Derry may yet take Donegal’s crown as real Aileach location

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Derry may be poised to steal Donegal’s crowning glory amid fresh doubts over the real location of the ancient Irish mecca of Aileach.

A team of archeologists are to return to Elagh Castle in the hinterland of Galliagh next year as the debate reignites over whether Grianan Fort is the actual site of the monument referred to in the Annals of Ireland and other ancient sources.

A number of modern scholars have questioned assertions by the author of the Ordnance Survey back in 1830, who opted for Grianan over Elagh as the most likely candidate.

Elagh Castle is shown on various maps dating from around the Plantation of Ulster, but a dig carried out there last summer has revealed that the castle grounds were occupied from at least from the 6th or 7th Century AD, with enamelling by-products from this time now uncovered there as well as evidence of a defensive structure.

Previously it had been known that Elagh Castle had been occupied from the 11th Century.

Elagh’s ruins are located on an elevated site off the Buncrana Road in Galliagh’s hinterland.

Cormac McSparron, from Queen’s University Centre for Archeological Fieldwork, in a presentation on their findings delivered at the Playhouse in Derry, Mr McSparron told those gathered that the castle was in the late middle ages the chief residence of the O’Doherty clan.

“If you ask most people nowadays what they know of Aileach, and certainly since the 19th Century most people associated Aileach with Grianan, this most fantastic, very well preserved, slightly restored fort.

“This is really since the time of the first ‘Ordnance Survey of County Londonderry’ in the 1830s by Colby, an army officer.

“Since then there has been much debate. One of the reasons we had excavations was to try and shed some light upon that.”

Mr McSparrow explained that the O’Dohertys took the castle- previously owned by the powerful O’Neills- in the early 1400s and most of what remains was probably built by the O’Neills in the 1300s. The O’Doherty’s held the castle until Sir Cahir’s rebellion when they surrendered it.

The archeological dig findings during last year’s dig included large masonry stones; an ancient deep rock cut gully; clay pipes; part of a large dry stone structure with an earthen bank; stake holes and pits with charcoal deposits which have been taken back to Queens for analysis along with some thin glass rods- the by product of enamelling typical of that carried out in the 7th Century AD.