The Grianan of Aileach is located in County Donegal in northwest Ireland, at the bottom of the mighty Inishowen Peninsula. The fort’s location is fairly rural, and there is limited signposting to the ancient site.
The closest towns and cities are Derry (home to a small airport and with bus and train links to Belfast and other Northern Ireland locales), Letterkenny (with bus links to Sligo and other Republic of Ireland locales), and the small town of Buncrana, which is actually 18 km north of the site.
Derry is just 10 miles from the site (20 minutes by car) and Letterkenny is 16 miles (26 km) from the fort – about a half-hour by car.
The Grianan of Aileach is an Iron Age stone fort. Perched atop the heather-capped Greenan Hill, the round fort is visible from afar. Ireland was once full of thousands of such stone forts, also called cashels, offering shelter and protection to the ancient peoples of Ireland.
It was once the headquarters of the ancient kings of this corner of Ulster, one of the four ancient kingdoms. Plundered twice by Vikings in the 900s, the Grianan of Aileach was finally destroyed in 1101 by Muirchartach Ua Briain, the formidable King of Munster, another one of the four ancient kingdoms.
An interest in the past surged during the Victorian era with the rise in “antiquarians.” Though not scientists in any degree, these wealthy private collectors pre-dated the modern archaeologists. Many sites were excavated, artefacts were bought by private collectors with the means, or large institutions like the British Museum, while other sites were “rebuilt”. The Grianan of Aileach was one such site, and in 1870, a Derry historian excavated and “restored” the ancient fort.
In 2001, the stone fort’s well-being was taken over by the OPW (Office of Public Works), returning the Grianan of Aileach as close to its former glory as was possible. The circular fort visible today has just one main door. Inside, a series of in-built stone staircases lead to three levels of narrow terraces on the inside of the wall. There are also small chambers or souterrains inside the fort’s walls, usually places used for storage.
To visit the Grianan of Aileach, a car will likely be needed. There is a small car park at the top of a tiny laneway leading to the hilltop.
From there, access to the site is up a very short path. The site is not well-signposted along the road, and though only a few kilometres from the main national road, visitors will first navigate a few country roads to arrive at the site.
Of course, another option is to bike through Donegal. Exploring the wild landscapes of the “Forgotten County” (also named the coolest place on Earth a few years ago!) by bike is the perfect way to take in the vast panoramas and rich heritage like this Iron Age fort of Donegal.
It’s not entirely clear when the Grianan of Aileach was originally built. Rough estimates put construction at the end of the Iron Age in the Early Medieval time period. Most estimates state its building took place in the 6th or 7th century, perhaps even later.
Regardless of date, it is likely that the site was occupied long before this time though, and the fort may have been built atop older foundations.
Typically, the Iron Age is considered the last part of “prehistory,” from 600 BC to 400-500 AD. This period was followed by the early Middle Ages (or the Early Christain period, as its sometimes known here), with the introduction of Christianity to Ireland.
This era was a time of great change and allowed for the rise of the kings of Ireland.
During the era in which the Grianan of Aileach stone fort was built, a lot of changes were afoot. New advances meant that people could settle down more easily and society was adjusting to meet this new settled way of life. Impressive hillfort construction like this one allowed Irish society to become more complex and hierarchical. Such changes meant the rise of powerful kings and chieftains, setting the scene for the Middle Ages and beyond.
The Grianan of Aileach is one of the identified “royal sites” – though far less famous than the massive complex found at the Hill of Tara, or the off-the-better-path Rathcroaghan (also known as the birthplace of Halloween). The Hill of Tara was where the High Kings of Ireland sat for centuries, though each region (Connacht, Ulster, Leinster and Munster) had their own royal seat.
Grianan of Aileach fort was an early medieval royal seat for the northern Uí Néill (later anglicised O’Neil) of Cenél nEógain. (Though the O’Neils later moved to another less remote site in Tyrone at the turn of the 11th century). But from the late 500s to its destruction in 1101, the Grianan of Aileach was a hugely important and revered royal site.
County Donegal’s nickname is the “Forgotten County” – that should tell you plenty about the history of Donegal!
Donegal is a fascinating place. The final Irish holdout against British rule, Donegal was home to a number of rebellions against the British. Most famously, the Flight of the Earls, during which over 90 Donegal chieftains (or “earls”) instigated a rebellion during the Nine Years War. Their defeat at the doomed Battle of Kinsale led to self-exile, today known as the “flight of the earls.”
Historically a region within Ulster, County Donegal is now part of the Republic of Ireland. The remoteness of the county means pockets of the Gaeltacht, where Irish is still the principal language, still exist. From sports to language to tweed-weaving, Irish culture and tradition still reign strong in Donegal.
One of Ireland’s six national parks, Glenveagh is probably the most isolated. Once part of an old hunting estate, there is still a gloriously gothic Victorian hunting castle in the park. Beyond the castle garden’s manicured estate, explore Glenveagh’s network of hiking and cycling trails, wild bogland, tumbling waterfalls, and of course the narrow Lough Veagh that lends its name to the park. Keep an eye out for the deer who roam Glenveagh and if you’re lucky you might even spot Glenveagh’s resident golden eagles. Plenty of other birds to spot too though!
Ireland’s northernmost point, Malin Head is a wild, rocky peninsula that juts out into the swirling Atlantic. Home to a Napoleonic signal tower, a WWII-era “EIRE” sign (signalling neutral Irish terrain), jagged sea stacks, plenty of seabirds and some great Atlantic views, Malin Head should be on all Donegal bucket lists. Its wild terrain attracted film scouts – many scenes from recent Star Wars were filmed using Malin Head’s rugged backdrop.
Ireland has just three fjords. Though Killary Fjord is the most famous (likely due to it being in Connemara), Donegal has its own beautiful fjord – Lough Swilly. There are several beautiful vistas over this spectacular inlet of water. The best way to experience Lough Swilly’ fjords is by biking its glittering shores. Or you could take the ferry across, for what more exciting way is there to take in the full force of a fjord than from the water?
Though home to a troubled recent history, Derry is a changing place. Gone are the dark days of the past; now, Derry is an up-and-coming Irish city full of culture, shopping, cuisine and of course the famous murals and the even more famous walls. Derry makes a great base from which to explore the area, or else, a fun day trip while exploring Donegal and more.
A small island, reach Inch Island by causeway. In fact, there are two causeways – one for cars, and one for hikers across the sound. The island is home to a wildlife reserve good for bird-watching, with purpose-built paths along the water. It also has some lovely views, including Greenan Hill and Grianan of Aileach. In addition, there’s a castle ruin – though private, view the ruin from the pedestrian causeway.
The other northern city is Letterkenny. Though smaller and less well-known than Derry, Letterkenny makes a good base for those wishing to explore Glenveagh and northern Donegal while still enjoying the benefits of being based in the town. Plenty of pubs here, make sure you try a pint of Kinnegar, a delicious local Donegal-brewed beer.
A warm welcome awaits you at Rathmullan House, a Georgian family-run 4 star country house on the shores of Lough Swilly. Enjoy your stay at this fabulous property, with a local sandy beach and acres of wooded gardens. Rathmullan House is a lovely place to unwind and relax while enjoying the Wild Atlantic Way and its surroundings.
Though a little ways away from the Grianan of Aileach (roughly an hour’s drive), there’s no place better for luxury living in Donegal than Lough Eske Castle. This lakeside gothic facade epitomises luxury, with its own final dining options, a decadent spa and wellness centre and a myriad of on-site activities. Lough Eske Castle is the perfect 5 star stay for anyone wishing to explore the wilds of Donegal in style.
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