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An Grianán of Aileach, Co. Donegal

The Grianan of Aileach is a prehistoric hillfort built of dry stone on a hill called Greenan Mountain, that rises to a height of about 800 feet some about 8km from Derry city. The enclosure is surrounded by beautiful views of Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle.

The main structure of An Grianan is a stone ringfort, thought to have been built around 600 AD by the Northern Uí Néill clan. However there is evidence that the site had been in use before the fort was built and some legendary stories of its creation have been passed down through the ages. It has been identified as the seat of the Cineál Eoghain (Kingdom of Ailech) and one of the royal sites of Gaelic Ireland.

What we currently see at the site of An Grianan of Aileach was the result of the hard work of Dr. Walter Bernard, a local physician in Derry. He spent his own money and received help from local people to restore the hillfort as best they could.

Layout of An Grianán of Aileach

The enclosure is almost circular, having an internal diameter of 23.5 metres (77 foot 3 inches) from east to west, and of 23.3m (76 foot 6 inches) from north to south. The wall is from 13 to 14 foot (3.9m – 4.2m) thick at the base, receding internally by shallow terraces, which communicate with each other by short flights of steps ; there are at present three terraces, but only the lowest one is of the original construction, as the upper portion of the wall is a restoration; the wall is now about 5 metres high.

Interior of An Grianán of Aileach (Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland – 1915)
Interior of An Grianán of Aileach (Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland – 1915)

Origins of An Grianán

The origins of the Grianán of Aileach fort are dated back to roughly 1700 BC. It is linked to the Tuatha de Danann who invaded Ireland before the Celts and built stone forts on top of strategic hills. They worshipped Dagda (the Good God) and he too is associated with the origins of Aileach. It was he who ordered the building of a stone fort to act as a burial monument to his dead son.

The legend says, Corchenn of Cruach, killed the son of the Dagda, the Dagda spared his life, but sentenced him to carry the corpse of the murdered man until he should find for it a pillar stone of its own height. The stone was found at Lough Foyle, and Corchenn heaved it on his back, with a groan, “Alas, the stone! I shall die of it”; and the weight killed him, “Ailach (stone, alas), shall be the name of this place,” said the Dagda ; and he bestowed it on his foster-brother, the warrior-god, Neit, whence it got the name of Aileach Neit.

Another legend tells that Frighriu, a famous craftsman of northern Britain, absconded to Ireland with his king’s daughter, and found protection from the King of Ireland. He here built the girl “a house of red yew, set out with gold and silver and brass and gems, so that by night it was as brilliant as by day.” From him the place was called Aileach Frighrenn, “Frighriu’s Stone -house.” The girl, it is told, became the wife of Eochu Doimlen, King of Ireland, about a.d. 276, and was mother of the three Collas.

It is said that St Patrick visited the site in the 5th century and baptised the local chieftain, Eoghan (from whom Inis Eoghain gets its name), here.

Northern Ui Néill settlement

After the battle of Cloítech in 789, the Cineál Eoghain clan won control of the kingdom of the northern Uí Néill, the successful kings relocated to the Grianán, building it inside the pre-existing prehistoric hillfort as a visual symbol of their new mastery of all the landscape visible from that commanding view. Aileach was inhabited by the northern Ui Néill dynasty from 789 to about 1050.

Destruction in 1101

By the 12th Century, the large Kingdom of Aileach was losing a lot of its territory to the Norman invaders.

In 1101 the Grianan was demolished by Muircheartach Briain (Murtagh O’Brien), King of Munster, as revenge for the destruction of Ceanncoradh (Kincora) by the King of Aileach in 1088. Kincora was the royal seat of O’Brien. It’s said he made his men carry off a stone in each of their provision sacks and the site lay in ruin for hundreds of years.

At the same time O’Brien burned many churches and forts about Fahan and Ardstraw, and plundered Inishowen in general.

Restoration of Grianán of Aileach in the 1870s

By the 1860s Grianán of Aileach was reduced to about 1.5 metres from its base. Dr. Walter Bernard, a Derry doctor who lived in Buncrana, became increasingly concerned about its dilapidated state. In the 1870s a Derry group called the Irish Irelanders paraded from Derry to the site on Sunday afternoons and carried out repairs. The Gaelic League and GAA also lent a hand. Eventually Dr. Bernard took charge of the reconstruction in person and in 1878 the work was completed at his own expense. He was confident that it would, in his own words, “last for ages”. The group used other forts of a similar antiquity for guidance on how to restore the site. Tar was marked on the original stones of the hillfort to distinguish them from the newer work above.

Exterior of An Grianán of Aileach (Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland – 1915)

In recent years

The site currently is managed by the Irish Government and was renovated again in the mid 2000s to reinforce the structure. This work was quite controversial.

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