Niall of the Nine Hostages'S TRAIL
King Niall of the Nine Hostages formed the start of the famous Uí Néill dynasty, a dynasty that ruled much of the northern part of Ireland for hundreds of years. Modern-day Ulster, in particular, is associated with Niall and his descendants, and two counties in particular – Donegal and Tyrone – form part of this itinerary.
Begin your “Uí Néill journey” in Donegal and the village of Aileach in the Inishowen Peninsula. This area is home to Grianan of Aileach, an ancient fort that dates back to 1700 BC. The main stone fort, however, is believed to have been constructed by the Northern Uí Néill in the 6th or 7th century. Grianan of Aileach was the ancient seat of the Kingdom of Aileach, one of several Northern kingdoms established by the Uí Néill’s.
The Inishowen Peninsula is believed to have been an early area of strategic importance for the Uí Néill clan as they sought to take over much of Ulster, and in particular the kingdom of Aileach. Today, Inishowen is one of the most popular areas in Donegal and home to many popular towns and attractions. From Grianan of Aileach head north towards the most northern point in Ireland, Malin Head. Consider stopping in the towns of Muff, Moville and Greencastle as you go.
Malin Head is one of the undoubted highlights of the Inishowen Peninsula and indeed Donegal. Be sure to visit Bamba’s Crown and Lloyds Signal Tower for some of the best views, where on a clear night you can see the Northern Lights. Malin Head offers a great vantage point for bird-watching, with the nearby Malin Beach a great location for a gentle stroll.
As you depart Malin Head, the towns of Buncrana and Ballyliffin will provide you with plenty of choice for things to do, whether you’re travelling alone or with friends and family. Both towns are popular with keen golfers throughout the year, while cycling, hiking and rock climbing are also popular in this area of Donegal.
As you make your way from Buncrana to Letterkenny, make a short detour off the N13 to visit Burt Castle, a ruined 16th-century castle. At Letterkenny visit Donegal County Museum and Ballymacool Park, or Glenveagh National Park and Castle which is only a short drive away. Home to several great pubs and restaurants, as well as plenty of accommodation options, Letterkenny is the perfect place to call it a night.
Travel from Letterkenny to County Tyrone. Take a pitstop in the town of Raphoe for a view of two significant buildings: Raphoe Castle and St Eunan’s Cathedral. From Raphoe, it’s onwards to Tyrone, another county with big ties to the Uí Néill clan. It is believed the county originally got its name from Eoghan, a son of Niall of the Nine Hostages, with Tyrone translating to Tir Eoghain in Irish, meaning “land of Eoghan”.
From Raphoe make your way towards Omagh, one of the major towns in Tyrone. One of the highlights of Omagh is the Ulster American Folk Park, a must-see when travelling with kids. Harry Avery’s Castle and Boorin Nature Resort are also located near the town, offering lots to see and do. Gortin Forest, which is also located close by has several great walking routes and is part of the 1000km Ulster Way walking route
As you depart Omagh, make your next stop the town of Dungannon, the ancient capital of Ulster. Dungannon is home to the Hill of O’Neill, the location for the ancient high seat of the O’Neill dynasty as they ruled over Ulster for centuries. With views over much of Ulster (seven counties on a good day), it’s easy to see why the first O’Neill’s chose this area as a base.
Make your way to Hill of Neill and Ranfurly House & Visitor Centre to find out more.
Make your way towards The Sperrin Mountains from Dungannon to soak up some of the most stunning countryside in Ireland. Stretching along the border of counties Tyrone and Derry, the Sperrins is an area of outstanding natural beauty, that is best described as wild, untouched and beautiful. The Sperrins also offer four scenic driving routes allowing you to explore the area from the North, South, East and West. Alternatively drive to Blessingbourne Estate in Fivemiletown, home to a popular mountain bike trail, and several picturesque walks.
The Bronze Age site of Beaghmore Stone Circles is a hugely significant area of interest in the Sperrins and is thought to be one of the largest Bronze Age sites in the world, and well worth seeing as you continue to explore Tyrone. From here, make your way towards Cookstown where you can explore another of Tyrone’s famous historic sites, Tullyhogue Fort. Thought to have been created before the O’Neill clan arrived in Tryone, Tullyhogue Fort is however believed to be the ancient ceremonial site in Tyrone, where many chieftains of the O’Neill dynasty were inaugurated. Call it a night in Cookstown and take stock of the impact the O’Neill clan has had on this part of Ulster in days gone by.
If you want to discover other sites connected to Niall of the Nine Hostages, consider a day trip to Meath and the town of Tara, the ancient capital of Ireland and the location at which Niall is rumoured to have been appointed as King of Ireland.
Hill of O’Neill Image © Mid Ulster Council