Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Ulster's hidden history is brought into living rooms

Chris Thornton joins the Time Team as they dig up the history of Dungannon

The past is inescapable. Tony Robinson is sitting at the highest point in south Tyrone, gazing out over six, possibly seven, Irish counties with his backside resting on subterranean evidence of pivotal history from four centuries ago. And all the man from Dungannon wants to talk about is Baldrick.

"I saw that Blackadder the other night, the one with the officer dressed up ..." Your man starts to chuckle at the recollection. " Very, very funny," he says, giving Robinson a slow punch on the knee.

"Was that the one on recently?" asks Robinson. "I'd have liked to have seen that again. It's been 20 years."

Another lifetime. For the past 15 years, Tony Robinson has reinvented himself as the presenter of Time Team, the show that, against the instincts of probably every TV executive, popularised archaeology. The programme's continued success - viewing figures are up and Robinson has just signed up for another two years - has brought them to Tyrone for proof that Dungannon once vied to be the capital of Ulster.

Castlehill, the virtually forgotten centre of the town, was once the setting for the dramatic shift of power that led to the Flight of the Earls and set the stage for the Plantation. For most of the Troubles, the hilltop was a security base right in the middle of town. It was only a few months ago that the site was transferred to Dungannon Council and its spectacular views were returned to public gaze.

Time Team, with help from Queen's University and the Environment and Heritage Service, has moved in almost immediately to rediscover the site's hidden history.

For centuries the hilltop was the stronghold of the O'Neills.

But in 1602, as an English army approached, Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, burned his castle to prevent it falling into English hands. Five years later, he fled - in the Flight of the Earls - and his lands were handed over to Sir Arthur Chichester.

Chichester, architect of the Plantation of Ulster, was also responsible for making Belfast an important centre, and built a stone fort on the site.

"It's easy to see why," says Tony Robinson, looking out over Dungannon's rooftops to the Mournes, the hills above Belfast and the Sperrins. "This place commands everything around here.

"It's amazing to think nobody in the local community had been to the top of this hill in literally decades, at least until the council took it over in August."

By the final phase of the dig yesterday, the team had discovered the foundations of O'Neill's tower house. Researcher Jon Willers said they also found evidence of "massive defences" that were part of Chichester's fort. Further discoveries will be revealed when the programme runs next year.

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