The meaning of grianan

Colonel Colby’s fierce intensity, and its extent, in persuading the readers of his Ordnance Survey that Grianan always means palace, left me, from the first time I set my eyes on his survey, somehow noticeably estranged.

“It is thus explained by O’Reilly: – “Grianán, a summer-house, a walk, arched or covered over a hill for commodious prospect, (a balcony)”a royal seat.” 

Not only are there lakes, hills and 27 townlands by name of Grianan, with not a royal seat in sight, as some research soon provided, there is also Colonel Blacker’s cunning observation of the “summer enclosure on a hill for a commodious prospect,” without window, orifice, or peep-hole of any description to look through”. In The history of Ireland to the coming of Henry II by Arthur Ua Clerigh there is less forced explanation of this word, plus one surprise concerning another name for the hill fires in May. In chapter XII “The religion of the Gael before St. Patrick” he quotes Cormac’s Glossary of the May-Fire:

“Belltaine, Mayday, i.e., bí l-tâ ne — fire for luck, lucky fire, which Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle (as a safeguard) against the diseases of each year to those fires. (In the margin is added) they used to drive the cattle between these fires. … 

Carmichael, in the Carmina Gadelica (1901) gives a most interesting account of how this ” neid ” fire was produced in the Hebrides (Innis Cat), and the attendant ceremonies. In North Uist the neid fire was produced by rapidly boring with an auger, i.e., the fire-drill. This was accomplished by the exertions of the ” naoi naomear cind ginealach Mac” — the nine nines of first-begotten sons. Sail Dairach (oak log) obtained its name from the log of oak for the neid fire being there. A fragment riddled with auger holes still remains. Mr. Alexander Mackay, of Reay, Sutherland, says : — My father was the skipper of a fishing crew. Before beginning operations for the season the crews met at night at our house . . . After settling accounts they put out the fire on the hearth. They then rubbed two pieces of wood one against the other so rapidly as to produce fire, the men joining in one after the other, and working with the utmost energy, never allowing the friction to relax. From this friction-fire they then re-kindled the fire on the hearth, from which all the men present carried away a kindling to their own houses. 

The neid fire was resorted to in imminent or actual calamity, upon the first day of the quarter, and to ensure success in great or important events. A woman in Arran said her father and the other men of the townland used to make the neid fire on the knoll on the ” La buidhe Bealtain ” — ” Yellow day of Beltane.” The fire of purification was kindled from the neid fire, while the domestic fire was re-kindled from the fire of purification. This was divided into two fires, between which the people and cattle rushed australly for purposes of purification. The neid fire was made down to a comparatively recent period ; in North Uist about the year 1829 ; in Arran, about 1820; in Reay, about 1830. 

The production of the neid fire in Erin would not have been prevented by the dampness of the climate. It was practised in Tyrone at the commencement of the last century, probably by some of the Scotch, who settled in that county after the confiscations in Ulster. This appears from the following narrative which we have condensed from the Journal of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society : — Bernard Bannon of Cavancarragh, near Enniskillen, states that when ” Big Head ” appeared amongst the cattle the men of the townland assembled on the farm to make “neid fire,” and covered it with ” scraws,” and used the smoke as a cure by forcing the cattle, with open mouths, to hold their heads over it. Having got two pieces of dry wood two men commenced to rub them violently together till friction produced fire. He heard his father say he himself had helped to kindle a neid fire and that it was very hard work ; each pair of men rubbed in turn. Before the neid fire was made every fire in the townland was extinguished. After the cure every extinguished fire got a burning coal from the neid fire to rekindle it. He remembered when at school, being then about 7 years old, the scholars telling that the men in the townland of Ratoran were all engaged at kindling a neid fire. Some of the little boys said they got no school bread that day, as all the fires had been put out. The school was at Pubble, near Ratoran, in Tyrone.” 

In Lebor Gabála Érenn, in the time of Partholon, Ireland is divided amongst his four sons and one of the markers used in this first division is Aileach Neid. How handy, that the oak grove – Doire, Derry, is right beside. The persistence of neid fires, mainly in todays Scotland, and on its return to Ulster until only a generation or two ago, could be proof that, whoever was at Aileach in the early stages, moved across the Irish Sea and this settles well with others place names explored in the search for Aileach, for they are all found in Scotland. Further more, there is also one possible reminder of it in Inishowen, a place between Buncrana Castle and Father Hegarty’s Rock, called Ned’s Point, which accommodates a fortification of Lough Swilly from the times of the Napoleonic War. Above it, in north westerly direction, is Cnoc na Cashel, which according to oral tradition, was a place where fires were lit. With, so far, no explanation for the origin of the name Ned and a custom of fires lit above, it is too attempting under the circumstances, to be brushed aside without further consideration and research. On page199 of the same chapter he says: 

“We have very little doubt that the Aryan fire-cult had a place side by side with the worship of the sun and the other elements in Erin, and that our texts were carefully ” cleaned ” from any reference to it. The fire was probably kept at first in the King’s great house, in the women’s quarters, and attended to by the maidens of the King’s household. There was, no doubt, an altar with representations or “idols” of the sun (grian) there, whence it came to be known as the “grianan.*” The fire was afterwards kept in the maidens’ ferta, on the slope, in a shrine within it, or if not kept there constantly, was placed there for great celebrations. The most important of these would be the making of the ” new fire ” from the sun itself, and we may presume that it was on such an occasion the maidens were assembled who were slain by the raiders from Leinster. 

*In some parts of the Highlands almost up to the present day an enclosure or paddock was called a grianan. Bannock’s Irish Druids, 192, and infra, c. 16, the ” grianan” of Aileach, in the Circuit of Muirchertach of the Leather Cloaks.” 

Which leads to chapter XIX “A winter circuit”. On page 286, in the footnote, he states: 

“The word grianan occurs twice in the poem. 

(1). Into the grianan of the splendid steeds (line 4), 
is in greanan gall groideac. 
This O’Donovan renders:- 
Into the stone-built grianan (palace) of the steeds. 

(2.) Into the green grianan of Aileach (line 150), 
i n Greanan uaine Oilig. 
This O’Donovan renders:- 
Into the green Palace of Aileach. 
The 151st line is:- 
Adaig i Moig Ai uaine. 
A night on green Magh Ai. 

We think that the meaning of grianan here is not a palace, but an enclosure, or paddock; a meaning which it bore until recently, as we have already stated (a.XIV), in the Highlands. “Enclosures in the Highlands were called grianans” – Bonwick, Druids, 192. The troop of hostages, with there attendants, were, we think, accommodated in tents, or “wattle and dab” buildings, within the “horse paddock,” at Aileach. The epithet “green” is then as applicable in line 150 as in line 151, but we confess we do not understand what is meant by a green, stone-built, palace, Muirchertach is referred to in line 16 as “of the great steeds” (mor-groidig).” 

The grianan must have been therefore within the circumferences of the palace of Aileach. Leaving one wondering, why four monks in the 1630’s would prefix for the first time grianan to Aileach in the entry of its destruction, knowing perfectly well the meaning of this word. Although it remains speculation, but this addition may have been an amplification, and their understanding of the consequences, of the utter devastation caused in 1101 and saying with it, that all the enclosures for cattle, horses and men alike were gone as well, leaving no or little hope for regeneration. In other words, this destruction was an attempt of a most efficient elimination of the strongest contestant in the greedy strife for unchallenged power and not about tribute paying, cattle raiding, hostage taking. Tragically, and as a result, it came at a bad time for Ireland. Who knows, how events would have shaped up, if the destruction of one power base, perceived or otherwise, would not have included its grianan, the very location of life’s necessities.

With a more practical explanation for grianan at hand, it also may shed some light on a rather strange remark John O’Donovan made in a letter addressed to Eugene O’Curry, dated Dungiven, August 2nd, 1834.

“From these very respectable authorities I have forced my mind to believe that Grianan simply means Solarium (as invariably rendered by the erudite and honest Colgan), and that, when applied to a palace (for I do not find that it was ever applied to any other building), it simply alluded to its splendour and the grandeur of its situation. … ” 

If he knew the purpose and use of grianan, and he most likely did, having scouted nearly the length and breadth of Ireland to document its disappearing names, than of course he would have had to force his mind and pen to call it a ‘Solarium‘. And he goes on to say that he did ‘not find that it was ever applied to any other building’. But then, neither a paddock, nor lake, nor hill, nor townland would constitute one.

I also have to correct myself and must take the burden of false accusation of the shoulders of the Four Masters. The usage of Grianan appeared in the poem “The Circuit of Ireland by Muircheartach MacNeill“, written about the 12th century. Although it is alleged to have been written by Cormacan Eigeas while on the circuit in 939, the profile description of the document disagrees:

Created: By an unknown propagandist on behalf of Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn, king of Ireland (1156-1166), and then attributed to Cormacán Éces. Date range: 1156-1166. 

The Metrical Dindshenchas poems in a more modern translation are here: Ailech I, Ailech II, Ailech III.

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