Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Fort on the Hollow Hill

High atop the royal hill of Aileach, at the gateway to my own fair Inishowen, sits the fort of An Grianan. It is a place of myth and magic, cutting through the mists of time to transport receptive visitors to an otherworldly age… And to hell with how cheesy that sounds; it’s only cliched ‘cause it’s true, goddamit!

In fact, Grianan is so steeped in legend and history that I’ve been putting off this post ever since I started blogging.  The only reason I’m writing it now is because I said I would the other day. Why so reluctant? Because there’s so bloody much to say about the place! 

How could I describe to you just how utterly amazing it is without telling absolutely everything about it? And how could I do that without boring the arse off everyone bar those with a very particular interest in pre-Celtic Irish monuments?  (Or those from Donegal, who’d probably already know everything I had to say anyway.)

So I’ve decided I’m not going to - describe each myth and chronological event associated with the fort right up to the present day, that is. Besides, there’s already a wonderful website and blog dedicated to doing just that, hosted by a lovely German girl I know named Bettina Linke. Ever since Bettina moved to the area many years ago she’s committed herself to the promotion and protection of An Grianan with unparalleled passion.  With a book on the way, she’s now even set herself to translating Old Irish poetry about the site in her spare time. That’s dedication for you!

Anyhow, instead of getting bogged down in the details, which is what happened each time I sat down to write this post over the past couple of days, I’m just going to run quickly through the facts and move swiftly on to the folk tales. Those of you still interested in finding out more afterwards can then call over and pay Bettina a wee visit.  I’ll try my best to keep this as succinct as possible, though be warned - I do tend to drift when it comes to subjects I care about. Right, let us begin…

Inside An Grianan II

More important than Tara- FACT.

To sum it up in a sentence, An Grianan of Aileach is an iron age ringfort, built on the remnants of a much earlier fortification (thought to be up to 5000-years-old, in your face Pyramids!), with the current stone structure undergoing heavy restoration in the nineteenth-century following it’s destruction during a conflict between two Irish chieftains in 1101. Phew! That was a long sentence. But the place does have a long history, and an important one at that.

Indeed, it is my guess that if it wasn’t for its geographical location Grianan would likely be as famous as Newgrange, and undoubtedly more well-known than Tara. For, just like that other royal hill - and that’s all it is these days, a hill, with hardly any visible fort worth talking about - Aileach too was seat to the High Kings of Ireland at various points over the centuries, and for an even longer period served as the centre of power and culture for all Ulster. (And we still have our fort intact.)

It is also interesting to note that while Grianan shares good company with other sites of high mythological and historical regard, such as Emain Macha, in that it is one of only a handful of Irish locations to be marked on Ptolemy’s 4th century map of the world, Tara gets no mention on the famous document. Mmm…

As I said, the reason most of you have probably never heard of it till now is down to where it is. For one it’s relatively far away from the major airports, and secondly it’s also only a few miles from the border with Northern Ireland,  which meant the area was shunned for decades by foreign tourists afraid of getting blown-up. (Kind of silly really considering the chances of getting blown-up in Donegal were so miniscule it was ridiculous.)

Anyway, enough about all that ‘real’ stuff, I want to talk about the stories!  

Inside An Grianan

Built by the king of the fairies, no less.

As I’ve said, it would be easy for me to ramble on and on about the ‘true’ history of Grianan, which in itself is pretty darn interesting,  but it’s always been the myths and legends surrounding the place which have captured my imagination. And there’s certainly no shortage of them.

The word ‘Grianan’ comes from the Irish word for ‘sun’ and one thing that is agreed upon by archaeologists is that the original structure was most likely built by pagan sun worshipers. That’s fair enough, but it’s who these sun worshipers were that’s most intriguing; ask anyone round here and you’ll only get one answer - An Tuatha De Danann. The Children of Danu themselves.

Now I think I know you, my dear blog readers, well enough at this point to assume that most of you are already well acquainted with this mystical race, and their gods and leaders. Many of you will probably also be aware that they were, in fact, the descendents of Ireland’s fairy aristocracy. (Those who aren’t as familiar with this can find a wee bit more about it in my introductory blog post, and then of course there’s always Google.)

Anyway! One of the most famous tales regarding the origins of Grianan states that it was built by no less than Daghda himself, High King of the Tuatha De Danann who later achieved godly status. The story goes that, following their invasion of Ireland in pre-Celtic times, it was at the hill of Aileach that the Tuatha De Danann first made contact with the natives of their new land. They must’ve liked the spot, or it must’ve already been an area of some significance, for when Daghda’s own son, Aeah, was slew in battle it was here that the god king buried him and built the fort to protect the grave.

Other tales also hint that Daghda’s predecessor,  Nuada of the Silver Hand,  may also be interred beneath the mound.  Indeed, it is what is under the fort rather than the stones themselves that hold the deepest magic and mystery.

Take the little portal pictured below for example, one of several in the interior wall. When we were little the gates weren’t there and we used to crawl inside. My mum used to go crazy at us, though claustrophobia usually got the better of me before I ventured far enough to make her really mad. Now that they’ve been sealed off to curious children and I’ve grown much too large, I often wonder what I would’ve discovered if I’d been a little braver.

A Gateway to Fairyland

You see another of the local legends of Grianan, and one which is inextricably tied to Irish fairy mythology in general, tells of an extensive network of tunnels that run from these little holes in the wall deep down into the hill. Within there is believed to be a hollow where a band of Tuatha de Danann horsemen still slumber, waiting for the day when “the sacred sword” is removed and they can awake to reclaim their ancient lands.

A more detailed account of this tale can be found here on Bettina’s blog, though as a child I always heard the Irish nationalist version in which the sword was British rule and those inside would only wake once Ireland was united again. Considering Ireland as a whole entity has for the most part only ever been united while under British rule, you’ll have to forgive me if I declare this to be bollocks. ‘Ireland’ of the past was an island of five provinces, those again divided into kingdoms, and not one unified state in the modern sense. But once again I digress…

As you might imagine from it’s name, An Grianan is also associated with other ancient Irish sun dieties such as Lugh and Gráinne, though I’m not going to talk about them now. A little tale I will relate is one from my dad, who often tells of how after a night out partying in his younger days he and a friend decided to go up to Grianan to watch the sun rise. Now it’s very likely considering the context of the story that what he saw may've been in some way influenced from the previous night’s indulgences, but he swears that from his position atop the stone walls he saw the sun dancing in the sky - looping and diving, jumping forward and falling back. In fact, to this day he finds it hard to describe his experiences of that morning exactly. And I’ve heard others tell similar stories so there must be something in it.

Well my friends, you’ll be happy to hear that I’ve finally exhausted myself and have to decided to wrap this thing up now. God, this was a post and a half! Believe me when I tell you I could’ve written twice as much. Anyway, thanks to anyone who stuck with me to the end and sorry for rambling on so much. I just want Grianan to get the recognition it deserves for being so super amazingly awesome. 

I suppose every little corner of the world hides it’s own treasures, and we all like to defend our own wee plots. What about you folk, do any of you have any little under-appreciated gems nearby? I’d love to hear about them!


JJ Beazley said...

Interesting, but a question. The four present provinces I know, but what was the fifth?

Róisín said...

I knew someone would ask that! Though I was half hoping it'd be some know-it-all Irish person so I could argue with them :) Anyway, while it's not exactly certain, it was probably Meath (and don't say anything about Tara!). But there definitely was one, we'll possibly, 'cause in the old writings Ireland is always divided into five.

JJ Beazley said...

You're supposed to be impressed that a dumb Brit even knows about the FOUR provinces. Presumably, Meath - or whatever - got swallowed up by one of the others. And the only thing I would say about Tara is that Tara Fitzgerald gets lovelier as she gets older.

I was thinking about you and your Celtic fire and your interest in the little folk, and came up with a new name for you, in honour of dear Morgaine:

Rosie le Fey. (It's more compact than Roisin of the Fairies.)

What do you think of that?

Such a Wondrous Place this Faery Space said...

Friend, that first paragraph had me rolling! I feel the same! Such joyous wonder about the whole place. I have a goal of getting there. You make me laugh in the best way with your candidness! Not too much or often, just funny and right when the time is right!!! That is a great blogger! Anyway, thanks for the beauty of this magical spot and the cool grungy stuff below! YAY! So glad to know this place of yours! Blessings.

Robin Larkspur said...

Loved this post...informative, yet entertaining..I learned about a place I didn't know anything about. Thanks! Not boring at all! More like this would be welcomed.

Gypsea Tree {Steam Spectre} said...

I loved this post! This is one I will definitely return to for re-read. Daghda is now on my list to visit when I get back to Ireland someday! I would have been extremely tempted to crawl into those holes too! I've always had an unquenchable desire to sneak into places that are off limits...

Donna~Q~ said...

I've been anticipating this post ever since the teaser on your last one, and it was so worth the wait. Your photography skills add an extra sense of magical glamour to an already fantastic place. Thoroughly enjoyed both the history and the folklore!

eimear brennan said...

Thanks Roisin, enjoyed that thoroughly, all the way til the end! im in the middle of visiting a different mythological site every month as inspiration for my work, lough crew was supposed to be next, but heading to Uisneach instead-(bealtaine fires relighted April 30th)Stone of Divisions (Ail na Mirenn) stands there, apparently the centre point of Ireland. sounds like ill have to ad An Grianan to my list!

Lynn said...

Thank you for a fabulous post! Loved what you had to say, and the pictures to go along with it.

I've never been to Ireland, but it's on my list of must-must-see places. Now I will certainly put Grianan on my list of places to experience when I go.

The idea of you as a girl scrambling around the hill, poking around in its portals is magical!

Kit and Kaboodle said...

Yet another fan of your post here! Your beautiful photos enhance the magic of a place most of us have never visited - keep them coming!

Jeanne said...

Great post! Not too long, not too short, it was just right! :0)
And Thank you for the link to Bettina's blog.
I have actually read a bit about this magickal place, but alas it was not anywhere near this informative. Would truly love to visit it some day.

Anthropomorphica said...

You could have written twice as much, it ended too soon!! I didn't know of An Grianan, sadly but thank you a million times for another magical place to add to my dreams.
By the way my lovely, exactly how small is the gate and is the lock pickable? I'm a bit of a squirt ;)
Roisin, what a complete treat!!!

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for your post, Roisin.
Your father had the right idea to go there in the morning and see the sun rise. I am never there that early, but I think that the gate has been deliberately aligned , so that the sun can enter the inside of the monument on one particular day in the year. A bit like Newgrange.
I would love to talk to you Dad. Perhaps he would accept to write his experience into a little but rather thick red notebook, a friend gave me, which is waiting to be filled with the stories and experiences from this hill by its own people.
With much appreciation,

TheBlakkDuchess said...

Sigh... I could have listened to you ramble all day! I love old places with history & legend surrounding them. ^-^
I can't wait until I finally am able to go to Europe & see all the wonderful places, so rich with history & tales (who's to say what is myth & what is not? =D)

Thanks for sharing this, I absolutely LOVED it!

And I totally want to go climbing through one of those tiny holes in the wall... o_O

Anonymous said...

Oh Róisín, how I LOVE this post! I could listen (read) forever about it all.

I live on land with an ancient history of live volcanoes and dinosaurs. Much, much later it was occupied by the Ute Indians, then gold miners, ranchers and now us.

And although I'm just a passerby - here for a few more decades perhaps - what came before us could never be under-appreciated! :)

Happy weekend,

Róisín said...

Hi folks! Thank you all so much for such wonderful comments, glad you all enjoyed the post :) I was a little worried about it being too long, so I'm happy you didn't mind. Anyway, I don't have time to reply to them all individually right now but hopefully I'll get around all your blogs at some point tonight. Hope everyone's having a great start to the weekend!

p.s Bettina, I was talking to my dad about that today. Long story short, as far as he remembers it was on the morning of the autumnal equniox and the light did fill the chamber like you said! He did admit that he may have exaggerated the story I told above but said you should talk to his brother. I'll email you tomorrow! x

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much. I am looking forward to talk to your Dad's brother. The autumn equinox is interesting becaused I thought that the sun would enter most likely either in spring or autumn.

The Pixie Knoll said...


You had me completely captivated from the very first, and approprietly long sentence on the tale of this magical place. I love to read about the mystical, magical, and mythical (not to mention historical) places of our world. Ireland must be filled to the brim with such wondrous places.

I have done my fair share of reading about places just such as this, and I am never bored of such subject matter. I do hope you will share more on the tales of this fanciful place soon as I didn't want your wonderful blogpost to end. Thanks for your friend's blog as well; I can't wait to visit and read more of this historical landmark.


Anonymous said...

There are currently four provinces on the island of Ireland: Ulster, Lenister, Munster and Connaught.
However, the term "province" is only an English approximation of the word "cuige" which, strictly specking, means "a fifth" but was also probably meant in older times as "a portion", i.e., a portion of the island.
As the term implies, there was five fifths or provinces in Ireland in former times: Ulaid (more or less what is now Ulster), Midhe (now reduced to a county in Lenister, but which one took up much of the midlands east of the Shannon), Lagain (now Lenister, including Midhe), Mumhan (Munster) and Connacht (which, however, formerly counted Clare as a part of it; it now lies in Munster).
Yet this was never an entirely fixed fact, as other areas, such as Ossary and Airgialla were from time to time

Read more: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_many_provinces_are_there_in_Ireland#ixzz1cRu07YCg

Anonymous said...

I have two bits of info that may or may not be relevant to Grianan of Aileach. But im interested in finding out more on them.

1.There is a place called the Steeple, which is located on the Raphoe/Convoy side of Ballybofey. It is a large hill covered in Forestry, and has a small stone tower near the peak which has stone steps inside leading to the roof. Its roof is flat, and has a metal grid covering a hole on the center of the rood. I heard about 8 years ago that the Steeple tower was in direct line of vision with the Grianan of Aileach. And a fire would be lit to warn of impending danger approaching from the South. This may be far fetched, and the current tower may well not be the original. I've never found any evidence or stories to confirm such a connection. But then again, we know very little about Aileach.

2, Grainne's bed is a protected site in the townland of Evish, just outside Strabane in Co Tyrone. It is located behind Holly hill, Which has clear view of Aileach fort.
While i have not been able to find info on this online, i know the site is protected as my uncle owns it and is paid to leave it untouched. My late grandfather said Grainne's bed is ancient grave, which was rumoured to contain the remains of a Giant. The grave is said to contain two graves in total.
Could this be related to the sun gods of Aileach??

Unknown said...

Very interesting read but as most people said-it was actually too short! I am very interested in Grianan and I hope to do a project involving it soon. I am very interested in capturing the sun's rays. I read that it is also at the Spring Equinox that the rays align and come directly through the doorway. I'm very interested in capturing the sun through sound or making like a visual and audio art piece at grianan so if anyone has any ideas they would be much welcomed.thanks for the info again!

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