during the inauguration ceremony. The earliest connection between the site and the O’Hagan lineage is in AD1056 when we are told in the Annals of Ulster of the death of Gilla Mura O’Hagan, the overseer or stewart of Tullaghoge. The land around Tullaghoge became their estate, known as Ballyhagan, and their burial ground was at Donaghrisk, 600m south-west of the enclosure.

The last O’Neill lord of Tyrone was inaugured at the site was Hugh O’Neill in 1595 at the start of the Nine Years’ War (1594 to 1603), that terrible conflict which pitched the Gaelic lordships of Ulster against the forces of the Tudor Crown. After the battle of Kinsale in 1601 and the defeat of the Gaelic confederation, the English army under Lord Mountjoy moved into Tyrone and arrived at Tullyhoge in September 1602, when Mountjoy ‘brake down the stone where the Oneales were wont to be created, being of stone, set in the open field’. This destruction of the Leac na Rí epitomised the reduction in O’Neill’s position, and would ensure that no more O’Neills might be coronated here. It was therefore a politically motivated action, demonstrating the power of the new force in the land. It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that some of the best evidence that we have of the appearance of the chair and the ceremonies that were conducted during an O’Neill inauguration are to be found in the work of an English map-maker – Richard Bartlett – who accompanied Mountjoy into Ulster.

In the first of these, a map of Ulster, Bartlett sketches an inauguration ceremony in progress. Seven individuals – probably the leaders of the lucht tighe or household families – are gathered around the new ruler, with one individual – presumably, the O’Hagan taoiseach – holding what appears to be a shoe over the head of the O’Neill. The shoe was most likely used to indicate to the new lord how he should walk worthily in the footsteps of his predecessors.

In his second pictorial map Bartlett depicts the wooded hilltop at Tullaghoge. Within the enclosure are two thatched houses, one of which is larger than the other, and we can presume that these houses were occupied by the O’Hagans. There are two gateways into the interior of the enclosure, one with a pathway leading down to the Leac na Rí, which Bartlett has shown on the hillslope to the south side of the enclosure. He also provided a more detailed drawing of the stone chair and from this we can see that it took the form of a boulder framed on three sides with large stone slabs. Two boulders located in the field to the south-east of the enclosure were investigated during the archaeological fieldwork conducted in 2014, with excavation trenches opened to see if any features associated with the Leac na Rí could be identified, but neither investigation proved fruitful. The importance of the great stone chair to the site, however, still echoes, and this finds modern resonance in the positioning of a replica chair at the site’s new carpark.

During the Ulster Plantation the land around Tullaghoge was granted in 1610 to a new settler, Robert Lindsay, and a survey of 1619 declares that Lindsay’s wife was living in a timber house within the enclosure. A subsequent survey of 1622, however, noted that the Lindsay family had moved to the base of the hill and that only a ruined timber building remained on the hilltop, an episode that marks the end of Tullaghoge’s long history of use as a residence.

If we look at the form of the monument, we see that it has a gap in its outer bank, and that this is one of two banks that encircle the monument. There is no evidence for an outer ditch, and the area in the interior between the two banks is flat, with a causeway leading to a gap in the inner bank that provides access to the inner area. First impressions might suggest this to be an Early Medieval ringfort or defended farmstead but Tullaghoge does not appear to have had an outer ditch, while its banks are not set closely together. As such, the monument does not conform to a typical ringfort and it has limited defensive strength. That said, the Crown survey of 1619 described the site as having ‘a good strong bawne of earth, with a quick-set hedge upon it, and a ditch about it”. This can be read to suggest that there was indeed once an external ditch around the hilltop, and Bartlett’s map does suggest a simple ditch and bank arrangement. Could the enclosure have been modified or landscaped at some period in the years after 1600? This is a debated issue but a geophysical survey in 2008 failed to find any evidence for a ditch. In addition, it is possible that the site commenced its existence as a prehistoric enclosure, possibly a henge monument. If this were the case, however, it would mean that we would have to assume that Bartlett was not accurate in what he drew in 1602 or that he assumed that the earthworks were a lot less complex in format to what they are in reality. What we can say, however, is that the site has not really changed in appearance since it was first surveyed in detail in 1849. This plan of the site was published in the 1857 edition of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology and it shows a complex monument with three concentric sets of banks and two causeways leading into the central area. A modern digital survey of the site has demonstrated that the 1849 plan is remarkably accurate.

Modern archaeological excavations have not been undertaken within the enclosure, although we know that an antiquarian investigation was carried out in the middle of the 19th century, and the feint scar of their trench can still be noted as a slight depression in the south-east of the interior. Archaeological excavations, however, have been conducted in the immediate vicinity, most notably in advance of the development of a new carpark in 2015, work which revealed evidence of Medieval settlement concurrent with the occupation of the hilltop enclosure by the O’Hagans. Two structures dating from the 11th to 13th centuries AD were discovered. The first of these was a small oval feature interpreted as the remains of a wickerwork building possibly used for agricultural purposes. The second structure was considered as a possible cottage, with postholes, metalled surface and a possible firestone for a hearth.

A third structure was also revealed by the excavation. Represented by a shallow 40 cm deep rectangular gully that enclosing a space measuring 15 metres by 9 metres in size, this marked the location of a large building. The gully, however, did not represent the foundations for the house. Rather it represented a dripgully, designed to carry rainwater falling from the building’s thatched roof away from the area around the walls. It is a feature commonly associated with cruck-built houses, where the upright timber blades that carry the weight of the roof are placed on sillpads or sillbeams. The artefacts and radiocarbon dates associated with the gully indicate that it belonged to the Late Medieval period, probably the 16th century. This style of timber construction has been discovered on Medieval sites in southern Ireland, in what were the Anglo-Irish areas of the country, but this is the first time such an example has been discovered in a Gaelic area and it speaks of the cultural connections that existed among the native Irish lordships and their Anglo-Irish counterparts, also expressed in shared weaponry and the construction of tower house castles. Evidently the excavation had revealed a large house and most probably a hall, similar to those described by Richard Stanihurst in his book of 1584 where he noted that the Gaelic lords had “halls, quite large and spacious, which are shaped and fashioned out of clay and mud … covered for the most part with thatch from the fields”. It is at this point that we can also reflect on the large, thatched building in the interior of the enclosure as depicted by Bartlett in his pictorial map from 1602. Was this the English cartographer’s view of a second hall at Tullaghoge and one similar in size and form to that revealed during the excavation?

Tullaghoge is quiet now. A peaceful place for a summer walk and picnic or for a wander on a crisp winter’s day. Yet as we take our leave we contemplate all those who called this place home and how – for them – this was the centre of their world.