Tullaghogue , County Tyrone

The longest dynastic rule in Ireland began in the 5th century AD , when a tribe called Connachta occupied Tara in County Meath. Their great King was called Niall , and from him the leading family of the tribe took the name Ui Neill (‘descendants of Niall’).

In the singular this is O Neill , and when patronymics developed into surnames in the Middle Ages this became the most prestigious surname in Ireland. The great Ui Neill family claimed the High-Kingship of Ireland , and most of the country was under their sway for centuries.

They divided early into two leading branches – the Northern Ui Neill in Ulster and the Southern Ui Neill in the plain of Meath. For many centuries , indeed , these two branches alternated the High-Kingship between them by common agreement.

Eventually , other septs succeeded in wrestling the High-Kingship from them in the 11th century , and within a few generations Ireland came to be ruled by the Anglo-Norman kings from London. In these circumstances , the Northern Ui Neill maintained all of their family pride and the hope of one day regaining their premier place in Irish life.

Their inauguration site was at Tulach Og (‘hillock of the young warriors’) , just South of Cookstown in County Tyrone. Within the ring-fort there , the O Neill chieftain was proclaimed leader of his people while sitting on a stone chair. The last of the great chieftains of this family was Aodh O Neill , Earl of Dungannon , leader of the Irish in the ‘Nine Years War’ against the Elizabethan armies. He died in Italy in 1616 , at the age of 76. In his cups , the old leader would sometimes remark: ‘There will be a fine sunny day in Ireland yet!’

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