IT has been described as one of the most intriguing mysteries in the history of Ulster, if not Ireland.
The exact location of the ancient inauguration seat of the O’Neills, which was reportedly broken into several pieces by Lord Mountjoy in the early 1600s, seemed destined to be lost in the mists of time, until land around Tullyhogue Fort was put up for sale by the Department of Agriculture last year.
The move, which threatened to disrupt the ancient site, alarmed local history buffs, who have been compiling a growing body of evidence that the inauguration site lay not within the fort but in one of the nearby fields which had been designated as surplus to requirements by the Department of Agriculture.
Benburb historian Brendan McAnallen said the government sell-of prompted local history groups to intervene and petition the Minister to halt the sale of the fields.
“The department was unaware of the fact that parts of the stone seat remain in these adjoining fields”, said Mr McAnallen. “A group of historians including James Cain from the Association of O’Neill clans scheduled a meeting with Francie Molloy and the minister Michelle O’Neill to present the evidence, and this resulted in a site meeting with the head of the Northern Ireland Environmental Agency.
“Initially they were going to keep one of the fields, but it was the wrong one.
“In addition, the surrounding fields were used by the O’Neills for festivities and entertainment, and as such might be full of valuable archaeological evidence. The site is the northern equivalent of the Hill of Tara, and would have hosted Olympic style sporting events. As such it should be preserved for future generations.”
Minister Michele O’Neill has now revealed that the land will be handed over to the Department of the Environment rather than sold.
Speaking at the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Sinn Fein MLA said: “Having considered a range of disposal options I have decided this land is best kept in the public sector due to its proximity to the ancient monument known as Tullyhogue Fort.”
Tantalising clues about the exact location of the inauguration seat, which was reportedly blessed by St Patrick, have remained in the historical record, such as Bartlett’s map of 1602 which surprisingly places the chair in the middle of a field close to the fort, as well as repeated references to the inaugurations being held in the centre of an open field.
However, an investigation by archeologists at the time of the Great Famine in the 1840s yielded inconclusive results.
The secrets of the stone seemed destined to be forgotten forever, until Mr McAnallen, as chairman of the O’Neill Country Historical Society, took up the challenge in the late 1980s at the request of O’Neill historians.
Mr McAnallen recalled the day he located what might be the remnants of the stone seat in 1988, along with his then six-year-old son Cormac, who went on to become Tyrone Senior GAA captain.
Aided by Bartlett’s map, Brendan sent his son into a field of overgrown grass, and asked him to search in a particular area.
“I can still recall Cormac’s excitement when he came across a large stone slab in the ground about 8 feet wide”, said Brendan.
“Sure enough, it was a large rutted rock with indentations similar to those described in the original records, and its location matched that marked in Bartlett’s map.”
Mr McAnallen believes the ruts in the stone could have held three standstone slabs placed around the sitting boulder, which have been recorded in historical documents.
Further investigations have revealed that two more parts of the stone seat have been located in the field, another one in the centre, and one in the bottom corner.
It is believed that another part of the stone is incorporated into the porch of Desertcreat Church of Ireland.
O’Neill clan leaders came to the site to be inaugurated and the title of ‘The O’Neill’ was bestowed upon the new lord.
The ceremony, which involved throwing a golden sandal over the head of ‘The O’Neill’ for good luck, and presentation of a rod of office, took place on a large stone or boulder known as the Leac na Ri, which means “ the flagstone of Kings”.
This stone has been likened to the Stone of Destiny which sits in Edinburgh Castle and when required, is transported to Westminster Abbey and forms part of the present day Coronation Ceremony, and is also rumoured to have been blessed by St. Patrick himself.
Unfortunately during the Nine Years War, Charles Blount, later known as Lord Mountjoy following on in the role of Lord Deputy of Ireland from Robert Devereux, led the English army and smashed the Leac na Ri stone to symbolically terminate the O’Neills reign over the land and claim Tyrone for Queen Elizabeth the first.