Letter to the editor 1838


  To the Editor of the Dublin University Magazine.

 “His tibi Grynæi nemoris dicatur origo

  Ne quis sit lucus, quo se plus jactet Apollo,”

Virgil, Ecl. 6, L. 72, &c.

DEAR SIR – Conceiving that whatever relates to the statistics of Ireland, and its antiquities in particular, forms matter most appropriate for your valuable miscellany, I would beg leave to make it the channel of a few observations on the subject.

I have just read, with equal attention and pleasure, the first volume of the Ordnance Survey of Derry, a work equalled by few, if any, which have ever appeared on Irish statistics, in point of depth of research, clearness of detail, and excellence of arrangement; a work which will lastingly connect the name of Colonel Colby, under whose able guidance it has been compiled, with the best interests of our country. In bringing forward this great national work, that excellent officer appears to have been happily judicious in his selection of assistants, and particularly in that most interesting department of his survey, the antiquarian. The rich mine of Irish antiquities has been made to yield up its hidden treasures to an extent hitherto unequalled, and which cannot fail of being duly appreciated by all who derive the alightest pleasure from such pursuits. Must not he then appear doubly cased in hardihood, who will venture to differ in any point however trifling, from the eminent professors who labour in this field – and this on a point which, what ever may be its intrinsic claims to notice, appears to have been more the subject of elaborate lucubration, than perhaps any other object in the work? I allude to the circular stone building on Greenan mountain in Donegal, which has been pronounced by these learned gentlemen a military remain, but which I, with the greatest deference, conceive to be one connected with religious purposes. In my endeavour to maintain this position I have to confront a tremendous battery of both prose and verse, but I hope, ere I conclude, to be able to turn the weightiest of its shot to my own advantage. But to the point.

I must set out by dissenting altogether from the applicability of the term “ignus fatuus,” to the etymology of townlands and other places in Ireland. For the controverting this novel doctrine, it might be sufficient to quote the following well-grounded observations from the preface to the very work before us: -“As the townland and other divisions, under various denominations, have existed over the whole of Ireland from the earliest times, it soon became apparent that a sufficient extension of the original orthographic inquiries, to trace all the mutations of each name, would be, in fact, to pass in review the local history of the whole country;” and so it would: in fact, so far from etymology being, as has been stated, “an uncertain foundation for historical hypothesis,” particularly in Ireland, it has, on the contrary, been constant matter of remark, how closely the Irish appellation has invariably been found in unison with the character, general circumstances, and history of the place named. I should mention more than one instance, within my own knowledge, in which the name has induced inquiry, and discoveries have, in consequence been made, fully supporting the correctness of the etymology. Our Irish ancestors never gave an unmeaning name to any place; it was left to the taste of a later age to bestow the term “Belleview” upon a prospect of some half-score filthy cabins and a brown expanse of turf-bog, and to assign that of “Woodville” to a spot where a crow might seek in vain for timber enough to repair her nest. Our forefathers indulged not in these fancies, and therefore it is I am led to consider the names bestowed by them, as likely to prove somewhat more sure and useful guide-posts along the “high-ways and bye-ways” of our national history, than the antiquarian of the Survey is disposed to admit. I sincerely regret that it did not suit the purpose or the convenience of this learned gentleman to enter further upon the subject of the sun-worship of our pagan forefathers, than a mere cursory recognition of the fact; for had he, with those means of information of which he appears to have a command so extensive, and with that acuteness which he displays, entered upon any examination or rather detail of its “characteristic peculiarities”, especially as relates to its sacrificial rites and observances, whether performed on the lofty mount or carn, or with greater solemnity within the mystic circle or “cyclopean work,” I am greatly mistaken if his train of reasoning would not have conducted him, in spite of himself, to the circle of Greenan, as particularly illustrative of the subject.

It is agreed on all hands, that the term Grian, making the genitive case Greine, signifies the sun; but there is one fact somehow overlooked, which I consider in no small degree material to my theory, namely, that the term is applied to the luminary, less as the great source of light and heat, than as a deified object of man’s worship and adoration, being clearly adopted from the Apollo Gryuæ us of the heathen mythology, for which see Strabo, lib.13, or what may be more generally accessible, Virgil, Ecl.6, v.72, and Eneid 4, v.345, with the notes thereon. All terms such as Greenan, and many others which I could enumerate, are but dependant derivatives from, and compounds of, this, and many of them of the most figurative character. O’Brien, indeed, goes so far as to make the word to signify also “the bottom of the sea or river, &c.” but in this I am led to think that that learned lexicographer has confounded the word Grian with Grain, signifying “Gravel”, particularly as the Abbe M’Curtin, in his dictionary, published in Paris, 1732, and considered a work of the first authority, does not admit of any signification save one, of the sun.

We have Grian-stad, the solstice, Grian-bheach, the zodiac, Grian-chlock, a sun-dial, &c. These are simple derivatives, but establish the predominancy of the main term; and I conceive that all terms compounded from it must be alike subservient to it; come we then to this compound in question Greenan, which has led to so much ink-shed and argument – Grianan is certainly set down by O’Brien followed by O’Reilly, as bearing these significations, viz. – 1. “A summer retreat.” – 2. A place enclosed on a hill arched or covered over for a commodious prospect. – 3. A royal seat or residence. As to the first, some of the best irish scholars whom I have had opportunities of consulting on the point, are agreed in the opinion that the word should be a “sunny”, not a “summer” retreat – the latter, entirely setting aside the word “Samaradh,” in variably made use of when the summer or anything appertaining to it is to be expressed. As to the second meaning given to the word, there would be something truly bull-ish in the idea of the “summer enclosure on a hill for a commodious prospect,” without window, orifice, or peep-hole of any description to look through, and whose parapet must have been, according to the description given in the Survey, far more than the height of the tallest man above the its existing terrace. Were it not for one peculiar characteristic of these circular works, which the learned antiquarian has avoided all reference to, for I think more highly of him than to imagine for a moment that he is ignorant of the fact, it is this – (and I can not avoid giving our pagan ancestors credit for a good deal of tact and knowledge of human nature in the matter) – the walls or embankments of these circles were of such height as to exclude from the sight of the worshipping assemblage, every object likely to divert their attention from Heaven’s concave and the luminary itself, there rolling in his golden splendour. Such in particular is the tradition respecting that vast circle known by the name of the “Giant’s Ring,” in the county Down, and such, in my humble opinion, must have been the purpose for which the walls of Greenan were erected – this was “the commodious prospect” to which the attention was to be directed there, and that exclusively – any other prospect the spectators must have remained outside the building to take a view of. I long much for the time when that stupendous enclosure in Down, to which I have just alluded, shall come under the notice of those gentlemen who so ably, conduct the antiquarian department of the Survey, anticipating, as I do, that the inquiry will lead to no small degree of coincidence with my view of these matters. The third term “a royal residence,” is evidently figurative in the extreme – we find it applied to Heaven itself as the habitation of the Sun-God, and enlightened by his radiance; and it required no great stretch of imagination, particularly in a fervid-minded Irish poet, to transfer it to a court where, in the honoured days of bardism, he may have found “the winter of discontent,” or want, “made glorious summer by the sun” of royal favour. Need I say how particularly the Irish language abounds in this beautifully figurative style of expression? Some of the most common and apparently vulgar sayings will be found, when duly analyzed, if I may use the term, to come under this head.

A little consideration will, I think, suffice to shew the explorer of Greenan, how completely it comes within the character of the second term above-mentioned, and how completely it does not come within the character of the third. It is a plain, circular enclosure of stone; its walls of the height just suited to the purpose above-mentioned, of excluding all view save that of heaven above; its one, comparatively small entrance, facing the east or sun-rising, and capable of being closed by means of double reveal in its sides; the evident remains of the altar in its centre – not the modern building now existing there, but that beneath it, accessible by a clearly-defined, flagged path from the entrance. The lateral passages have not been accounted for, but there is not the least vestige of any thing that could indicate inhabitancy of any sort, much less that of a mighty monarch and his attendant “tail.” Why, “the camel and the needle’s eye” are not more inappropriately matched, than a little, low aperture, which forms the sole entrance to Greenan, and one of those great Eochys in all the panoply, “pomp, pride, and circumstances” of regal state and war-like equipment; nor could a tenth of the sept or clan have found space even for bivouacing, within a circle so limited in its dimensions for congregational worship; and that the adoration of the Grean or Grynean Apollo, carried on, as it is known to have been, the entire of the localities exhibit the fitness of Greenan, and, to far better antiquarians than I am, its exclusive fitness. But I shall not occupy your pages by entering further into the subject of sun-worship at present – the talented antiquarians of the Survey will have enough of Grianology when they come to describe such places as Carn Graney, in Antrim, Sleive Grane, in Down, Greine mont, in Louth, the Greine Hills, near Gormanstown, in Meath, Granard, in Longford, Moat or Greine oge, in Westmeath, Toom Graney, in Clare, Sleive Grine, in Waterford, and some dozen other places of like designation and “characteristic peculiarities,” which it will be rather difficult to reconcile with the idea of either “summer seat” or “royal residences.”

I now come to the point on which my learned opponent and I agree, or, at least, approximate to it. And this brings me to refer to the poem which he has cited – I am far from under-valuing those kind of records – ballads often speak when history is silent, and, in the absence of other evidence, are entitled to our attention. “We must,” says Mr. Jamison, in his introduction to popular and romantic ballads – Edinburgh, 1814, – “we must look for the state of our forefathers into their ancient rhymes, which served as their memorials and annals.” I am therefore disposed to give to this aileached the same degree and credit, in an historical and statistical point of view, which I do to the Odyssey, the Æ naid, or Chevy Chase. It shews how a certain fair lady (“multi ante Helenam”) misbehaved; how her gallant was killed, and how the slayer, strange to say, was doomed to carry the dead body on his back till he found a stone meet to cover it; this tombstone he finds on the shore of Lough Foyle – mark, Lough Foyle, not Lough Swilly, which washes the foot of Greenan mountain – this stone he carries away, but it must not have been very far, foe he sinks under its weight and dies. Architects are forthwith in requisition, and the residence of Aileach is built near the spot. Now, I am with Moslem implicitness of credence, a “true believer,” in the establishment of this royal residence, or, if you please Greenan of Aileach, and as the names of those handed down as the builders thereof, not doubting but they were master masons in the grand lodge of their day. I only differ with the antiquarian of the Survey in his transfer of the site from the real Aileach or Elagh, which retains its name to the present hour, and exhibits sundry and extensive vestiges of chieftainlike inhabitancy; while, as a military position, or site, for either a temporary entrenched camp, or the fixed residence of a chieftain, requiring both strength and agreeability of situation, it speaks highly of the skill and judgment which dictated it occupation. Let us look at Elagh through this medium – between the two great estuaries of Foyle and Swilly, a distance of about two miles, extends a commanding ridge, elevated about 250 feet above the sea – great part of it answering the description implied by the term aill, translated by O’Brien as “rocky cliffs” or “having rocky brinks” – its flanks washed and defended by the two loughs; parallel with its southern base extends a morass which, even now would present serious obstacles to a well appointed force; but which, in the days of the Eochys, when drainage and Macadam were undreamt of, must have been, I should think, wholly impracticable – about the centre of this ridge, on a plateau rather sloping to the south, and thus enjoying all the advantage of the genial sunshine stands Elaghmore or Aileach the great, retaining its named unchanged throughout the lapse of ages. The ruin still existing is given by the survey to the O’Doghertys. Sir Cahir may have built on the spot, but as the clan Dogherty succeeded the O’Gormleys, who appear to have had their head quarters there many years before, it is not unreasonable to conclude, that any thing done by Sir Cahir was rather in the way of repair or rebuilding, than founding a fortress on a spot so long occupied as a defensive post. It would take up more space than I am willing to occupy in your pages, to enumerate, as I might do, the further and peculiar advantages of Aileach as a position; – in a word, I consider it one which Colonel Colby would select, and Wellington approve, and to the judgment of either I would leave it to decide, whether it is likely that chieftains, such as we have described to us, either in prose or poetry, would have selected for a station of defence or residence – the bald summit of a hill, accessible on every side, in preference to the well defended ridge of which of which I have been attempting to give some idea.

Now I will go a step further in the way of agreement with the antiquarian of the Survey. I consider it far from unlikely that there may have been such a connection between the circle of Greenan and the fortress of Aileach, as may have led to its being named the Greenan of Aileach, a designation, however, which it was reserved for the Survey to bring to light. The Pagan piety of the day may have occasioned the establishment of the consecrated circle, for its peculiar acts of worship, at a convenient distance from the head quarters of the chief and his sept, as we see a Christian chapel almost invariably attached to the most ancient feudal or baronial fortalices. The mysteries of Paganism admitted of a less close contact with the habitations of men, and particularly with the vicinity of a camplike court; and though not a poet I can fancy the chief of Elaghmore and his followers crossing the intervening valley, and wending up the steep of Greenan to hail the Grian of their devotion, within the circle dedicated to his honour and worship. The fact of this circle having been resorted to until within these forty years, for religious purposes, is set down in the Survey, to the enforcement of the penal laws – prodigious! Persecution has driven men, wishing to worship God according to their consciences, into the depths of the glen, the darkness of the forest, or the gloom of the cavern; but that persons trembling for existence, and anxious to escape observation, should resort congregationally to the most exposed and conspicuous spot in the country, is rather at odds with probability. We must therefore attribute it to a more reasonable cause, the original and continued sanctity of the place. It is a well known fact, that the early propagators of Christianity in Ireland, were too good judges of human nature to expect that men could be induced, all at once, to abandon forms, to desert much less to destroy Fanes hallowed to them, however mistakenly, by a thousand endearing associations; instead, therefore, of insisting upon, or attempting to accomplish any thing of the kind, they judiciously retained the place of worship, while they changed the object of adoration. Hence we see the Christian church, and the symbol of atonement reared beside the tower of the fire-worshipers; surely then it is not unreasonable to conclude, that a place of worship so remarkable as Greenan appears to have been, must have come in for its re-consecration, and continued, more or less, in the odour of sanctity until the period just mentioned. In truth, I might almost rest upon these strong facts and circumstances the entire of my claim for the circle of Greenan, as having been originally devoted to religious purposes. But I find myself powerfully borne out by the local antiquary of the district. – (I grieve to say the late) Mr. Peter M’Loughlin, a man of considerable talent in that line, who takes precisely the same view with me of Greenan, as may be seen by a reference to his well written account of the old castle of Burt, in its immediate vicinity, in No. 64 of that excellent compilation, the Dublin Penny Journal, the discontinuance of which is, in my opinion, much to be regretted. Mr. M’Loughlin was (as I am informed, for I never met him) a person, in many respects, eminently qualified to form an opinion as to the antiquities of the neighbourhood of his residence, and one whose judgment in such matters was well entitled to attention.* I have now put forth the grounds of my dissent from the opinion of the antiquarian of the Survey in the case of Greenan. I trust I have done so with the diffidence of one conscious of his own immeasurable inferiority to that learned Professor, in point of either individual powers or general advantages; and also without having resorted to a single expression capable of being construed into the slightest undervaluing of those of whom I should prefer being (if permitted) the humble fellow labourer than the opponent, in a work of such great national importance. I have endeavoured, through your indulgence, to place the two theories, religious and military, respecting Greenan, in a fuller point of view, than I consider to have been done in the Survey. Those who take an interest in such matters will form their judgment, and I can only say, that should their verdict be unfavourable to my view of the question, I shall consider it no disgrace to strike my flag to such superior weight of metal.

I remain yours,


Jan. 30th, 1838.

* The poem cited, alludes to a huge stone, under the weight of which the bearer sunk, and near which Aileach was built. Now it is a curious fact, and not to be overlooked, that there does exist such a rude monument at Belmount, about a quarter of a mile from the shore of the Foyle, rendered holy, as tradition goes, by the preaching of St. Columb from it. Should this stone be alluded to, (and I know of none answering the description so fully,) the real Elagh lies nearer to it, by nearly two miles, than does Greenan.


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