Reconstructed face of medieval skeleton may reveal Ireland’s ‘Helen of Troy’

Mabel Bagenal, whose skeleton may have been unearthed last month at Castle Hill, pictured with Hugh O'Neill
Mabel Bagenal, whose skeleton may have been unearthed last month at Castle Hill, pictured with Hugh O'Neill

EXPERTS are set to reconstruct the face and probable appearance of a high-ranking Medieval female, whose skeletal remains were unearthed at the end of last month during excavations at Dungannon’s Castle Hill.

It is hoped that the project, conducted by experts at Galway University, will reveal more about her true identity, and help bring tourists and local people face to face with the past.

The skeleton, dating back to the Medieval Period, was found nearly complete and in a good state of preservation, which means the most advanced studies of forensic anthropology can be performed on it.

Referring to her as a ‘WAG of her day’, a source at the archaeological dig said: “It appears she was married to a high ranking male given the respect afforded to her at her burial. There is even speculation that she might have been a wife of Hugh O’Neill.”

One possible identity for the mystery skeleton is that of Mabel Bagenal, O’Neill’s third wife, a protestant beauty who was known as Ireland’s ‘Helen of Troy’ and became O’Neill’s implacable enemy, before dying in Dungannon in 1591.

So far, archaeological experts have determined that the skeletal remains were those of a woman in her late forties or fifties, of slight build and short stature.

Dungannon Council say they hope to be able to mount an exhibition around the discovery of her remains, with a reconstruction of her skeleton as well as a generated model of her face the centrepiece of the new Castle Hill centre.

If the remains do belong to Hugh O’Neill’s wife, then there are a number of other likely candidates as the O’Neill chief married four times, and had a large number both of legitimate and illegitimate children.

Historical records show that he divorced his first wife in 1574; his second wife died in 1591, and in August of that year he eloped with Mabel Bagenal, daughter of Marshal Bagenal, who refused to give her dowry and thus became O’Neill’s implacable enemy. The marriage came under strain because, O’Neill said, ‘I affected two other gentlewomen,’ and Mabel left him and made a public complaint against him.

In December, Mabel died at Dungannon, and in the spring of 1596 O’Neill married his fourth wife, Catherine Magennis.