Excavation at the old O’Doherty Castle at Elaghmore

A second excavation took place by archaeologists from Queens University Belfast at the Castle of Elagh at Elaghmore from August 14th- 23rd.
The team and the dig were received with much interest, for archaeological excavations on Inishowen are nearly unheard of, leaving our peninsula and former island often unmentioned in an all-Ireland historical context with barely any past at all.
The choice of the site itself was a very intriguing one, not just for its unusually and spectacular views towards the monument, now know as the Grianán of Aileach and therefore the often perceived location of the site of the ancient palace of Aileach, but for the old age rumours that this seat of power actually stood at Elaghmore, as recited in a poem by Tadhg Dall Ó Huiginn (1550–1591) of Inishowen.

Last March trench 1 and 2 were excavated during the first stage of this project, after anomalies were identified as a result of a geophysical survey undertaken before hand. Trench 3, 4 and 5 formed the second part of the investigation into the origin of this castle.
An online diary of this second phase can be found at the LegenDerryDigs website.

Location of the trenches. Image by CAF, Queens University Belfast.

Some members of our heritage group picked up for their first time a trowel by volunteering in the trenches and got introduced to the practical  aspects of archaeology with the support of the wonderful team on site. Except of course our very own John Hegarty, who’s experience and persistence lead to discoveries in trench 3.

Being part of this excavation has been an unique and special experience and we wish to thank the archaeologists, who so kindly and despite their work load took time to explain to everyone who came the trenches, findings and the possible meaning of it all.

The features found during this excavation in all three trenches still left more questions than answers, leaving only one conclusion – the team has to come back and extent the trenches in effort to accomplish the task they set out to do – finding the origin and history of this castle.

Trench 5 in front of the tower

Trench 4 with I an Leitch, team leader Cormac McSparron, Sapphire Mussen, Stuart Alexander and Grace McAlister.

Hard at work in trench 3 to the south. With Stuart Alexander, Eilis Haden, a volunteer, Ian Leitch and John Hegarty.

Trench 3

Stuart Alexander, John Hegarty and John McLoughlin

With Janice Driver, John Hegarty, Stuart Alexander and John McLoughlin

The depth of the ditch without having reached the bottom

The still buried wall.

The two course dry stone wall is revealed. With John Boyle, John McLoughlin and Stuart Alexander

Acrobatics. Stuart Alexander and John McLoughlin.

Pondering over John’s trench in the rain. With Angela MacLochlainn, John Hegarty, John McLoughlin, the farmer from the next field and Liam McLochlainn.

Time Team Inishowen. With Angela MacLochlainn.

With John Hegarty, John McLoughlin and Liam McLochlainn .

Two post holes are discovered.

And the proud finders are: John Hegarty and Liam McLochlainn

Commotion at the trench.

Result of the last day: more post holes and stake holes turning up everywhere.

Trench 4

Sapphire digging herself into a deep ditch. With Cormac McSparron and Sapphire Mussen.

Some of the not so old but beautiful and intact bottles from the top layer.

Grace McAlister recording.

With Gregory Maguire and Cormac McSparron at the extention of the trench.

A whetstone and flint scraper found in this extension. Hand belonging to the finder, Gregory Maguire

Searching for dateable material. With Sean Boyle, Cormac McSparron, a volunteer and Sapphire Museen

Visitors on site. With Adam Porter, Angela MacLochlainn and Cormac McSparron.

Connor Wood with his find – a beautiful flint scraper.

Denise Gallanagh-Wood and Sapphire Mussen.

The trench during lunch break.

Connor Wood and Caolan Doherty sieving soil.

NW section in which Conor found his scraper.

Layer of stones at the eastern end.

Last day. Much recording and more questions. With Sapphire Mussen and Gregory Maguire.

Trench 5

Dermot Redmond’s ever changing trench. With Ian Leitch and Niall Coyle.

The extension to the trench to reveal the hearth. Also, a couple of post holes and a rather large stone. With Dermot Redmond and a volunteer.

Dermot Redmond and his post hole.

The rather large boulder.

View from the tower onto the trench.

A heap of activity. With Dermot Redmond, two volunteers, Janice Driver and Grace McAlister.

Stones at the western end which seem to have formed the foundation for a structure.

Grace McAlister recording.

Dermot Redmond with plenty of paper work on the last day.

The Irish Royal Family – Home At Last

Cormac McSparron is a man on a mission. From the age of five he was digging up his parents garden searching for signs of lives lived before.  “I got the idea from an eccentric uncle” Cormac says.  “He was forever getting us to dig for gold and hidden treasure and so I started a string of my own backyard excavations”.  When I was in school the careers teacher was totally dismissive when I said I wanted to be an Archaeologist.  I think his response went something like “Sure you can’t teach that!”  Cormac eventually compromised and went to Queens University Belfast to read  History (a subject you can teach) with a component of Archaeology.  Now an Excavation Director with the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork at Queens, Cormac is here in Derry-Londonderry helping us locals to discover our origins.
Thanks to the support of the N.I.E.A., Derry City Council Museum & Heritage Service, North-West Volunteer Bureau and Derry-Londonderry 2013, Queens are in the process of completing their second dig at Elagh Castle (O’Doherty’s Tower) in Galliagh.  “We are very excited by what we have found here” says Cormac.  Elagh Castle has been of tremendous interest to Archaeologists for over a hundred years.  Some may find it shocking to hear this but there has always been sneaking suspicion that Elagh and not The Grianan of Aileach was in fact the palace of the High Kings of Ireland.  In the 19th Century Victorian archaeologists decided upon An Grianan as the centre of power but the sceptics never gave up and what we have found over the past two weeks could prove them right – This of course opens up a whole host of questions about what An Grianan was used for if it was not the base of the High Kings but that’s a story for another day.”
“Whilst we had done a geophysical survey in February which showed signs of structures stretching beyond the reaming tower, there is always the risk of getting  it wrong and so we very nervous that our hopes would be dashed and all we would find was bedrock. As you can imagine we breathed huge sighs of relief when we discovered the base of a large masonry structure and a moat that had once surrounded the buildings held within. These indicate a settlement that per-dates O’Doherty.  Another exciting find was a beautiful Bronze Age thumbnail scraper which could have been accidentally dropped by a person from that time or could in fact be an indicator of a burial ground or even settlement.”
So what would it mean to us here in Derry and Donegal if Elagh was in fact the seat of the Uí Neill dynasty?  “Well as archaeologists we have to be detached but at the end of the day this is really jaw dropping stuff. There has been a tendency in Ireland over the past 100-150 years for historians to assume that important developments in the British Isles went from East to West (started in Buckinghamshire and then spread out to Ireland).  If we find sophisticated and extensive residences and centres of medieval dynasties here, it proves that, okay we didn’t do anything better than the good people of South East England but we certainly weren’t lying around languishing in
The kings of Aileach (the Northern Uí Neill) were one of the most powerful dynasties in Britain and Ireland and probably as powerful as the Kings of Northumbria (who existed before the English kingship became unified).  It was the  Uí Neills themselves who sponsored the Dál Riata [Gaelic-Irish colony based in Ulster and Scotland] which lay at the core of the Scottish Kingship.  A lot of people don’t yet know that the Romans referred to the Irish as ‘Scoti’ and the Scottish as ‘Albana’ and so the links between our two countries are closer than we think.”
“I believe” says Cormac “that archaeology holds the potential to create a shared space for people to discuss their historical differences and find some common ground. Of course a lot of people in Northern Ireland get worried and think that by admitting commonality we are signing up to the others political agenda.  But it doesn’t have to be about that – it can just be a matter of finding that we have a lot in common.”
So when will we hear the analysis of what’s been discovered at Elagh?  “The plan is to publish a booklet on our findings and perhaps launch it at a symposium on this and other digs being held in the city.  We have not yet finished in Derry-Londonderry as in the week beginning on 9th September, Queens will be launching a new dig in Bishop Street near St Augustine’s Church.  Here we will be seeking out the remains of a medieval monastery dating back to the time of Columba.  In addition to this, we recently spent two weeks at Prehen House where we found the a fine example of a plantation fortification , previously undiscovered.”
And so how has Cormac found working with his team of Volunteers from Derry-Londonderry?  “We have had so much fun here.”  Cormac says.  “The people who joined us on both digs were so enthusiastic,  friendly and interesting and of course the local knowledge that many have is so helpful. It has been a real privilege to work here and the warmth of the welcome we received filters into our drive to return.
At the moment we are exploring the possibility of a 2014 dig at Elagh  during which we would look for evidence of the wealth of the great Uí Neills.  This would involve a magnetometry survey aimed at picking up areas of combustion which would indicate the presence of a forge or craft working areas.  In addition we hope to come up with an artistic reconstruction of what the site looked like in the different periods throughout history.  Before now, archaeologists have had little idea of what a Gaelic Centre from the latter half of the first millennium would have looked like so we could really break new ground here.”
Many full moons may have passed over Elaghmore since Cormac first dug for treasure in his parents back garden and many may agree that it is our city’s good fortune that he ignored the sensible advice of his career guidance teacher and expanded his horizons.

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