The Grianán of Aileach is a ringfort, perched atop Grennan Mountain, just under 250 meters above sea level. From its vantage point, you can see five neighboring counties, including Tyrone and Derry, and two beautiful loughs, Swilly and Foyle.
The name itself when broken down seems to mean "The Stone Palace of the Sunny View". The views from the top really are something, though you'll need good luck in Donegal to get the sun. I was lucky the day I headed up.
According to legend, anyone who enters within its walls must be cautious, as the fort is believed to possess magical powers. It was said that if you shared a secret within the fort, soon everyone would know. Below the fort the giants of Inishowen are lying sleeping but when the sacred sword is removed they will spring to life reclaiming their ancient lands.
Myths also link the fort to the legendary Tuatha De Danann, a mythical race of god-like beings with supernatural abilities in Celtic mythology. These powerful beings are said to have come to Ireland from the north of Europe, where they had spent many years honing their arts and magic.
One of the most significant figures among the Tuatha De Danann was God Dagda, a powerful leader who is said to have built Grianán Of Aileach. Known as Eochaid Ollathair, "the All-Father," Dagda was revered for his mighty weapon and his role as protector of all people.
As with all great stories, the origins are steeped in tragedy. Dagda and the Tuatha De Danann were at war with their enemies, the Fomorians, when Dagda's son Aedh was killed by Corrgenn, a Connacht chieftain. The fort was then erected around the son's grave.
After its fantastical beginnings, Grianán Of Aileach is intertwined with the lives of Irish kings. Aileach was inhabited by the northern Ui Néill dynasty from 789 to about 1050. It acted as their Capital up until the twelfth century. However, as it was destroyed in 1050, it was the capital in name only. It was the site where the Kings of Aileach held their inauguration ceremonies.
It is written in the Tripartite Life of St. Patrick that Patrick blessed the fortress and left a symbolic flagstone there prophesying that many kings and clerics would come from the place.
This was a period when many of the local kings in Ireland were moving to the towns founded by the Vikings or into more important ecclesiastical sites which by this time seemed to have been functioning as towns following the model set by the Vikings.
It has been suggested that one of the two sites marked as Regia (or royal place) on Ptolemy's map of Ireland, may be identified with the Grianán. The site itself is ancient. Some early texts refer to Aileach as metaphorically being the oldest building in Ireland.
The round fort is built largely without mortar. The interior has three terraces and wooden structures were built against the terraces to provide accommodation. The outline of Bronze Age or Iron Age ramparts can be seen below the fort.
The Irish annals record its destruction in 1101. Today, it stands as an Irish National Monument, having been restored. Excavations within the fort have uncovered the remains of an early Christian church, ancient coins, and pottery.
Despite its rich history, Grianán Of Aileach isn't a popular tourist destination, when I visited there was one other family wandering about it. However, its stunning location and the history surrounding it make it a must see if you are interested in Ireland's past.