On an imposing hilltop encircled by trees stands Tullaghoge Fort, Co Tyrone testimony to Tyrone’s illustrious past. Located midway between Cookstown and Stewartstown just outside the village of Tullaghoge on the B162, this ringfort can be seen for miles around and commands an extensive view of the surrounding countryside. Hence, it was here on this hilltop enclosure that the ruling members of each generation of the Cenel nEogain (later known as the O’Neills) were inaugurated from the 11th century to the end of the 16th century. This inauguration ceremony gave the individual the right to bear the title "the O’Neill", head of the family that had ruled for centuries over Tyrone - an area larger than that covered by the modern county of the same name.
Tullaghoge is believed to have been a place of great significance from very early times and it likely had some ritual importance before the O’Neill expansion south east in the11th century, initially it may even have been a pagan sanctuary. However, the date of the construction of the earthwork is not known.
The initial impression of Telach Oc or Tullaghoge Fort (hill of youth/mound of the young warriors), is that it resembles an Early Christian bivallate rath - enclosed homestead with two banks and ditches. Tullaghoge Fort embodies an enclosure of 105 feet in diameter which is encircled by two banks and entry to the enclosed area is gained via a causeway in the inner bank. However, the layout of Tullaghoge Fort distinguishes it from a rath in that unlike a rath, Tullaghoge Fort was not designed as a defensive structure. The two ditches were built wide apart with a flat area in between them and there is no defensive outer ditch. Tullaghoge was a royal centre of power not a defended farmstead. The earthworks determine the boundaries of an area of ceremonial importance, they were not intended to safeguard the site from attack.
The O’Neill’s founded their headquarters at Tullaghoge early in the 11th century - and it continued as the ceremonial seat of the kings of Tir Eogain even after the O’Neills transferred their court to Dungannon at the end of the 13th century. The O’Hagans, the heredity guardians of the site, lived at the fort - on Bartlett’s map of c.1600 two thatched buildings are shown within the enclosure. The burial place of the O’Hagan’s is at Donaghrisk, the circular walled graveyard at the foot of the hill.
The traditional inauguration ceremony, the "making of an O’Neill," was carried out on the hillslope outside the enclosure where the Stone of the Kings, Leac na Ri stood. Following the Primate’s Mass, the new chief took a vow to rule by Brehon law and to give up the throne when he became too old or frail to rule. A golden sandal was thrown over the new O’Neill’s head by his principal sub-chief O’Cahan, to signify good luck and to indicate that he would continue in the footsteps of his ancestors who had borne the title. Then O’Hagan, the hereditary guardian would place the shoe on O’Neills foot. At the moment of O’Neill’s investiture the bell of St Patrick was rang.
By the 16th century the Leac na Ri, the Ulster counterpart of the stone of destiny - professed to have been taken from Ireland to Scotland in the 6th century and which now forms part of the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey - reputed to have been blessed by St Patrick, was incorpated by into a ceremonial stone chair. Thus, in 1602 Mountjoy deputy to Queen Elizabeth I, had the stone inauguration chair smashed and now nothing remains of it.
In 1595 Hugh O’Neill was said to have been the last of the O’Neills inaugurated at Tullaghoge, prior to his submission to Mountjoy. However, it was claimed that the last inauguration (afterwards rejected) to have taken place here was that of Sir Phelim O’Neill in 1641.
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