A dispute arising from letters to the editor

From the appendix of Maghtochair’s book “Inishowen – Its History, Traditions, And Antiquities”, published in 1867.

A gentleman signing himself “O’Doherty” has taken me to task for stating that Grianan was used as a temple for the worship of the sun. In a series of letters published in the Journal he affirms, on the authority of Dr. Petrie, that the ruins of Grianan are the ruins of Aileach – that is, that Aileach, the royal residence of the Cinel-Eoghain, and Grianan were identical. I subjoin everything tangible in that correspondence, and it will be seen how much Dr. Petrie relies on that very etymology which both he and “O’Doherty” affect to despise. “O’Doherty” says with reference to myself: –

“He says that the remains on the summit of Greenan Hill, in Burt, are the ruins of a temple of the sun, but he does not give us the authority on which this important assertion rests.” He then goes on – “I am aware that the same view was advocated in an interesting and ingenious article by Mr. Peter M’Laughlin, of Newtowncunningham, in the Dublin Penny Journal of 1834 or ’35, and if I remember rightly, was made by him to rest on the derivation of the word Grianan. The opinion of that talented and accomplished scholar (whose early death was a serious loss to our local history) was generally adopted, until the publication of the ‘Ordnance Survey of Londonderry,’ when the searching labours of Mr. Petie and the illustrious Dr. O’Donavan dispelled the illusion”.

He quotes Petrie as follows: – “It has, indeed, been supposed by some ingenious writers that this curious remain of antiquity was erected as a temple of the sun – a conjecture resting on the etymology of its name, Grianan, which, as they state, does literally mean ‘the place of the sun,’ or ‘appertaining to the sun.’ ….

“That Grian or the sun was an object of worship among the Pagan Irish is not to be denied, but that the word Grianan was ever applied to denote a temple of the sun, or a temple of any kind, no authority has been as yet adducted or found, while there are abundant evidences that it was constantly used in a figurative * sense, to signify a distinguished residence or a royal palace. It is thus explained by O’Reilly: – ‘Grianan, a summer-house, a walk, arched or covered over on a hill for a commodius prospect (a balcony), a Royal seat.'” But, even though it were allowed that the word Grianan was sometimes applied to a temple of the sun, the Irish authorities still abundantly prove that this – the Grianan of Aileach – was not a monument of that description. In all the Irish histories the palace of the northern Irish kings is designated by the name of Aileach simply or Grianan-Aileach, Aileach-Neid, or Aileach-Fririve; and its situation is stated to have been on a hill in the vicinity of Derry. …..

This name Aileach was also applied to the surrounding country, anciently called Tyr Ailig, or the country of Aileach, but now preserved only in two adjacent + townlands, called Elaghmore and Elaghbeg, or the Great and Little Elagh.

All doubt of the identity of Grianan Fort and the ancient palace is, however, removed by the following passage in a poem on the history of the Tuatha-De-Denauns, composed by Flann of the monastery – that is, of Monasterboice – in the commencement of the 11th century, and preserved in the Books of Lecan and Ballymote: –

“Fell on the eastern shore,

At the very side of the rath of Aileach,

Indai More, the son of Delwy Lib (the Lybian?),

By Gann, the son of Dera, of the white hand.”

It is certain that the words eastern shore, here used, could only be applied to that of Lough Swilly, which approaches the foot of the hill at that point only. The present castle of Elagh is some miles from any shore. ++ A further evidence of this identity is furnished by a description of the royal fortress, preserved in the Dinnseanchus – an Irish topographical work of very high antiquity, if not, as Dr. O’Connor states, the earliest treatise of the kind which any country now possesses.”


* I have italicised the word figurative.

+ These townlands are nearly three miles distant from Grianan.

++ This is incorrect.

In reply to this I wrote and quoted the first eight lines of that poem, the Dinnseanchus, as follows: –

“Oileach Fredreann, seat of the kings royal of the world;

Dun, through which ran roads under heroes, through five ramparts:

Hill on which slept the Dagda; red its flowers,

Manyits houses, just its plunders, scarce its stones;

Lofty Caislen is Ailech Frigrenn, fort of the good man,

Dun, the shelter of heroes, Noble lime house,

Delightful place is Oilech Gabran, green its bushes.

Sod, where placed the Dagda, the resting mound of Aedh.”

 Now Petrie himself says that the stones of this building on the hill were wholly uncemented, and I fear the parts of the description which I have italicised will scarcely apply to it. In answer to this O’Doherty wrote, saying the words “Noble lime house,” in one edition of the Ordnance Memoir, were converted into “Noble stone house” in another edition. The Irish words in the poem are “aeilteach emir,” and I confess I know not how they can be translated “Noble stone house.” I quite agree that the structure was ante-Christian, but deny that all the buildings of the De-Dananns were constructed of stones; their temples indeed were; their dwellings were not. Referring to this amended edition of the Survey, O’Doherty says: –

“In it the translation of the poem in the Dinnseanchus differs considerably from the translation in the first edition. Thus we have

‘Dun, place of shelter of heroes, noble stone house,’

instead of ‘noble lime house,’ which latter phrase would have been entirely against Dr. Petrie. * He had been arguing that the ruin on Greenan was the Grianan-Aileach of historic fame, because Grianan meant ‘a royal seat,’ and Aileach, ‘stone house or habitation’; he had confidently referred its erection to the Tuatha-De-Dannanus, the chief characteristic of whose buildings was that they were constructed of stones (not of clay or timber) and that these stones were ‘wholly uncemented,’ and in confirmation of what he has said he quotes the poem referred to, which treats of the very place there is question about. The use of lime in building was not introduced into Ireland until after the introduction of Christianity, and as this edifice


* For or against let us have the true translation of those words “aeilteach emir.”

was constructed without lime or cement, Dr. Petrie concludes that it existed before the Christian era. In his ‘Round Towers’ Dr. Petrie treats the subject of the buildings of the Firbolgs and Tuatha-De-Dananus at length, and some interesting information may be had on the point from ‘Madden’s Shrines and Sepulchres,’ vol. I., chap. 20. The opening stanza of the poem prove another point for our antiquarian – viz., the existence of five ramparts. The relative position of these he carefully indicates.

“Your correspondent, however, seems to think that a difficulty arises from the words ‘green its bushes.’ If we look at Greenan as it is now, that is quite true; but it is not as it now is, but it is then was, that we are considering it. Walker in his ‘Irish Bards,’ tells us that one of these colleges was in Inishowen, and that the whole face of the peninsula was then covered with trees. Later still, Mr. Sampson tells us this district was called ‘Daircoillragh,’ that is, the country of the oaks. The ancient chieftains of the western bank, including the peninsula of Inishowen, were called Hy-daher-teagh, that is, chiefs of the habitations of the oaks; this name is now spelled and pronounced O’Doherty.’ – (Sampson’s Survey, chap. V., sec. 27.) It is at present destitute of trees, but so are the other hills and mountains – and I might add the lowlands – of the barony.”

In a third letter O’Doherty says: – “As regards the extract from Colonel Blacker, I will merely say that it is both specious and ingenious, but entirely fanciful, and unsupported by any historical evidence. I do not mean to depreciate the Colonel’s labours, nor to deny that we owe him much for first drawing attention to the venerable pile, but I don’t think I am bound to adopt a man’s opinions when mistaken, simply because he happens to be perfectly sincere and correct on other point.”

But coming back to Aileach itself, as noticed in the second edition of the Ordnance Memoir, Dr. Petrie says: – “The signification of this name – Aileach – independently of its attendant epithets, is obviously ‘stone house, or habitation’; and it is so explained by Michael O’Clery, the chief of the Four Masters, in his Glossary of ancient Irish words – Aileach, or Ailteach, i.e., a name for a habitation, which (name) was given from stones. * This derivation of the word is strictly borne out by the Dinnseanchus, in its history of the name of Aileach. After stating that Corgeann, in punishment of his crime, was sentenced to carry on his back the dead body of his victim until he should find a fitting stone for his tomb, the poem states that he (Corgeann) ‘soon reached the promontory of the bright lake of Febhal,’ where he found what he required,” Then (I quote from the first edition of the poem) –

“When Corgeann saw the stone of Febhal he soon sized it,

And carried it with him, tho’ a heavy load.

He told the Dagda truly without boasting –

‘There is the stone outside, O restrainer of pride!’

The Dagda said, with countenance of protection – “Truly

The houses and the place shall take name from this stone.’

‘Aileach shall be the name of this town of Banba (Ireland).

Beyond every hill like the hill of great Temur,’ said Dagda’s Druid.”

In a poem of Farrell Oge Mac Ward ( who lived in 1655), addressed to Calvagh Roe O’Donnell, and which was found in manuscipt by Mr. Eugene O’Curry, in the papers of the Rev. Dr. Todd, F.T.C.D., it is said that the coming of O’Donnell was long predicted and expected at Emania, at Tara, at Aileach. Of the latter it says: –

“Nor was Aileach Neid, too, less expectant

Of one like thee to arise unto her

Hoping thou wouldst relieve her anguish.”

&c., &c., &c.

In a footnote the illustrious Dr. O’ Donovan explains the locality of Aileach those: – “Aileach Neid – Now ELAGH, one of the ancient palaces of Ulster.” This very formal explanation from Dr. O’Donovan should have much weight.


* Oileag-Neid or Nead was the primitive name, which clearly enough implies “Swan’s-Nest.”



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