“The knowledge of a thing will die unless you know its name”

Aside from my frustration over the lack of evidence and information as to the origin and character of the monument and the kingdom of Aileach, which is due to powerful pens of the past, trying to translate a thousand years old poem did not improve upon my already failing patience. But I should have known better than to underestimate the power of this language and of those who used it so skilfully. And there still remains the intriguing fact that poems were mainly recited, implicating that not only the poet but also his audience must have understood the multiple suggestions of words, narrowing or widening them by slight nuances in the bards voice.

John Minahane; The Christian druids: on the filid or philosopher-poets of Ireland
Preview of its first 49 but magnificent pages

Tracing the root of a name or word and its journey might be in many cases the only opportunity we have left to solve some unsatisfactory issues of the past, like finding a somewhat mislaid kingdom and the name of a monument, which was not called the Grianán of Aileach until recently.
Scrolling through some pages of Pokorny’s Indo-European Dictionary, it became clear that most words have double meaning, seemingly indicating the opposite, as if they include the two sides/aspects of one. A philosophy in each single Irish word.
One that has caused much consternation is Aileach itself. The explanation of it deriving from Ail-tech, the house of stone, seems to be the most unsuitable name when applied to a territory, land and kingdom. It is also incorrect, since an ail is a rock, immovable and firmly attached to the ground, therefore not used in house building. Other variations are possible on Aileach but none invokes even a remote feeling of eureka.
In Irish legends a place, be it a territory or palace, called Aileach, does not exist and no one ever journeys, fights or feasts in a location of this name. But, and in all their wealth, there are very few occasions when someone comes from Aile(a)chthir and in one story, of the battle of Airtech, Aileachthir is given to Fiachu, son of Conchobar.
Among the words with the root al, two possibilities hold, at least for me, the answer to the riddle of the meaning of Aileachthir, the land of Aileach. It could have originated from the word alios -’others’ (1) for two reasons.

1 Irish aile as in a poem found in the Annals of Tigernach (Whitley Stokes) p.125
“In righ aile” – The other king, or “alii fundatoris Dairi Chalgaigh” – the other founder of Daire Calgaig, p. 175

One: Its geographical position.
What is now called Inishowen, was indeed and not so long ago (2) an island, or more precise, an island of islands. The still ongoing rise of the northern parts of the British Isles, as a result of the last Ice Age and human activity, have now changed, what must have been one of the most spectacular places within sight of the island of Ireland, for it was separated from the mainland. Islands as such have often proven to have attracted a special interest of spiritual nature throughout the ages. And at least one other island of islands, Anglesey, has been noticed in history as well as archaeology, to be a seat of power and learning of druids, by courtesy of the Romans.
Inishowen also lies north northwest, making it the perfect aligned gate to the otherworld, which spans the wintry half of the year, stretching from harvest (death) to the first growth (birth), from west to east, from the Swilly to the Foyle, where the sun sets or rises respectively. The place of rebirth where every departed soul would change into whatever came next.

2 Ashby’s map of Henry Dowcra’s fortification of Inishowen from circa 1601, Hollar and Parson map, The barony of Inishowen,1661

Two: Its political position.
As mentioned above, in both the Ulster and Fenian Cycle, no interest can be found in a place called Aileach. If it was, as claimed by my favourite annalists, a seat of power for the O’Neills, or anyone they could relate remotely to the Milesians, then surely one of the great heroes of Ulster would have either come from there or have at least passed through or fought there on occasion. But Aileach only seems to be something that is given away, often as part of a partition. A notion that is reflected in Irish annals, with the title of King of Aileach added to men, who do not appear to live at the palace of Aileach, most certainly do not feast there or have any other kinds of alterations and have their inauguration site outside Inishowen at Tulach Og. I have not been able to find a single written record of any king’s or chieftain’s inauguration at Aileach or in Ailechthir. In the earlier annals there is also no account of a death of even a single king of Aileach until the 850’s. (3) Aileach does not seem to have been considered as an integral part of what was then understood to be Ireland. There is a curious entry in the Annals of Tigernach, in which the writer felt obliged to state that the island of Oine (Inishowen) is in Ireland. (4) The county, Inishowen belongs to today, still bears the rudiment of the ancient word al, alios in Dun naGall – the fort of the foreigners, which may have been at one stage the largest extent of the land of Aileach. In a contemporary frame, Donegal is still known as the forgotten county and Inishowen does not even appear to belong to either side of the divide. Only a few years ago the entire peninsula was volunteered by the stroke of a pen into the arms of the UK in form of a map for tourists.

Annals of Clonmacnoise: 865 Moyledwin m‘Hugh Prince of Aileagh died (Mortaugh m’Ecka prince of Oileagh in 487);
Annals of Tigernach: There is a gap between 766 and 974, (Muircheartach, son Erc, king of Ailech in 489;
Fragmentary Annals of Ireland: 857 Máel Dúin son of Áed, king of Ailech, died (Áed, king of Ailech in 856);
Chronicon Scotorum: 867 Mael Dúin son of Aed, king of Ailech, dies
(Muircertach Mac Erca, King of Ailech in 487, Aed son of Niall, as king of Ailech in 862);
Annals of Ulster: 867, Mael Dúin son of Aed, king of Ailech, died ;
I excluded the Annals of the Four Master, since they were compiled in 1632 – 36 in Donegal, based on the annals mentioned above and other, now lost, books and it seems that the location of the Four Masters may have resulted in assigning anyone who was someone King of Aileach.

4 Entry for 733.4: “Flaithbertach classem Dal Riada in Iberniam duxit, et caedes magna facta est de eis in insola h-Oíne, ubí hí trucidantur uiri: Concobar mac Locheni & Branchu mac Brain, et multí in flumine demersí sunt quod dicitur in Banna.” This has been translated as: “Flaithbeartach led the classem{?} of Dal Riada into Spain and great slaughter was made of them in the island of Oine, where these men were slaughtered: Conchobhar son of Lochene and Branchu son of Bran and many were drowned in the river called the Bann.” (No translation of these lines in Whitley Stokes’ version) The translation of the Annals of Clonmacnoise by Conell Mageoghagan (1627) carries a similar entry for the year 730 (p. 115): “Fergus brought an army out of Dalriada into Inishowen in Ulster, upon whom there was a great slaughter made, amongst whom Connor, son of Locheny and Branowe the son of Bran were slain and many others Drowned in the river of Banne.”
If Dalriadians get men drowned in the river Bann, called Conchobhar and Branchu son of Bran, one would not presume to be in Spain. Although “Iberniam” may have been misleading in this case, but it is not an unusual term for Ireland.

There is a second option, which may apply, for the meaning of al in the form of altis, alti-os, denoting a “holy grove”. It appears to be more than mere coincident that the most famous Irish saint after Patrick, Columba, was attributed with a sacred oak grove near the island of Derry in Inishowen.
Columba is also credited with having two strange conversations about a lost kingdom in Lough Foyle.

No doubt many other interpretations are possible. But any opinion, conservative or wild, will only be speculation. And until something more substantial has been found by means of archaeological research, it will remain a game of the mind. Etymology can provide valid options, but as for now, the reason behind the finally chosen spelling of Ailech/Aileach remains illusive, keeping in mind that there was no agreement to begin with, if its first letter should be an A or O.

“The knowledge of a land will die unless you know its name.”


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