The last time I drove through County Donegal I was asleep; passing through en route to Galway after a long night in Derry. So it was with much joy I joined the procession of tourist drivers heading west. As far as I was concerned, this was my first trip to county. Everything was fresh.
I started out from Belfast on a summery Sunday morning, making my first stop just outside of Derry/Londonderry at Grianán Ailigh (Grianan Aileach or Greenan Aly depending on your choice of language or pronunciation), a major hillfort from the medieval period. The circular stones of the fort stand atop a hill (of course) just inside the border of the Republic of Ireland. It enjoys rapturous views of Lough Swilly to the north, Lough Foyle to the east and my next destination – the mountains of Donegal – to the west.
It’s old, real old
Built by the Northern Uí Néill, an Irish dynasty which claims several high kings of Ireland among its brethren, the fort dates to the eighth century AD. The Uí Néill claimed the ancestry of Niall Noigiallach, Niall of the Nine Hostages, a legendary high king of Ireland who died in about AD 405 (perhaps a little earlier or later).
Grianán Ailigh became the focal point of this dynasty and an important royal seat in Gaelic history. The kings who came out of this area identified themselves as Kings of Ailech, back when the name of Ailech had a ring of power to it. Even before it gained links to kingship, this location held some modicum of regional importance; there is a neolithic tumulus underneath the foundations.
The centre of life in the Kingdom of Aileach
Unassuming as it appears now, sitting mostly undisturbed by the majority of tourists who pass it by in favour of the big ticket attractions, it is hard to get perspective on the lives that once lived here. Particularly since the nearest modern day town, Burt, is pocket-sized!
At the time the fort was built, the high kingship of Ireland was being passed back and forth between the northern rulers whose influence (at its height) stretched across Ulster and into Scotland. There is a time in Celtic history when this place would have been well known.
When I visited on that Sunday, I spent a good couple of hours enjoying the view and thinking about what life would have been like inside the fort. As I lingered, only a small handful of other tourists came and went. I wondered if they could have understood, in the mere minutes they stood on top of the hill, what a busy place this would once have been? The kingship of Aileach died out in the 12th Century after pressure from the Norman Invasion. Then finally, in 1101, it was destroyed by the King of Munster, Muirchertach Ua Briain. And just like that history turns into rubble.
At its zenith, the fort would have been filled with buildings and people enjoying its protection. Now it really takes one’s imagination and a little assistance from archaeological interpretation, to see how unique this fort is. It stands alone, unlike other ringforts which were usually grouped in clusters. Its parapets are considered to be mostly for show, yet the general consensus is that this was a royal capital.
Modern restoration: a help or a hindrance?
We rely on Victorian interpretation – acquired between 1874 and 1878 – and the results of some further restorative work conducted in 2001 to give us an impression of what Grianán Ailigh used to be like as a working fort.
Like many objects of European built-history, this fort was largely restored in the 19th Century. I don’t know if restoration changes how I feel about the place; the restoration here certainly is extensive.The restorative work carried out in 2001 was the subject of local scandal. Work carried out to repair a collapsed wall is said to have changed the overall shape of the fort, but there’s no research to back that up just yet.
If you’re not an archaeologist, it is hard to tell what is indigenous and what is restorative licence – many concede the restoration here was not done with the utmost care… Fortunately, the original stones from the destroyed fort were used in rebuilding the 5 metre tall, 4.5 metre thick walls and it looks certainly fantastic to my thoroughly untrained eye.
If only I had a time machine!
I sure would like to look on this view without the farms and farm houses – to see what the medieval Irish saw. Perhaps a Viking long-boat coming up the lough? Or a Norman army! (Oh no!)
What we do know, according to the archaeology and written history of this place, is that on this site the Uí Néill held festivals, played games and ate themselves silly. I’d definitely like to visit – provided I was on the right side!
Eventually, I left, driving further into the beautiful midsection of County Donegal.
What’s the most impressive but under-visited place you’ve ever been to?