A history of Ireland in 100 objects

One of the most poignant objects in Irish history is one that was deliberately and symbolically destroyed.

One of the most poignant objects in Irish history is one that was deliberately and symbolically destroyed.

The partly wooded hill of Tulaigh Óg (Tullaghoge), north of Dungannon in Co Tyrone, commanding extensive views towards Slieve Gallion, was one of many traditional ritual sites on which communities gathered and kings were inaugurated.

The Tudor colonisers looked on these sites with suspicion. The poet Edmund Spenser called them the resort of “all the scum of loose people”. But the Tudors well understood the significance of Tulaigh Óg as the inauguration site for the O’Neill chieftains. The cartographers Francis Jobson and Richard Bartlett marked it prominently on their maps of Ulster – Bartlett’s illustration is seen here.

The focal point of the site was a rough-hewn stone chair called Leac na Ríogh, the flagstone of the kings, which is first recorded in the annals in 1432. From Bartlett’s surviving drawing, it seems to have been made up of four pieces: a rough base (which may be the original stone) to which a back and sides were later added. This original stone may in turn have come from a part of the hill that was sacred as an ancient place of assembly. Elizabeth FitzPatrick suggests it may have been “adopted by Cenél nÉogain” – the ancestors of the Uí Néill – “when they annexed the kingdom of Airgialla and established their new royal inauguration site at Tulach Óg in the 10th century”.


The stone, indeed, probably represented a tradition that went back much further, to the pre-Christian past. Its rough form, barely transformed from its natural state, was deliberate. The king, at inauguration, was wedded to the goddess of sovereignty, representing the land from which the stone was drawn. The rough, almost natural shape, obvious in the surviving inauguration stone of the O’Neills of Clandeboye (left), was meant to convey something ancient and primal.

The stone had played an important symbolic role in Hugh O’Neill’s rebellion against the Tudors and re-establishment of himself as a Gaelic chieftain. Sir Henry Bagenal noted in 1595 that “Old O’Neyle is dead and the Traitour [Hugh] gone to the stone to receave that name”.

At the beginning of September 1602, nine months after the Battle of Kinsale, Lord Deputy Mountjoy arrived at Tulaigh Óg while he was harrying Tyrone. He “spoiled the corn of all the country . . . and brake down the chair wherin the O’Neals were wont to be created, being of stone planted in the open field”.

The pieces of the leac were said to be kept in the orchard of the glebe house of the local Protestant church until 1776, when the last of them was taken away.

Mountjoy’s destruction of the leac was meant to be a resonant symbolic act. The aptness of the symbolism was underlined in September 1607, when O’Neill, Rory O’Donnell and dozens of other members of the Ulster Gaelic elite sailed for France from Rathmullan pier, in Co Donegal, never to return.

There was an ironic coda. O’Neill’s daughter Sorcha married a Magennis, one of whose descendants was Lady Glamis. In 1900, she had a daughter, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. Her daughter, in turn, is the current occupant of the British throne.

Thanks to Prof John Waddell

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes a weekly opinion column