A note on the indentification of Aileach

The following paper by Andrew Tierney was published in 2003 in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 133.

I am very grateful to Karla, who got me a much desired copy.

A note on the indentification of Aileach

There has long been uncertainty over the true identification of the royal site of Aileach, the chief seat of the northern Uí Néill kingdom. The well-known cashel on Greenan Mountain, identified as Aileach in the nineteenth century and extensively restored in the 1870s (Lacey 1984, 20), has since then often been viewed with suspicion by academics. This is due largely to the existence of townlands with the names Elaghmore and Elaghbeg nearby in Cos Derry and Donegal. Recently Brian Lacey (2001), through exploring the historical geography of Inis Eoghain, has moved the debate forward in favour of the latter site, and it seems appropriate now to follow this up by adding some further evidence in support of his conclusion. The argument that Aileach should be identified with the site at Elaghmore has been made on archaeological grounds in a survey in which traces of an unusual curved revetment and bank were identified around Doherty’s Tower, a medieval castle on this site, possibly indicating the remnants of an earlier monument (Ní Loingsigh 1995, 119, cites Logue 1992). More recent research has provided geophysical evidence that the traces of the earth en enclosure at the base of the rock are likely to be defined by a substantial ditch (McNeill, 2001, 353). It has been argued that these archaeological features combined with the place name evidence favour its identification as the true site of ancient Aileach. With the famous stone fortress on Greenan mountain now understood to be situated outside of Inis Eoghain (Lacey 1984, 15 and 2001, 146) and the geographical position of Elaghmore, on the other hand, seemingly so strategically favourable for the protection of the peninsula, these archaeological observations are surely worthy of further investigation in the future. However, in this note I merely want to add some evidence from a textual source, actually long published but hitherto overlooked in this debate. This is the sixteenth-century poem by Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn written in praise of Sean Ó Dochartaigh (died 1582), which claims the latter’s castle at Elaghmore to be on the site of ancient Aileach (Knott 1922,202; 1926, 135). While it is not unusual for bardic poetry of the later medieval period to make laudatory comparisons between chiefs’ castles and ancient royal sites, in this instance we are certainly dealing with more than that. Ó hUiginn actually addressed the poem to Aileach itself, asking the fort to give an account of its own history through the ages:

Innis ród, a Ráith Oiligh,
mór ní is éigin d’fiarfoighidh
dí ot, a threabh fhódarsaidh fhí onn
fa óggasraidh fhear nÉirionn.

(Knott 1922, 202 v. 1)

Speak on, thou castle of Oileach, many a thing
must one ask of thee, thou fair, long-standing dwelling,
regarding the warriors of Ireland.

(Knott 1926,135 v. 1)

What emerges is a dialogue between the poet and Aileach in which the latter describes its various occupants through time. In a brief account of the various invasions of Ireland the fort voices how it was ’empty of house or dwelling’ (v. 12) until the coming of the Tuatha Dé Danann, after which it was inhabited by the sons of Mí l. In later ages, the fort states: I was held alternately by the noble kindreds of Niall’s seed’ (v. 21), meaning the Cenél Conaill and Cenél nEogain. Ó Dochartaigh himself, who was a sub-chieftain of Ó Domhnaill, is not referred to directly until the end of the poem when the fort is made to declare that of all the occupants through the ages it is he whom the fort likes best (Knott 1926, 137 w. 24-26). So Ó hUiginn’s praise for Ó Dochartaigh is based on the chieftain’s possession and occupation of the historic site of Aileach. From the manner in which the poem is constructed there is no doubt that it is Aileach that confers honour upon Ó Dochartaigh and not the other way round. That the poet was not speaking abstractly about Aileach as an area rather than a specific edifice or site seems apparent from the following two verses:

Teach Oiligh, mas fhí or dá lán
muna theagmhadh sé ag Seaán,
nior theach d’aoinneach I nUltaibh
teach daoineach Í Dhochartaigh
Lucht cuartaighthe chlár mBanbha
fa seach is é a n-urlabhra,
i gcraoibhlios na gceathra mbeann
do-geabhtha aoibhnios Éireann.

(Knott 1926, 208 vv. 40-41)

If many speak truth, did not the house of Oileach fall to John, the thronged dwelling of O’ Doherty would not be a shelter for any in Ulster.

This is the several statement of those who have journeyed the plains of Banbha – all the delight of Ireland would be found in the labyrinthine (?) four-towered court.

(Knott 1926,138, vv. 40-41)

Whether the reference to the ‘four-towered court’ is an actual description of Doherty’s Tower or just poetic convention is hard to say as so little of it survives but the sense of the piece appears to identify Aileach directly with Ó Dochartaigh’s domestic abode. This identification is made again by Eochaidh Ó hEoghusa, another well-known poet who visited the castle during the time of the above patron’s son, Seán Óg Ó Dochartaigh, probably sometime between 1595 and 1600 when he composed two poems in his honour (Carney 1967, 28). In one of these poems he refers to Sean Ó Dochartaigh as ‘rí Rátha hOiligh’ (Mulchrone 1958, 1066).

However, in a poem addressed to Conchobhar mac Tadhg Mac Diarmada concerning the ruination of Carrig Mhic Dhiarmada on Loch Cé, the same poet compared its abandoned state with that of Aileach:

Ó sé Mhuircheartaigh mheic Neill
A-tá ráí th Oiligh fhóid-reidh
leis do roighneadh dimbhrí gh dhi
gan deigh-rig d’oirneadh innte.

Since the days of Muircheartach son of Niall
the palace of smooth-sodded Aileach
has had no goodly king anointed in it;
hence is no account now made of it.

(McKenna 1920, 540)

This appears to contradict the idea that the site of Aileach was occupied in the later medieval period, but rather suggests it had been empty since the time of Muircheartach son of Niall; who would appear to be Muircheartach Mac Lochlainn, the fifty-fifth king of Aileach who died in 1166 (Byrne 2001, 284). This idea is somewhat strange since the great destruction of Aileach in 1101 took place during the reign of his grandfather, Domhnall (Byrne ibid. Lacey 1984, 18.).

While this verse taken alone and presented to Ó Dochertaigh would have amounted to a gross insult, understood in the context of the poem in which it was written its tone is quite different. Ó hEoghusa was writing about Aileach as one of the ‘sé rí ogh-phuirt fhoibhthe Éireann – six perfect palaces of Eire’ (McKenna 1920, 520 v. 7), which included Teamhair, Caí seal, Eamhain Macha, Nás, and Cruachain. In bardic literature, these royal sites are constantly represented as being on the precipice of resurrection through the noble deeds of some great Gaelic chief. In the greater scheme around which Ó hEoghusa was constructing his praises, the castle of a minor chieftain like Ó Dochartaigh could easily be overlooked as insignificant. Carrig Mhic Dhiarmada, in its ruined state, is compared by Ó hEoghusa to the royal palaces of the past, and in such a way is invested with similar signs of imminent rebirth. So in general terms Aileach was far more powerful a symbol as a royal ruin than as the abode of a Gaelic sub-lord. Only when Ó Dochartaigh is addressed himself is Aileach re-incarnated whole again in the walls of his castle.

What seems to emerge from these poems is the fact that in the late sixteenth century, at least, the castle at Elaghmore was being represented as the ancient site of Aileach. The question then is why a castle should be built on this site by the Ó Dochertaigh sept? Were they attempting to appropriate the royal symbolism of the site for themselves? There is, of course, no direct evidence that the Ó Dochartaigh sept built the castle at Elaghmore and the date of the commencement of their lordship of Inis Eoghain remains vague. The castle has been tentatively dated to the late fourteenth century and comparisons have been drawn with the Ó Néill castle of the same period to the south at Newtownstewart (Jope, Jope and Johnson 1950, 89-92; Ní Loinsígh 1995, 118). The territories of both Inis Eoghain and Cenél Moain (in which Einrí Aimhreadh Ó Néill built his castle at Newtownstewart) were highly contested during this period (Simms 2000,167) and in light of this it might be worth considering Ó Néill involvement in the construction of Elaghmore castle.

The idea of resurrecting an ancient royal site as a symbol of prestige was certainly current around this time as Einrí Aimhreadh’s father, Niall Mór, had expressed his desire to make his seat at Eamhain Macha in 1374, a wish carried out, in part at least, by his eldest son, Niall Óg who constructed a house there in 1387 for the entertainment of the learned men of Ireland (Simms 1983, 142-3). As Einrí Aimhreadh later gained control of that part of Tí r Eoghain north of the Sperrin Mountains at the expense of his father and brother (Simms 2000, 166), it may be possible that he employed rival royal symbolism to affirm his lordship through the appropriation, however fleeting, of the traditional 6 Neill site of Aileach. Whoever was originally responsible for building a castle at Elaghmore, the identification of the site with Aileach would have made it a potent expression of lordship in the surrounding area.


I would like to gratefully acknowledge the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences for funding the research from which this note is derived.


BYRNE, F. 2001, Irish Kings and High Kings. Dublin.
CARNEY, J. 1967, The Irish Bardic Poet. Dublin.
JOPE, E.M., JOPE, H.M. and JOHNSON, E.A. 1950, Harry Avery’s Castle, Newtownstewart, Co.Tyrone, Excavations in 1950, UJA, 81-92.
KNOTT, E. 1922, The Bardic Poems of Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn, Vol.1. London.
KNOTT, E. 1926, The Bardic Poems of Tadhg Dall O hUiginn, Vol.11. London.
LAC[E]Y, B. 1984, The Grianán of Aileach, Donegal Annual, 5-24.
LACEY, B. 2001, The Grianán of Aileach – a note on its identification, JRSAI Vol.131, 145 149.
LOGUE, P. 1992, An evaluation of the archaeological sites of Grianán Aileach and Doherty s Tower, unpublished undergraduate essay, Queen’s University Belfast. MCKENNA, L. 1920, Poem by Eochaidh Ó hEodhusa, Irish Monthly no. 48, 539 – 544. MCNEILL, T.E. 2001, The Archaeology of Gaelic Lordship East and West of the Foyle in Duffy, P.J., Edwards, D. and Fitzpatrick, E. (eds), Gaelic Ireland c.1250-1650, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 346-356.
MULCHRONE, K. 1958, Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy. Dublin.
NI LOINSIGH, M. 1995, The Castles of North Donegal and their relationship to the land holding structure of the late medieval Gaelic lordships, Queen’s University Belfast, Unpublished Mphil Thesis.
SIMMS, K. 1983, Propaganda use of the Táin in the Later Middle Ages, Celtica XV, 142-149.
SIMMS, K, 2000, Late medieval Tí r Eoghain: the kingdom of the Great O’Neill, in Tyrone History and Society ed. C. DILLON and H.A. JEFFERIES, Dublin, 127-62.

3 thoughts

  1. Hi Thomas,

    Does the poem mention Muirceratch Mac Erca one of the early kings of Ailech. If so can you provide me with the verse. Many thanks.


  2. Muircheartach mac Erca is not in the Ó Huiginn poem:https://unknownswilly.wordpress.com/2010/04/14/o-doherty-of-the-castle-of-oileach/.
    Eochaidh Ó hEoghusa Poem is here (Irish only): http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/G402091/index.html.
    There is some info on him on Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muirchertach_mac_Muiredaig but I believe Brian Lacey, who did a Sherlock Holmes on the fabrication of the O Neills, that he was more likely and mostly an invention.
    Brian Lacey; Cenél Conaill and the Donegal Kingdoms AD 500–800

  3. Muircertach Mac Erca, as a merged figure, was certainly an invention of the ninth century, Muircertach Mac Muiredaig being merged with an historical king called Mac Erca/Mac Ercene, mentioned in the seventh century Baile Chuinn and Adamnan in the late seventh century life of St Colum Cille. So in effect Mac Erca was historical but clearing up who he actually was is the difficult part and sorting out which legends belong to whom in the final merged character. If we believe some of the later poetry Muircertach mac Muiredaig may have been a gentle, drunken sort of chap whilst Mac Erca was the real martial hero. In any event the O’Neills in the eighth or ninth century joined Mac Erca to their Eohgan clan and created the Cenel Mac Ercae. The Cenel Feradaig had by this time declined in power and the Eoghans sought to distance themselves from them. I have a paper written on this subject. If you want to read it drop me your email address.

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