Grianan of Aileach (Irish: Grianán Ailigh) is a historic monument on the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal, Ireland, with precise alignments to the eqinoxes and with evidence suggesting it was constructed as a site for the celebration of the sun.
Archaeological evidence and historical annals suggest that it is a multi-period site that has gone through many phases, uses, peoples, and cultures, as well as destruction, decay, and multiple restorations.
Aileach is metaphorically referred to in some earlier texts as the oldest building in Ireland. It is one of only five Irish locations marked on Ptolemy of Alexandria’s second century map of the world. Although this stone ringfort is most commonly dated from the sixth or seventh century CE, the site itself shows evidence of settlement much prior to its erection.
Some archaeologists suggest the ringfort dates as far back as the iron age (eleventh century BC), and is built upon the remains of an even earlier fort, considered to be possibly five thousand years old, making it older than the current commonly accepted dating of the pyramid complex at Giza (though there is evidence suggesting the Pyramids are of a far older origin as well). A tumulus at the site dates right back to the Neolithic age (about 3000 BC).The current state the site is in is largely due to the heavy restorative work done on the site by an antiquarian from Derry, Dr. Bernard Walter, in 1874–1878, as well as recent work done on the site in 2007 by the Irish Office of Public Works.
Ringforts in Ireland
Ringforts, or “rounds,” or “cashels,” are not an uncommon structure in Ireland, and many made of stone or earth are found scattered throughout the green lands of Northern Europe. Ireland holds a particularly strong concentration of them — over forty thousand have been identified on the island alone. Most are considered to have been built in the early middle ages and have been either worn away by the elements over the years or destroyed by farming and urbanization, and most were used for farmsteading or as military fortifications.
Grianan of Aileach appears to differ from many of these rounds in its building structure, alignments, and function, and suggests quite a different purpose to the site — one of a spiritual / religious nature.
The Site’s Name Suggests Its Use as a Sun TempleThe word “Grianan” has etymological roots in the Irish word “sun” or “sunny place.” Aileach is rooted in the word “Ail” which means “rock” or “stone.” The name “Grianan of Aileach” has been variously translated as “Stone Palace of the Sun,” “Fortress of the Sun,” and “Stone Temple of the Sun.”
Folk legends suggest that prior to the cashel, this hill was associated with deities linked to the sun, such as the celtic sun goddess Gráinne and the sun god Lugh. As the name suggests, it is generally agreed upon that the site must have been built by pagan sun worshipers of old.
Notable Structural Features and Finds at the SiteThe fort sits atop three concentric circles — the remains of the earlier structure on the hill, consisting of three much-degraded earthen banks surrounding the fort. An ancient trackway ran through these banks and led into the enclosure at the top of the hill. The fort’s walls are made out of dry stone, and are about 4 meters wide.
The presence of the ancient tumulus on site suggests a religious function to the location. Most experts agree that the structure was designed with a religious purpose in mind overall.
Its strategic location atop a hill made this stone structure visible and commanding in appearance, for all to see, conveying a feeling of strength and the eternal. Indeed it was considered a place of power and a throne spot for kings.The panoramic views all around from atop of the hill provided spectacular sights and a clear line of sight of the sun for all who gathered there to celebrate. An early explorer to the site remarked that observing the ringfort on the hill, “the smoke of the sacred fire could have been visible to devout worshippers from a distance as they turned in prayer to this cynosure of their affections.”
Another interesting element is the feeling the structure creates when you arrive inside the fort. This hilly area is known to be quite windy, and the walk to the ringfort would require the endurance of some wind gusts. Once you step inside the fort however, visitors report a sudden stillness and a peace and quiet that ensues in the absence of the wind within the stony walls of the fort.
The open ceiling enables for beautiful stargazing and the observance of stellar alignments over the site.
The round structure of the ringfort in itself holds a meaning in Irish traditions and was frequently used in spiritual and religious settings and structures. A round building, being devoid of corners, was considered to have left no room for evil spirits to dwell in.Between the two outer banks of the earlier fort is a spring well, dedicated to St. Patrick since the Christianization of the area. Legends tell of how the site was the very place where St. Patrick baptized Prince Eoghan, which marked his transition from paganism to Christianity. The well, besides functioning as a water supply, is also said to have healing powers, and a place where pilgrims would leave offerings. Amongst some of the archaeological findings by Dr. Bernard Walter on site, an interesting artifact was discovered behind a niche in the doorway: a large stone (almost half a meter tall) with a round hole in its center (3″ deep and 1.5″ in diameter), the hole containing a rotten piece of food. The purpose of this stone and hole is officially unknown, and it was speculated that it may have served as a sundial. Perhaps this stone played a ceremonial role in catching the sun’s rays on festival days at the equinoxes and/or other times of year? Standing stones with holes similar in description have been found at other sacred sites, such as Cornwall’s Men-an-tol ring stone, Ireland’s Hole Stone at Doagh, or the Hole Stones at Castledermot, Kildare, and countless others.
A survey by George Petrie from 1835 makes mention of a stone “seat” at the end of the passage inside, as well as a rectangular stone structure which he remarked may have been remains of an eighteenth century chapel. Perhaps though it was an altar stone or a stone of ceremonial purpose.
The monument is aligned to the rising sun of the equinoxes. In the early hours of the morning a beam of light stretches through the entire inside of the Grianán, reaching the wall opposite the gate and literally dividing it into a southern and northern half. The display lasts for over half an hour with the beam moving with the journey of the sun and becoming shorter as a result.
You can see a video of the equinox sunrise at the Grianan here:
Interestingly, the direction of the beam also points towards a mountain chain called Seven Sisters, part of the Derryveagh Mountains, the name of which suggests a possible connection to the start cluster of Pleiades.
The open view of the sky allows for beautiful stargazing at the location, and observation of other stellar and lunar alignments of the site. A view of the Milky Way over the Grianán of Aileach can be seen here. And this image captures Orion, Taurus, and the Pleiades over Grianan of Aileach.
Other stones nearby, many with ancient undecipherable markings on them, indicate the potential presence of other alignments in the complex vicinity, though the remains have either been disturbed by farming practices or too weathered to make any precise observations.
One can only imagine how magical an experience it would be to greet the sun and celebrate the equinoxes in this beautiful stony temple in nature, perhaps seated upon the amphitheater-like walls, beneath the open sky in the fresh hilltop air.
FolkloreBesides being linked to the previously mentioned Irish sun deities, many folk tales and poems link the origins of the site with Daghda, High King of the Tuatha De Danann, who was seen as father figure in Celtic mythology, a warrior tribe protector, and an individual who achieved the status of a deity in his life and viewed as “the good god.” Daghda was said to have buried his slain son at Grianán of Aileach, and built the fortress around the grave. The choice of burial site can be seen as an indicator of the area’s significance.
The Tuatha Dé Danann race, linked mythologically to Grianan of Aileach, has a fascinating folkloric background, which in turn lends much mystery to the site. The race was said to be a race of gods, fairies, or supernatural humans, who inhabited the land in pre-historic times. Their name translates to mean people of the goddess Danu, a mother goddess and the mother of Irish Gods.
The Tuatha Dé Danann’s members were each associated with various elements and forces of nature, and they acted as rivals to another race, the Fomorians, who represented nature’s harmful and destructive forces. Legends tell of the Tuatha Dé Danann bringing four mythological items (or the “four jewels”) with them to Ireland upon their arrival, each holding an esoteric significance:
Much of the folklore about the Tuatha Dé Danann was recorded by Christian monks, and the stories were subsequently often altered in the process. Some of the legends and symbols in the mythology of the race of Danann later found parallels in Arthurian tales.
One other local legend about Grianan of Aileach speaks of an extensive tunnel network that runs from the walls of the ringfort deep down into the hill. Legends tell of the horsemen warriors of The Tuatha Dé Danann who sleep beneath the hill, awaiting for a day when “the sacred sword” is unsheathed, causing them to awaken and reclaim the land once more. Interestingly, there are indeed some intra-mural chambers and passages inside the cashel, though their use is unknown. This opens one up to wonder what indeed lies hidden in the Grianan hill…? There is also something quite Glastonbury Tor-like in this feature of the hill fort.
The UFO Connection
In researching the site, I’ve come across some interesting remarks about Grianan of Aileach and a UFO connection. Apparently there has been a surge in UFO sightings and activity in the Derry area in recent years. According to an article in the Derry Journal (Feb 3, 2016):
“Betty Meyler, President of the UFO Society of Ireland, says energy levels derived from megalithic sites around the city — such as the ancient burial fort at Grianan or the recently discovered souterrain close to Newbuildings — may be attracting the celestial objects to the city.
[…] “I would say that Derry would attract UFOs as it would be an area of very high energy given the number of megalithic sites and cathedrals etc that abound in the area,” she said.
Indeed people visiting the site today often comment on a strong energy that can be felt there, including an interesting account of Irish musician Tommy Makem, who was not able to record a TV interview on the spot for unexplained reasons. The equipment showed erratic meter movement and after a struggle to attempt a recording the batteries died. The musician and crew seemed to feel that some supernatural forces were at play causing the interference at the location. Otherwise people report a feeling of awe, stillness, peace, and rejuvenation upon spending time at the site.
Directions to the Site
From Letterkenny head east towards Derry on the N13 after five kilometres turn left at the roundabout, staying on the N13 heading for Inishowen. Shortly after Newtown Cunningham you will see Burt Castle on your left. Look out for a right turn for Grianan of Aileach. The monument is well sign-posted from this turn.
Acknowledgments: Lucia Beznik contributed to this article.
Some Additional Sources:
West Inishowen History & Heritage Society
Guarding Grianan of Aileach
Megalithics: Grianan of Aileach
Voices from the Dawn: the folklore of Ireland’s ancient monuments
Thin Places Mystical Tours of Ireland
Megalithic Ireland: Grianan of Aileach
Wikipedia: Grianan of Aileach
The Fort on the Hollow Hill
Megalithix: Grianan of Aileach