Remembering my more than lucky escape from February last, I left this time the car at St. Angus Church, slightly daunted by the long walk and pressed for time, since I had to go to work. As it turned out, I rather foolishly decided to take a shortcut through the fields on the more gentle slope to the north-west, hoping to avoid the solid ice on the road and save some time as result. The snow was hard and deep and progress slow and exhausting. But it must have been the most beautiful start to any year, any decade.
At arrival I leaned on the wall of the southern end of the upper platform, looking north into Inishowen over Asdevlin Hill, as I was strangely overcome by what I only can describe as a sinking-ship-feeling. The southern section of the wall is lower than the northern. This occurrence may have become more perceptible than usual by the light conditions created by the snow, leaving the north end thrusting up like the bow of a ship while the south was plunged back into the deep. Photographing Grianán from the east always leaves it sliding down south and when looked at from Holywell Hill, it appears to be unable to hold on for much longer. The same observation was made by Dr. Walter Bernard as he restored the monument in 1874.
“At first we made the entire structure uniform in height, but looking at it from a distance it was found unsightly. This apparent want of proportion was occasioned by the irregularity of the ground on which it is built; so, to compensate for this inclination, we raised the wall a few feet higher on the southern than on the northern portion.”
This consideration was obviously lost as the OPW rebuilt the section after the 2005 collapse, resulting in a visible sloping of the building to the south. But beside causing an “apparent want of proportion”, it may also be the reason for an always existing danger to the stability of the building, as noted by Dr. Bernard.
“When exposed to view, the side walls of the southern gallery were seen to be deplorably dilapidated, in many parts broken down, and the flagging entirely removed from the roof, with the exception of two or three. The lintels of both northern and southern entrances were in their original positions. Fortunately the seat and recess in the southern were not much injured. It will be found on examination that the side walls of the northern are in much better preservation than those in the southern; but the latter are well pinned up, and though unsightly, nothing needs be apprehended as regards stability. You will ask why it is that the southern side suffered so much more than the other. This being the side of the prevalent storms, and of the inclination of the hill, in my opinion, accounts for the mischief not only to the gallery itself, but also to that side of the entire structure in the south-west.”
But why would the builders of this monument knowingly risked collapse, if it easily could have been positioned five to ten metres further to the north, placing it at the summit instead of beside and away from the southern slope and likely damage to the building’s integrity?
No burial nor the remains of such have been found inside Grianán. Both Col. Blacker in 1830 and Dr. Bernard in 1874 only seemed to have cleared stones and debri but not soil from it. The altar stone and the remains of a Penal Law chapel were found resting on the rock surface underneath. Although oak trees once covered this hill and its top soil would have been sufficiently deep to accommodate their roots system, there is only a small and improvable possibility of a grave or burial on this very spot, around which, the monument could have been built at a later stage, and so, explaining its fragile positioning. The cutting down of the trees took probably place during the Bronze Age, some three or four thousand years ago. Without the roots literally pinning the soil to the rock, it could have taken only a few decades, or even less, to wash it all down the slopes. A tumulus was found between the inner and middle rampart, consisting of a “small mound having around it a circle of ten stones laid horizontally and converging towards the centre. This mound has been recently opened (1835), but nothing was discovered in it that would throw light on the purpose of its erection.” (Colby, Ordnance Survey). With the tumulus being so close to the building itself, it is reasonable safe to conclude, that a second burial would not have been placed inside Grianán.
The only other option remaining is that this potential risky location was chosen to serve as part of an alignment. Capt. H. Boyle Somerville submitted a paper to The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland in 1909, “Ancient Stone Monuments Near Lough Swilly, County Donegal, Ireland”.
“It has become apparent, moreover, that there is more than one system of orientation: that is to say, that some monuments are oriented for solstitial sunrises or sunsets, or both; some for sunrise or sunset at the Equinoxes; some for sunrise or sunset at a point equidistant in time between solstice and equinox (namely at the beginning of May, August, November, and February); some for the rising or setting of a star, or of the Moon.
The monuments around Lough Swilly appear on investigation to have belonged to all these systems or cults; namely, (1) Solstitial, (2) Equinoctial, (3) “May Year”, (4) Stellar, or possibly Lunar.
Judging by the number and variety of scattered remains of antiquity in the neighbourhood, it would appear as if this region had not only been largely populated in ancient days, but was also highly civilized for the period of the world’s history, as we know it. The undoubted knowledge of astronomy possessed by its inhabitants infers a degree of civilization far beyond what now remains to us of it in the shape of these rude stone structures, though, at the same time, they do not appear to have acquired the art of writing.
The exact reasons for the monuments requiring these particular orientations are not yet thoroughly ascertained; but it may be said with some degree of certainty that they were both calendrical and religious, and that, for instance, the arrival of the sunrise at the two extreme azimuths of the Sun’s declinational path at midsummer and midwinter were moments indicating not only the turn of the year, but were also seasons for religious praise or worship.”
Bearing in mind these respectful words, concerning the much agreeable capabilities of the people of this area, and the time regarding the erection of the Grianán, the question surrounding the placing of the monument at such precarious position, seemingly found its answer. Whatever purpose its builders assigned to the monument, it was aligned with the movements of “the sun, the moon and the stars” as well as to other monuments on the hilltops surrounding it.
One more thought occurred to me. When the circular building was erected, at a so far unknown time, the requirement of stones would have been enormous. There are no traces of quarrying such amount of stones directly on the hill. The only thinkable possibility would be a small hillock attached to the southern slope. I have to walk it again and look for traces of quarrying but I seriously doubt that a large quantity of stones could have come from there.
So, were did the stones come from? And why was such tremendous effort made to transport them, painfully slow and backbreaking, to the summit of this hill? As Dr. Bernard restored Grianán he used “700 or 800 loose stones” and “split from the adjoining rocks … 181 coping-stones”, and he noted that moving stones off the hill alone, “would be a work of supererogation, as well as much injury to horses, carts, and harness, and at best these are not, and I believe never were, well adapted for the severe work experienced in ascending and descending a rough stony uncultivated hill.” It is also reasonable to conclude that a fortified royal palace would have necessitated more building material than, lets say for arguments sake, a temple. But such amount of stones, worked or un-worked, has never been found. It is unrealistic to believe for one moment that Murtagh O’Brien in 1101 made his men carrying with them “for every sack of provision” a stone of “Oileach” “On the horses of the king of the West.” (Annals of the Four Masters, Vol. 2). Not only for the above mentioned reason, but I also can not imagine for the live of me anyone, who just raided Derry and Inishowen with its monasteries and other riches, to fill his spoils and torture his horse with a rather large stone, knowing that there will be plenty at home. As to the notion that the stones where removed by locals, the same consideration applies and Dr. Bernard wrote: “The men themselves ridicule the idea of stones having been removed for building purpose, as they have more than once remarked, that they have already too many stones on and about their farms. Another proof – quarries are on every hill-side in the neighbourhood.”
Since the publication of Colby’s Ordnance Survey in 1837 there has been much twisting and turning of incompatible facts to craft this monument into a royal palace. And I am glad to see that this opinion, held for far to long, is now crumbling and so, opening a door to the past of this always magnificent hill.
Many thanks to the resident gentleman, who found me balancing my way down and gave me a lift back to the car. Without his help, I would not have been in time for work.