Dun Aonghasa On Inishmore Island
Dun Aonghasa Fort was our first destination of the day when we awoke on Inishmore Island, one of the islands in the chain known as the Aran Islands in County Galway, Ireland. This prehistoric fort is the most famous of those found on the Aran Islands, and it is perched at the brink of a 100-metre (328 ft) precipice buffeted by the north Atlantic Ocean. Its location is spectacular.
A beautiful June morning greeted Bob and me when we finally opened our eyes and peeked over the tumble of soft blankets in our delightfully appointed room at Kilmurvey House. A glance out the bedroom window provided a distant view of Dun Aonghasa awash in bright sunshine, a sure magnet for a historical buff like Bob.
Following a hearty breakfast, Bob and I walked to the nearby Visitor’s Center that sits at the entrance to a trail leading up over the rolling hills to Dun Aonghasa, or Dun Aengus for a more anglicized version of the Gaelic name. Sweetly-scented air pervaded the whole vicinity due in large part to abundant honeysuckle blooms. The prolific vines of this fragrant plant clambered along and over many of the hedgerows, intermixed with wild roses and fuchsia shrubs.
One benefit of dropping into the Visitor Center was viewing this depiction of an aerial view of the Fort as it might have appeared soon after being built. From this perspective, the contours of the ancient ring fort can easily be seen, and with its back pushed up against the terrifyingly steep void, it would seem that the force of the elements and constant churning of the Atlantic Ocean have cut the fort in half.
From the foot of the hill upon which Dun Aonghasa is perched, it is necessary to climb a steep pebbled path. The lower portions are well-maintained, but as we gained elevation, the conditions became significantly more difficult.
It is only a 10-15 minute climb accomplished easily in our hiking boots whereas ancient islanders would have been challenged by the irregular rocky surfaces in their modest rawhide footwear known as pampooties.
The geological makeup of Inishmore and the other two islands that comprise the Aran Islands is limestone rock. The karst limestone is a continuation of The Burren in County Clare, and like in that unique area, the terrain consists of limestone pavements that are crisscrossed by wide, deep cracks called grykes. These fissures are the result of limestone being dissolved by water, a process that divides the limestone pavements into isolated flat slabs called clints. When navigating across the pavements, Bob and I had to be extremely careful since vegetation often hid recesses in the rock that could easily result in a twisted ankle with one misstep.
As we climbed the hill towards Dun Aonghasa, the earlier sunshine had been overcome by brooding clouds that created a moody atmosphere in the shadow of the fort’s ancient walls. Bob and I could sense the lingering heaviness of difficult historical events that had once taken place there. The walls, themselves, are a testament to the arduous task carried out by Celtic Tribesmen during the early Iron Age. Using the available resources, they quarried drystone rubble on the hilltop to construct the three massive semi-circular walls of the enclosures. These terraced defensive walls are four metres (13 ft) thick, six metres (19.5 ft) high and terminate at the cliffs.
Bob and I were able to pass through the walls of the fort through doorways such as this. Because the original approach to the fort was made from the north, the primary entrances through both the outer and middle walls face in that direction. In the case of the doorway into the middle enclosure, a newer rendition had to be constructed owing to deterioration of the original doorway’s roof lintels. The original doorway is now blocked off, but access through it would have been controlled by a wooden gate that led directly to a sudden steep drop inside the threshold, a ploy to trip up unsuspecting and unwelcome trespassers.
Inside the three outer walls, the fort is divided into an inner, middle and outer enclosure that together secure an area of about six hectares (14 acres). Nearly 6,500 tons of stone were used to build the inner wall alone, so the topography of the hilltop was modified substantially from the large-scale quarrying. Once stepped or sloped and littered with stony scree, it was transformed into fairly level ground within the middle and inner enclosures. As well, the removal of bedrock within the inner enclosure resulted in an elevated rock plateau so the inner enclosure takes on a citadel-like appearance.
The defensive walls of the fort were built so as to give the most protection to the innermost bastion or inner enclosure that backs up against the cliff at the southern edge of the island. A platform located right at the precipice faces out over the Atlantic Ocean, and it is thought that rituals or ceremonial practices were performed at that spot by the ancient peoples who lived there.
It was very unnerving for both Bob and me when venturing to the edge of the rock face for a peak at the frothy ocean 100 metres below. No protection exists either in the form of railings or fences, no custodians were on sight to warn us away from the brink, so it was up to us to gauge how many inches were sufficient to separate us from death. With my fear of heights, I found it necessary to get down on my hands and knees and then lie down for a view of the encroaching ocean swells. Far below, it was possible to see huge boulders that had been tossed 25 metres (80 ft) above the sea by giant waves during violent storms, a phenomenon that occurs about once every century. It is no wonder that parts of the fort have previously fallen into the churning waters of the Atlantic. The southern cliffs are at the mercy of the elements and the constant swell of the Atlantic Ocean.
When passing back through the gate in the inner wall, a lovely view of the distant countryside was framed by the edges of the portal. Bisecting the landscape are portions of the protective walls bordering the middle enclosure. Only along the west side of the middle enclosure was an additional stretch of wall built to provide extra protection. Beyond those walls, the outer enclosure spreads far and wide in both directions with a wall around the perimeter that delineates the whole territory controlled by the fort. Livestock were contained between the outermost wall of the outer enclosure and the walls demarcating the middle enclosure so animals were removed from the peoples’ habitations but protected from wandering off.
One of the most outstanding and remarkable defensive features incorporated into Dun Aonghasa’s construction was the use of a network of defensive stones arranged in a broad band outside the middle enclosure. These were not just any stones, however. Jagged, sharp blocks of limestone were quarried on the spot and then swiveled into an upright position and set at an angle into the quarried steps in the bedrock. Known as Chevaux de Frise, this tactical innovation was named after an Iron-Age Germanic tribe who used the same anti-cavalry technique because, they, themselves, had no mounted warriors.
Dating to 700 BC, this outer defense of closely-set stone pillars surrounds the whole structure and stretches about 38 metres (125 ft) wide in places. Meant to impede or impale attackers, the menacing stone pillars were up to 1.75 metres (5.75 ft) high. There, at Dun Aonghasa, are the most spectacular Chevaux de Frise known to have survived in Europe making this ancient hilltop ring fort one of the most important and distinctive historical sites in Ireland.
Looking to the east, Bob and I could see a series of steep, dark headlands separated by deep bays. In fact, on a clear day, the location affords daunting and dramatic vistas that stretch the length of Inishmore Island, about 120 kilometres (75 mi) of battered Atlantic coastline in both the easterly and westerly directions. It is easy to see how the inhabitants benefited from their uninterrupted view because it made it easy to monitor sea traffic passing through the area.
As I busied myself photographing the endless varieties of wildflowers amongst the limestone karst, Bob took a walk further east along the cliff tops for a closer look at the ominous precipice. I was happy to linger a good distance away from the drop off.
While we busied ourselves with our individual explorations, a light drizzle swept in off the Atlantic which necessitated donning our rain ponchos. Thusly dampened, the limestone became very slippery so extra care was required to prevent loss of footing both at the edge and among the limestone pavements. It is believed that during its occupation, Dun Aonghasa probably had a safety wall built along the cliff’s edge to prevent accidental falls over the sheer drop.
Dun Aonghasa has presided over the Inishmore landscape for over 2,500 years beginning in 1100 BC when Celtic tribesmen built dwellings and a simple enclosure made by piling rubble against large upright stones. Even before that, human activity took place there starting around 1500 BC, a fact based on archeological finds carbon dated to that Bronze Age period. Items such as shards of pottery, bronze rings and remnants of clay molds used in shaping spearheads were uncovered during digs, and evidence of one circular hut was discovered by the west wall, albeit the foundation is partially covered by the wall indicating that it predated the wall’s construction.
It was around 800 BC, in the early centuries of the Iron Age, that Dun Aonghasa was thought to be the hub of economic, political and ritual activities. Of the people who assembled there, those probably having ancestors in common, only a select few would have lived at the fort. From 700 BC onwards until about 1000 AD, the site lost popularity with the Celtic clansmen, and it was occupied only occasionally. So, this hill fort, so perilously perched atop the sea cliffs, not only offers commanding views of the Island but also insight into the lives of ancient peoples who lived there for centuries. We lingered on site for a couple of hours absorbing the ambience of a time gone by.