Ancient clan homes unearthed at Tullaghoge Fort

Environment Minister Mark H Durkan (centre) at the site with principal archaeologist Dr John O'Keeffe and Tony McCance from Mid Ulster District Council
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan (centre) at the site with principal archaeologist Dr John O'Keeffe and Tony McCance from Mid Ulster District Council

A 700-year-old ‘housing development’ belonging to an ancient chiefdom has been uncovered in Tyrone.

Foundations of houses thought to belong to the Gaelic O’Hagan clan have been uncovered by the Department of the Environment (DoE) at Tullaghoge.

Tullaghoge is the place where O’Neills were crowned as chiefs of their lands, and the O’Hagans were the hereditary guardians of that site.

The rare archaeological remains – located outside of the well-known landmark of Tullaghoge Fort – were uncovered during pre-development works for the creation of new visitor facilities.

Environment Minister Mark H Durkan said the “preliminary findings have surpassed all our expectations”.

He said he believed this was “the first time such buildings of this date” have been uncovered in Northern Ireland, if not “a first for the entire island of Ireland”.

“The houses are small sub-rectangular buildings marked now only by their surviving floors and measure around five metres by three metres internally,” he said.

“They would have had sod or clay walls supporting angled roof timbers known as crucks. A fire, set in its hearth at the centre of the house, would have heated the building, with the smoke rising to find its way out through a thatched or sod roof.

“At least two houses have been found so far along with the fragmentary remains of a possible two or three more. Archaeologists suspect that many more lie dotted around the hill, forming an O’Hagan farming settlement that supported the elite members of the clan who lived in the fort or nearby on the hill.”

Tullaghoge Fort, approximately two miles south of Cookstown, is a magnificent state care hilltop enclosure that commands wide views and, with high trees growing on its banks, is visible for miles around.

The site came into written historical prominence in the 10th century when it was a dynastic centre and inauguration place of the Cenél nEógain (a group of dynastic families originally from Co Donegal which later came to be dominated by the O’Neills). Tullaghoge Hill was the residence of the O’Hagans who, with the O’Cahans, performed major roles in the inauguration ceremony.

The site remained an inauguration place of the O’Neills until the site was captured by the army of Elizabeth I in 1602.

Planning permission was granted in February for a project to improve visitor facilities and works have begun on site. The total cost is in the region of £500,000.

Councillor Linda Dillon, chair of Mid Ulster District Council, added: “Tullaghoge is an ancient site, inextricably bound to the history of Ulster and to Ireland as a whole, and to have uncovered evidence of homes which could date back up to 700 years is remarkable.”