Elagh Castle, the real capital of Ulster

The following is a transcript of the talk by Cormac McSparron (Queens University Belfast) on May 22 in the Exchange, Buncrana by Ruth Garvey-Williams and I would like to use this opportunity to express sincere gratitude to Ruth for recording Cormac’s outstanding talk and truly heart-felt appreciation to our speaker, Cormac Mc Sparron, for sharing with us his tremendous knowledge and extensive research into a place sidelined and forgotten by time. It was an evening unlikely to be forgotten soon.

Elagh Castle, the real capital of Ulster

Introduction from John Hegarty, WIHH:

Cormac led the dig at Elaghmore last summer. It was a fort, long before the Dohertys arrived in Inishowen (maybe dating back to the bronze age). Elagh means the “rocky “place.

Cormac Mc Sparron
Centre for Archaeological Field Work at Queen’s University.

It is a great privilege to be here tonight. This was a very rewarding project. It is something I’ve looked at for many years.

Elagh is a wonderful place because, not only do we have physical remains with an impressive tower in a lovely location, there is also a huge tapestry of stories and legend and conjecture that has been mulled over for centuries associated with Aileach and Elagh.

We now have the capability to bring a focus to the studies around Elagh castle and our collective history in Ulster in the middle ages. We are now able to shed light on these things with the possibilities through advances in our understanding of chronology to answer questions we haven’t been able to in the past.

The name Aileach is used in a number of different ways for different sites. Often in recent times the name is associated with An Grianán.

The best way to think about Aileach is as the historic capital of Cenel Eoghain. Various different family groups split off from the Uí Neill. Aileach was the capital of one of the big branches of the Uí Neill. This was one of the big power brokers in the northern part of Ireland and in some parts of Scotland as well. They were incredibly important not just for our own history.

At Elagh castle, we have a fragment of a stone tower that is clearly part of something that was much bigger and constructed on a rocky eminence. In the field boundaries around the castle, there are features, which became significant in our excavation.

It is sometimes referred to as Doherty’s tower. The latest history there was the O’Doherty family (gaining control around the 1400’s). What they lived in there was almost certainly much more than we see today.

Most of the structure was demolished in the 17th or early 18th century to stop it being of military use. It is generally assumed by archaeologists who have examined it that this tower was part of a Double D shaped gatehouse. The Double D structure would not have sat on its own: there would have been a curtain wall on top of the rock and there were probably a number of other towers and structures within the Double D and the curtain wall.

This is supported by map evidence. We have a couple of maps dating from the early 1600’s. One of those maps depicts the castle as a multi-towered structure with a wall and buildings inside it and with what looks like a wooded avenue leading from Derry up to the front entrance of the castle.

Why is Aileach associated with Grianán?

The first modern direct association between the two seems to stem from Colby’s Ordnance Survey of 1837. He demonstrated a romantic desire to associate the Grianán with Aileach and presented various arguments.

Recent scholarship suggests that Elagh castle is a candidate for where Aileach was located. (Warner and Lacy).

16th Century

Tadhg Dall O’Huiginn was a poet who served Sean O’Dochartaigh, the Lord of Inishowen in the late 16th century and he talks about Aileach as a beautiful palace with four towers and explicitly identifies Aileach and Elagh castle together. His poem in praise of his master suggests that Sean O’Dochartaigh is ennobled by owning Elagh castle – this is a bold statement to make! The poem also talks about a labyrinth of some kind at Elagh.

12th Century

There are a number of poetic accounts that talk about the history of Aileach. Collectively these poems agree on several points:

· The origin of Aileach as the tomb of Aed (the son of the Dagda – the god of pre-Christian era). Aed was at Tara when he seduced the wife of an warrior who then slayed Aed. The Dagda wanted to kill the warrior but he was merciful when he realised that there was provocation and suggested that the killer should create a “great tomb” to remember his son. The killer searches Ireland and eventually finds the appropriate stone and drags it to the top of the hill and drops dead but calling out “Ail ach” with his death cry.

· It was fortified by Imchell, leading it to sometimes being called Aileach Imchell. In early medieval text a rath was a rampart.

· The use of Aileach as the fort of Frigru, the Pict and his lover Aileac – the daughter of the Scottish King.

· Two of the poems say it was a stronghold of the Ulaid and that is was sized by Eoghan whose ownership was blessed by St Patrick (Uí Neill propaganda – associating St Patrick, Eoghan and Aileach)

Aileach in the Annals

Many references but used for the tribal heartland and almost poetically for the “north”. It is mentioned specifically in a context which is clearly talking about Aileach as a place and as the capital of the Cenel Eoghain.

In 676, all of the annals talk about the destruction by Fínsnechta. In 939 there are references to Viking raids on Aileach and the sacking of Aileach in 1101/2. That was the first time it was associated with the Grianán.

There are continued references to Aileach after 1101 /2 but talking as kings of Aileach (more as a concept than a place). The focus of the capital has moved to somewhere else.

There is an early 14th century letter written by the king of Ulster to an aristocrat in Munster (1316) signed the letter in a way that looks like “King of Aileach” in Latin. It is a controversial letter because some people think it is a forgery. It is enticing to think that in the 14th century that Aileach was being used once again as an important conceptual capital.

On the one hand we have the story of Elagh castle built in the 1300’s and then there is this mythical thing (the Aileach) which has traditionally been associated with the Grianán but because of the association could be Elagh and goes back through history and Celtic gods. We have two strands to this story.

This is where physical archaeology can play a part. Although the Four Masters writing about 1101/2 in the 1600’s made the association with the Grianán, it is only from Colby in the 19th century that it became fixed in people’s mind. Colby rejected Elagh castle because the structure looked like something that went back into the Middle Ages.

We wanted to see if we could shed some light on these questions. The first thing that was done was a geophysical survey. The amount of electrical resistance in the soil is dependent on the amount of moisture in the soil. Submerged archaeological features change the amount of moisture retention of the soil. This can be measured and plotted on a base map and you can see things in the soil.

Unfortunately we did this in November and the soil was waterlogged but we were still able to pick up quite a lot of interesting things including a curved field boundary. We saw quite strong and deep signals and thought it was a good candidate for an excavation. On top of the rock there was a very unusual depression and earthen bank and we thought we would examine that as well.

We numbered the trenches (three, four and five).

Location of the trenches. Image by QUB.

Trench 3 was most interesting although it was only a metre wide. We discover things through changes in moisture in the soil. What we encountered was the early stages of a moat or “ditch”. This was a small excavation and it was a joint venture between the community and the university but we could identify that we had a very deep ditch or moat at that point, which matched up our geophysical anomaly at the field boundary.

The material from this moat and ditch and on the inner face a stonewall had been build up against the inside of this earthen bank. We excavated the moat to 1.5 metres but it was going a lot deeper than that (probably 2.5 metres). The material from that would have been mounded up onto a high bank that would have been faced in stone. Behind it we have this surface, which was probably a deliberately made “paved” surface of some kind.

Bettina Linke from WIHH helped to photograph the dig and her photos have proved to be extremely helpful because of their excellent colour balance and composition.

We have a ditch, we have an earthen wall which together represent a defence that was probably five metres high, which lines up with the field boundary. It is likely that it was approx. a circle an enclosing diameter of roughly 100 metres so a substantial rampart or rath surrounding Elagh castle.

So the question is what era does this date to? It looks like an early Medieval rampart although when we dug underneath the bank we found archaeological features. The charcoal samples were taken by John Hegarty from WIHH and the researchers have tested those samples and have pulled out glass rods which have been identified as the waste from enamelling (dating from 6-7th century AD). That bank is likely to date to the earliest reliable references to Aileach.

This craft activity (enamelling) was taking place around about 600 AD and it was a high status craft, shortly before the construction of the bank around the rock.

Trench 4 was on top of the rock was surprising- we found evidence of early 20th century excavation probably by treasure hunters. Unfortunately they had dug down into archaeological deposits and had destroyed much of them.

There was however a gully cut into the natural bedrock – it makes no sense as a wall foundation. One possibility considered was of a souterrain (early underground stone tunnels which are used for storage or refuge purposes). It would be interesting if the top of the rock at Elagh castle had one or more souterrains and it would make sense of the poetry references to a “labyrinth” at Elagh. A geophysical surface has indicated another possible location of a souterrain.

We found trace of packed material that looks like earthen floor deposit that was trodden down over a number of years (possibly a courtyard). We found some artefacts in this trench including a bronze age thumb nail scraper (associated with a bronze age burial). The thought that their might have been a bronze age burial is enticing but it is only one artefacts and we cannot build a whole story from it.

Early 17th century consistent with the period immediately after Cahir O’Doherty lost power. That ties in with another era of history of the site just before it’s final destruction when it was robbed for building stone for the nearby farm buildings and to stop it being a place of military significance.

Our trench five was interesting but frustrating because we could only excavate a little bit. The most significant thing was a collection of large dressed stones. This is down on the green and it is consistent with the sort of things that would have been consistent for a wall around Doherty’s tower in the 14th century. Because of the size of our trench and the difficulty of extracting these stones (because we want to properly draw and remove them) we’ve decided to leave them in situ and expose a wider area at a later date.

The tower and trench 5

How does archaeology relate back to the debate about the location of Aileach (the capital of Ulster)?

· It shows we have an early medieval phase of Elagh

· That occupation at the site is high status

· That it is surrounded by a rath (a rampart)

· That there is a significant moat from the 6th / 7th century


The excavation has removed the objections to seeing Elagh as Aileach and makes it a much more viable candidate as the capital of the Cenel Eoghain.

The likely border of the territory is likely to be the Pennyburn depression. I think this removes any remaining doubt that Elagh is the site of Aileach castle.

We will be returning to Elagh in 2015 for more excavations including a major excavation of the ditch (trench 3). A main focus will be chronology and environmental analysis. We will have to make the excavations very wide in order to go down deep to avoid the dangers of a trench wall collapse.

Environmental analysis: Frequently at the bottom of a ditch there is tremendous preservation of environmental matter such as leaves and seeds.

Chronology: Carbon dating has become far more accurate and we are now able to date things to within a human generation.



Cormack McSparron; Excavations at Elagh Castle, CAF Data Structure Report No. 99 (full excavation report)
Photos from last summer’s excavation and an article by Eilis Haden
A vast collection of manuscripts and texts, including annals at CELT
Metrical Dindshenchas: Ailech I, Aileach II and Aileach III
The bardic poems of Tadhg Dall Ó Huiginn (1550–1591) Inishowen, poem for Sean O’Dochartaigh
Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork (CAF) Data Structure Reports for County Londonderry

Cormac’s trenches

Elagh or Grianán …

… to be or not to be …

… that is the question.

For some it took time to digest

… while the next generation choose a creative approach

Elagh Castle, the real capital of Ulster

… a very agreeable thought

The answer may lie at the deep end of trench 3



5 thoughts

  1. So who built the later medieval castle? Was it built prior to the O’Donnells taking Inishowen, by them, or by O’Dohertys after the O’Donnells gave it to them as vassals?

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