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Grianan Ailigh (County Donegal)

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Historic hill forts in County Donegal,Northern Ireland.

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      11.08.2011 13:17
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      A brooding and elevated ancient fort in the north of Ireland

      The Circle
      =======

      Maybe it's me, but as an Englishman driving around Ireland I can't help but feel that the Emerald Isle's visible ancient history is so much more magical than our own. This isn't to say that the Stonehenges of this kingdom aren't impressive, but to me they're suggestive less of sorcery than of primitive science and lots of Druids, and it's hard to get excited by a sect that apparently counts Ken Barlow among its number. Over the water they have Newgrange, Gallarus Oratory, fairytale monasteries and cold stone tombs, all of which are viewed through a mystic meteorological veil that makes you think that Cúchulainn might drop round for a spot of stew at any moment. Even Tara, the ancient seat of Irish kings, seems otherworldly despite looking like a badly maintained municipal golf course these days. And then there's a lot of ancient stone forts, and if you're cruising along the main N13 Letterkenny to Derry road in the north-east of Donegal wondering what that circular walled thing on top of that hill on the right is...well, you're looking at one of the finest examples of the genre.

      The Grianán Ailigh (which translates as 'Sunny Place'...those ancient Irish kidders) is sited about five miles outside of (London)Derry, just inside the Republic. As such the travel links are unusually good for Ireland; buses run along the N13 to within two miles of the fort (walking distance?) from where minor roads lead up to the site (as ever in Ireland, a car remains the sensible way to get about), trains run from Belfast to Derry, and airlines fly to Derry Airport or either of Belfast's two airports. Ferries from various parts of Britain drop anchor at Belfast too, and from there Derry is about 90 minutes' drive.


      This Way
      ======

      The place to leave the N13 would be obvious even without the clear signposting (another relative novelty for Ireland), for the turning is next to the striking Burt Church, described by the Rough Guide to Ireland as 'the most beautiful 20th century church in all Ireland' and by myself with my peerless grasp of architecture and having only ever looked at the outside as 'quite nice, kind of a failed attempt to scale down Liverpool's Roman Catholic Cathedral'. You won't drive past it without noticing it though, and having found the church you turn into the road next to it, climb a steep hill, make a right and gently contour up the slopes of Greenan Mountain before a left turn and a final sharp skyward pull gains a commodious car park. It's a pretty scenic car park too, but attention will focus on the fort itself. Less than two hundred yards of very gentle ascent along a somewhat over-maintained path (levelled then overlaid with wooden planks swathed in mesh; a bit of an eyesore but it does make the Grianán Ailigh unusually accessible for the infirm) will see you eyeballing the external walls.

      Said walls are breached by a lintelled low(ish) passage which takes you through into the interior. Here you'll find a circular lawn of tufty turf, enclosed by walls about 20 ft high, staggered into terraces linked by slabby stairways in an almost Escher-esque fashion. Wandering around the edges reveals a few alcoves in the stonework, but most folk will quickly elect to navigate the multi-level vertical maze leading to the top of the walls (careful now; there are no rails or fences and the ledges are narrow enough to threaten Total Wipeout contestants or the owners of excitable dogs). Here they can drink in the extensive panorama of the interior to the south and west, the walled city of Derry to the east, and finally the winged coastline of Donegal to the north with the beautiful Inishowen peninsula bathing its gnarly toe between Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle.

      Standing on this lofty belvedere it's easy for the romantic in you to imagine the fantastic scenes that might have played out here in olden times; primitive Christian inaugurations, festivals of feasting and games, and the gleeful pouring of scalding hot oil from the ramparts down onto Louis Walsh's ancestors. Your practical side may admire the rigourous standards employed by builders in ancient Ireland, and as such it's slightly disappointing to learn that the fort was extensively rebuilt in the 1870s, with controversial works continuing to this day. In fact the site's usage probably dates back to around 3000BC when it's believed that a tumulus and/or earthen hillfort was built here (explore further down the hill for evidence of the embankments...it's a nice area to wander over at will with an ancient road and another tumulus to look for). Maybe it was the prior existence of those earthworks that led to the stone fort being constructed here in the early years AD. The building was further strengthened by the Uí Néill dynasty in around the sixth or seventh century, and served as the royal seat of the Kingdom of Aileach until the early 12th century when it was sacked by the King of Munster (a situation easily envisaged, seeing as I watched an eight year old girl climb the outside wall like it was a ladder). The fort stood as a windblasted ruin for the best part of 800 years thereafter until that 1870s restoration, and ever since it's been a place of tourism and archaeology (and construction). Hopefully the construction is on a bit of a break.


      Remembered Country
      ==============

      So the Grianán Ailigh is a site whose 'authenticity' (given all that reconstruction) is for the visitor to judge; to me it felt 'antiquated but not that antiquated'. It's not substantial enough to consume a whole day, being more suited to being an interesting diversion on the way to or the road back from somewhere else. And what it gives is largely dependent upon the mindset the visitor brings with them...and for those whose brains can declutter what their eyes see before bolting on a bit of imagination, it's quite an entertaining hour or two.

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