AN GRIANÁN OF AILEACH
An Grianán of Aileach or Grianán Ailligh is a Cashel on the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal. Also known as the “Sun Palace,” it was the royal citadel of the northern Ui Néill(O’Neills) from the 5th to 12th century.
The Cashel dates to the third century and archaeologists suspect it could have been built on a former Neolithic sacred site or burial mound. Experts in Irish culture and heritage believe that the mound was used for ritual purposes as far back as 1700 BC and was the center of one of Ulster’s ancient kingdoms – and later the political center of the ruling O’Neill’s and later the O’Donnell's. This would have been the royal center, where kings were crowned and rituals carried out as well as a defensive structure.
Though the actual ring fort was probably built in early Christian times, the three concentric rings surrounding the Cashel as well as artifacts discovered in the surrounding rings suggest this spot was used for ritual much earlier. The Cashel itself is 77 feet in diameter and its walls are 13 feet thick with chambers embedded. Inside the circle are stairways built into the inside walls the lead to ringed seating areas – like an amphitheatre. This seating gallery would hold hundreds of people who could witness inaugurations and other ritual ceremonies.
From the top of the ring one can see for miles in every direction. Counties Tyrone, Donegal and Derry are in view with mountains, cliffs, open pastures, villages and beaches. Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly, the two bodies of water that flank the Inishowen Peninsula swirl about in that landscape.
The peninsula rolls out like a blanket from this vantage point, eventually vanishing in a misty horizon. It's remarkable disk-image capping a hill 800 feet above sea level is visible to so much of the surrounding countryside.
Folklore suggests that prior to the cashel, this hill was associated with deities linked to the sun. In Irish “Ail” refers to stone. Grianán in Irish means “sunny spot” or sun temple.
There is also a tradition that the temple was built by Daghdha, the good god or god of the earth. He was known as the King of the Tuatha dé Danann, a race of supernatural beings descended from the Goddess Danu. They inhabited Ireland before the Celts. This tradition has Daghda building the fort to protect the grave of his son. A variation tells of giants building the hill and the Grianán on top a residence for the shining ones who gave birth to the children of the sídhe. All of these traditions link the hill and the fort on top with supernatural beings, to unseen energy and power and a link to the Otherworld.
Cashels were built for defensive purposes, but circles are also linked to Irish ritual and spirituality. The shape represents a deeper meaning. Stone circles, carved spirals on implements and burial stones, circular mounds covering passage tombs indicate this. There was also a later belief that circular buildings had no corners for evil entities to hide. Thus one can’t dismiss the spiritual importance of Grianán of Aileach, even though the cashel marked it as a secular site. The traditional beliefs embedded in the Irish life permeated all they did. This circular fort sitting atop three concentric circles on a circular hill was built with circles in mind. And the site has a powerful energy about it.
Originally the cashel had been the stronghold of the 4th century chieftain, Niall of the 9 Hostages. Later it became the stronghold of the O’Neill kings and the O’Donnells. The cashel was mostly destroyed in 1101 by the king of Munster, Murtagh O’Brien and his army in retaliation for the O’Neill’s destruction of his palace in Clare (Kincora). After they sacked Grianán of Aileach, Murtagh O’Brien told his army of a thousand men to each take a stone from the cashel with them so that the fort could not be rebuilt.
The cashel was later restored again in 1837 by a Dr. Bernard from Belfast. And in 2007 the Irish Office of Public Works restored it to the excellent condition it is in today. At the foot of An Grianán is the An Grianán Hotel, which includes a visitor centre dedicated to the history of An Grianán Aileach.