Grianan of Aileach – the history of a nation

As many of you will know by now, my latest novel, Stone Heart, is set for the most part in a hillfort known (in English) as Grianan of Aileach. In its native Irish, it’s Grianán Ailigh.

Grianan of Aileach – a History

Grianan of Aileach

Grianan of Aileach stands 800 feet above sea level on the top of an imposing hill in Co. Donegal, just across the border from Northern Ireland.

The site, it is believed, has been in use since the Bronze Age era, but the ringfort that stands there now was supposedly built around the 6th or 7th century CE by the Uí Néill tribe (cf. Niall of the Nine Hostages) who ruled over the majority of northern Ireland at the time.

Aileach was sacked by King of Munster, Murtagh O’Brian, in the twelfth century (c. 1101), and the current iteration was restored by a team led by Derry architect Walter Bernard in the 1870s. It is 23 metres in diameter (internally), with 5 metre high walls that are 4 metres thick. It has three terraces on the inside with stone steps rising at intervals throughout. Aileach commands an impressive view over Inishowen. If legends are to be believed, St Patrick visited the cashel, in 450 CE and baptised the local chieftain, Eoghán. A small well on the south face of the hillside is known as St Patrick’s Well.

Significantly, the fort was included in Ptolemy’s map of the world (second century CE).

But before this, little is known about how the fort was built or constructed, and to what extent it existed.

Before the Uí Néill

Inside Grianan of Aileach
Inside Grianan of Aileach

Legend tells us the original cashel was built by the Tuatha Dé Dannan god, Dagda, a race of people that predate the Celts in Ireland. It was built to protect the grave of his son, Aedh, who was killed by a rival chieftain. It is estimated to have an original construction date of circa 1700 BCE (that’s almost 4,000 years ago!). In the Book of Lecan, Aileach is said to be the ‘father of all the buildings in Erinn’.

The site has three ramparts that circle the hill and, from the top, views of the sprawling hills and mountains are interrupted only by Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly. At its height, the site is often shrouded in mist and clouds, and a strong wind feels ever present.

Etymology

The word grianán means ‘place of the sun’ or ‘sunny place’, while the word Ailigh is thought to mean stone or rock, deriving from the old Irish word, ail. While it was originally theorised that its name meant ‘Temple of the sun’, evident suggests a more figurative meaning, and that its name likely means ‘distinguished place’.

Above St Patrick's WellVisiting Grianan of Aileach

Grianan of Aileach can be accessed from a tourist road that was created in 1955, located in Burt, Co. Donegal, and the Old Church Visitor Centre at An Grianan Hotel houses a self-guided museum with many artefacts and videos outlining the cashel’s history. Although the fort is open all year round, the gates at the foot of the hill are locked in the evenings. But at the right time of year, you can still catch the sun going down in the west and feel the power of mystery that surrounds the hillside in the quiet of early evening.

The novel, Stone Heart, will be released mid-2018, managed by Nightsgale Books.

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