The Mountain of Youth

James Lloyd visits Tullyhogue Fort in County Tyrone, once the site of one of the most important cultural and political ceremonies in the history of Northern Ireland.

The rituals with which monarchs are inaugurated have varied from country to country and from time to time. As a boy, the author was obsessed with the coronation ritual performed early in a British monarch’s reign (contrary to popular belief, it does not actually initiate the reign). He eagerly devoured any information, however unreliable, or any dramatic depiction, however inaccurate (and the coronation has been represented very inaccurately in a plethora of films, usually for plot convenience) but he was unable to find out any information about coronation rituals in other countries.

The reason for this, as he now knows, is that very few other countries do a coronation ritual. The United Kingdom, it seems, is the last country in Europe that still vests its Sovereign in crown, sceptres and cope in the tradition that used to be standard practice across the continent. This is, to a small extent, the United Kingdom’s own fault. The British coronation ritual is really the English coronation ritual. The Scottish coronation was last performed for Charles II in 1651. None of his successors has bothered with it, though there was an abortive movement for its revival in 1953.

In Ireland, perhaps predictably, the story is more violent but also more peculiarly, distinctively Irish. A coronation ritual has never been performed there. Instead, kings were inaugurated in a very different ceremony, one which the English deliberately suppressed.

As explained in a previous blog, pre-sixteenth-century Ireland was not one country but a matrix of kingdoms, sub-kingdoms, clans and provinces, headed by chiefs whose right to rule depended not on a grant from a feudal superior but on immemorial tradition and the approval of their peers, for Irish kings were not strictly hereditary but were elected by and from amongst the royal family. Henry VIII found this so confusing that he sent an army in to abolish it and this project was still under way when his daughter Elizabeth came to the throne (by hereditary right, followed by a coronation).

One of these kingdoms was Oriel that, at its greatest extent, covered a large chunk of what is now Northern Ireland. First reliably documented in the seventh century and claimed in legend to date back three hundred years earlier, this was not really a kingdom as the word would be understood today but a confederation of nine tribes, who fought over a titular supremacy but in 827 they were all defeated by the expanding O’Neill dynasty from Tirconnell, which in the tenth century took over the important Oriel ceremonial site of Tullyhogue Fort.

Tulach Óc, or “the hill of youth”, Anglicized as Tullyhogue, is a ring-fort on a hill a little to the south of Cookstown in County Tyrone. It consists of two semi-circular arms and is a hundred and five feet in diameter. The remains of houses have been found within the Fort. No one knows when Tullyhogue Fort was built. It may originally have been the site of a sacred tree, under which the King of Oriel was inaugurated. What is known is that outside the Fort, further down the hill, once stood a chair that incorporated a stone, called in Gaelic “Leac na Rí”, or the King’s Stone.

It was this stone that attracted the attention of the O’Neill Mor, or Great Son of Neill, chief of the senior branch of his clan. This branch, known as the Cenél nEógain or Kin of Ewan, named their expanded territory the Tír Eoghain, land of Ewan (which would provide the name, though not the quite the shape, of the modern County of Tyrone). The O’Neill Mor, by using Tullyhogue Fort as the site for his own inauguration as King of Tyrone, established his dominance over Oriel.

Although records of inaugurations at the site date only from the fifteenth century, this is owed to the vagaries of evidence survival and the ceremonies that took place here belong in the ancient tradition of Gaelic investiture. The ritual would have begun with a bath (not recorded in the case of Tullyhogue but a standard feature of other Irish inaugurations). The ceremony was presided over by one of the king’s sub-chiefs, for whom officiating was a hereditary duty. In Tullyhogue’s case, this office was shared by the O’Hagan, who was hereditary guardian of the Fort and apparently lived in it and the O’Cahan, the principal sub-chief.

After his election, the new O’Neill Mor received mass and was then escorted to the hill by his sub-chiefs, who seated him on the King’s Stone outside Tullyhogue Fort. The O’Cahan threw a golden sandal over his head, to signify that he should follow in the footsteps of his predecessors. The O’Hagan then put the sandal around the O’Neil Mor’s foot (the O’Hagan coat-of-arms includes a golden shoe), presented the O’Neill Mor with a white wand, symbolising pure and straight government and addressed him by his new title.

As a ritual, it was simple, even rustic and nothing compared to the solemn grandeur of an English coronation. It was, however, something that mattered much more to the Irish than impressive ceremonial in a Gothic setting. It was theirs. Every prince of Ireland, from the High King to the chief of the smallest clan, was inaugurated in a similar open-air ceremony that included the sandal-throwing and the presentation of the white rod. It might not have been the sort of thing to get two million people in front of the television but it was how the Irish had always done it.

Perhaps it was partly because of the simplicity of the inauguration ritual that the English did not acknowledge the O’Neill Mor as a king but usually called him Chief, Lord or Prince of Tyrone instead, until the English-style title Earl of Tyrone was conferred on Conn Bacach O’Neill by Henry VIII in 1542. This betrayal of the traditions of his country led to Conn’s deposition and his grandson Hugh was raised in London, both to protect him from his savage countrymen and to inculcate in him English manners. Hugh returned to Ulster in 1568 as the second Earl of Tyrone and a loyal subject of Queen Elizabeth but in 1593, for reasons that are not entirely clear but which may have been triggered by his English wife’s ditching him, he switched sides and was himself inaugurated as King of Tyrone at Tullyhogue Fort.

This also inaugurated the Nine Years War, which ended with the defeat of Hugh O’Neill and his allies and the destruction, in a conscious and deliberate act of symbolism, of the stone chair at Tullyhogue. The irony that Queen Elizabeth herself had been crowned, as all English and British monarchs since Edward II have been crowned, while sitting on a Gaelic inauguration stone seems to have escaped everyone’s attention.

Photo credit: Tullyhogue Fort (HENRY CLARK) / CC BY-SA 2.0


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