Northern Ireland

Where kings of Ulster 'were crowned': Site dig to begin

Tullyhogue Fort, County Tyrone, where the O'Neill clan crowned its chief, effectively establishing him as the King of Ulster
Image caption Tullyhogue Fort, County Tyrone, where the O'Neill clan crowned its chief, effectively establishing him as the King of Ulster

Archaeologists are to start digging next week at one of the most historically significant sites in Ulster where its former kings were crowned.

Tullyhogue Fort, near Stewartstown in County Tyrone, is on a hilltop with commanding views of several counties.

It was here, for centuries, that the O'Neill clan crowned its chief, effectively establishing him as the king of Ulster.

The dig is in advance of plans to improve access to the site, with better car parking and signage.

Image caption Scale model of the coronation seat called Leac na Rí, on which coronation ceremonies are believed to have taken place

The coronation ceremonies were conducted on a great stone chair, called Leac na Rí. It was made up of a large boulder, reputed to have been blessed by St Patrick, with slabs fixed to the sides and rear.

The coronation chair is recorded in maps drawn by an English military cartographer Richard Barlett, in the early 1600s.

Image caption Hugh O'Neill of the ancient clan O'Neill of Tyrone, was an Irish chieftan in the early 1600s

He accompanied Lord Mountjoy, who was sent by Elizabeth I to quell a rebellion led by Hugh O'Neill, the then chieftain.

Hugh O'Neill was a complex character who had enjoyed royal patronage and had been to court, but took up arms when the English began to encroach on his lands and influence.

Image caption Tullyhogue Fort at the inauguration site in County Tyrone

Dan Ó Néill is the current chief guardian of the ancient clan O'Neill of Tyrone. He believes remnants of the coronation chair are still visible at the site and hopes the dig may provide further information about it.

"A person said to be me once, you're not just born with the surname O'Neill, it's more of a title, so we are the guardians of the old Celtic ways," he said.

Image caption Queen Elizabeth I sent Lord Mountjoy to quell a rebellion led by Hugh O'Neill, the then chieftan

"When they came up here to be inaugurated it was actually a marriage between the chief and the land. We're conscious of the environment and the need to keep the history alive."

Local legend has it that part of the coronation seat ended up in a nearby Church of Ireland church.

Image caption Current chief guardian of the ancient clan O'Neill of Tyrone, Dan Ó Néill, sitting on what he believes may have formed part of the coronation chair

It is the keystone on an arch leading into Desertcreat Parish Church, a short distance from the fort.

It had the year and the initials of the then rector, the Reverend Richard Dobbs, carved into it. The current rector is the Reverend David Bell. He said his congregation is proud of its link with the past.

Image caption The Reverend David Bell of Desertcreat Parish Church said his congregation is proud of its historical links

"You can't be absolutely certain but it's reasonably probable. Richard Dobbs found the stone about 100 years after it was broken up, so I think there's a fair chance it might be the real deal."

Image caption Site markers at Tullyhogue Fort, near Stewartstown, County Tyrone, ahead of the archaeology dig

The archaeological dig is due to start on Monday and will last several weeks.

BBC Newsline will report live from Tullyhogue Fort from about 18:30 BST on Friday, 5 September.

The Tullhogue dig, and others, will feature in a BBC NI programme Digging for Ireland, to be broadcast later this year.

Image caption The coronation chair is recorded in maps drawn by an English military cartographer Richard Barlett, in the early 1600s

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