Emerald Isle

The Grianan of Aileach

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales and Legendary Places in Ireland

An ancient royal seat and symbol of power

The royal ringfort of Grianán Ailigh was known as the father of every building in Ireland by the Annals of the Four Masters, who also claimed it was first built in the year 1500 BC, in the time of the Tuatha Dé Danann! A mighty place of strength it is and was and may always be, one of the few locations in Ireland correctly marked on a map by geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria in the second century anno domine.

Known as one of the Dagda's seats, the Grianán like many ring forts was built near a Sidh or fairy mound, an ancient burial place for some of the first people of Ireland. It also stands over a sacred well, once circled by ten stones. Its name means “the great stone of the sun” and some speculate the old druids used to hold rituals to worship the daystar within its walls.

It has been known by many names over its long history – Aileach, Aileach Neid, Aileach Frigrinn, Aileach Imchell, Grianán Ailigh and Aileach of the Kings.

It stands atop the Greenan mountain at the western tip of the hills that stretch between Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle, commanding views over the counties Derry, Donegal and Tyrone, at the entrance to the Inishowen peninsula. The hill fort was once surrounded by three high and ancient earthen banks upon which warriors raised spear and shield to drive back attackers.

The Grianán's present circular shape may have been devised by the Northern Uí Néill in the sixth or seventh century when the Cenél nEógain won total control of the northlands and made it a symbol of his power. Its walls stand five meters thick and high, with three stepways within, and two long tunnels inside the walls themselves. Various buildings have been raised in the fort down through the centuries, some of wood, and some of stone.

A poem in the Book of Leinster tells that Frigrind was a famous builder who was given the ancient fort of Aileach for his dwelling-place. Here Frigrind built a splendid house of wood for his wife from red yew, carved and emblazoned with gold and bronze, and set it thick with shining gems – perhaps speaking of the glittering mica adorning it today.

And it was written in the Book of Lecan:

“Then were brought the two good men
In art experts,
Garbhan and Imcheall, to Eochaid [Daghda],
The fair-haired, vindictive
he ordered these a rath to build, Aileach.
Around the gentle youth
That it should be a rath of splendid sections -
The finest in Erinn.
Neid, son of Indai, said to them,
[He] of the severe mind,
That the best hosts in the world could not erect
A building like Aileach.
Garbhan the active proceeded to dress
And to cut [the stones]
Imcheall proceeded to set them
All around in the house.
The building of Aileach's fastness came to an end,
Though it was a laborious process
The top of the house of the groaning hostages
One stone closed.”

It appears from this very ancient poem that not only was the outer rath, or protective circle, of Aileach built of stone by the two masons Imcheall and Garbhan, but the palace and other houses within the enclosure were also built of chipped and cut stone.

It was once the seat of the Kingdom of Ailech, whose reign spanned six centuries, as one of the royal sites of Gaelic Ireland. Here they held their inauguration ceremonies and festivals and counted many famous Kings in their line. It is written in the Life of St. Patrick that Patrick blessed the fortress and left a symbolic flagstone there prophesying that many kings and priests would come from the place.

In 1006, Brian Ború marched through the territory of the Cenel Conail and the Cenel Eogain and probably came to Aileach. In 1101, another king of Munster, Muirchertach Ua Briain, came and ravaged the area, destroying the Grianán of Aileach in revenge for the destruction and demolition of Kincora by Domnall Ua Lochlainn in 1088, after which it fell into disuse for a long time.

Reconstruction work on Grianán Ailigh took place in 1870 under the auspices of Dr Walter Bernard who did a clever job of rebuilding the fortress. He also uncovered many artefacts such as a large stone 40 centimetres across with a piece of wood in a hole in the middle and many animal bones including sheep, cattle, goats and birds.

He also found items including “sling-stones”, “warriors' clubs” and a “sugar-loaf-shaped stone with a well-cut base” as well as a stone fidcheall or Gaelic chess board, described as “a slab of sandstone, chequered into thirty-six squares”.

Grianán Ailigh can be found on the map below!

Legendary Places in Ireland

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