Grianan of Aileach Donegal: Ireland’s Mysterious Hill Fort

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Grianan of Aileach is a picturesque stone fort located atop Greenan Mountain in Donegal. Dating back to 1700 BC, those who visit the ancient site are offered both a fascinating glimpse into Irish history and the opportunity to enjoy some magnificent views from atop the restored fort.

We’ve stopped by Grianan of Aileach many times during our Ireland travels and wanted to share our love for one of Donegal’s hidden gems!

Grianan of Aileach Donegal
Grianan of Aileach

 Grianán of Aileach

Grianan of Aileach is a restored stone fort which sits atop Greenan Mountain in Innishowen in County Donegal. The site itself dates back to 1700 BC and is believed to predate the construction of the stone fort which followed sometime around the 8th or 9th Century.

The original stone fort was destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries and the fort, as it stands today, was reconstructed in the 1870s by local resident Dr Walter Bernard. During his restoration work Dr Bernard unearthed artifacts including animal bones and stone items which supported the belief that the ring fort dates back to Early Christianity.

Visiting Grianan of Aileach

After parking in the adjacent car park, the entrance to the fort is a short walk up to the hilltop. Both parking and entry to the fort are free.

The interior of the fort is accessed via a single doorway at the front of the fort. Walking into the center of the stone fort, we tried to imagine what once took place in the historical site.

The walls of the fort are 5 metres tall and the easy climb along the three tiers of the internal walls leads to spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. We were lucky enough to visit on a clear day and we spent at least half an hour enjoying the beautiful views.

Grianan of Aileach
Grianan of Aileach (photo via Failte Ireland)

The views from Grianán of Aileach

Although only 250 metres above sea level the views from Grianan of Aileach are remarkable. A climb to the top of the fort is rewarded with panoramic views across three counties, namely Donegal, Derry and Tyrone. The rugged Innishowen Peninsula and the waters of Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle are also among the highlights.

Grianan of Aileach Donegal
The views are spectacular

 The History of Grianán of Aileach

Historically, Grianan of Aileach is a very important site and much legend and fact surrounds its past. The translation of its name is believed to have referred to a ‘Stone Temple in the Sun’ or the ‘Stone Palace with the Sunny View’.

Once a royal fortress of the northern Ui Néill dynasty, the current fort was restored in 1870 having been destroyed multiple times since its construction. In the 900s it was plundered by Vikings who had settled at Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle. Later, in 1101, the reigning King of Munster instructed his army to ravage the site.

Irish folklore attributes the fort to Dagda, the God and King of the Tuatha De Danann, a supernatural race. Dagda built the fort to surround the grave of his son who was killed by a jealous chieftain. The fort was mapped in its current location by a second century Greek geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria who described it as a Royal Residence.

It is believed that Ireland’s patron saint, St Patrick, visited Grianan of Aileach in the 5th century and performed a baptism there. A well dedicated to St Patrick stands on the outer banks of the site today and some consider it to have healing powers.

Grianan of Aileach Donegal
The Grianan of Aileach ancient site

How to get to Grianan of Aileach

Grianan of Aileach is an easy 20-minute drive west from Derry.

The easiest route to the hilltop fort car park is by taking the N13 road, the main Derry to Letterkenny road, heading west from Derry town. The fort is around 2.5 km off this road at the town of Burt. The turn-offs are well signposted along the way.

Visitors can drive up the narrow road to the small car park which is located very close to the fort at the top of the hill. From the car park, there is a short walkway that leads up to the fort. A ramp follows the path of the walkway allowing wheelchair and stroller access to the site.

If the site is closed when you visit it’s also possible to park at the entrance by the main road as there are spaces to pull in. From here you can hike the 1km up to the fort.

Grianan of Aileach Opening Hours and Tickets

Grianan of Aileach is managed by the Office of Public Works (OPW) who protect and maintain heritage sites across Ireland.

The Grianan of Aileach site is typically open from 10am to 6:30pm from March/April through to summer. The site closes at 3:30pm during off peak months.

The opening hours are not published online so they may vary

Entrance to Grianan of Aileach and parking at the site are both free.

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