THE STONE fort of Dún Aongusa is one of the more spectacular surviving remnants of ancient Irish civilisation. It stands at the edge of Atlantic facing cliffs on the largest of the Aran Islands, Inis Mór, and on a clear day, much of the west coast of Ireland is visible from the site.
Yet outside of highly academic texts inaccessible to the general reader, there are virtually no publications which trace the history of this extraordinary monument, why it was built, who built it, who lived in it, and how they lived and died.
Dún Aonghusa - The Guide Book, by Claire Cotter, and published by The Discovery Programme Ireland, goes a long way towards filling this gap.
The preface tells us: “The book provides lots of information on the life and times of the people who built the first fort on the hilltop around 1000 BC and those who rebuilt it on an even more impressive scale over 1500 years later. The nineteenth century antiquarians who agitated – successfully – for the conservation of the fort also deserve a mention.”
The information is based on archaeological excavations directed by the author that took place in the fort between 1992 and 1995. The results of these excavations were published in two volumes in 2013 but the main findings are published here in a more accessible form. It begins with a timeline which takes us from 4000BC to 2000AD. Having moved through the Neolithic Age, during which Poulnabrone Tomb in the Burren, the Ceidi Fields in Mayo, and Newgrange, were constructed we pass on to the Bronze Age during which Dún Aonghusa was built, some time between 1100 and 1000BC, and at the end of which c700BC, the fort was occupied.
The author then brings us through various archaeological features of the fort. Side by side with this somewhat technical data, there are scattered a number of delightful anecdotes such as the story ascribed to saints Éanna and Colmcillle which would suggest that, while the almost treeless aspect of the Aran Islands may have dated from the late 18th century, the lack of fuel was a concern long before then.
When Éanna refused to give him a portion of Aran, Colmcille recited a litany of benefits that the islanders would miss out on including “sufficient turf for making a fire” a prophecy that was to prove true as it was noted in 1532 that the islanders had “neither turf nor firewood and must make fires with sun-dried cow dung”.
One of the more refreshing aspects of the book is the apparently effortless way in which Cotter leads the reader through scientific data in relation to the archaeology of the Dún and on to a real sense of its human history. It is indeed remarkable how, using this scientific data, she describes in detail the diet not just of the fort’s inhabitants but also that of the different strata within that society. We also read of the lives of the children, more especially the conditions of fosterage and how they too differed according to the social status of the child.
The book is designed so the reader gets a real sense of what life was like, not just for the inhabitants of the fort itself, but also for the islanders’ community as a whole, and this is done in such a way that there is plenty of room left for the imagination to wander up and down the walls of the monument (even from the comfort of the fireside ) and experience what it was like to be an islander back through the mists of time.
Dún Aonghasa The Guidebook is a tour de force and it is hoped the Discovery Ireland Programme team will produce many more guides of our ancient monuments. Its contribution to a sense of what we are and where we came from is invaluable.