Saturday, December 28, 2019

Discovering the Kings of Ireland

By Nancy Bilyeau


If you wish to see Tullyhogue Fort, be ready for a bit of a climb. From the parking lot, you follow a snaking path, marked by briskly modern printed signs, to the base of a round hill, ringed by graceful, swaying trees. It makes your heart pound to clamber up the side of that hill; schoolchildren scramble up it, led there by teachers keen to give a lesson about a chapter from the island’s distant past. Those are the most frequent visitors to Tullyhogue, the children.

For an outsider, an American, learning about it and finding out details requires persistence. Helen Allen, who capably manages media inquiries for the Department of Communities branch of the Northern Ireland government, provided help and a bit of advice: “There are multiple spellings of the site name, so you may need to use the versions ‘Tullaghoge,’ ‘Tullaghogue,’ ‘Tullyhoge,’ ‘Tullyhogue,’ and ‘Tullac óg,’ and there may be further variations too.” No matter the variations, I’ve learned the word is Middle Gaelic, a language spoken from roughly 900 A.D. to 1200 A.D., and it means something along the lines of “the Hill of the Young Warriors.”

The hill is in County Tyrone, near the picturesque city of Cookstown and forty-five miles west of Belfast. Once you’ve reached the top of Tullyhogue, there is no “fort.” There probably never was a wooden fort, at least not a wooden-planked one bristling against the frontier, Davy Crockett-style, that my American imagination conjures. Tullyhogue is best described as a raised platform of grass, about 100 feet in diameter, with trees encircling it.

On Tullyhogue many feel light and buoyed, taking in the view of eastern County Tyrone. This hill stands above the valley of the Balinderry River, with farms stretching toward low-lying craggy mountains. Villages rise in the landscape, and church towers too. There are bogs to be spotted, naturally, sprinkled in the springtime with white flowers nicknamed Bog Cotton.

It isn’t the view, though, that led to my obsession with Tullyhogue. It is its history--what took place atop this windswept hill. Knowing that history makes any sense of serenity experienced here incongruous, an insult to the dead.

What interests me most about Tullyhogue is an object, even though it hasn’t been here for centuries. Its name is Leac na Ri, a Gaelic phrase that translates to “the flagstone of the kings.” The origins of the Stone of Tullyhogue are misty, but the best estimate is that, beginning in the early 13th century, this was the place where a man, in a sacred Gaelic ceremony, “assumed the sovereignty over the men of Eire.” From the 14th century until the beginning of the 17th, the family that assumed such sovereignty was that of O’Neill. In fact, the ceremony was intended to not only crown a king but to “make an O’Neill.” The family name was synonymous with ruler.

The O’Neills’ sphere of influence covered the north of Ireland; in other words, Ulster. Today Ulster is a vast province of more than 2 million people, made up of nine counties, six of them in Northern Ireland and three of them over the border in the Republic of Ireland. 

Even in the 16th century, far less populated, it was a kingdom well worth fighting for. “My ancestors were kings of Ulster,” cried Shane O’Neill in 1572, outraged over English incursions. “And Ulster is mine and shall be mine.” Beginning in the 1570s, English military commanders had been battling with both the Anglo-Irish lords and the Gaelic chieftains in the province of Munster, spreading across the south of Ireland. But the English veered away from the north of the island. It was the most Gaelic, its terrain the most forbidding.

The great Hugh O’Neill, Shane’s cousin, was the last member of the family to assume sovereignty of Ulster at Tullyhogue, in a coronation conducted in 1595. The ceremony itself is fascinating if frustrating in its essential mysteries. O’Neill would have undergone a bathing ritual beforehand. He’d be handed a white rod, or wand, to signify the purity of his ascension. At the ceremony’s conclusion, whoever is chosen as the O’Neill, sitting on a stone chair—presumably the Leac na Ri—would be honored by having a shoe cast over his head, onto the hill. “The use of [the shoe] symbolized the hope that the new O’Neill would continue to walk in the footsteps of his predecessors,” wrote one historian. 

Hugh O'Neill
The trail to Tullyhogue

I try to imagine what it would be like to stand on the top of this windy hill and bear witness to Hugh O’Neill. In the best-known portrait of him, one painted after his death, he wears armor and a graying beard, his face lined and his expression weary. Contemporaries said he had bright red hair. A crude picture exists of the Tullyhogue ceremony, helping to fill in the details of how O’Neill, then 45, would have appeared: Barefoot and bare-headed, he wore the fringed Irish mantle, a long loose cape of frieze cloth that extends below a man’s knees.

Archaeological digs in the last five years performed at Tullyhogue have yielded thrilling discoveries. According to the dating of objects found, it was a place of importance in the early medieval age. And so what happened that day was not only Gaelic but tantalizingly pagan and mystical in meaning, and yet 1595 was firmly planted in the early modern age. In that same year, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was performed; the astronomer Johannes Kepler developed his theory of the geometrical basis of the universe; Sir Walter Ralegh reached eastern Venezuela, and a few months later Sir Francis Drake died off the coast of Puerto Rico. 

Elizabeth I

O’Neill himself had been educated, in part, by Sir Henry Sidney, the English Lord Deputy of Ireland. When he wanted to refurbish his castle, O'Neill chose the best tapestries, plate, lace, and paintings to be found in London.

 He was a man of profound contradictions. He married four times and was a devoted father, yet Hugh was vicious—he had murdered two of Shane’s sons—and deceptive. The Elizabeth chronicler William Camden wrote, “He was a strong man, able to endure labours, watching, and hard fare; he was industrious, active, valiant, affable, and apt to manager great affairs; of a high, dissembling, subtle and profound wit. Many deemed him born either for the great good or ill of his country.”

Whether he pursued the good or the ill for Ireland is entirely a matter of perspective.

Hugh O’Neill was not just the ruler of Ulster but the Earl of Tyrone. It was a title created by Henry VIII, the first English monarch to deem himself King of Ireland, and granted to first Shane and then to Hugh by Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I. While all of the English papers refer to him as “Tyrone,” the title meant little to him in comparison to the O’Neill. 

“To these people, the title of O’Neill means more than Cesear,” Camden wrote, a touch incredulous. It’s one of the many ironies of his life, for Hugh O’Neill was a rebel, described by his contemporaries, men who hated him, as an “arch-traitor” and “the Queen’s Worst Enemy.” For years O'Neill sent out mixed signals from the North, and the English hoped he would not turn against them. But when he sat on the stone throne of Tullyhogue, embracing his ancestral title, they interpreted it—correctly—as a sign that he would rise. He was a Catholic determined to drive the Protestant English from Ulster if not all of Ireland.

It was O’Neill who led the Irish army that crushed the English in the Battle of Yellow Ford on August 14, 1598. It was the worst defeat suffered by an English army during not only the reign of Elizabeth I but any Tudor monarch. The English victory over the Spanish Armada is the lesson everyone learns; Yellow Ford, the triumph of the Irish, is barely acknowledged in most history texts. It is a cliché but one that cries out to be repeated: “History is written by the winners.”

After Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, took command of Queen Elizabeth’s army in 1601, the fortunes of war turned against the Irish. Hugh O’Neill, the last of the O’Neills to rule Ulster, knelt before Lord Mountjoy in April 1603 and surrendered, even vowing to renounce “the name and title of O’Neill.” He was, observers said, a man greatly aged by war. He was broken. 

(An in-depth look at the war O'Neill waged against Elizabeth I's commanders can be found in The Nine Years War, 1593-1603: O'Neill, Mountjoy and the Military Revolution, by James O'Neill.)

O’Neill, spared his life but rendered powerless, left Ireland for Rome in 1607 in what is known as the Flight of the Earls. With O’Neill and his allies gone, Ulster land was forfeit, confiscated for what is chillingly called “The Plantation of Ulster.” Half a million acres were colonized, the land taken from Irish families that lived there for centuries, and bestowed on English Protestants and also Scottish Presbyterians.

The sacred hill of Tullyhogue with its shattered stone was co-opted. The Anglican Church of Ireland took possession of the hill and its surroundings; no one paid much attention to it until the 1960s. An Anglican archbishop oversaw the occupation of the area by Protestant settlers after 1607. Of course, these religious divisions had consequences no one could have foreseen. In the early 20th century, when the Republic of Ireland broke away, Northern Ireland had to be created as a separate entity, because the descendants of those 17th-century plantation owners insisted, on the threat of violence, that they remain subjects of the English Crown. Ulster will fight, they chanted in the hundreds of thousands.

O’Neill's departure passed into myth, with some tracing the beginning of the Irish diaspora to that despairing flight. Before the Nine Years War, the Irish were not a people who emigrated. That changed. Some 10 million people are estimated to have left Ireland since 1700. New York City, where I live, has the largest number of Irish Americans of any city in the United States.

There’s debate over who wrote the song “Flight of Earls,” but folksinger Paddy Reilly made it famous in the 1970s:

I can hear the bells of Dublin/ in this lonely waiting room/ And the paperboys are singin’in the rain/Not too long before they take us/to the airport and the noise/To get on board a transatlantic plane/We’ve got nothin’ left to stay for/We had no more left to say/And there isn’t any work for us to do/So farewell ye boys and girls/Another bloody Flight of Earls

What may have done much to break the spirit of this bloody earl, Hugh O’Neill, took place one year before his formal surrender. In the late summer of 1602, an action was taken that few biographies of Elizabeth mention, and receives a sentence or two, at most, in histories of the Tudors. Lord Mountjoy traveled with a party of Englishmen to Tullyhogue and he destroyed its stone of coronation, smashing it into small pieces. The English made sure there would never be another mystical ceremony honoring an Irish leader on the hill. Mountjoy’s men “brake downe the chaire wherein the Oneals were wont to be created, being of stone, planted in the open field.” The pieces were buried or made to otherwise disappear.

Standing on Tullyhogue, you definitely won’t see a throne for a Gaelic chieftain. There are stones scattered here and there. Says the helpful Helen Allen: “A number of stones may mark the site of the inauguration place of the O’Neill. The historical depiction of this as a chair may be a little misleading. The actual inauguration place may have been the boulder itself, and the stones that were set around it to form a chair could well have been later additions to formalize the feature, perhaps even to make it more ‘throne-like’. In any case,  it seems it the stones set around the boulder were the elements that were destroyed, and while I suspect we can probably identify the original boulder it is very difficult to prove that it is, in fact, the inauguration stone.”

After much research, I found the most in-depth description of what happened in 1602 in Tullyhogue in a seven-page article published in 1970 in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, “The Making of an O’Neill: A View of the Ceremony at Tullyhogue, Co. Tyrone.” Its author, Gerald Anthony Hayes McCoy, a leading Irish historian of his generation, gathered every bit of documentation. Through his writing, I was able to get an inkling of what happened.

Hopefully there will be more research, and more archeological digs authorized, to deepen our knowledge of what it took to "make an O'Neill."


In my novella 'The Ghost of Madison Avenue,' set in New York of 1912, the main character, Helen, is part of a tightly knit Irish American family living in the Bronx. Helen had married Sean O'Neill, who immigrated from Belfast in his teens. In creating these characters I drew on some observations of my own family (my mother's name is Mary Elizabeth O'Neill) and performed research into O'Neill family history in County Ulster. This article grew out of one part of that research, the medieval and Tudor-era Kngs of Ireland.

Nancy Bilyeau is a magazine editor and historical novelist. Her novella "The Ghost of Madison Avenue" is available as an ebook and a paperback. Click here

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