Dun Aengus

Samuel Gamble Bayne
Aran Islands (3) | Start of Section

There is a cable to the island, and we had wired to Mrs. O'Brien's cottage for a dinner, there being no hotel. This was ready on our arrival, and, having finished it, we took the only car on the island and drove out to Dun (or Fort) Aengus, described by Dr. Petrie as "the most magnificent barbaric monument now extant in Europe." Its gigantic proportions, isolated position, and the wild scenery by which it is surrounded render the trouble of the journey to see it well worth while.

On Our Way to Dun Aengus, Aran Islands

On Our Way to Dun Aengus, Aran Islands

It is built on the very edge of sheer cliffs, two hundred and fifty to three hundred feet in height, forming the south and east sides. In form it is of horseshoe shape, although some antiquarians incline to the belief that it was originally oval, and that it acquired its present form from the falling of the precipices. It consists of three enclosures and the remains of a fourth. The wall which surrounds the innermost is eighteen feet high and twelve feet nine inches thick; it is in three sections, the inner one seven feet high, and, like the others, has the centre wall lower than the faces. This enclosure measures one hundred and fifty feet from north to south, and one hundred and forty feet from east to west. The doorway is four feet eight inches high and three feet five inches wide, very slightly inclining, and the lintel is five feet ten inches long. In the northwest side is a passage leading into the body of the wall.

The second rampart, which is not concentric, encloses a space about four hundred feet by three hundred. Outside the second wall is the usual accompaniment of a very large "entanglement," thirty feet wide, formed of sharp stones placed on end and sunk in the ground to hinder the approach of the enemy for an assault on the fort and make them an easy target for the bowmen to shoot at. So effective was this entanglement that we experienced considerable difficulty in getting through it, and when we did accomplish that feat we felt fully qualified to appreciate the intrepidity of an attacking party who would brave such an obstruction to their progress when storming the fort. Inside these stones, to the west, is a small enclosure, the wall of which is seven feet nine inches high and six feet thick. Outside of it all is a rampart, now nearly destroyed, enclosing a space of eleven acres. These walls terminate at both ends on the south cliffs. About the first century of the Christian era, three brothers, Aengus, Conchobar, and Mil, came from Scotland to Aran, and their names are still preserved in connection with buildings on the island, the ancient fort just described being called Dun Aengus; the great fort of the middle island, superior in strength and preservation to the former, bearing the name of Dun Connor, or Conchovar, and the name of Mil being associated with the low strand of Port Murvey, formerly known as Muirveagh Mil, or the Sea-plain of Mil.

The surface of the ground surrounding Dun Aengus is most remarkable. It is a level sheet of blue limestone extending for many miles in every direction. This cracked, when cooling, into rectangular forms, and in these cracks grow large ferns, the only vegetation to be seen. The mass of stone retains the sun's heat during the night, and consequently these ferns are most luxuriant.

It would perhaps prove monotonous to describe in detail all the churches, forts, beehive cells, and monastic ruins, in many cases constructed in cyclopean masonry, with which these islands are literally covered; for it must be remembered that Ireland in the early ages was the university of Europe, the chief resort of the literati, where scholars came, to learn and to teach one another all that was then known, and their numbers were so great that many buildings were required for their accommodation. The wonder of it all is why these isolated islands should have been selected as the seat of learning, when so many other more convenient sites could have been chosen. The men who decided the matter seem to have thought that islands so far removed from the mainland would offer seclusion and better protection from the various wars that had drenched Ireland in blood for so many centuries. I shall, therefore, content myself with what is above stated regarding Dun Aengus, the largest and most important structure on the islands.

Passing over the tradition of Lough Lurgan, the earliest reference to the pre-Christian history of the Aran Islands is to be found in the accounts of the battle of Muireadh, in which the Firbolgs, having been defeated by the Danann, were driven for refuge into Aran and other islands on the Irish coast, as well as into the western islands of Scotland. Christianity was introduced in the fifth century by St. Enda, Eaney, or Endeus, who obtained a grant of the islands from Aengus, the Christian king of Munster, and founded ten religious establishments. Aranmore speedily obtained a world-wide renown for learning, piety, and asceticism, and "many hundreds of holy men from other parts of Ireland and foreign countries constantly resorted to it to study the sacred scriptures and to learn and practise the rigid austerities of a hermit's life"; in consequence of which the island was distinguished by the name of "Ara-Naoimh," or Ara of the Saints.

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On an Irish jaunting Car through Donegal and Connemara

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Samuel Gamble Bayne was born in Ramelton, County Donegal, and educated at Queen's University in Belfast. At the age of twenty-five he left for America with a view to making his fortune. He invested in an oil well in Pennsylvania and later founded a bank which subsequently came to be the JP Morgan Chase bank in New York. By the time this book was written he was wealthy enough to be referred to as a billionaire. His account of the tour through the north, west and south of Ireland is a pleasant snapshot of how that part of the country was in the early part of the 20th century. He describes what is to be seen, gives some background history and, through the illustrations especially, provides wonderful glimpses of the area's social history.

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