The past was orange – A note to its discovery

In 1824 Colonel Thomas Frederick Colby, of the Royal Engineers, was put in charge of the general direction of the arrangements of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland. Lieutenant Thomas Drummond, Lieutenant Thomas Aiskew Larcom and Lieutenant Joseph Ellison Portlock were appointed the same year to assist Colonel Colby. In 1829 Portlock became head of the trigonometrical branch of the survey and measured every mountain, hill and hillock in Donegal.

Colby’s ‘Ordnance Survey Memoirs of the Parish of Templemore’ (sometimes called of County Londonderry) were published in 1837, which included a detailed description of the recently discovered remains of the Grianan of Aileach. A Peter M’Laughlin from Newtowncunningham wrote an article, published in the Dublin Penny Journal in 1834 or ‘35, relating to the subject of Grianan, apparently taking the stance that the newly found ruin can not be the palace of the historical nor legendary Aileach (I have not been able to find a copy of this issue, whichever one it may be, and so can only presume that this is the case, based on contemporary references.). Therefore the so-called official discovery of the ruin must have taken place between Portlock’s measuring of Donegal’s hills and M’Laughlin’s article.

But it seems that neither Colby nor Portlock is credited with it. In Maghtochair’s book of Inishowen, first published in 1867, this privilege is ascribed to a “talented Colonel Blacker, who was the first to discover this ancient remains of Greinan”. No date is given, but as it turns out the ‘talented Colonel Blacker’ was no other than Lieutenant-Colonel William Blacker, a founding member of the Orange Order, – and in what seems a sensible enough description – a’ Roaring Meg’ in his duties towards the values of this institution. In the last sentence of his account in Maghtochair’s book he called his finding ‘Greinan’ but in his description of it makes it quite clear, that he perceived this monument as an ‘amphitheatre’ and a place of worship.

It is my suspicion that the hill at this point in time was renamed and I fail utterly to believe that the ’small mountain’ was initially called Greinan- Grianan- or Greenan Hill and this name is solely an invention of the post-discovery period of the ruin, and very possible of Blacker or Colby. The ancient, meaningful and Irish name of the hill seems to be lost, as well as the true name and importance of this monument.

It occurs to me as a very severe case of hard luck, that both name and purpose are forgotten amongst the descendants of its creators. The military component of a occupying force from a more recent past rediscovered this lost treasure and re-designated it, no doubt with much excitement, to suit their ambition of inhabiting the soul as much as the soil, in a very Roman approach to empire-making. After all, and I might be terrible wrong about it, but Grianan of Aileach has been ever since and notoriously styled as the seat of power of the O’Neill’s. But was it not an O’Neill who gave the British such troublesome heartache over the province of Ulster not that long ago. The taking of Ulster and even Ireland, was not throughout as certain as one would like to have hoped.

Those in charge of Irish history and Aileach since independence employ a copy and paste approach without questioning the motive of the conclusions of the then victorious. Grianan’s alleged past is still dominated by a colonel of the Royal Engineers of the British Army and a founding member of the Orange Order. A rather alienating thought.

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