History,  Stories

Grianan of Aileach

Many of the sites you find on the web describing Grianán of Aileach show a different mix of information on this beautiful and mystical location so I have tried to provide a brief but broader description and timeline. I also have a back story which is interweaved with this beautiful place. My memories of Grianán really start in the early 1960s when my school friends and myself learned to drive. There were barbecues held within the building, and I also used to ride an ancient Triumph motor bike across the border on unapproved roads to visit it.

Grianán is a large stone-walled fort located on a hilltop overlooking Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly and counties Donegal, Derry and Tyrone. From the 5th to 12th Century it was the royal seat of the O’Neill Clan, rulers of much of Ulster and a famous dynasty related to the common ancestor Naill of the Nine Hostages – a legendary historic Irish king. It was probably originally built some time around the birth of Christ. Its builders may have been attracted to this hilltop site by the presence here of a previous sacred monument – a prehistoric burial mound or tumulus, possibly from the Neolithic period. There are three concentric terraces the outlines of which can still be seen on the hill to this day. Within the rings were buildings that belonged to the settlement and archeologists have found a well nearby , now called St. Patrick’s well, and a Neolithic tumulus. A tumulus is a mound of earth and stones raised over a grave or graves.

The mysterious kingdom of Ailech (Ail – old Irish “stone”) appears around in the 1st century AD and created many precious objects that now feature in many museum collections. In Irish mythology and folklore, the ring fort is said to have been originally built by the Dagda, a god and the celebrated king of the Tuatha Dé Danann ( the original pre-Celtic magical inhabitants of Ireland), who planned and fought the battle of the second or northern Magh Tuireadh, against the Fomorians. The fort was erected around the grave of his son Aedh who had been killed through jealousy by Corrgenn, a Connacht chieftain. The history of the death of Aedh, and the building of Aileach, is given at length in a poem preserved in the Book of Lecan.

According to the chronology of the Annals of the Four Masters, Aileach was built seventeen hundred years before the Christian era. Also worth noticing is the fact that Grianán of Aileach is one of only five Irish sites in Ireland that is marked in its proper place by the geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria, who lived in the second century AD. Ptolemy distinguishes the place as a royal residence.

The entrance is oriented to provide a shaft of light across the width of the ring precisely on the Spring and and Autumn Equinoxes, emphasising again how connected it is with early neolithic rituals. If you want to see an example of this have a look at some drone footage of the Equinox sunrise alignment.

By the 12th century, the Kingdom of Ailech had become embattled and lost a fair amount of territory to the ever expanding influence of the invading Normans. According to Irish literature, the ring fort was mostly destroyed by Murdoch O’Brian, King of Munster, in 1101. It is said that he decreed each of his soldiers take a stone from the great fort so that it would never stand again. Despite their best efforts, the vast bulk of the stonework remained.

It was George Petrie (a Dublin painter, musician and archaeologist, who first surveyed Grianán in the 1830s. At this time it was little more than a ruin. He gives a description of the hill and the monument. Petrie suggests that, in the fashion of other monuments of this type such as Emain Macha, the whole hill may have been enclosed by many other ramparts. Emain Macha or ‘Navan Fort ‘ is an ancient ceremonial monument outside Armagh city.

In the 1860’s Dr Walter Bernard, a Derry doctor and antiquarian who lived in Buncrana became concerned about the dilapidated state of the fort, so in the years 1874 to 1878 he project managed and paid for the reconstruction of the site. It is his visualisation we see today. Dr Bernard’s meticulous restoration of the late 19th century provides an imaginative insight into the minds and lives of its inhabitants and custodians over the generations.

Family lore has it that my great grandfather David Glass who was a tenant farmer living about a mile from the site collaborated with Dr Bernard and provided champ and buttermilk for the workers as they made their way to work. He is mentioned in the Derry Journal as finding some ancient human remains now in the National museum in Dublin, and he also attended the grand opening in 1878. See a photograph of the workers.

The current edifice, after the restoration , is substantially different but much of the old structure remains intact. It has been suggested that Dr Bernard used as a model a similar hill fort in much better repair from County Kerry. During the restoration, it was found that parts of the original drystone masonry had been preserved under the collapse. The workers marked, in tar, the undisturbed portions of the building and used the collapsed stone to build on this foundation. They supplemented these with other stones from the area to replace those removed by King Murdoch O’Brien. Slight recesses on either side of the entrance way have been filled in. They were probably to allow double leaves of an original doorway to fold flush against the wall. The interior rises in three terraces accessible by stairways. The outer wall is a dry-stone construction. On each side of the entranceway, there are “galleries” within the wall. Their precise purpose is not clear and they do not connect with the entrance. These two wall-passages, one on the south and another from the northeast run towards the gateway. Now closed off, I remember crawling along the one to the right of the entrance in my school days. About one metre high and wide it ran for about 10 metres where it just stopped.

Other sources

Wikipedia : Grianan of Aileach An in-depth description.

Voices from the dawn : Grianan of Aileach a 3D view of the monument.

On the Swilly side of the road : Grianan of Aileach

National Monuments Service : Grianan of Aileach

Ptolemy’s Map. The original 2nd century map did not survive the destruction of the library in Alexandria, but most of the locations survived as text. Monks put this together in the 13th century and you can see a portion of it here

Bing : Impressive drone footage of the Equinox sunrise alignment.

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