One of my favourite places in Ireland is the incredible hill fort of Dun Aengus on the Aran Island off Galway Bay. I have clambered up to the fort three times, once in August 2022 and twice in August 2023.
On the last trip, I lay on my front and wiggled to the edge so I could look down the cliff face. Having mused on this dizzying perspective for a while, I then talked with a geologist and an archaeologist about possibility. Later that same day, I was on a ship that slowly purred past the cliffs on Inishmore en route to Killybegs.
As we purred, I looked at all the piles of limestone rock that occasionally appeared at the base of the cliffs, and I looked again at the half-circular fort, its walls halting by the cliff-edge.
I am still unsure of the fort’s purpose, but I am now quite convinced that Dun Aengus was once a circle. A circular fort, like Grianán of Aileach in Donegal or Staigue Fort in Kerry. Only a little under half of it has tumbled into the Atlantic Ocean, a wee slide here, a little collapse there.
The only reason people say it wasn’t circular is because half the circle is missing. That’s not a good enough reason when you have a giant mass of frothy saltwater clobbering the walls between this big-but-tiny fort day after day for 2,500 years or however long it’s been since these walls were cobbled together. I bet a frogman with an underwater metal detector would find quite a lot of bits and bobs amid the rubble at the foot of Dun Aengus.
Some of it fell into the sea quite recently. I think of the family who were on London Bridge off South Australia when the coastal arch unexpectedly collapsed and became a coast stack, requiring a helicopter rescue operation.
The chunk that has fallen into the sea includes part of a raised platform which must have been a sort of centre stage back in the day.
The views are, of course, first rate. So many blocks of limestone, irregular rectangles and wobbly squares, one on top of the other. What critturs reside within those manifold cubbyholes by night?
It sometimes feels like these places were built by another species entirely. Certainly, they had a strength of muscle that would leave modern humanity in the ha’penny place. Who lived here? What were their beliefs? Another riddle that I hope to resolve in the next world.
I thought it was 2500 years old but someone else suggests its older. Our guide tells us he thinks it was once connected by a limestone bridge to the Burren mainland but my pal Damien tells me this is baloney.
In the legends of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the fort is said to have been built by Aengus mac Umor whose son Maistiu was the embroiderer to Aengus, harper to the gods. Alas, Maistiu fell foul of the evil fairy Gris who ‘looked on the bright lady [and] perverted her mind month by month’, depriving her ‘of modesty and of might’ until she died. In vengeance, Maistiu’s husband, Dáire Derg, hurled his ‘unerring battle-spear’ at Gris: the fairy was instantly killed and turned into a river, the Griese.