May I proudly present Seoirse Ó Dochartaigh‘s painting of Grianán Ailigh.
We will exhibit it over the summer around Inishowen in the hope, that it will raise awareness of the rapidly dwindling heritage of Inishowen. The utter lack of care, consideration and respect shown at Grianan, applies to all of Inishowen – lock, stock, barrel and heritage.
Grianán Ailigh “…he built her a house set out with gold and silver and brass and gems, so that by night it was as brilliant as by day…”
If the truth be told, no-one knows who built Grianán Ailigh. It is shrouded by the same mists of oblivion that surround the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. We are doomed never to know the truth about any of these great unsolved mysteries.
The thread-bare facts of history mingle with the myths and legends. Beyond the historic period, into pre-history and the Stone Age, it’s really anyone’s guess what lay beneath or around the fortress on Greenan Mountain. So much alteration, so much occupation and re-occupation – not to mention the wanton vandalism not only of recent times but of the distant past. There is little hope now of ever understanding the full history of Grianán Ailigh – the Sun Palace of Aileach – and even less about the people associated with it, despite Dr. Walter Bernard’s arresting reconstruction of it, stone by stone, in the 1870s.
Directly above the beautiful McCormick-designed chapel stands Dr. Bernard’s restoration work: a stone fort known today as “Grianán Ailigh”. His model for it grew out of the remains of a structure originally built – according to Dr. Brian Lacy – about AD 789 by the common ancestors of the O’Neills, the McSweeneys and the McLaughlins. These ancestors once ruled the whole of Inishowen and were known then as Cenél nÉoghain – the Race of Owen. The O’Neills eventually went on to gain all of Co. Derry and Co. Tyrone and become one of the most powerful families in Ulster.
Many colourful myths have survived describing Grianán Ailigh: who built it and why, and who exactly dwelt in it at specific times, but it does appear that a “new” structure was built at some stage on top of a much earlier Bronze Age or Iron Age hilltop fort. The “new” structure may indeed have looked similar to the structure we see today. But there is some evidence in the early literature that there was once a beautiful building standing atop Greenan that was made from the red wood of the yew tree, but such a building would never have survived the centuries. The literature tells us that it was “…a house set out with gold and silver and brass and gems, so that by night it was as brilliant as by day…”
Apart from that, we know practically nothing about any of the structures, new or old; myths have all but obscured much of the real history up to about AD 789 when some expansion might have taken place. But even this may have been a monument of some kind rather than something possessing defensive and/or residential features. It’s likely too that activities and events on a nearby hill called Elaghmore – just across the political border with Northern Ireland – were somehow confused with those of Grianán Ailigh. Elaghmore was originally written “Aileach Mhór”, so one can see immediately how the two sites could easily have been merged into one mythical entity. “Aileach”, as a name, may even be a reference an ancient territory peopled by the Cenél nÉoghain covering a wider region that embraced both Grianán Ailigh and Aileach Mhór.
The subsequent history of Grianán Ailigh – from AD 789 to its demolition in 1101 by the King of Munster – is well documented insofar as specific dates have been established for the various battles and internecine killings that took place during that 300 year period. We are told also that from within those hallowed walls, so high up on the hill, sprung the great McLaughlin clan, and of course their cousins the O’Neills, but as well as that, so many High Kings of Ireland. Whether this is historically true or not, we can never be sure if anyone actually lived in Grianán Ailigh, or that it was indeed the seat of kings.
Did it have, I wonder, more of a symbolic use for the various tribes? Or was it used at some period for rituals or even stellar and solar observations? Was it, in effect, the Newgrange of Ulster with most of its more telling features air-brushed out of existence? Whatever the truth is, its significance must never be underestimated. To this day it remains a lonely, magical place, perched on an even lonelier hill, and, as such, conceals more than it reveals of an illustrious past that in truth we may never really rediscover.
Seoirse Ó Dochartaigh
Mí na Bealtaine, 2008