Where the Inishowen Peninsula begins, way up near Ireland’s northernmost tip and not far from the border with Northern Ireland, a series of narrow country roads take you high up a hill to this structure.
It’s a ring fort, a round structure of stone, thought to be built during medieval times. There’s some disagreement about the timing and history of ring forts, actually. But thousands of them dot Ireland. Some were made of earth, some were made of stone, and most of them lie in ruin. This one, at a site called the Grainan of Aileach, is one of the best known and most prominent in the nation. It served as the seat of the ancient Kingdom of Aileach, which encompassed a lot of the northernmost portion of Ireland.
Ring forts were used as farm enclosures for wealthy landowners and may have provided a little protection from anyone who might want to cause harm. But it appears that their primary purpose was to establish status at a time when hierarchy was everything: the more elaborate the design, the wealthier you were. Kind of like how we buy cars today: a long, lean, black Mercedes sedan says something about you that a Chevy Impala does not.
There’s no doubt that a fort has stood at this site since at least the second century, because it is marked on the map of the known world that Greco-Egyptian mathematician, astronomer, and geographer Ptolemy created then. This fort was probably first made of earth. I’m not quite sure when it was rebuilt of stone, whether before or after any of the three times it was destroyed. The last time was in 1101. When the site was surveyed in the 1830s, the fort lay in ruin.
Its current condition is owed to restorations. The first happened in the 1870s and the most recent in the early 2000s, both criticized for altering the original design. The fort’s current condition probably evokes its past more than it accurately reflects it.
But it is no less interesting and astonishing to visit than if it were still all original. Despite its location far off a major road it attracts plenty of visitors. On the weekday morning Margaret and I visited, more than a dozen others joined us to climb the steps and explore the fort’s three levels.
Originally, there would have been buildings inside the ringfort, which is about 75 feet in diameter inside. The wall is about 16 feet tall, and at its base it’s about 15 feet thick. It is built mostly without mortar. We assumed that where we found mortar, it was added for stability so that visitors could safely climb and walk the fort. Perhaps this is one of the criticized aspects of the restorations. But I was glad to be able to confidently stand up there to take in the views.
It is said that on a clear day, you can see five Irish counties from here.
Canon PowerShot S95.
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