Grianan Aileach

Metrical Dindshenchas

Rennes Dindshenchas

Tadhg Dall Ó Huiginn 1550-1591

Peter McLoughlin 1833

William Blacker 1835

Ordnance Survey 1837

William Blacker 1838

Maghtochair 1867

Re-opening, Derry Journal 1878

RSIA 1902

Public Works 1907/8

JRSIA 1915

Harry Perceival Swan

Mabel R. Colhoun

Brian Bonner

Donegal Annual 1984, Brian Lacey

Donegal Annual 1989, Etienne Rynne

JRSAI, 2001, Brian Lacey

Andrew Tierney

Picture Gallery

The Painting

Guarding Grianan Aileach

The Red Book of Aileach




From the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy

Bernard - The Ruin of the Grianan of Aileach


(Read August 12th, 1878.)

SEVENTEEN years ago, when this traditional and historic place was first visited by me, I found it in a very ruinous condition, and from that time I commenced to take an interest in its associations. Year after year witnessed the further advance of its ruin, and I clearly saw that if something were not soon done to arrest the progress of destruction, it would be in a few years a thing of the past.
Its appearance in 1873 was that of an immense circular heap of stones, with its grey fallen masonry scattered over the interior - no vestige of a wall, entrance passage, or central building.
More than forty years ago the Ordnance Survey for the parish of Templemore, and county of Londonderry, gives, page 217, the following account of the condition it was then found in: -”The cashel, though in a more perfect state than the external ramparts, is still a mere ruin, and at a distance has the appearance of a dilapidated sepulchral cairn,- but on a closer inspection it will be found to be a circular wall, inclosing an area of 77 feet 6 inches in diameter, and in its present state about 6 feet in height , and varying in breadt from 15 feet to 11 feet 6 inches, or averaging about 13 feet. This wall is not quite perpendicular on its external face, but has a curved slope or inclination inwards, like Straig fort in Kerry, and most other of the forts of the kind in Ireland. Of its original height it is not now easy to form a very accurate conjecture, but, from the quantity of fallen stones, which form a glacis on either side, about 13 feet in breadth, it must be concluded to have been at least twice, and possibly four times its present altitude.”
At page 221, the state and antiquity of the building in the centre of the cashel is given as follows: - “ The remains of a small oblong building measuring 16 feet 6 inches by 14 feet 3 inches. The walls, which are 2 feet thick, and at present no more than 2 feet high, were constructed with mortar. The antiquity of this building is extremely doubtful, and its angular form indicates a much more recent age than the circular works by which it is inclosed, and the probability is that is was erected for a chapel during the severe administration of the penal laws, to which purpose it was certainly appropriated until about forty years since, when a chapel was erected at Burt”
An account of the rapid destruction of the Grianan is given by Mr. Godwin, F.S.A., in the April number of the Architect for 1872. He states that at the time of his visit in March, 1858, the masonry was in a very dilapidated condition, owing in a great part to the labours of some gentleman, who many years ago evinced, more curiosity than care in searching after subterranean passages, &c.: since which time this interesting work of antiquity has deplorably suffered by the summer invasion of visitors from the neighbouring city - indeed, to such an extent that the drawings of the fort, taken at the time Ordnance Survey, have literally become matters of history, for the inclined jambs, the interior terrace with its steps, the small central building, and many other features of note which then existed are now no more.This statements , from reliable witnesses, are sufficient to convince anyone that what had lain concealed and disregarded for centuries would, by the unthinking, careless, and curious, be soon reduced to nothing. Probably this work of spoliation might still have advanced with a more rapid pace, inasmuch as newspaper writers of late years have been drawing the attention of the general public to the locality.

It is unnecessary to go over its ancient history and written traditions, as a very full and lucid account of such is summarised in the Ordnance Survey above referred to. It remains for me to give what account I can of my own work of exploration and restoration. My first great difficulty was how to commence the undertaking single-handed, without possessing any personal influence or exercising extraneous pressure. Moreover , none took a substantial interest in the enterprise, and such an undertaking, coun ting the costs through the medium of contractors, would have been impracticable.
Having expressed the object I had in view to the farmers residing round the hill, they did not at first quite believe in the practicability of what I wanted done. However I managed to get some to follow my example and work. So we commenced in the spring of 1874; and, although at the beginning the number could be counted on the fingers of one hand, yet seeing that there was an earnestness of purpose in the undertaking, some more soon followed, and recruits were weekly added. All that season, owing to the interest I took in the progress of the work, the number still increased, so that, not infrequently, I had as many as forty-four. Seldom were there less than fifteen. As a rule we worked only one day in the week, very rarely on two, except towards the end.
In consequence of being surrounded with quarries and loose stones, many of those who assisted had acquired a taste for dry mason work; and so well skilled are they in this, that contractors prefer to have dry masonry executed by countrymen rather than by regular mason. During our progress a spirit of emulation existed as to whose piece would excel, for neatness and durability.
It was found that the vestige of the inner facing was not battered as the outer. Indeed little attention appeared to have been given by the ancient builders to the laying of the stones in this part of the work. Many are very irregular, and give the impression that it could not last long. However it has been now exposed for three years. The “weathering influences” have not had the slightest effect upon it; not one stone has been loosened, and , in my opinion, if not disturbed, it will last for ages.
The outer casing is battered a little more than two inches to the foot. The men in rebuilding this had nothing to guide them but the eye, and took the greatest possible pains to imitate the structure and inclination of the original, by carefully laying headers here and there in each row, with a view to insure the stability of the building.

I declined to give my consent to any alteration of the old masonry, which had got out of position, until an attempt was made to see if it would bear super incumbent weight. To our great disappointment it would not, and we had no other alternative than to have ir re-arranged in three places at the south-west (the side of the prevalent winds), where it had been almost reduced to the foundation.
At first we made the entire structure uniform in height, but looking at it from a distance it was found unsightly. This apparent want of proportion was occasioned by the irregularity of the ground on which it is built; so, to compensate for this inclination, we raised the wall a few feet higher on the southern than on the northern portion. The circle, including the coping stones, averages 17 feet 3 inches in height. To bind our work into a complete unity we had to gather around the hill about 700 or 800 loose stones - certainly not more, if so many - and to split from the adjoining rocks, cropping up through the heather, 181 coping-stones. These are supposed to serve instead of those removed by King Murdoch O'Brien in 1001, to build the parapet wall of his castle in Limerick, as a retaliation for some insult the Northerns offered to the Dalcassians 200 years before. John Bovaird and William Barr, both alive, while working at the building of Mannerstown bridge, saw a few brought down for coping it. These were the only ones ever known to have been removed; indeed it would be a work of supererogation, as well as much injury to horse, carts, and harness, and at best these are not, and I believe never were, well adapted for the severe work experienced in ascending and descending a rough stony uncultivated hill. The men themselves ridicule the idea of stones having been removed for building purposes, as they have more than once remarked, that they have already too many stones on and about their farms. Another proof - quarries are on every hill-side in the neighbourhood. Moreover, I examined the homesteads around, and could not bring myself to think that there existed in any part of them material brought from the stone circe, for none presented the worn appearances of those on the hill, stripped as they were of their angularities by age and frequent tossing.
Before proceeding further. I wish to note here accurate measurements supplied by the Ordnance: -"Circular apex of hill 5½ acres contained within the outermost inclosure; within the second, 4; within the third, about 1; and within the cashel, about ¼ of an acre."
When excavating the centre we came on a few of the foundation stones of the small building that was in the centre of the cashel, they were partly laid on the rock and floor, and not sunk below the surface. The very few that remained of these stones had dry, coarse, crumbling motar between and around them, which was proof that it belonged to more recent times than the cairn itself. There was no standing wall left, and even its outline at the base was destroyed.
While removing the debris from the interior, behind the niche in the door-way, and on the floor of the northern gallery, and close to its entrance, was found a large stone, measuring in its widest part across 16 inches. In the centre is a round hole, 3 inches deep and 1½ in diameter. The stone itself is of the hard, granular variety of trap or greenstone. No marks of dressing are discernible on its edges or surfaces, and the rhomboid shape is that not uncommon to stones of this class. I do not hold myself responsible for anything I might suggest as to the supposed use of this, or any other of the stone objects discovered. Being found in that part of the gallery, near to its entrance, as well as a very rotten piece of wood taken out of the hole and thrown away, it might give one the idea that is was a spud-stone. It could not have been a portion of a quern; possibly it may have served for a rude sundial. But I am no authority, and and on these stones I wish to elicit rather than impart information. All the material having been removed from the floor of the interior, about the north-eastern steps, we came upon a quantity of ashes and turf-mould, under which, on the 8th day of March, 1877, was found a slab of sandstone, checkered into thirty-six squares, which I forwarded to the Academy the following evening. The lines on its flat surface have been drawn with accuracy, the four sides, each nearly 6 inches, delineating almost a complete square. The cross lines, forming the small squares, though not quite all the same size, differ but little in proportion. While clearing at this northern side we found nothing of any importance till we came to the south-east part. Here taking a line from the left-hand jamb of the interior of the door to the base of the double flight of steps in the south-west, we came upon the following within this space: - The upper strata contained only the old socket of a plough, an iron ring, and some defaced coins, all turned up on the 31st of May. We next came on a large heap of old turf-mould and ashes: close to the entrance of the southern gallery, near to which, and buried in the lowest part of this, was found a smooth, flattened, sugar-loaf-shaped stone, with well-cut base, 10 inches long, 15 round base, 14 round centre, and 10 round the top.
A bead also was dug up, and at a little distance in front of the south-eastern steps some bones were found lying on the floor covered with flags. They were so much decayed that they, as well as the teeth, when touched, nearly all crumbled into dust. These were the only bones found out of the midden, which we will come to speak of presently, and are the ones marked as belonging to the goat, or sheep, and bird. Near to this tor were found wrought and unwrought sling-stones and stone objects, which I regard as warrior’s clubs. A dark, flat, heart-shaped stone, with almost obliterated notches in its edge, and several stone discs, were also got there. Close to the foundation of the exterior face, at the south-east, and after the removal of many tons of material, a sandstone, with fluted columns, was also discovered.
On the evening of the 2nd of August 1874, we discovered a midden in the western side, and a drain leading from it, as shown on plan. The midden, 5 feet 5 inches in diameter and I foot deep, had stones lining its circumference, which show marks of having been wrought. The bones found in this pit were kindly examined for me by Professor Boyd Dawkins, of the Owens College, Manchester, to whom I feel much indebted for his time and trouble. He has marked No.1 as belonging to the Celtic short-horned Bos longifrons, to which he also refers the three upper molars. In his letter, 5th December, 1878, he says - “They belonged to the Celtic short-horned Bos longifrons, one bone of which was broken for the sake of its contents, and had afterwards been gnawed by dogs; the other bones belong to the goat, sheep, and bird. I take them to be the relics of a funeral feast.” * (* All the finds were presented to the Academy by Dr. Bernard.)
The midden and drain are now open for inspection. The contents of both were carefully examined, and nothing more was found in them, except some flat, partially circular stones, one having a round hole in its centre. It is worthy of note that this midden and drain are not mentioned either in the ancient or modern history of the place. The orifice of inlet of the drain is larger, and more of a square than that of the outlet, the former being surmounted by a strong lintel, and being 18 inches by 16 inches wide. The latter is much smaller; is only 12 inches by 8; it is not so well constructed as the inlet, but its lintel is also pretty massive. The run of the drain from the midden is in a direction east and west.
The floor of the interior is now entirely free from stones and debris, and nothing remains to be seen over its surface but the bare rock running in a north-westerly direction, the upper ridge being the centre, grass growing on each side of it.
On the north side of the door, as marked A on the plan, a single flight of steps, the original ones of which are marked with tar, leads, as now constructed under my directions, to a 10 feet high or second platform covering the entrance. This flight returns in a northerly direction to the top or third platform. Those marked B, in the south-east, are a double flight - begin at the ground, lead to the 10 feet high or second platform, returning at either side to top or third (grand platform). In the south-west ( C ) a double flight, the right -hand side flight leading to 5 feet high or first platform, returning to the top or third. Those marked D in the north-east, being a double flight, lead to 5 feet high or first platform; the right-hand to 10 feet or second platform, and returning to top or third platform. E, in north-west, is a double flight, beginning in the first platform, and leading to 10 feet or second platform. The original steps are irregular in dimensions, and though they increase in size as they descend, their measurements are variable.
It is in the highest degree probable that the single flight of steps on the north side of the entrance did not stop till it overreached the doorway to the second platform. While carefully removing the stones from this point we could discover no sign of an intermediate platform. If there had been one, it would, through the crevices of the uncemented masonry, however well built, have admitted cold, wind and rain to the gallery. Keeping this in view, and working from analogy, we decided to carry out our second platform over the door-head. This conclusion was further strengthened by the fact that the interior wall flanking the southern gallery exhibited here and there remains of the old masonry running in a direct course from the foundation beyond a 5 feet platform. Some of these in the original position, to the right and left of the double steps in the south-east ( B ), can be seen, being indicated by tar, and they led us on till we came to the beginning of original platform at double flight of steps ( C ) south-west. Having with much patience and anxiety carefully removed the stones, we were able to map it out as extending on the westerly side for about 120 feet in length. It averages 5 feet high, in some parts 3 feet wide, but it varies in width. In the diminished thickness of the interior of the wall, leading from this platform, and looking out exactly towards the mouth of Lough Swilly, we came on five steps; they were very fairly in position - three on one side, and two on the other. In this spot, as well as more to the west, the glacis on the inside and outside protected well the diminished wall. It was however, much broken down, only a trace of it here and there, and but for the very careful manner in which those men removed the stones, we could not possibly have found out the steps, the beginning and ending of the original platform. No doubt, as those steps led us to infer, there were other platforms, and as the system of appearances in the flights of steps is similar, we reasonably supposed, having for our only guide the vestige of the platform brought to light, that the arrangements of all the platforms were similar. Thus we commenced another, keeping in view the dimensions of our discovery, only that instead of stopping at any point, we carried it round the entire circumference. Having got so far, we calculated the quantity of stones now on the ground, and with due regard to this fact, as well as to dimensions and symmetry, we laid down the uppermost, 3 feet 6 inches above the intermediate, also carrying it uninterruptedly round the entire structure. From its greater width eastward, it is designated the grand platform. With the remnant of stones, together with the 700 or 800 collected, and the 181 coping-stones, we were able to erect a parapet wall the same height as the uppermost platform from the intermediate, i.e., 3 feet 6 inches, and 2 feet wide at top - thus binding the whole into a complete unity.
Subjoined are the measurements: -
Average height, 17 feet 3 inches. Breadth, from 15 feet at base to 11 feet 6 inches, averaging 13 feet. Average batter, 2 feet 9 inches. 77 feet 6 inches from east to west in the area, and the same from north to south. Entire circumference at base of the exterior 353 feet. Gateway averages 3 feet 10 inches at bottom; 3 feet 1 inch at top. Average height, 6 feet 7 inches. In gateway on each side of the entrance two niches were left, especially the southern one. Here, as elsewhere, the original is shown by tar marks, the last stone of the old work being painted.
On each side of the entrance there are two galleries, not extending in length, as I quote from the Ordnance Survey, “one-half of its entire circuit,” for the northern gallery is only 29 feet eastward and 10 feet northward from its own entrance, the height of which at orifice is 3 feet 1 inch by 1 foot 10 inches wide. The southern gallery is 68 feet 6 inches long, with a seat 55 feet from its entrance, being 13 feet 6 inches from its eastward end. The height of its entrance is 2 feet 9 inches, width 1 foot 6 inches. These galleries are about 5 feet high, 2 feet 2 inches wide at bottom, and 1 foot 11 inches at top. We found the northern in a much more perfect state than the southern, and when we cleared it all out, some flags of its original roofing were still to be seen in situ, and at its termination northward, nearly up to its roof, is a very good specimen of the ancient masonry. This gallery differs from the one opposite by being 29 feet shorter, in the dimensions of its doorway, in having no seat, and in running right and left, the southern running only in the one direction, I.e., towards the doorway. When exposed to view, the side walls of the southern gallery were seen to be deplorably dilapidated, in many parts broken down, and the flagging entirely removed from the roof, with the exception of two or three. The lintels of both northern and southern entrances were in their original positions. Fortunately the seat and recess in the southern were not much injured. It will be found on examination that the side walls of the northern are in much better preservation than those in the southern; but the latter are well pinned up, and though unsightly, nothing need be apprehended as regards stability. You will ask why it is that the southern side suffered so much more than the other. This being the side of the prevalent storms, and of the inclination of the hill, in my opinion, accounts for the mischief not only to the gallery itself, but also to that side of the entire structure in the south-west.
The inner rampart is 97 feet from the doorway. Opposite to it we found the ancient roadway, curving a little to the right. Between this and the doorway we removed a thick covering of turf from its surface. Few were the indications to show where it lay, for the wall mentioned in the Ordnance Memoir, as marking its course, is only now a record in history. Two mounds, about 2½ feet high and 4 feet wide, run from the cairn to the inner rampart in a northerly and westerly direction. The northerly one is 107 feet from the entrance; the westerly being 101 feet 6 inches further round.
There is but a mere trace of the circular mound marked on the Ordnance drawing between the second and third walls. This we attempted to preserve. The ten stones surrounding it are somewhat out of place, but being well imbedded, we did not disturb them. Between the third and fourth is the spring well, with its ancient stones yet unresolved, flanking its sides and lining the bottom, but the large flag which covered it sixty or seventy years ago has disappeared.
We did not find “the crowning stone.” Possibly that named St. Columb’s, in Mr. Macky’s garden at Belmont, is the inaugural stone belonging to the Grianan of Aileach. The Ordnance gives a very excellent account of this stone, and the reasons why it is probable that Grianan is the rightful owner.
The similarities between this cairn and Straigue are significant. Both situated in localities where stones are abundant, to which probably they owe their preservation, both nearly the same height, and battered on the exterior; Straigue averaging 18 feet, and it battered 2 feet 7 inches; in both little attention being paid to the laying of the stones in the interior of the wall. There are caves in the neighbourhood of the one and the other. However, Grianan is a more complete circle, and is not, as Straique, battered in the interior. The measurements differ also (Straigue is shown on the plan by the red lines). The diameter of Straigue is somewhat greater, the walls not so thick, and the galleries and doorway not so high, the former being much shorter. In passing, it is well to mention that I had nothing to guide me as to the height of the door, except that the galleries being higher than those of Straigue, I made the doorway somewhat to correspond. A moat or fosse encircles Straigue, but there are no signs of such at Grianan. The rock runs evenly through and appears at the opposite sides. In the one the open door looks at the rising sun, in the other at the sun at mid-day. Perhaps another, akin to those, may yet be shown looking at its setting.
Between four and five years, with occasional interruptions, we continued during spring, autumn and summer month, to prosecute the work, and the workers allowed me to command them, although I had not in the slightest degree any title to do so, beyond the confidence with which my own devotion to the work had inspired them. If a portion were badly built, it had of course to be taken down and out up properly. Over and over again I tried their patience and forbearance in this way, and, for all this, a surly word or look I never received. The respect, civility, kindness, and consideration with which I was treated reached far beyond anything I could have imagined. No accidents occurred; the worst was the loss of the nail of the little finger of my left hand in May, 1874.
During the building, some of the chief difficulties we had to meet with were the carrying of coals, bogwood, and food to the top of the hill. The boiling and cooking for so many, week by week, reqired no little patience and endurance, but my wife and daughter rendered good service in this department. However, all this was more than compensated for by the men on every occasion being well and truly satisfied with the supplies.
I cannot close without recording my best thanks to Messrs. McClelland & Company, M’Ilwee, M’Crea, and M’Farland, M’Learn and others, in the city of Londonderry, for the readiness with which they lent scaffolding and other appliances during the progress of the work. Also to Mr. Godwin and Mr. Wm. M’Illwee for their plans and measurements - the former indicating steps and platforms; the latter showing very accurate measurements, some of which were more correct than those of the Ordnance.


Having carefully examined the structure some days since, I find that the very severe frosts, thaws and snow storms which have prevailed for the last three month, have not in any part injured it or loosened the stones, and it now stands intact as we left it, maintaining its stability. It is therefore reasonable to suppose that, having stood the test of such a servere winter’s ordeal, it will last for ages, provided it be taken charge of under the Act likely soon to come into force for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments. - Jan. 30th, 1879.


Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Second Series, Vol. 1, p.415 - 423. Available at

Article "Restoration of Grianan Fort" from The Londonderry Journal, Monday Morning, July 1, 1878.

Dr. Walter Bernard's restoration of Grianan Aileach from 1874 to 1878


In the 1860s Dr. Walter Bernard, a Derry doctor who resided in Buncrana, became increasingly concerned about the dilapidated state of the stone fort at Grianán. In the 1870s a Derry group called the Irish Irelanders paraded from Derry to the site on Sunday afternoons and carried out repairs. The Gaelic League and GAA also lent a hand. Eventually Dr. Bernard took charge of the reconstruction in person and in 1878 the work was completed at his own expense. He was confident that it would, in his own words, `last for ages`. A tourist road to the fort was opened on Sunday 18 September 1955 by Pat O'Donnell TD and Eamon de Valera. An open-air céilidhe was held after the ceremony.

Photo and text taken from Sean Beattie's book "Ireland in Old Photographs - Donegal" with much appreciation.
Original photo belongs to Bigger/McDonald Collection.