Hidden gem of the week: Grianán of Aileach in County Donegal

Ireland is full of underrated attractions, and our hidden gem of the week is the Grianán of Aileach, a stunning hilltop fortress in County Donegal.

Grianán of Aileach, Carrowreagh, Co. Donegal

Without a doubt, we are spoiled for choice when it comes to things to do, sights to see, and places to explore on the Emerald Isle. Ireland is known worldwide for its striking landscapes, first-class attractions, and vibrant cultural cities. Despite this, sometimes it’s the most unexpected places that prove to be the most memorable experiences of your visit to the Emerald isle.

Maybe it was that unanticipated landmark you discovered off the beaten track? Perhaps it was that mind-boggling scenic drive you accidentally took when you missed your turn? Or was it that quiet, cosy, postcard-perfect village you found yourself falling head-over-heels for when you didn’t even know it was on the map?

Around every bend in the road, there is another hidden gem waiting to be discovered, and this week we are going to share one of our favourites. Here is everything you need to know about the Grianán of Aileach in County Donegal, our hidden gem of the week!

Grianán of Aileach – an ancient hilltop fortress in the Donegal hills

Grianán of Aileach is a hidden gem in Ireland

First off, it almost goes without saying that County Donegal is a must-visit destination for all visitors to Ireland. Boasting historical and archaeological wonders, a breath-taking rugged coastline, and majestic mountain landscapes, there is no shortage of things to do and see in Donegal.

However, amongst all the top attractions the county has to offer, one of the finest and most mystical is the stone fort of Grianán of Aileach. Sitting atop the lonesome Greenan Mountain in idyllic Inishowen, the fort is 250m above sea level and is one of Ireland’s lesser-known treasures.

To get to the fort, the most direct route is from the main N13 Letterkenny-Derry Road. Keep your eyes peeled for Burt Castle and then for local signage for Grianán of Aileach, which will lead you along a rural road to the site.

Location: Grianán of Aileach, Carrowreagh, Co. Donegal

A strategic fortress, a sun temple, a burial mound – a site full of mysteries

The purpose of the Grianán of Aileach is not entirely certain; however, it is likely that the site has served many functions over the centuries. The monument’s origins are certainly ancient in nature as there are remnants of defensive structures surrounding the stone fort that has been identified as the remains of a much older hillfort, most likely constructed around 1000 BC.

There is also a small stone cairn nearby, a burial monument from the Neolithic or Early Bronze Age.

Strategically, the fort offers a superb lookout point and is virtually impenetrable with its 5-metre-high walls and ring enclosures. Over the centuries, the Grianán of Aileach served as the royal seat of the Uí Neill dynasty and was passed from clan to clan until its destruction in the 12th century. In the 1870s the site was excavated and subsequently restored, albeit controversially.  

Many theories have circulated regarding its function. The name Grianán has been interpreted as meaning ‘sunny place’, and hence the theory that the monument was a kind of temple to the sun. However, this has never been proven.

Some scholars suggest the impressive fort was used for ceremonial purposes alongside its function as a stronghold; a theory that seems a little more likely. However, the mystery remains, and indeed fuels the beguiling nature of the place.

The hilltop fortress is shrouded in myth and legend

It is reported that the origins of the Grianán of Aileach date back to 1700 BC, and as such, the site has become linked with many myths and legends. One such link is to the old gods, the Tuatha Dé Danann, a magical race of people that possessed supernatural abilities in Irish mythology.

This Tuatha Dé Danann worshipped the Dagda (the Good God), and he is a deity who is often associated with the fort. Folklore states that the Dagda ordered that the stone fort be constructed around the grave of his deceased son.

Legend also states that the giants of Inishowen lie sleeping beneath the monument, and when a sacred sword is removed, they will spring to life and reclaim their ancient lands. We reckon that will be a bit awkward to explain to the locals!

A worthwhile excursion – a short walk to a mind-blowing view

The site offers stunning views

We are sure you hear all the time how great the views are from here, there and everywhere in Ireland. The reason for that is because we really are spoiled with the stunning natural beauty around us. However, we can’t recommend the Grianán of Aileach without mentioning the mind-boggling vistas that lie before you when you reach the fort.

Superb views of Lough Foyle, Lough Swilly, and the Inishowen Peninsula open around you as you circle the site. This includes rolling green fields, weathered bog land, rural boreens, and hundreds of miles of enchanting Irish soil. A trip to this restored ruin is pure magic. We can only wish those ancient walls could speak and share their stories! 

Learn all you can – visit the interpretive centre to gain a deeper insight

The nearby visitor centre offers further learning
Credit: TripAdvisor / Old Church Visitor Centre management

If you want to learn more about this phenomenal site, there is a wonderful interpretive centre at the Old Church Visitor Centre at the An Grianán Hotel in Burt, Inishowen. At the centre, you can explore an array of exhibits where you can gain a deeper insight into the local legends in Irish folklore, the Tuatha Dé Danann, kings, queens, deities, and warriors of Irish legend.

Focus is given to the Grianán of Aileach, which is located close by. A visit to the centre perfectly complements your visit to the hilltop site. A truly unforgettable hidden gem, it should not be missed on your trip to Ireland. If you are lucky enough to be planning an Irish road trip in 2020, make sure that the Grianán of Aileach makes your bucket list!

Address: Carrownamaddy, Co. Donegal, Ireland

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