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Overlooking Inch Island from the "Grainan of Aileach" ancient stone ring fort, Donegal, Ireland Gareth Wray

Grianan of Aileach: Hillfort of a Legendary Kingdom Which Lies on 5000-Year-Old Sacred Ground

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Around the 12th century, the mysterious kingdom of Ailech created many precious objects that now feature as artifacts in museum collections and fascinate many people. These settlers also constructed sites that thrived for centuries. It seemed to be a population destined for glory, but history tells a cruel story about their downfall.

One of the sites in the hearts of the memories of the Irish people is Grianan of Aileach, an advanced and impressive hillfort. The Grianan of Aileach was the major base of the Kings of Ailech, which belonged to the famous dynasties called Northern Ui Neill, related to the common ancestor Naill of the Nine Hostages – the legendary historic Irish king.

The hillfort of a Gaelic Kingdom

Grianan of Aileach is located on Greenan Mountain at Inishowen, County Donegal in Ireland. The mountain is 244 meters (801 ft) high and in some historical resources is Anglicized as Greenan Ely. Although the story of the hillfort lasts for many centuries, usually it is described as related to the Kingdom of Ailech (Aileach). The roots of the settlement are timeworn, but the legendary kingdom brought a different meaning there. It is believed that the currently existing hillfort was built by Northern Ui Neill around the sixth or seventh century AD, but the first settlement, also a fortress, was most probably created around the 1st century.

Interior view of tiered wall and steps of Grianan of Aileach, Donegal, Ireland

Interior view of tiered wall and steps of Grianan of Aileach, Donegal, Ireland. (Public Domain)

The wall of the hillfort is about 5 meters (16ft) high and 4.5 meters (15ft) thick and ring shaped and so referred to as ‘ringforts’. The landscape around the construction is outstanding and resembles the most iconic views known from the Irish tales. The green land that covers the site is like a comfortable blanket and would support the imagination of every person who dreams of time traveling.

Early origins

Ringforts in this area are usually dated back to the early Christian Period. However, this case is different as the items unearthed during the excavations suggest that they belong to the second half of the first millennium AD. In Irish mythology, the ‘fort in the shape of a ring’ was built by the Dagda, a god and the king of Tuatha De Danann.

Moreover, the word Aileach is known in Ireland and Scotland, and it seems to have a long story. It is believed that it came from the old Irish word ''Ail'', meaning rock or stone. The translation of the name could be very simple – a stone place. Inside the hillfort are three terraces, all are linked to the sequence of steps. Inside the walls shaped in the ring were buildings that belonged to the settlement. Nearby the hillfort, archeologists found the well and tumulus dating back to the Neolithic period.

The Well of St Patrick south of Grianan

The Well of St Patrick south of Grianan (CC0 1.0)

According to the Commissioners of Public Works:

"This large stone-walled fort, located on a hilltop commanding views over Loughs Foyle and Swilly and counties Donegal, Derry and Tyrone, was the royal citadel of the northern Ui Neill from the 5th to the 12th century. It was probably built some time around the birth of Christ. Its builders may have been attracted to this hilltop site by the presence here of a sacred monument - a prehistoric burial mound or tumulus, possibly from the Neolithic period (about 3000 BC).
A lintelled passage through the 4.5 m thick wall leads to the interior where the wall rises in three terraces to a height of about 5 m; there are also two long passages contained within the thickness of the wall. Substantial restoration work was carried out in 1870.  We know little about the three earthen banks which circle the Grianan, but they could be part of an earlier Bronze Age or Iron Age hillfort. The trackway running through these banks and leading to the fort is believed to be an ancient roadway."


Track leading up to the fort. By BennyMolloy

Track leading up to the fort. By BennyMolloy (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The revival of a fallen fort

Grainan was practically destroyed in 1101 by Muirchertach Ua Briain, the King of Munster, and though the value of the site was understood for centuries, restoration works only started in 1870. After the restoration that took place between 1874 and 1878, the hillfort looked very different to the original. Due to the devastating damage it had suffered that could have buried the Grianan of Aileach under the soil of Ireland forever, the restorers applied certain changes in order to preserve the construction. Although the modern specialists suggest that these works weren't done in a thoroughly professional way, it is noticeable that the people who arrived at the hillfort made a heroic effort to save this site.

Grianan of Aileach on the equinox.

Grianan of Aileach on the equinox. Photo source: Adam Rory Porter

Nowadays it is a National Monument and popular tourist attraction. The closest town is Burt, and its many visitors are owed to the ancient constructions. The most recent restoration work brought with it priceless new information about the site. It took place 2001, but in some ways the work is continued until now. Of course, the teams and the researchers differ through the excavating seasons, but the exploration of the site that was abandoned in the 12th century continues to be an outstanding source of evidence and information. The works by the Office of Public Works were permitted to restore the existing walls and to unearth several new elements. Finally, the researchers decided to set the iron-gate into the entrance.

Exterior of the fort showing the entrance.

Exterior of the fort showing the entrance. By VisionsofthePast (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A memory of medieval glory

The echo of the remarkable origins of Irish rulers is still present amidst the ring-shaped fort. Outstanding construction stays impressive, especially during the nights, when the light of the moon covers the walls with its eternal beauty.

This ancient and impressive hillfort site is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the region. It receives thousands of visitors every year. Moreover, it is an impressive monument that remembers and commemorates the medieval Kingdom of Ailech.

Feature image: Overlooking Inch Island from the "Grainan of Aileach" ancient stone ring fort, Donegal, Ireland Gareth Wray (CC BY-SA 4.0)

By Natalia Klimczak


Grianan Aileach (grianan Ailligh), Burt, available at:

The Grianán of Aileach, available at:

Grianán of Ailech - Stone Fort or Dun in Ireland (Southern) in Co. Donegal, available at:

Grianán of Aileach, Co. Donegal, available at:



Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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