Claiming Aileach

I have been for some time now of the opinion that the first man made structure placed on ‘Greenan’ Hill was a burial, as the tumulus would prove. At a later stage it was used as a possible site of an assembly and additions were made. Since the hill was most likely covered with oak trees, a wooden structure may have preceded the one of stone. And the ruin found in May 1830 by William Blacker was only the latest design of many and could have been as such easily from the eighth or ninth century, even later.

In her book “Royal Inauguration in Gaelic Ireland c. 1100 – 1600“, Elizabeth FitzPatrick listed ‘Grianán Aileach’ as a possible site. She writes:

“Convenient access and commanding views are among the quintessential features of royal assembly places. Common to all of them is there setting on low-lying but far-seeing hills, rarely above 244m OD (‘Greenan’ Hill – 244m) and more usually falling within the range 30-122m OD. The choice of lower ground with good advantage was desirable, as an extensive view of the territory which the king-elect was about to wed in his banais rí ghe (literally, the king’s wedding feast), or over which the chief-elect would assume lordship, was germane to the ritual of the ceremony. The land that constituted a kingdom or lordship was perceived as the royal candidate’s spouse, and the ceremony that conferred legitimate kingship was accordingly portrayed as a martial feast. Therefore, inauguration sites mostly offered superlative views over the surrounding landscape, not always to every point of the compass, but generally taking in the core of the territory. The principal impact of these places is one of prospect – for the monuments themselves are often understated. …

Inauguration venues convincingly lack homogeneity. The range of sites identified with certainty as inauguration places includes hilltop enclosures, less frequently natural places, church sites and ringforts, and more popularly earthen mounds.” p.35

As to the discovery of graves or burials either in close proximity of theses sites or within:

“The decision of early medieval dynasties and later medieval ruling families to choose these sites for royal elections was not arbitrary, but informed by the need to legitimise authority through reference to the past. The early medieval cultivation of a concept of ‘antique’ landscape by Gaelic royalty is integral to understanding both their perceived or desired ancestry and the archaeology of royal inauguration. In fulfilment of an illustrious connection to the past, a prehistoric sepulchral mound may have been adopted, with or without modification, for use as a place of assembly, or a purpose-built platform perhaps added to an earlier ceremonial landscape.” p.38/39

“Those ‘ceremonial’ landscapes were lived in, altered and enhanced by the addition of new monuments. The apparent primary motivation behind that interest was the creation of pedigree and territorial history, in order to validate the right to rule.” p 52

This agrees well with Brian Lacey’s ‘fabrication of the Northern O’Neill’s’ in his book “Cenél Conaill and the Donegal Kingdom AD 500-800”. It also shows that a change in the political landscape, around the arrival of Christianity, which must have caused some fraction, and the beginning at the same time of the early medieval era, invoked a severe need for claims to any ancestral rights, made up or not. Whenever the self styled Northern O’Neills did finally annexed the rulership of Aileach, and I have the sneaking suspicion that it was later then the 5th century, they, without a doubt, wiggled their ancestry to fit such claims and with it a right to the new territories of their expansion. After their extension into the east of Ulster some time later and the submission of the tribes and culture there, Tulach Og became their ‘new’ inauguration site because it was an ancient sacred place of the freshly suppressed and by claiming it, they ensured their succession and rulership. As they English defeated the O’Neills in the ever so rebellious Ulster, one of their first acts was the destruction Tulach Og. What goes around comes around.

With such a severe lack of anything Inishowen or Aileach in the annals and manuscripts, it occurred to me that no O’Neill may have actually resided at Aileach. Not only is the title of king of Aileach in those annals a later attachment, and fashioned as a trophy claim, but by the time it was used, East Ulster was already conquered and their inauguration site at Tulach Og. Éogan, alleged son of Niall of the Nine Hostages, was not baptised at Aileach but to the south and outside of Inishowen in a wood (see Brian Lacey as above). So what and who was at Aileach, forcing the O’Neills to conclude that is was of vital importance to incorporate it into their spin of ancestry? What was so powerful that they had to eliminate it by claiming to be its rightful heirs? And if they resided at and ruled from the palace at Aileach, surely there would have been more than one account of it, which was written decades after its destruction by Muirchertach Ua Briain in 1101 (in The Circuit of Muirchertach Mac Neill).


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