To The Mountains & Beyond

....and what we found there

A Tour of Some of the Historic Sites in and around the Sperrins: 2009

The main purpose of this tour was to re-visit some historic sites, mainly in Co Derry, in and around the Sperrin Mountains. The usual route through the Sperrins is via the Glenshane Pass but we decided to avoid this and travel outwards by a more southerly route and homewards by a northerly route. While most of the area to be explored is in Co Derry our outward journey was through Co Tyrone.

Our first site was that magnificent hilltop earthwork Tullahogue Fort, Co Tyrone (H825743). This large earthwork sits on top of a hill in Ballymully Glebe townland. It was the residence of the O'Hagans who, with the O'Cahans, were responsible for conducting the inauguration of the O'Neill chieftains. From the 11th century Tullahogue was the dynastic centre and inauguration place of the Cenel nEogain, who later became to O'Neills. At first glance the fort appears to be a very large rath. However it does not have a typical rath structure. There is large central polygonal embanked enclosure. This is surrounded by a wide flat space which is bounded by a substantial bank. The central mound may be reached via a causeway through the banks. Bartlett's map of 1601 shows the fort as having two gateways and two thatched buildings, with the stone inauguration chair on the hillside to the SE. Mountjoy reported that he demolished the chair during his advance against the O'Neills in 1602. To the SW, at the foot of the hill, is a circular walled graveyard. This is Donaghrisk, the traditional burial place of the O'Hagans.

Our route took us through Cookstown and we entered Co Derry just north of Lough Fea. At Ballybriest at least four megalithic tombs and a stone circle are known to have existed. The largest structure at present is the dual-court tomb (H762885) at the top of the hill. It is known locally as Carnanbane, although the name sometimes refers to the total collection. The monument is aligned E-W. Land clearance in the 18th and 19th centuries removed the northern half of the monument and the tomb is now stripped of its cairn. The tomb to the west has an oval court but the north side of this is not original. It leads to a two-chambered gallery. The depth of the court is about 4.5m and the gallery is about 6m long. The tomb to the east is more ruinous. It has a larger court about 4.5m wide at the front and about 5m deep. Only fragments of the gallery, about 4m long, remain. Excavation in the 1930s revealed burnt bone, several flint scrapers and knives, and Neolithic pottery sherds. The tomb was found to have been built on an occupation site, with hearths, pot sherds and hazel nuts. About 100m south of the court-tombs is Ballybriest Wedge Tomb (H763883). It is about 5.5m long by 3.5m wide at the front and consists of a single chamber covered by two capstones. One of the capstones is about 1.8m by 1.2m and the other is 1.7m by 1m. The sides of the chamber appears to be formed from two single stones but surrounding peat obscures some of the detail. There is a back-stone but it is almost completely buried. The two portal stones are at the SW edge and are higher than the other stones. The entrance is just over 1m wide. There was another wedge tomb just on the other side of the roadway. It was slightly smaller than this monument and retained most of its kerb. It was demolished in 1997 ahead of quarrying. The stones have been stored and it is hoped to re-erect the tomb at a suitable location. It also had a single chamber covered by two capstones. It was about 3.5m long by 2m wide at the front. The entrance to both these tombs was in the SW. Our route through the mountains took us through Moneyneany towards Feeny. It had been our intention to approach Banagher Old Church from the SW but an error in judgement found us temporarily lost to the south of the Glenshane Pass. We eventually joined that route and arrived on the outskirts of Dungiven.

The Celtic monastery on the site was founded by St Naechtain in the 7th century. It was succeeded by a 12th century Priory of Augustinian Canons, associated with the O'Cahan family. The Priory (C692083) was dedicated to St Mary. The nave of the church probably dates from about 1140. The exterior east end still preserves slight extensions of the north and south walls beyond the gable ends. Blind arcading can still be seen in the eastern interior corners, which helps date the building to no later than the second quarter of the 12th century. In the north wall of the nave is a pointed window and a pointed doorway which is rounded on the outside. There is a very fine round-headed window in the south wall. It has very fine moulding on the outside. The chancel dates from the 13th century and was originally stone-vaulted in two bays. In it is a tomb, traditionally that of Cooey-na-Gall O'Cahan who died in 1385, though the flamboyant tracery suggests a 15th century date. The figure is of a warrior in a quilted garment, with a row of six gallowglasses along the front of the tomb, all suggesting a western Scottish carver. There are two niches in the east wall and two lancet windows. In the south wall is a pointed window and a blocked doorway. There is no record of the fate of the priory after Suppression but it would seem that about that time a tower-house was built at the west end of the church. In 1603 Dungiven was described as a suppressed monastery or house of canons. About 1610 the area was granted to Sir Edward Doddington by the Skinners Company. He built a grand house here. For many years it was assumed that Dungiven Castle occupied the site of Doddington’s house. Thomas Raven’s map of 1622 has a drawing of the Skinners building close to the river. It is a building with a courtyard with a tower in the NW corner. The north range of buildings looks like a nave-and-chancel church. The main body of the house occupies the west range. Excavations in the 1970s and 1980s revealed the foundation of Doddington’s house and of the tower-house. The south and east sides of the bawn have not been found. Presumably they are still under the graveyard. The graveyard is very overgrown and most of the stones appear to be 19th century. Near the north-east corner is a very fine rag-tree. Beneath it is a moss-covered bullaun-stone. Water within the bullaun serves as a wart-well.

About 3km SW of Dungiven Priory, in Magheramore townland, is Banagher Old Church (C676066). It stands on a prominent hill of sand and gravel. It is said to have been founded by Muiredagh O'Heney, a local saint who may have lived in the 11th or early 12th century. Near the entrance to the graveyard are the remains of a small square building. It may be the medieval priest’s dwelling. It is featureless except for a door lintel which may not be original. Just outside it is a bullaun-stone. The church is a nave-and-chancel structure. It is first mentioned in 1121.The nave may date from this time but the chancel was added in the 13th century. It was used as a medieval parish church but abandoned in the 17th century. It has a very fine west doorway with a massive lintel and an excellent square moulding. The inside of the doorway is round. The south wall of the nave has a fine, deeply-recessed, round-headed window and a similar window in the south wall of the chancel has very fine moulding. Both windows have good exterior moulding. There is a trace of a window in the north wall but the east wall is almost entirely gone. However a fragment of an ambry may be seen in the east wall. The former existence of a chancel arch is suggested by the moulded bases of the pillars. The outer corners of the chancel have attached moulded pillars with carved capitals. One of these features a beast with a long tail. In the churchyard is a magnificent church-shaped tomb with a carved panel at the west end featuring a cleric. It probably dates from the 13th century and may be the reliquary tomb of the saint. It is one of several church-shaped tombs in the area. Sand from the site of the tomb is said to bring good luck to members of the O’Heney Family. There are reports of handfuls of the sand being thrown at racehorses to encourage a favourable result. Near the east edge of the graveyard is a crude stone cross. A similar cross may be seen at the roadside a short distance away. There are a number of fine memorial stones. One of them depicts a skull-and-crossbones and other symbols of mortality. They all have coats-of-arms but any inscriptions are illegible.

An attempt was made to view the court-tomb at Carnanbane, about 1km SW of Banagher Church. However its lies somewhere to the east of a narrow single-track road and we failed to find it. No suitable parking and no easy access to the fields. By the time we had abandoned the search for Carnanbane it was after 2 p.m. and we were still on our outward journey.

We drove rapidly northwards, close to the west bank of River Roe, until we reached Tamlaght Church (C678313), about 2km NNW of Bellarena. This church is sometimes known as Tamlaghtard (presumably to distinguish it from the many other Tamlaghts in the area). St Aidan founded a monastery at Tamlaght before moving to Lindisfarne the establish the great priory there. The holy well and rag-tree at Tamlaght bear his name. There is a small ruined church on top of the hill. Just outside the east gable is, what appears to be, a low stone-covered grave mound. On the north side it has a perforated stone and it may be a low building. Tradition holds that this is the grave of the saint and the perforation allows the faithful to touch the relics. This is one of several reliquaries in Co Derry, the best example being at Banagher Old Church. The graveyard is said to be the resting place of Denis Hempson, known as ‘the last of the bards’. He was the star performer at the great rally of harpists in Belfast in 1792. He was born near Garvagh in 1695 and died in 1807. For most of his earlier life he lived at Magilligan but in his later years he lived near the Umbra in a cottage provided by the Earl Bishop of Derry. In 1745 he played in Edinburgh for Bonnie Prince Charlie. His instrument, known as the Downhill Harp, is preserved in the Guinness collection in Dublin.

By this time the afternoon was well advanced and we decided to abandon our proposed trip to view the martello tower at Magilligan. We selected a northern route which would eventually bring us to Maghera. We hoped that along the way that we would see the wedge-tomb at Largantea. However due to a serious map-reading error we missed the site by several kilometres. We found that there was no simple northern route through the Sperrins. By a long and winding road, through Macosquin and Garvagh we eventually reached the market town of Maghera. The antiquities at Moneydig and Bellaghy, which were part of our original scheme, will have to be experienced on another day.

Maghera and its surrounding area is rich in antiquities but the only one we had time to visit was the Old Church (C855002). The old name for Maghera is Rath Luraig. St Lurach founded a monastery here in the 6th century. His grave is supposed to be in the churchyard. Abbot Fergus died here in 817 and it was plundered by the Norsemen in 832. The church was burned in 1135 and by the middle of the century Maghera was the seat of a bishopric. Parts of the church may date from the 10th century but there was considerable rebuilding in the 12th century and again in the 16th century. The tower in its present form is a 17th century addition. The doorway leading through the west wall of the church under the tower probably dates from the episcopate of Muiredach O’Coffey (1152-73). It is the most important single Romanesque monument in Ulster and consists of jambs in two orders decorated with floral ornament, animal interlace and figures. They support a 1.6m long lintel bearing a representation of the Crucifixion. Christ is shown with extended arms and flanked by the two thieves, Roman soldiers and angels. The graveyard has many good memorials from the 18th and 19th century including several with raised-letter inscriptions.