Dungannon Dig At Castle Hill Unearths O'Neill's Fortress

By Richard Moss | 07 May 2003
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shows a section of medieval wall excavated at Castle Hill, Dungannon

Left: could this wall be part of a legendary fortress? The medieval defensive wall as excavated. Picture courtesy Robert Chapple

An archaeological discovery on a hill in Northern Ireland could prove to be the medieval remains of the castle of the O'Neill clan.

The hill, in Dungannon, County Tyrone is known locally as Castle Hill and was home to the O'Neill's, one of the famous Gaelic clans resisting English rule in the area until their exile during the 'Flight of the Earls' in 1607.

Thereafter the flow of history set the scene for modern day Ulster and the site passed through different aristocratic hands before it's transformation into a police and army base.

"We are looking at a site that has continually been the centre of a rich and powerful society," confirmed site director Robert Chapple.

"Castle Hill was originally the main castle site of the O'Neill family around 1607 and there were various castles there in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries until Chitchester Castle was destroyed there in the 1630's."

Shows the remains of a cobbled servant's tunnel from the 18th century

Right:the site also revealed later period remains including this 18th century cobbled floor, associated with the Knox-Hannyngton house. Picture courtesy Robert Chapple

The remains of a large ditch and two small sections of a medieval wall have been discovered, forming what may prove to be part of an early defensive structure. Archaeologists are now about to begin studying the remains against illustrations on the Bartlett Map, made in 1602, to see if they match.

"Preliminary study suggests distinct parallels," confirmed Mr Chapple, "however, whether these remains actually relate to the O'Neill Tower or the later Chitchester Castle cannot be stated with any confidence at present."

Other finds at the site include animal bones, many with butchery marks; oyster shells; boar's tusks; fish and bird bones and pottery shards. It is a collection that archaeologists believe to be indicative of the varied and rich diet associated with the Medieval to post-Medieval social elite.

shows the servant's next to an ealier cobbled floor

Left: the roof of an 18th century servant's tunnel (back) nestles next to a portion of a 17th century cobbled floor. Picture courtesy Robert Chapple

Later-period discoveries include cobbled servant's tunnels, pieces of courtyard surface, portions of wine bottles and even the iron trigger from a musket.

Pat Jon Rafferty, a local historian who has been visiting and researching the site for over forty years would like to see the area preserved as a heritage site.

"I've been taking parties of school children up there for years and there's been nothing to see or feel apart from an amazing view and an atmosphere because until now, everything has been buried."

"Anybody who knows anything about Irish history will know how incredibly important the site is."

With over 3,000 artefacts excavated so far, Castle Hill is rich with the remnants of a long and turbulent history and, if the physical connection to the clan O'Neill proves to be a strong one, the site is set to become one of Ulster's most significant archaeological sites.

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