Before Bartlett: Hugh O'Neill's Dungannon

Most people who are familiar with the history of Dungannon have seen Richard Bartlett’s colour illustration drawn in 1602-3. It shows the shattered wreck of O’Neill’s main residence. One corner of the tower remains, with a square bawn wall punctuated by gun loops for defence. Below the castle ruins ware nine oval houses with thatch roofs, typical of Irish dwellings. A moat surrounds the site with a caponier built within it, again with gun loops cut into it. Atop the castle wall flies the cross of St. George, graphic proof to all looking at Bartlett’s work, that the power of O’Neill and his allied Irish lords was shattered. However, what we are looking at is a site ravaged by nine years of war, during which O’Neill had slighted it twice. Moreover, Mountjoy had to show he had crushed O’Neill’s confederacy, therefore this is more than a drawing of Dungannon; it was a political statement of English victory.

Visual representations such as Bartlett’s are powerful and can distort our view of what exactly Dungannon looked like. Dungannon played a central role throughout the Nine Years War, as it was the epicentre of O’Neill power in Tyrone, but it was a far busier and complex place than Bartlett’s sad image would suggest. Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone maintained Dungannon as his primary residence and it was from here that he directed some of the earliest actions of the war. Though he was ostensibly still loyal to the crown, he rode from Dungannon to Liscallaghan (modern-day Fivemiletown) to give orders and directions for the Irish spoiling campaign during 1593-4. Riding down the Clogher valley, he was always careful to return to Dungannon by nightfall so as not to raise suspicion. This suggested O’Neill knew English spies were living in or around Dungannon.

Though there are no illustrations of Dungannon prior to Bartlett’s drawing of 1602-3, archaeological excavation has shown that the castle was likely a masonry tower house. These were defended homes of the wealthy, built by both the Gaelic and Anglo-Irish lords, erected from 1400-1650. However Tyrone also built a new hall which he used for banqueting. It was this structure for which he was licenced by the crown to import six tons of roofing lead. None of the lead made it to O’Neill’s walls, as it was repurposed for making bullets for Irish guns (six tonnes makes almost a quarter of a million bullets). The new hall was mentioned in a report by one of Sir Henry Bagenal’s spies in February 1594. He recorded how O’Neill called the chief gentlemen of his own’ to dinner in the hall, where speeches were made and later a conference was had between the earl, Cormac MacBaron, Art O’Neill, Henry O’Neill and ‘diverse others’ for the rest of the afternoon. However, well aware that Bagenal’s man would report all he saw, O’Neill left the hall just before nightfall and entered the castle. He was joined by Cormac MacBaron and Art O’Neill, where held ‘a secret conference for the space of an hour’, away from prying eyes (and ears).

Tyrone also established a nascent manufacturing centre at Dungannon. It was reported early in the war that arms and munitions were being made in Dungannon. In 1596 O’Neill was said to have brought gunsmiths to Dungannon from Glasgow to make firearms, specifically calivers and pistols. This would have represented a significant outlay of capital for O’Neill, as he would have needed to provide facilities for forging metal, crafting wooden stocks, proofing barrels and finishing locks. Furthermore, it was claimed that Tyrone had started to manufacture gunpowder within the town.

Fig. 1. A gunsmith at work

Gunpowder is a mixture of saltpetre (potassium nitrate), charcoal and sulphur, but at the end of the sixteenth century it took more than the simple mixing of ingredients to make powder for O’Neill’s guns. Materials needed to be weighed then ground into fine serpentine powder. This was then wetted and pressed into cakes, dried and forced through sieves to make corned powder for use in firearms. All these facilities had to be built at Dungannon. There was mention of mills at Dungannon which may have been related to the arms making at the site.

Fig. 2. Corning black powder through sieves.

Oddly there were also signs that O’Neill operated a hybrid legal system, using both Brehon law and elements of English law. One sign of this was a report of stocks at Dungannon. These were noted by the Scottish merchant (and spy for the crown) Thomas Douglas in the summer of 1601. He was roughly handled by some of O’Neill’s men while on his way to Dungannon. On complaining to the earl ‘he was very angry at the way I had been treated, and caused some of those who had treated me so to be put in the stocks with their mouths towards the ground’. Stocks were never a punishment found in Brehon law. Douglas also reported Spanish captains drilling O’Neill’s troops in the use of pikes.

The effects of the war finally came to Dungannon in 1595, with the arrival of Lord Deputy Russell at Armagh. O’Neill would not allow his allies to become preoccupied with defending fixed defences or positions, therefore he ordered that they slight their own castles, leading by example when his demolished Dungannon castle. The castle was clearly visible from Russell’s position at Armagh Abbey, but in the space of a day ‘it was so ow that it could be scarcely discerned’.

A daring raid by Turlough MacHenry O’Neill (temporarily allied to Lord Deputy Thomas Burgh) in 1597 destroyed part of the town. He led a small group on men at night to Dungannon ‘burning his [O’Neill’s] hall, mill, and other out-houses, the flames whereof were seen from the camp’. O’Neill reoccupied the castle, but when the English armies under Lord Deputy Mountjoy returned in the summer of 1602, Tyrone destroyed the castle again. As Mountjoy reappeared on the Blackwater in June, O’Neill ‘burned Dungannon and his chief islands where he used to dwell’. Mountjoy entered Dungannon on 23 June 1602, accompanied by just 100 horse and 500 foot to discover the ruined shell of O’Neill’s capital.

Therefore, when one tries to create mental image of what Dungannon looked like at the height of O’Neill’s powers, try to imagine the bustle of workshops, drill grounds, mills and the coming and going of traders from Scotland and further afield, not the ghostly ruins depicted by Bartlett. 

Many thanks to the Irish Research Council who have funded this stage of my research.