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Grianán of Aileach – the Sun Palace

Grianán of Aleach - County Donegal

Grianán of Aileach or Grianán Ailligh is a cashel on the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal. Also known as the “Sun Palace,” it was the royal citadel of the northern Ui Néill  (O’Neills) from the 5th to 12th centuries.

The Cashel

The cashel dates to the third century and archaeologists suspect it could have been built on a former Neolithic sacred site or burial mound.  Experts in Irish culture and heritage believe that the mound was used for ritual purposes as far back as 1700 BC and was the center of one of Ulster’s ancient kingdoms – and later the political center of the ruling O’Neill’s and later the O’Donnells.  This would have been the royal center, where kings were crowned and rituals carried out as well as a defensive structure.

Though the actual ring fort was probably built in early Christian times, the three concentric rings surrounding the cashel as well as artifacts discovered in the surrounding rings suggest this spot was used for ritual much earlier. The cashel itself is 77 feet in diameter and its walls are 13 feet thick with chambers embedded.  Inside the circle are stairways built into the inside walls the lead to ringed seating areas – like an amphitheater.  This seating gallery would hold hundred of people who could witness inaugurations and other ritual ceremonies.

Inside the Grianan

The City of Derry’s website has a video embedded that was filmed inside the cashel and shows a reenactment of a medieval celebration

From the top of the ring one can see for miles in every direction.  Counties Tyrone, Donegal and Derry are in view with mountains, cliffs, open pastures, villages and beaches.  Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly, the two bodies of water that flank the Inishowen Peninsula swirl about in that landscape.  The peninsula rolls out like a blanket from this vantage point, eventually vanishing in a misty gray horizon (on a sunny day, that is).  It’s easy to understand how the cashel on dominated the region and became as the political center. Its remarkable disk-image capping a hill 800 feet above sea level is visible to so much of the surrounding countryside.

Views from Grianán of Aileach

 

Tied to Celtic Mystery

Folklore suggests that prior to the cashel, this hill was associated with deities linked to the sun.  In Irish “Ail” refers to stone.  Grianán in Irish means “sunny spot” or sun temple.  So the name could refer to a stony sun temple or palace.  But according to author Cary Meehan who wrote Sacred Ireland, it can also mean sunny disposition or of the sun.  In Celtic mythology Grainne was the sister of Aine – goddes of the sun, and though Grainne was known as goddess of corn or grain (springs from the earth after being nurtured by the sun), both sisters are said to have been birthed by a sunbeam or “of the sun.”

There is also a tradition that the temple was built by Daghdha, the good god or god of the earth.  He was known as the King of the Tuatha dé Danann, a race of supernatural beings descended from the Goddess Danu.  They inhabited Ireland before the Celts. This tradition has Daghda building the fort to protect the grave of his son. A variation tells of giants building the hill and the Grianán on top a residence for the shining ones who gave birth to the children of the sídhe.  All of these traditions link the hill and the fort on top with supernatural beings, to unseen energy and power and a link to the Otherworld.

Grianán of Aileach - side

Cashels were built for defensive purposes, but circles are also linked to Irish ritual and spirituality.  The shape represents a deeper meaning.  Stone circles, carved spirals on implements and burial stones, circular mounds covering passage tombs indicate this.  There was also a later belief that circular buildings had no corners for evil entities to hide.  Thus one can’t dismiss the spiritual importance of Grianán of Aileach, even though the cashel marked it as a secular site. The traditional beliefs embedded in the Irish life permeated all they did.  This circular fort sitting atop three concentric circles on a circular hill was built with circles in mind.  And the site has a powerful energy about it.

Originally the cashel had been the stronghold of the 4th century chieftain, Niall of the 9 Hostages. Later it became the stronghold of the O’Neill kings and the O’Donnells.  The cashel was mostly destroyed in 1101 by the king of Munster, Murtagh O’Brien and his army in retaliation for the O’Neill’s destruction of his palace in Clare (Kincora).  After they sacked Grianán of Aileach, Murtagh O’Brien told his army of a thousand men to each take a stone from the cashel with them so that the fort could not be rebuilt.

The cashel was later restored again in 1837 by a Dr. Bernard from Belfast. And in 2007 the Irish Office of Public Works restored it to the excellent condition it is in today.  Some say it is over restored.  But over-restoration has not blocked the ancient energy that still apparently seeps from the ground and surroundings.

Grianan of Aileach Entrance

The Energy Linked to Grianán of Aileach

Irish Musician, Tommy Makem in his book Tommy Makem’s Secret Ireland wrote about his experience in trying to tape a television interview with Derry songwriter, Roy Arbuckle inside the cashel .  Arbuckle laughed and told Makem that they’d never be able to record inside the walls.  Makem couldn’t see any reason why it shouldn’t work.

But it didn’t work. Within a minute the sound engineer notice erratic movements on the meters which he couldn’t correct.  The struggle continued for an hour and a half. They finally eked out 15 minutes worth of an interview, and as soon as they were done, all the batteries went dead.  Somehow, Arbuckle expected this difficulty.  Makem writes, “Roy seemed to understand the workings of some hidden forces in this magical place.  He was chucking all the way back to Derry.”

It is true that Grianán of Aileach has an energy about it.  One feels it on the walk up the hill to reach the cashel. It’s mad windy on that hilltop but as soon as you enter the linteled doorway into the ring, all the sounds of wind cease.  Everything is suddenly still, and there is a strange silence.  As soon as I crossed that threshold my imagination moved immediately to those who were in this space before… the sounds, the voices, the cheering, the shouting almost as if an old movie was playing in my head.

Grianán of Aileach door

The entrance into the cashel is a threshold the opens into a place of different energy.

Over-restored or not, that energy is still present and the views of the surrounding landscape are some of the best I’ve seen in Ireland.  Standing on the top level of the cashel ridge I surveyed the breadth of three counties – their pastures, mountains and Loughs Foyle and Swilly.  The oneness of Ireland then and now is knitted together in that view.

Grianan of Aileach

One can see the approximate location of Rathmullen, a village on the west bank of Lough Swilly. It was from there that Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell left on a French boat bound for Spain one midnight in September of 1607.  With 90+ relatives they sailed out of Lough Swilly changing the Irish social and political landscape forever.  It marked an end to the old Gaelic order. An order of Chieftains and clans and common beliefs and the practice of rich traditions rooted in an ancient time.

And behind the fleeing earls was Grianán of Aileach, a remnant of old Ireland.  In its time it was a great royal center, second to the Hill of Tara. An ancient road links them to each other.  There is a legend of a cave in the hill beneath the cashel where the horsemen of the Great Hugh O’Neill rest in a magic sleep in full armor, mounted on their horses.  The sleeping spell will only be broken when the next destined leader of Ulster arrives to lead them to victory.

So it seems there’s still a little magic left at Grianán of Aileach.

Sources used for writing this post:

A Traveler‘s Guide to Sacred Ireland by Cary Meehan
Tommy Makem’s Secret Ireland by Tommy Makem
Legendary Ireland by Eithne Massey
Mythic Ireland by Michael Dames
National and Historic Monuments of Ireland by Peter Harbison
Celtic Myths and Legends by Peter Berresford Ellis
Goddess Alive!: Inviting Celtic & Norse Goddesses Into Your Life  by Michelle Skye
From Inishowen Buncrana Calling, the Heritage of Eoghain website by Brian Lace

 

JUNE 21 | THE DAY THE SUN STANDS STILL

Solstice means sun (sol) stands still (sistere).  As the sun reaches its most northerly point in the sky each year between June 20 and 22, its position at noon doesn’t change.  It appears suspended directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer (23 degrees 27 minutes north latitude), before it begins shifting southward toward the equator again and its lowest point, in late December when the second solstice occurs. The precise June solstice moment this year was 10:51 a.m. UT (6:51 a.m. EDT) today.

Solstice is different from an equinox, the two times each year when the sun is directly above the Earth’s equator and day and night are of equal length. Equinoxes mark the beginning of spring (March) and fall (September).  In ancient times, solstices and equinoxes were keenly observed and guided predictions about annual seasons and weather. Solstice marks the day when the sun takes its longest path through the sky and we have the most daylight.

solstice-2015-worldwide-mapsummer-solstice-june-2015

Ancient cultures developed unique communal rituals to pay tribute to cycles of birth, life and nature.

According to Dr Duane Hamacher, professor of cultural astrology at the University of New South Wales:

Examples around the world abound and each culture assigns a distinct meaning to this event. But it is clear that global cultures today and in the distant past were keen observers of the sky and marked the rising and setting positions of the sun during the solstices as very special and sacred events – typically to develop calendars.

In Australia the Watharung Aboriginal people of Victoria built a stone arrangement called Wurdi Youang (meaning big hill) that marked the position of the setting sun at the solstices and equinoxes” 

Kupala Night

Ivan Kupala Day in Belgorod Oblast Russia, in 2011
Wiki Commons/Лобачев Владимир

It is really midsummer and ancient cultures began their summer celebration on May Day or Beltane, but we now view it as the astronomical beginning of summer season in the Northern Hemisphere. Solstice was celebrated by Germanic tribes (Ivan Kupala), Celts (Feill-Sheathain), Gauls (Feast of Epona), Romans (Vestalia) and Ancient Druids (Alben Heruin), who celebrated the day as a wedding between the heavens and the earth.

 Ehrwald Basin Austria Solstice

Ehrwald Basin, Solstice Lights, Austria

In ancient Chinese culture the feminine Yin force is born at the solstice and brings more moonlight, while the Yang is born at the winter solstice and brings more sunlight.  Egyptians marked the day with celebrations to Ra and Horus to ensure fertility and abundance of crops. Ancient Stonehenge  near Salisbury, England has an arrangement of huge megaliths that are aligned according to the sun’s rise on the summer and winter days of solstice and the druids celebrated with bonfires, music and dancing and buried their dead there.

stonehengessol610

Rachel Hartigan Shea (National Geographic) (Excerpted)

Druids—and sometimes aliens—have been suspected of planting the 4,500-year-old stones. Is Stonehenge an astronomical calendar or a place of healing or a marker for magical energy lines in the ground?  For a long time, no one really knew, though some theories were more grounded in reality than others.

But now, we may be a little bit closer to understanding the monumental Neolithic site. Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson and his colleagues at the Stonehenge Riverside Project spent seven years excavating Stonehenge and its surroundings.  He is interviewed re: findings published in his book,  Stonehenge—A New Understanding: Solving the Mysteries of the Greatest Stone Age Monument.

When we came …. to Stonehenge and dug there, we recovered some 60 cremation burials inside Stonehenge. What we now know is that Stonehenge was the largest cemetery of its day.

stonehenge-above_24772_600x450

(Nearby) At Durrington Walls, we have two of these great timber circles—a bit like Stonehenge in wood—at the center of an enormous village. From where we’ve excavated, you’re looking at a fairly dense settlement of houses.  We discovered that they’d been feasting there on a very large scale. We estimate that about four to five thousand people may have gathered there at the time they were building Stonehenge.

We also know that there were seasonal influxes into the settlement at Durrington Walls.  (The) evidence suggests that people were gathering in large numbers at the winter solstice. We’ve been getting it wrong in modern times about when to gather at Stonehenge.

One of our discoveries in 2008 was on the avenue that leads out of Stonehenge. As you are moving along the avenue away from Stonehenge, you are looking toward where the sun rises on the midsummer solstice. If you turn 180 degrees and look back toward Stonehenge, that’s where the sun sets on the midwinter solstice. Underneath the avenue, we discovered a natural landform, formed in a previous ice age, where there are grooves and ridges that by sheer coincidence are aligned on that solstitial axis.

 

Right next to this landform are pits dug to hold posts that were put up 10,000 years ago, much older than Stonehenge. Another archaeological team has discovered down by the river next to Stonehenge a huge settlement area for hunters and gatherers, which seems to have been occupied on and off for something like 4,000 years before Stonehenge itself was ever built.

We think that long before Stonehenge this location was already a special place. These hunters and gatherers may have been the people who first recognized this special feature in the land where the earth and the heavens were basically in harmony.  (See Stonehenge pictures.This interview has been edited and condensed.

wreathhypericum-giant-st-johns-wort-flower

wreathtrefoil

wreathruewijnruit_bloemen_ruta_graveolenswreathblue_vervain

Other customs included decking the house (especially over the front door) with birch, fennel, St. John’s wort, orpin, and white lilies. Five plants were thought to have special magical properties on this night: rue, roses, St. John’s wort, vervain, and trefoil. Indeed, Midsummer’s Eve in Spain is called the “Night of the Verbena (Vervain)”. St. John’s wort was especially honored by young maidens who picked it in the hopes of divining a future lover.

And the glow-worm came
With its silvery flame,
And sparkled and shone
Through the night of St. John,
And soon has the young maid her love-knot tied.

The summer solstice season increases conception rates and fertility and has been scientifically linked with increased sexual  hormone levels for both women and men associated with increased ultraviolet light. It is World Peace Day. In the southern hemisphere, the June solstice is known as the shortest day of the year.  It is when the sun has reached its furthest point from the equator and marks the first day of winter.

Midsummer_s_Night_Dream

Even Shakespeare added a marvelous literary work to mark summer’s romantic season in his play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Pulling together Britannic folklore with aspects of Greek mythology, Shakespeare fashioned a light comedic romance comprised of elements which were to become his basic comedic formula: confusion, mischief and the exasperation that ensues between pairs of couples, consummating in multiplicities of marriages.

The forest becomes the magical portal wherein a dream replaces reality with illusion and the play ends with this reassurance by Puck at the very end of Act V:

“If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended: That you have but slumbered here, While these visions did appear; And this weak and idle theme, No more yielding but a dream…” Act V. i. 418-23

Midsummer-Nights-Dream James-Cagney-and-Anita-Louise-in-A--1935

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory