(The Grianán Of Aileach), Co. Donegal
Etienne Rynne M.A., M.R.I.A., S.S.A
Prof., of Arch., University College, Galway
The following is a summery account of the main thrust of the Paddy McGill Lecture delivered on the 16th of October 1987 under the title “The Grianán, and Other Celtic Ceremonial Sites in Ireland”.
The Grianán of Aileach, as it its best known, is a magnificent stonebuilt circular enclosure sited on the top of a hill overlooking Loughs Foyle and Swilly and from which one can see most of three counties, Donegal, Derry and Tyrone – some, indeed, claim that five counties can be seen from it. It is surrounded by the faint traces of three earthen banks which has led some to consider it a hill fort of Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age date. The stone structure may well be a monument quite independent of the earthen ramparts, however, and can best be treated as such.
The Grianán can best be compared with such other well-known monuments as ‘O’Boyle’s Fort’, on Lough Doon, Dromboghill, also in Co. Donegal, Staique Fort in Co. Kerry, Ballykinvarga in Co. Clare, and stone forts of the Aran Islands including the world-famous Dún Aengusa, and, oddly enough, the ancient fort enclosing the Early Christian monastery on Inishmurray, Co. Sligo. These monuments are all clearly related and can confidently be dated to the Pagan Celtic Early Iron Age, that is to within probably a couple of centuries on either side of the birth of Christ. All are generally thought of as defensive military sites, but there are several good reasons to believe that this interpretation is too facile and, furthermore, is incorrect.
There are four main reasons why a monument can be built, namely for (1) burial, (2) habitation, (3) military, or (4) ceremonial purposes. Examining the above-mentioned sites with these purposes in mind, on can straight away eliminate the first two reasons as most of the monuments would be totally unsuitable for either. The military purpose seems more likely – until one realises that the ancient Irish did not normally engage in siege warfare, that most of these sites have neither water available nor an escape route, and that their architecture does not make them really suitable for defence anyway, especially considering the limitations of the weapons available to the Irish at the time.
By a process of elimination, therefore, we are left with the fourth reason: that they were built for ceremonial purposes. When one examines them in some detail with this in mind one quickly realises their suitability for such use. First and foremost they are all most impressive structures, just as are all ancient temples and contemporary cathedrals, ranging from the Parthenon in Athens to St. Peter’s in Rome to St. Eunan’s Cathedral in Letterkenny. They are also all sited in positions which immediately command attention and respect, generally in prominent places overlooking a large area and eminently suitable as places of assembly for the people of the surrounding areas. Furthermore, their stepped and terraced walls, when one thinks about it, are much more suitable for looking inwards than for looking outwards: one should regard these monuments as amphitheatres rather than as defensive stockades, as the Irish equivalents of such sites as the Roman Colosseum or even the Olympic stadium, neither of which although terraced internally, were ever considered to be defensive military monuments; in Ireland they should be regarded as the stone-built equivalents of such acceptably ceremonial earthen enclosures as Eamain Macha near Armagh, Ráth an Rí at Tara, Co. Meath, and Dún Ailinne in Co. Kildare.
Another important argument in favour of structures such as the Grianán of Aileach being for ceremonial rather than for military purposes is that there are no records of any of them ever having been actively used in any war or battle. Some of them, however, are associated with ritual and ceremonial functions. The massive stepped stone cashel on Inishmurray, off the coast of Sligo, for example, was used secondarily as the enclosure of an Early Christian monastery, while the Grianán itself still served many centuries later, until the twelfth century at least, as the royal seat and assembly place of the Cinél Chonaill, rulers of the Northern Uí Néill kingdom of Aileach (roughly modern Co. Donegal), having previously been that of the Cinél Eoghain whose territory included modern Co. Tyrone and much of Cos. Derry and Armagh. Furthermore, in 1835, before the Grianán was restored in 1874-78, George Petrie recorded traces of a rectangular stone structure at the centre which he considered to be the remains of a Penal Chapel.
The restored Grianán of Aileach is a really dramatic site and presents a wonderful and impressive setting to the visitor, a monument where one can easily mentally visualise druids, ollavs, bards, kings, noblemen and woman all gathered inside its walls, some to perform rituals in the central area and others standing on the terraces, viewing the solemn proceedings, perhaps chanting incantations, or perhaps even a choir singing sacred songs.
Donegal Annual, Nr. 41, 1989, pp. 54 – 56