Cookstown's Hidden Heritage

A triumvirate of cultural gems  

When I heard about Cookstown District Council's Hidden Heritage programme my inner historian came to the fore. The public events were held in three of the district's main historical attractions, located in or around Cookstown itself: Beaghmore Stone Circles, Ardboe Cross and Tullahogue Fort. Keen to find out more about the cultural heritage of my neck of the woods, I set out to attend each event and see what I could learn.

Hidden Heritage started on June 19 at the seven Stone Circles at Beaghmore which were discovered by peat cutters in 1940 when 1,269 stones were uncovered. Archaeologist James Bamford talked to us about the enigmatic stones and the valuable role they played in our ancestor’s way of life since Neolithic times. These are the most extensive concentration of stone circles in Ireland and were last excavated in 1965.

According to Mackay's Dictionary of Ulster Place-Names, the name Beaghmore is derived from the Gaelic Bheitheach Mhór, meaning 'big place of birch trees'; a name that reflects the fact that the area was a woodland before being cleared by Neolithic farmers. All of the circles are associated with cairns and a stone row runs towards these cairns.

At some stage peat started to form over the site, and it may conceivably be that the cairns and rows were erected in a futile attempt to restore fertility to the soil by attracting back the fading sun.

Some archaeologists believe that the circles have been constructed in relation to the rising sun at solstice, or to act as observatories for particular lunar, solar or stellar events. Three of the stone rows point to the sunrise at the time of the solstice and another is aligned towards moonrise at the same period. Whatever the truth, the stone circles of Beaghmore are an impressive sight with an atmosphere that causes you to pause and reflect on our past.

Following the talk, participants moved to An Creagan Visitor Centre, located on the main Cookstown to Omagh road at the foothills of the Sperrins. There we watched demonstrations on how weapons were made, food prepared and cooked, wool was woven for clothes and houses built. This provided us with a taste of how life developed in Ireland, beginning in the Ice Age, moving through both the Neolithic and Mesolithic periods and finally the Bronze Age.

The following month, on July 24, Ardboe Cross was the destination for the next stage of the heritage series. Standing exceptionally high, at about 18.5 feet, with arms 3.5 feet wide, local historian Pat Grimes explained the significance of the 22 panels etched on this tenth century sandstone monument –believed to be the first high cross erected in Ulster.

The cross is all that now remains of a sixth century monastery, which was established by St. Colman Muchaidhe. The monastery was burned in 1166, destroying any early wooden structures. Nonetheless, Ardboe survived as a centre for Christian worship, later becoming the site of a medieval parish, and in the nearby graveyard stands the remains of a 17th century church erected for Church of Ireland worship.

The graveyard too was the site of a tree, known locally as the Ardboe Pin Tree, into which people had traditionally put coins or pins, believing it to cure them of ailments.

The cross itself is located on a rocky height on the western shores of Lough Neagh, approximately ten miles from Cookstown. Mr. Grimes explained that the wonderfully ornate panels on the cross depict various biblical scenes; and how they should be read, with biblical cravings pertaining to the Old Testament on the east side, and the New Testament on the west.

Part of the local legend maintains that emigrants in the earlier part of the 20th century often took with them a small chip of stone from the cross, as a sentimental gift for their new life elsewhere.

My grandfather originated from this part of rural East Tyrone, and I was intrigued to find out more about its fascinating historical background. Indeed Coyle’s Cottage, (the name owing to my ancestors) in close proximity to the high cross, is a 300 year old restored fisherman’s cottage in the nearby townland of Aneeterbeg. I only recently discovered that it is the home of the Muintirevlin Historical Society and Gort Moss Walking Club - and regularly hosts music nights and traditional music classes.

The excellent series concluded on August 21, when Tullahogue Fort, in the townland of Ballymully Glebe, came alive with living history, stories and arts and crafts workshops. I was fortunate enough to participate in this final voyage of the summer series, as the famous fort was brought to life through the eyes of the legendary Hugh O’Neill.

A group of 18 people departed the Burnavon Centre at 3pm (incidentally the third group to take the tour that particular day), and tour guide Mary McKeown relayed her knowledge of Cookstown’s churches and other important buildings of historical significance on our short journey to the fort which is located less than three miles from Cookstown town centre.

Participants heard about 16th Century life in Tyrone courtesy of the last native king of Ireland, Hugh O’Neill (alias Geoff Bartholomew). Local historians passed on their knowledge to the adults while children were entertained with folklore.

The last ceremony took place at the fort in 1595 when Hugh O’Neill was inaugurated as 'The O’Neill' – and Earl of Tyrone. During the re-enactment the adults had time to interact with the Earl and gain an insight into what it was like to live in Ireland over 400 years ago.

The participating children, which included my son Dáire, had the opportunity to sit on the O’Neill’s inauguration chair and hear a special story written by local writer Gerry McAuley from the Burnavon Writers’ Group. They heard about how the fairies named the fort and its inhabitants many years ago and then went in search of fairies hiding nearby before creating their own bespoke piece of art in an ancient Celtic style with the assistance of local artist Andre Hayes.

This isn't the first event celebrating local history in Cookstown. A few years ago, there was a grand event at Tullahogue Fort to commemorate 400 years of the ‘Flight of the Earls’. This was one of the key events in Irish history, on September 4, 1607, the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell (present-day Donegal), including Hugh O’Neill along with a close circle of family and associates, boarded a ship at Rathmullan on the shore of Lough Swilly, bound for Spain where they hoped to recruit an army for the invasion of Ireland with Spanish help.

This watershed event – albeit ultimately unsuccessful - marked the end of the Gaelic political order in Ireland, and with it the end of inauguration ceremonies for the O’Neill clan at Tullahogue Fort.

Next year, it is hoped that funding can be secured to once again provide this popular and important cultural programme of events to the residents of Cookstown and further afield. Other venues such as Dún Ruadh at Broughderg and Derryloran Old Church are just two of the possible additions for a 2011 event.

The poet Paul Muldoon recently spoke about the great, and arguably, unfulfilled potential of cultural tourism here in Northern Ireland during an interview on BBC Radio Ulster. From my own experiences over the summer months I would have to agree with any assertion that there is much hidden heritage for the locals to experience as equally as those from further afield.

For more information on any of the events mentioned please contact Cookstown Tourist Information Centre on 028 867 69949 or email