In 1974 the Inishowen author Brian Bonner published the first edition of his book “Where Aileach Guards“, adding ‘flesh and blood to the dry bones of history’ of the ancient territory of Aileach, known today as Inishowen.
Before even knowing the bare basics of Grianán’s past, it always struck me in its appearance as a guardian of this land and its people. Sadly, with more recent developments, the question arose: Who is guarding Grianán? Heritage sites around Ireland are not just under threat, they are disappearing rapidly under the heavy machinery of the construction industry. The ‘dry bones of history’, the beginning, the very foundations of this island is in the way of what is styled progress and growth. But where could it possible lead, if our past, the ground we walk on, is destroyed before we even have the ability to understand where we came from and who we are.
Everything pre-Christian in particular seems to be most easily disposable. Even the great Celtic image booster, which serves so well in advertisements, didn’t stop the destruction of a newly discovered national monument, the wooden henge at Lismullin near Tara. Stone-, Bronze- and Iron Age sites are regarded, if at all, as something that can be improved upon with concrete. Newgrange received this kind of ‘improvement’ although it stood on the craftsmanship of its builders for five thousand years. A quality which can not be expected from the recent addition. Early Christian monuments, as the world heritage site at Skellig Michael, take delivery of the same faith. But most likely burials or even cashels from these periods have been and are still used as a readily supply of building material or are simply an obstacle which needs to be removed. On a road between Malin Town and Malin Head on top of Crockraw Hill lay the remains of a truly impressive cashel. It was visited by Mabel R. Colhoun in 1944 and described as being of Iron Age or later. Not only has it never been further investigated for its origin or builders, farmers were left to use the stones to built what can only be described as Mini Wall of China going all the way down the hill and stretching through the valley and up the hill again as far as the eye can see. Some years ago RTÉ also seemed to have made use of this method of material supply and built themselves a fine wall around their broadcasting mast occupying parts of cashel. Being under the impression that this may work, a local radio station did the same.
Mainstream history in Ireland seems to begin with the arrival of Patrick, discarding eight thousand years of human habitation on these shores. Describing the periods before Christianity as pre-history is in itself a degrading of our very origins and does not attempt to inspire exploration into this dim and perceived primitive past and can only been seen as illusive demonstration of elevating ourselves at our own cost.
The last two hundred years have nearly erased the possibility of discovering the true history of Grianán Ailigh. A description of the newly found site together with a survey was published by the Ordnance Survey Memoirs in 1837 and led to a ‘summer invasion of visitors from the neighbouring city – indeed, to such an extent that the drawings of the fort, taken at the time by the Ordnance Survey, have literally become matters of history, for the inclined jambs, the interior terrace with its steps, the small central building (from the times of the Penal Law, ed.), and many other features of note which then existed are now no more‘. As Dr. Walter Bernard rescued and restored the monument from 1874 -78, he gathered ‘around the hill about 700 or 800 loose stones’ to ‘serve instead of those removed by King Murdoch O’Brien in 1101’, and I fear that quite a few of these ‘loose stones’ were taken from what appears to be the very fade remains of burials on the slopes of the hill. He also excavated the inside of Grianán down to the rock surface and found amongst other items a ‘slab of sandstone, chequered into thirty-six squares ’ with ‘lines on its flat surface have been drawn with accuracy, the four sides, each nearly 6 inches, delineating almost a complete square’. It was sent by him to the Royal Academy in Dublin where it disappeared. The hill itself and its surroundings still contains field walls and remains of older of the same and the removal of stones from burials and possible buildings therefore can not be entirely blamed on Dr. Bernard. A tumulus found between the second and third rampart and described as a ‘small mound having around it a circle of ten stones laid horizontally and converging towards the centre’ was left undisturbed by Dr. Bernard but was later opened up and as ‘at that time without apparently any evidence as to its nature’ nothing was discovered towards this aim, was destroyed, leaving ‘a low heap of broken stones ‘ to ‘indicate its former position‘ which has now also disappeared and no trace of it is to be found today. In 1955 the President of Ireland, Eamon De Valera, opened a newly built road and car park to ease access to the site. ‘This path cut through the three earthen ramparts below the fort, and to obtain the sods one of the ramparts was dug into quite considerably on both sides of the path.’ (Mabel R. Colhoun, “The Heritage of Inishowen”) In 2001, ‘a specialist structural engineering and archaeological survey was undertaken’ by the Office of Public Works and as a result large sections of the wall were replaced with a solid concrete fill. The obsolete stones of the monument, the same stones which Dr. Bernard either marked carefully with tar if original or took from the hill, ended up dumped in two heaps in a field below, now much overgrown over the last months but nevertheless with in sight of their former destination.
No trace of craftsmanship can be found in the modern presentation of Grianán Ailigh.
In this very old land of Aileach remains of a once proud heritage and as such the means of understanding its past are quietly taken away to build was is supposed to be our future. There are many forgotten sites like the site above Lisfannon and maybe as many are still undiscovered as the site I found nearby. Some of the known sites have cattle shedding their excrements over them at the same time the full extent as to their size and complexity is withheld from the public by the few with this knowledge, as in the case of the Temple of Deen and the Bocan Stone Circle near Culdaff, which are portrayed as stand alone monuments despite being part of a larger complex as I discovered. Connections between sites within close distance of each other, never mind covering an area as one entity, are usually not made at all.
Much of what has been recorded and preserved with great admiration, care and tireless effort by remarkable individuals over decades is ‘now no more’. The few ‘improved’ and therefore presentable examples left, to pretend a presence of our roots, are mute for they can not tell anymore the full story of our journey which we seem to deny now to have undertaken in such manner in the first place.
Who is guarding Grianán Aileach?