Sites Aligned to the Sun

Grianan of Aileach in Ireland Aligns to Equinoxes

Grianan of Aileach aligns to the equinox

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.

Dating

Grianan of Aileach interiorArchaeological 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).

Workers in the restoration of Grianan of Aileach in 1878

A photograph from the Bigger/McDonald Collection from 1878 showing the workers reconstructing Grianan of Aileach under the supervision of Dr. Bernard Walter.

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.

Grianan-of-Aileach-Equinox ireland

Grianan of Aileach By Gareth Wray – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 (Image has been modified).

The Site’s Name Suggests Its Use as a Sun Temple

Entrance to Grianan of Aileach

The entrance into the ringfort. On the day of the equinox, the sun passes through this passageway, dividing the circular structure in half and lighting up a throne that was set in the pathway of the sun’s beams.
Photo by VisionsofthePast – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been modified.

The 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 Site

Grianan-of-Aileach-Sketch

A topographical sketch of Grianan of Aileach, depicting the more recent ringfort as the “nucleus” of the complex, and the surrounding older remnants at the site from various periods, including the Neolithic Age tumulus.
*Sketch by Jenny Resnick, based upon original diagram found here.
**Note: Though perhaps a coincidence, interestingly, while sketching the site it occurred to me how much its design appears to resemble a human cell. The site is said to have been built very much in tune with nature and the surrounding elements, so perhaps this is just a bit of nature’s geometry showing through.

The 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.

The Well of St. Patrick at Grianan of Aileach  By Wilson44691 - Own work, CC0

The Well of St. Patrick at Grianan of Aileach By Wilson44691 – Own work, CC0. Image has been modified.

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.

men-an-tol ring stone

Mên-an-Tol, a Neolithic stone hole site at Cornwall.

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.

Equinox Alignment

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.

Folklore

A depiction of Dagda, High King of the Tuatha Dé Danann race.

A depiction of Daghda, High King of the Tuatha Dé Danann race.

Besides 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:

  • The Spear of Lugh (A phallic symbol. It was said that the man holding this spear was impossible to overcome.)
  • The Stone of Fal (Also known as the Stone of Destiny. The stone is often symbolic for the practice of alchemy. It was used in the inauguration of kings, and it was said that the king who set his foot upon the stone experienced its rejuvenating powers and was endowed with long reign.)
  • The Sword of Light of Nuada (An esoteric weapon given to prepared initiates in the higher realms. In Irish folklore this sword was used by heroes, who aided by a female servant, were sent to perform a set of tasks — usually fighting a giant or other supernatural beings.)
  • The Dagda’s Cauldron (A cauldron can be seen to represent an alchemical feminine vessel, similar to the symbol of a chalice. It was said that no one ever went away from it unsatisfied.)


  • 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

    Grianan of Aileach is open to the public and is a wonderful place to observe and explore the equinoxes. If you’d like to pay a visit, follow these directions to get 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.

    Additional Resources:

  • A website called Guarding Grianan of Aileach is dedicated to further exploration of the site, and contains many beautiful photos of the location on equinox days, as well as photos of the surrounding areas, the walk to the site, and much interesting information about the history of the site.
  • This website provides an animated 3D photo of the site for further exploration.
  • Additional images of equinox alignments by photographer Adam Rory Porter can be found here.


  • 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
    Wikipedia: Dagda
    Wikipedia: Danann
    Megalithix: Grianan of Aileach

    17 Comments

      • Thanks Julie! It’s such an interesting place. Very “simple” and complex at once. When you mentioned the human cell resemblance earlier I immediately thought of this place 🙂

        One thought I had while looking at many of these sites is how they are rarely (if ever, really) built like perfect circles, etc. I think before I spent time learning to understand these structures better, I would have thought they were maybe a bit “sloppy” in shape? It sounds harsher than what I mean — but you know, I would have thought in the past that a ceremonial structure would be a perfect circular and neat “stadium” or “ring” of sorts for example, etc. But seeing little glimpses of the intelligent design and all the meaning, symbols, function imbued into these sites makes them so impressive to me now. A circular structure would seem incredibly “basic” or “uneventful” in comparison to a structure that manages to capture something like the semblance of a human cell, be in harmony with the surroundings, capture ley lines, very specific alignments to stars, sun, cardinal points, other sites around the globe or in the vicinity, and so on. Amazing how a bit of observation and information can shift perspectives 🙂

    • Thanks for all the research into the site! It’s funny, although the site is known about in Ireland, it’s not “famous” per se, like Newgrange for example. It’s such a striking site though, and it really gives the impression of a very magical era – one where people obviously placed a huge importance on more than just material things, and instead gave focus to understanding their place in the world and the purpose of their lives.

      The mysterious writing near the site is really intriguing! I studied the early Irish language at uni and I remember only ever seeing a sort of 2 sentence passing remark about them. I thought it was ogham when I first looked at it, but when I looked closer it’s really not like anything else I know. I guess it could be a local form of writing, but it also opens up the possibility that the site was also used by pilgrims traveling from abroad. I know Caesar mentioned the European druids considered the British Isles to be their spiritual heartland. The word for Ireland in the Irish language is actually the name of a Celtic mother goddess. I guess it says a lot about how little we know of those times.

      It is sad how we only have an altered written record of their spirituality left. There’s a famous text called ‘The Battle of Moytira” that recounts a war between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Formoirians. It’s structured very similarly to the Bhagavad Gita, but with the exception of a few remnants it really has the feeling of being ‘hollowed out’ so to speak.

      Still though, the architecture of these monuments hasn’t been significantly altered. One thing I’ve come to really appreciate from the work on this site, is how by trying to get a practical understanding of the spirituality of the sun something just “clicks” and these sites & their meaning become alive once again.

      Thanks again for all the research!

      • That’s really a pity about “The Battle of Moytira” being in that state. I’ve come across so many texts like that. You see a glimpse of what could have been.. but know it’s far from the true work. I think that’s partly why these sites are fascinating — at least the stones remain as a testament of greater things 🙂

    • I have really enjoyed reading this article on this interesting site. Thanks so much for providing so much information on its background and the links to the folkloric legends. Makes you want to experience it for yourself.
      I was struck by what you wrote about how the Monks at the time writing about these times and sites could well have changed the meaning of things. This is the sad reality of so much out there, that we really cannot be sure what is authentic and what has been ‘touched up or changed’ over time.
      I really appreciate the time and effort gone into researching all of this information.
      The video is really beautiful. Good to see that there are plenty of people out there wanting to protect such important ancient sites.

      Thanks! 🙂

      • Hey Paty. I’m glad you enjoyed this. I think the same sadly happened in so many cultures with the texts, and even sacred sites. So many ancient sites were sacked and new ones erected on top in the same fashion…

    • It was very nice to read this ‘all-round’ article on this ancient site (pun not initially intended). Thanks Jenny.

      There are quite a few interesting points you brought up, some of which make me consider how little is generally known about such sacred sites.

      I think mere archaeological research shows itself highly inadequate to understanding the true significance of sacred sites like these, mainly because someone needs more than a historical research, but rather understanding or experience of the spirituality these people practiced. Also other supernatural factors like sacred geometry and the energies this creates, solar and stellar alignments of symbolic significance etc. play a part.

      Basically imagining the deeper experience of a full-fledged ceremony in a sacred site’s heyday is perhaps not so well understood by modern people (including myself.)

      That quote from Betty Meyler rings true for me. When visiting the crop circle hotbed in Avebury, South England as well as the sacred sites around there (which were quite unknown to me at the time) I intuitively felt there was a connection between the two. The whole region felt like a magical area and I thought how it must’ve been in use as a spiritual centre for a very long time and this energy was still around. And how the modern presence of UFO’s there was showing its link to the ancient spirituality once alive in that area.

      • Yes, I agree Karim. Seems like we’re quite limited with the research available. I have a feeling there is quite a number of surprises we’ve yet to understand about this site. It seems like one could spend a life time studying a site, with the sincerest intentions in mind, and still be unable to unlock all its secrets 🙂

        Thanks for sharing that about Avebury. I’m quite intrigued. Precisely the reason I’m drawn to visit some day…

        • What an amazing site – and I hadn’t ever heard of it, it’s not even among the most well-known in Britain … there must be such a wealth of places like this around the world!
          I’m reading about Avebury at the moment and there are just so many layers of meaning within it and cosmic alignments, not just to the sun but the moon and the stars it’s quite mind-boggling. And I’m sure there’s probably more to these sites than intellectual researches can uncover … but also I’ve found that an intellectual understanding really helps to appreciate these places. I’ve been to Avebury a couple of times but after researching it more I feel a pang to go there again, like I’d really be able to ‘see it’ much better now. And in general these articles are making me appreciate just how much spiritual wisdom can be in some of the most simplistic seeming monuments. I wish I’d taken a more active interest when being dragged around soggy Neolithic sites by my dad as a kid now!

          • I know what you mean. I remember my parents taking me places when I was young and I had such a lack of interest for the most part. Now I WISH I could go back and experience those places 🙂 . I think a lot of it had to do with their touristy approach — they didn’t know a thing about the monuments and just went because that’s a thing to do, and that just didn’t seem very exciting. Had someone explained the magic and mystery behind these places, I would have been all ears!

    • Wow, thank you Jenny for all the additional info regarding this site!

      The Tuatha Dé Danann race sounds very intriguing and knowledgeable indeed, and their king as someone who maybe achieved enlightenment in his life-time? The cell-like appearance of the illustration is funny too, I would not think of it that way, but once you mentioned it, it is interesting. 🙂 Maybe there is something on the way these living structures are organised that can then be adapted to the buildings/areas as well, with a certain purpose, who knows…

      I am particularly impressed by the energy of the site that so many people report is very special. It would be very interesting to come there in person someday and feel the place first-hand. The connection to the stars is another interesting feature of the site, somehow it just seems to be so very close to them, and possibly also to the celestial visitors.

      The astral projection practice seems to be another way to find out more about this site (as well as the other ancient monuments), as the info available in the physical world is so limited. There may even be something happening around the place in the astral plane that could reveal more about its purpose.

      • Thanks for drawing my attention to this beautiful site. Really quite mesmerizing — that equinox video in particular. What amazes me is that it’s such a simple structure on the surface — just “a ring of stones”, and yet it packs so much meaning and power in so many layers. I really feel there is a lot of unknown about this site. I tried to dig as far as I could, but feels like we’re quite limited in our modern understanding in many ways and there is not sufficient research to satisfy all the questions I have about it 🙂

        I quite liked the stellar connection as well. It’s a beautiful place to watch the sky from, that’s for certain. About the human cell, I don’t know why I was seeing that — so much so I had to go look up human cell diagrams to make sure 🙂 Maybe it’s just me and I’m still “seeing into things” too much, but maybe there’s something there so I thought I’d put it out there… At worst, I’d guess it’s a bit of nature’s geometry showing through…

        • Hi Jenny,

          When I was planting seeds a few days ago, your comments about the shape of this monument bearing resemblance to a human cell came to mind … I was taken by how different seeds look from each other, a flower seed is so different to a cabbage seed for example. Each seed contains the imprint of what it will, or can, become. Then I thought about our ‘seed’ – a single cell – and its symbol; identical to the pictorial representation of the sun, or the absolute, i.e. a circled dot …

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