The great “Grianán of Aileach”, with its surrounding earthworks, sits atop the holy hill of Greenan in beautiful County Donegal. Grianan was not just a religious site, but a superbly chosen strategic site, which offered superb views over Lough Foyle, Lough Swilly, and over the rolling countryside of the Inishowen Peninsula behind. Here you could see your enemies on the move from great distances, a vital military advantage in a tempestuous world of warlords and raiding parties. And the great Fort of Aileach was virtually impenetrable in its day with 5 metre tall ramparts and a wall thickness of 4.8 metres. And behind its great circular “cashel” walls, its defensive forces were staged in a series of three ascending walkways which can still be climbed to this day.
The great Grianán of Aileach is believed to have been built in the 1st century AD, on the site of an ancient Iron Age hillfort, and the outline of the original Iron Age fort can still be seen on the hill to this day. Indeed the great Grianán of Aileach was such an important construction in its day that it was one of just five Irish sites to be recorded in Ptolemy of Alexandria’s great second century map of the world. But in time, in keeping with the precarious nature of Ireland’s political fortunes, the Great Fort of Aileach was passed from leader to leader and from clan to clan. From the 5th to 12th Century it served as the royal seat of the Ui Neill Clan, rulers of much of Ulster. In 1101 it was substantially damaged by the O Brien Clan, then rulers of much of Munster. Legend has it that O’Brien decreed that each of his soldiers take a stone from the great fort so that the Great Grianán of Aileach would never stand again. But, despite their best efforts, the vast bulk of of the stonework remained on the sacred hilltop, and the great Grianán of Aileach was restored by Dr Walter Bernard, a Derry born antiquarian, between the years 1874 and 1879. There are some who say that the fort was overly-restored, but for most visitors, Dr Bernard’s meticulous restoration of the late 19th century provides a superb insight into the minds and lives of its defenders all those years ago.
The great fort of Aileach is wonderfully impressive in its simplicity and its construction, and it should not be missed on your tour of either Northern Ireland or Donegal
How to get to Grianán of Aileach
From the main N13 Letterkenny-Derry Road, look out for Burt Castle, the unusual contemporary church spire, and for local signage for An Grianán of Aileach. Follow local roads to the hillside site.
Other worthwhile sites in the vicinity of An Grianán of Aileach include Derry City, Letterkenny, Portstewart, Portrush, Ramelton, Rathmullan
, and Doagh.
Things to do in Grianán of Aileach
When in An Grianán of Aileach you can not afford to miss:
- Fabulous hillside views over Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly, the Inishowen Peninsula, and south over 5 of the counties of Ireland.
- Housed in an old stone church, the interpretative centre tells the story of the ancient fort of Grianán Ailigh. Nearby woods and wetlands are home to Hooper swans, wild geese, and birds. Admission £1, children 75p. Full menu in restaurant specialising in fish dishes. Open daily summer months 10am-6pm. Restaurant open 10am-10pm. Otherwise open 12 noon to 6pm (times may vary). Restaurant 12 noon to 10pm. Address: Burt, Co Donegal.
- The walkways and chambers within the structure of Grianán of Aileach can still be explored today.
Grianán of Aileach Location Map