Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Grianan Ailech, County Donegal

The Grianán of Ailech is one of the most iconic sites of North-West Ireland. It is located in County Donegal, roughly about 8 km north-west of the city of Derry. The entire site itself is enormous, with large outer earthworks circling Greenan Mountain. This huge enclosed space is probably the remains of a Late Bronze Age or Iron Age hillfort. It was regarded as a ‘Class 2 Hillfort’ by Barry Raftery in his excellent book Pagan Celtic Ireland.  He described it as having

‘four concentric enclosures, the innermost...being a small, ringfort-like structure...likely to be a late addition which probably had nothing to do with the prehistoric hillfort’. 

It is this inner stone ringfort or cashel that is most commonly thought of today as being the Grianán of Ailech. The site was said to have been the residence of the powerful Kings of Ailech, the Uí Néill dynasty. In the first few centuries AD the Uí Néill controlled vast swathes of territory in the northern half of the island of Ireland. However as their power began to wane they became locked in a bitter dynastic war with the Kings of Munster. The Grianán was recorded in the Annals as being destroyed in AD 676, and then more thoroughly in 1101. The destruction was recorded in detail in the pages of the Annals of the Four Masters. It recounts that the King of Munster, Muircheartach Ua Briain (grandson of the famous Brian Boru), led his army deep into the territory of the Uí Néill’s in Inishowen and burned many churches and forts. He demolished the famous Grianán of Ailech in retaliation for the burning of the Munster capital Ceann-coradh (Kincora in County Clare) which had been burned by the allies of the Uí Néill some time before. The Munster King Muircheartach had each man in his army carry away a stone from the destroyed fort, forever denying it to the Uí Néills.

The interior of the fort

A short video to show the interior of the stone fort

The site was heavily reconstructed in the nineteenth century, so we will never know its original form. Despite this, it is still one of the most rewarding sites to visit in Ireland. 

The name Grianán roughly translates to Palace of the Sun, unfortunately the day we visited was heavily overcast with showers, though even the low cloud couldn’t obscure the quite magnificent views over the Inishowen Peninsula, Lough Swilly, and Lough Foyle. The site absolutely dominates the skyline from a great distance. Entering the central cashel you pass through the massively thick drystone walls that tower above you. Stone steps lead to the top of the walls allowing you to look upon the stunning landscape that surrounds you (I have included some landscape pictures at the end of this article). It is a fantastic experience and one that I highly recommend if you are travelling to the North-West of Ireland. Just outside of the fort you can also find a cairn of uncertain date and a small holy well.

The Holy Well just below Grianan Ailech
The site is under the auspices of the Office of Public Works, however apart from a good road and a large carpark there are no other facilities at the site. The Grianán of Ailech is well signposted from the N13 between Derry and Letterkenny, it is located roughly around 8km north-west of Derry.

You’ll find it at Latitude: 55.02379103 Longitude: -7.42761612

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 Some images of the landscape surrounding the Grianán Ailech
The Grianan Ailech dominates the landscape for miles around