Today the Irish Government lists the ancient Grianan of Aileach fort, just seven miles from Derry city, as a national monument. It is perched above the Co Donegal village of Burt and attracts thousands of visitors every year.
The fort is a powerful manifestation of what remains of ancient Ireland and on a clear day, from its pinnacle, it is possible to get a glimpse of three counties-Donegal, Derry and Tyrone. The commanding and spectacular waterways of Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle lie to its west and east respectively.
But, in the 19th Century the fort, once home to kings of old Gaelic order, was rapidly disintegrating towards extinction. It was however saved by the vision of one man who spearheaded its restoration just over 140 years ago.
Dr Walter Bernard was born on May 1, 1827 at Newmarket, Co Cork. His father was a captain in the 60th Rifles, a regiment of the British Army and was amongst the reinforcements that arrived in Brussels on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in June of 1815 but was apparently too late to take part in the famed history changing conflict.
Walter became a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland in 1852, a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland in 1858 and Fellow of that college in 1876.
Between 1853-1856 Dr Bernard served as a surgeon throughout the Crimean War attending the wounded British soldiers at Inkerman and witnessed the ravages caused by small pox and cholera. He later recalled that for every man that was shot, fifty more were killed by those diseases, particularly in the notoriously harsh winters of 1854 and 1855.
On the journey home from the Ukranian battlefields, he saved a man from drowning and was awarded with a certificate from the Royal Humane Society. Then, with his experiences of military conflict at an end, Dr Bernard landed back in Ireland and settled in Buncrana before building up a very large medical practice in Derry. He ran this surgery for over sixty years and was a prominent member of the city’s branch of the British Medical Association as well as holding many public offices throughout his career.
One such appointment was to examine the quality of water in the city for Londonderry Corporation at public facilities such as the Creggan reservoirs built in stages between 1849-1880, and which supplied much of the city’s domestic and industrial water needs.
His experience of the waterborne disease cholera in the Crimea made him an ideal candidate for this job.
Dr Bernard also addressed the Medical Society of King and Queens College of Physicians on the issuer of diphtheria in April 1881. He cautioned the assembled medics that there was a reason why the disease was largely absent from statistics sheets.
He said: “There are few diseases about which so many mistakes in diagnosis are made.”
He feared the misdiagnosis rate was so high that it was almost impossible to ensure that ‘true diphtheria’ was as common in a town as reported.
Dr Bernard added: “Diphtheria occurs in Londonderry, I have no doubt whatever…in my practice it has been my lot to treat many cases of this disease.”
At some point in 1862, Dr Bernard paid a visit to Grianan of Aileach and many years later in 1879, he said of the experience: “Seventeen years ago, when this traditional and historical 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 I witnessed further advance of its ruin, and I clearly saw that if something were not soon done to arrest the progress of its destruction, it would be in a few years a thing of the past.”
Grianan of Aileach is a hilltop fort that sits on top of Greenan Mountain in Inishowen just over 800 feet above ground level.
The ringfort was thought to have been built in the sixth or seventh century, although there is some evidence to suggest that the site had been in use before that.
Greek astronomer and cartographer Ptolemy penned a remarkably accurate map of Ireland in 140 A.D. from which maps were later created in the 15th and 16th centuries. He called the land ‘Iouernia’, thought to mean ‘abundant land’ from which the Irish names Eriu and Eire are derived. Amongst two sites identified as ‘regia’ or royal places in Ireland by the Greek map maker, one of them is believed by some historians to be the Grianan of Aileach.
Whether Ptolemy pinpointed it or not, the Kingdom of Aileach was indeed one of Ireland’s royal sites of the Gaelic order. The fort was thought to have been constructed originally by the northern section of the Ui Neill clan, but between 700 A.D. and the thirteen centuries, over 40 kings from various clans, some also High Kings of Ireland, held the throne of Aileach. The last man to be known as the King of Aileach was Aed Buide Ua Neill who died in 1283.
Despite various interpretations, it is generally agreed that Aileach means ‘stony place’ and the word Grianan means ‘sunny place’ so that Grianan of Aileach broadly translates as ‘The Stone Palace of the Sunny View’.
Whatever the actual meaning of its name, it is evident that it was an extremely important place. Aileach’s political and strategic importance was such that the annals of Irish history record that it was attacked at least three times. In 674, Finsnechta Fledach, King of Ireland, destroyed the fort.
Again, in 937, when Muirchertach MacNeill was king, Viking raiders sacked the site when they settled at Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle. It’s also thought that King Brian Boru came to Aileach in 1006, but it was destroyed once more in 1101, when another King of Munster, Muirchertach Ua Briain (Murtagh O’Brien) came to Inishowen and plundered the region and razed the fort. The fort was laid to waste by O’Brien in revenge for O’Neill’s destruction of his royal seat at Kincora and he reportedly told his soldiers to each take a stone from the Donegal hillside so the place would be reduced to rubble.
The fort itself could have served two main functions both as a defensive and a ceremonial one and moreover as a settlement that was surrounded by ringforts of lesser importance. Whatever its actual function, it is known that buildings of this nature were very rare in North West Ulster and its presence signifies that its inhabitants were regarded as being very important.
The linking of St Patrick to the site is seen as attempt by Christian converts to place it firmly in that tradition whilst acknowledging its pagan history and the naming of a holy well right outside the ringfort in honour of Ireland’s patron saint seems to confirm that.
There is also a mythological and folklore version of the founding of Grianan of Aileach which says the ringfort was built by Dagda (The Good Good), a god and the king of the Tuatha De Danann-the supposed ‘Tribe of the Gods’-a supernatural race in Irish mythology. The Tuatha De Danann are said to have invaded Ireland before the Celts and built strategic stone forts on the tops of hills.
Dagda was said to have fought the Second Battle of Moytirra against the Fomorians and the fort at Aileach was built over the grave of his son Aedh who had been murdered.
In 1870, a Derry based group called the Irish Irelanders, enthusiastic Gaelic revivalists travelled to the site on Sunday afternoons and carried out some repairs. But, the splendour and historical intrigue of Grianan of Aileach had largely been ignored for many years until in 1874, Dr Walter Bernard decided to begin its restoration in earnest.
In the 1830s, painter, musician, antiquarian and archaeologist George Petrie examined Grianan of Aileach when he was head of the Royal Irish Academy’s antiquities committee which was linked to the Irish Ordnance Survey.
Petrie’s findings suggested that the hill many have been enclosed by many other ramparts and a line of stones leading up to the entrance which were all gone by then.
But, despite his efforts, the expert’s findings remained confined to the records of the Royal Irish Academy, there were no efforts by the organisation to attempt any restoration of the ancient site.
It was Dr Bernard who took practical action beyond the analysis of the site. He paid for the entire project that took place between 1874-1878 and recruited his crew of labourers from the farms surrounding Burt. They ferried the materials needed for the restoration on the back up small carts up supplied by the local landowners up the incredibly steep hill.
What the doctor found at the site was a disorganised mess of which he said it was: “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.”
Remembering that Walter Bernard was a medical doctor with no detailed description of what an ancient ringfort truly looked like and that there weren’t enough stones on site to complete the job, makes this story even more remarkable.
Dr Bernard discovered many animal bones on the site including sheep, cows and goats and items like sling stones and warrior’s clubs. The most interesting stone object discovered was a ‘slab of sandstone, chequered into thirty-six squares’, believed to be a games board of some type.
The doctor and his crew of labourers used the measurements of other Irish forts such as Staigue Fort in Co Kerry as the comparative basis for the restoration project at Grianan of Aileach. The finished product is a fort that stands 75.5 metres in diameter and more than five metres tall with walls that are almost four metres thick.
Dr Bernard later described a part of the building project by saying: “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 Murdock O’Brien in 1011.”
Only speculation can be used to assess if the interior of today’s fort accurately resembles its ancient predecessor, but when the alternative was the complete disappearance of the Iron Age construction, then surely Bernard’s efforts become even more admirable.
The fort has stood for centuries as a silent witness to major events of Irish history. From the top of Grianan fort you can just make out the location of the Co Donegal village of Rathmullen on the western bank of Lough Swilly.
It was from Rathmullen in 1607 that the chieftains Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell sailed with their families after the final defeat by the English taking with them the last symbols of the old Gaelic order once enshrined in its pomp by places such as Grianan of Aileach. Behind them in the distance the old fort sat on its hilltop as a fading reminder of a society and its traditions that would never return.
A legend says that in a secret cave on a hill beneath Grianan O’Neill’s warriors rest in a bewitched sleep in full armour and sitting on their horses ready for the next fight. The spell, says the legend, will only be broken when the next destined leader of Ulster arrives to lead them to victory.
It is a myth that would have no visible attachment if it had not been for the passion of Dr Walter Bernard in the late 19th century in restoring Grianan of Aileach to something approaching its former glory.
A tourist road to the fort was opened on September 18, 1955 by President of Ireland Eamon De Valera who was accompanied by Fine Gael TD for Donegal West, Pat O’Donnell, then Minister for Local Government. In the early 2000s the Office of Public Works in the Republic of Ireland carried out further repairs to Grianan of Aileacgh after a wall collapsed. But as late as October 2018 the Irish Government was being severely criticised by political representatives in Donegal for still failing to establish tour guides and other facilities at the ancient site.
In his obituary contained in the Universities and Colleges magazine of December 14, 1912, it was reported that Dr Bernard died suddenly at his residence in Buncrana on eight days previously on December 8. He was 85-years-old and was buried in Derry City Cemetery.
Dr Bernard’s obituary ended: “He leaves a widow. His life was deeply scarred by three great sorrows, the deaths of his three children.”
CAPTION: The volunteers involved in the restoration of Grianan of Aileach pictured at its official re-opening in 1878.
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