19 July 2019

Visiting Dún Aonghasa,
the clifftop hill fort at
the edge of the Atlantic

Dún Aonghasa is the most important archaeological site on the Aran Islands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Inishmore is the largest of the Aran Islands in Galway Bay, and is called Árainn by the islanders themselves. In the past it has also been known as Arran, but the ferry companies and tourist guides all call it Inishmore, which helps to distinguish it from the other Aran Islands – Inishmaan and Inisheer – and from Arranmore off the coast of Donegal and the Isle of Arran in Scotland.

People have been living on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, for perhaps 5,000 years, and Inishmore has one of the highest concentrations of National Monuments in Ireland.

By the year 1100 BC, people on the island had built Dún Aonghasa (Dun Aengus), the best-known of the prehistoric hill forts on the Aran Islands, at the edge of a 100 metre high (330 ft) cliff on the south side of the island. It is one of the best examples of its kind in Europe, and is the most important archaeological site on the island.

This is also one of Ireland’s most visited sites, attracting archaeologists, scholars and tourists from all over the world.

Dún Aonghasa is at the edge of a 100 metre high (330 ft) cliff on the south side of Inishmore, overlooking the Atlantic (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Dún Aonghasa is a Bronze Age hill fort overlooking the Atlantic, with daunting, dramatic views that stretch the length of the Island. The site covers 5.7 hectare (14 acre), and the fort consists of three terraced walls surrounding an inner enclosure containing a platform on the edge of the 100 metre cliff top.

Archaeological excavations have found evidence of people living on the hilltop for over 2,500 years from ca 1500 BC to 1000 AD. It was built at a strategic location, at the narrowest point on the island, at the highest point on the cliffs, and close to a sheltered harbour, in a position to dominate the island and the surrounding sea.

The first walls and dwelling houses were built here ca 1100 BC. Building was a major undertaking for the island’s inhabitants at the time. Archaeologists estimate the building project would have involved a team of 30 builders working seasonally and taking 12 years to complete their work.

The whole structure is surrounded by a network of defensive stones known as a chevaux de fries, dating from ca 700 BC.

The most dynamic period in the history of this hillfort was around 800 BC. At that time, Dún Aonghasa was probably the political, economic and ritual centre for a group of people with a common ancestry. Only the elite members of this group would have lived in the fort. Some scholars suggest the platform overlooking the Atlantic had a ritual function.

The importance of the site waned after 700 BC and, over the following 1,000 years, it seems to have been occupied only intermittently. Although a major rebuilding programme was undertaken in the early mediaeval period (500-1000 AD), the fort was abandoned soon after.

Inside, the hillfort is divided into an outer, middle and inner enclosure by three curvilinear walls that end at the cliff. An additional stretch of wall runs along the west side. When the fort was occupied, there may have been a ‘safety wall’ along the cliff-edge.

Outside the middle closure is a broad band of chevaux de fries or closely-set stone pillars that are difficult to negotiate, even today.

Today’s entry point is through a breach in the outer wall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The original approach to the fort was from the north and the main entrances through the outer and middle walls face in this direction. Today, the entry point is through a breach in the outer wall, but the original doorway is some distance away to the right.

The original doorway to the middle enclosure, about 50 metres to the right of the present entrance, is now blocked up because of the poor condition of the roof lintels. The entrance would have been closed off by a wooden gate and the sudden drop inside the threshold was probably designed to trip any intruders. The bodies of two young men were buried in the paved entrance around 1000 AD. They may have had Viking connections, but there is no evidence that they died violently.

The inner enclosing wall is 5 metres wide. It was built up in layers so that the foundations could be stepped over rising ground. Originally, it was about 6 metres high and about 6,500 tonnes of stone were used to build it. The terrace inside gave access to the top of the wall and a small chamber in the west side of the wall may have been used to store precious or perishable goods.

The stone foundations of seven houses were found in the inner enclosure. The floors were paved and some of the houses had a stone hearth. The outline of a circular house, about 5 metres in diameter, is still visible near the west wall. Its foundations are partly covered by the enclosing wall, indicating the house predates the final alterations to the defences.

A stone trough outside the door may have been used for storing water, keeping shellfish fresh, or for boiling meat on a hot stone. Meat, cereals, fish and shellfish were part of the diet of the late bronze Age occupants. Almost 8 tonnes of limpet shells were found during the excavations.

Most of the tools in everyday use – hammers, axes, whetstones, and quern stones – were made of stone. Clothing was made from wool or leather and fastened with bone pins.

The rock platform at the edge may have had a ritual or ceremonial function (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The rock platform at the edge may have had a ritual or ceremonial function. A hoard of four bronze rings deliberately buried beside it was probably an offering to a deity.

At the opposite end of the inner enclosure, a large hearth seems to have been associated with communal feasting and with the casting of bronze weapons and tools.

Late Bronze Age objects, including rings, tools, beads and foodstuffs, have been found on site and are now in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin.

Dún Aonghasa became a National Monument at the end of the 19th century and was extensively repaired shortly afterwards. It was one of the first archaeological sites taken into state care in Ireland, and is now managed by the Office of Public Works.

But who was Aonghas? According to legend, Aonghas belonged to a high-ranking dynasty who were displaced from their lands in Co Meath in the early centuries AD. Another possible candidate is Aonghus Mac Natfraich, King of Cashel in the fifth century AD, who had dynastic links with Aran.

The Dún Aonghasa Visitor Centre is on the edge of Kilmurvey Craft Village, at the foot of Dún Aonghasa. From there, it is a 1 km walk to the site, along a rough gravel path.

When we climbed back down along the rough path, we stopped in Kilmurvey for coffee in the summer sunshine before returning to Kilronan, the island’s main village and port, where we had lunch as we waited for the ferry to take us back to Doolin.

Dún Aonghasa is at the top of 1 km walk along a rough gravel path (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

How Butlers, bishops
and a Guinness bought
and sold the Aran Islands

A view across Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands … the island landlords have included the Butler, Digby, St Lawrence and Guinness families (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The three islands of the Aran Islands – Inisheer, Inishmaan and Inishmore – all form the Barony of Aran in Co Galway.

Following the Cromwellian wars and the restoration of Charles II, the Aran Islands were granted in May 1662 to Lord Richard Butler (1639-1686), the fourth son of James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde, who was given the titles of Earl of Arran (sic), Viscount Tullough and Baron Butler of Cloughgrenan.

Richard Butler was only a 22-year-old at the time, so the islands and the title that went with them were less a recognition of talent and potential and more the gift of a doting father, for the Duke of Ormonde was the most powerful political figure in Restoration Ireland and the Lord Lieutenant.

Richard made his own political mark, however, and perhaps the Aran Island gave him an added taste for the sea too. As a reward for his bravery in sea battles against the Dutch, he was given an additional title in the English peerage in 1673.

When William Howard (1614-1680), Viscount Stafford, was tried for high treason in the bogus Popish Plot in 1680, Arran was one of 31 peers who voted Stafford not guilty. As the most junior English peer, Arran was the first to cast his vote; his vote of ‘not guilty’ took some courage. However, 55 peers voted to find Stafford guilty.

Arran was Lord Deputy of Ireland from 1682 to 1684, while his father, the Duke of Ormonde, was in London. During this period, Arran showed courage and initiative in leading the attempt to put out a major fire at the State Apartments in Dublin Castle in 1684. He gave his name to Arran Quay, beside Ormonde Quay, on the north quays in Dublin, and to Arran Street nearby.

Arran’s first wife, Lady Mary Stuart (1651-1668), was a distant cousin of the king and a daughter of James Stuart, 1st Duke of Richmond. They had no children, and his second wife was Dorothy Ferrers, daughter of John Ferrers of Tamworth Castle.

John Ferrers was so proud of his daughter’s marriage, that Dorothy and her husband are singled out for mention on his monument in the west porch of Saint Editha’s Church in Tamworth.

The monument to Sir John Ferrers in Tamworth boasts of his links with the Butlers of Kilkenny and the Aran Islands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Richard Butler and Dorothy Ferrers were the parents of three sons in infancy, and one daughter, Lady Charlotte Butler (1679-1725), who married Charles Cornwallis (1675-1722), 4th Baron Cornwallis. Charlotte was the mother of Francis Cornwallis (1713-1783), successively Bishop of Lichfield (1750-1768) and Archbishop of Canterbury (1768-1783), and the grandmother of both General Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805), Lord Lieutenant of Ireland during the 1798 Rising and the Act of Union, and James Cornwallis (1743-1824) who, like his uncle, was also Bishop of Lichfield (1781-1824).

Richard died of pleurisy in London in 1686, and Dorothy Ferrers died in 1716. They had no surviving male heirs to inherit either the Aran Islands or the title of Earl of Arran. The titles might have died out, but they were revived on March 1693 by William III for Richard’s 22-year-old nephew, Charles Butler (1671-1758), who once again was made Earl of Arran, Viscount Tullough and Baron Butler of Cloughgrenan.

Charles was a younger brother of James Butler (1665-1745), 2nd Duke of Ormonde, who became a Jacobite in 1715, went into exile, and lost his titles. Charles bought out his brother’s estates, including Kilkenny Castle, and it has since been argued that he legitimately succeeded as 3rd Duke of Ormonde in 1745, although he never used the title.

As Earl of Arran, he was Chancellor of the University of Oxford. He was suspected of sharing his brother’s Jacobite sympathies, and in 1722 the Jacobite ‘Old Pretender,’ James III, gave him the title of Duke of Arran.

But Charles Butler was never known as Duke of Arran or Duke of Ormonde. He had no sons and heirs, and when he died in his lodgings in Whitehall, London, in December 1758, the Arran titles died with him, as did the title of Duke of Ormonde and the Butler connections with the Aran Islands.

At an early stage, Charles Butler may have disposed of his family interests in the Aran Islands. Simon Digby, Bishop of Elphin (1691-1720) and a former Bishop of Limerick (1679-1691), bought the Aran Islands in the early 18th century for £8,200 from the representatives of John and Richard Fitzpatrick and Sir Stephen Fox.

The Digby family of Landenstown, near Sallins, Co Kildare, continued to own the islands in the 18th century, and they and their descendants in the St Lawrence and Guinness families continued to hold vast tracts of island land for 200 years.

It appears the Landenstown Estate needed to raise cash in 1787, and renting the three Aran islands was part of this fundraising effort. The descendants of the Digby family left the management of the islands in the hands of their agents, George Thompson and his son Thomas.

John William Digby of Landenstown, landlord of the islands of Arran, married Frances Georgina Townsend in 1840. By the time of Griffith’s Valuation, the Aran Islands were the property of Peter Barfoot, his wife Henrietta Anne (Digby), and her sister Elizabeth Digby. Henrietta and Elizabeth were sisters of John William Digby, and they each owned 5,596 acres in Co Galway.

Thomas St Lawrence (1803-1874), 3rd Earl of Howth, married Henrietta Elizabeth Digby Barfoot in 1851. She was his second wife and the daughter of Peter Barfoot and Henrietta Digby.

Captain Thomas Kenelm Digby St Lawrence (1855-1891), who owned the Aran Islands by 1886, never married. One of his sisters, Lady Henrietta Eliza St Lawrence (1851-1935), married in 1881 Captain Benjamin Lee Guinness (1842-1900), a brother of Lord Ardilaun.

The St Lawrence and Guinness families accepted an offer from the Congested Districts Board to buy the three Aran Islands from the Digby estate. The islands were sold for £14,000 in 1914, and the lands on the island were redistributed among local resident families.

Meanwhile, the Irish peerage title of Earl of Arran was revived once again in 1762 for Sir Arthur Gore (1703-1773), who was made Earl of Arran, of the Arran Islands in Co Galway. He had been MP for Donegal in the Irish House of Commons and since 1758 held the titles Viscount Sudley, of Castle Gore, Co Mayo, and Baron Saunders, of Deeps in Co Wexford.

Arthur Gore (1910-1983), 8th Earl of Arran, was a sponsor of the private bill that decriminalised homosexuality in Britain in 1967. The titles are now held by his son, Arthur Gore, 9th Earl of Arran, a former newspaper manager in Fleet Street and at one time a director of Waterstone’s.

Members of this branch of the Gore family include the distinguished Anglican theologian, Charles Gore (1853-1932), editor of Lux Mundi, founder of the Community of Resurrection, and successively Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of Birmingham, and Bishop of Oxford. He was a son of Charles Alexander Gore (1813-1897), who was born in Dublin Castle and brought up in the then Viceregal Lodge in Dublin, now Áras an Uachtaráin, and a grandson of Arthur Gore, 2nd Earl of Arran.

The Digby family’s 338 acre estate at Landenstown, near Sallins, Co Kildare, was sold in 2005 for €8.2 million. It was in need of much restoration work when it was sold again in 2017 for just €4.6 million.

As for the Ferrers estates in Tamworth, Sir John Ferrers, who was so proud that his daughter had married the Earl of Arran, left an estate valued at £2,000. Tamworth Castle and his other properties eventually passed from one daughter to another, through the Shirley, Compton and Townshend families. In 1767, when the Townshend family came to live at Tamworth Castle, they also bought the Moat House, the former Comberford family home on Lichfield Street, Tamworth.

A beach on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands … the St Lawrence and Guinness families sold the island rentals in 1914 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)