In Medieval times, people on the Aran Islands lived in “chiefdoms” – the largest example of this is the hillfort at Dun Aonghasa ( Dun Aengus ) on Inis Mor. This spectacular fort stands on the highest point of the cliffs on Inis Mor (87m or almost 300 ft).
The word “Dun” means “fort of a king or chieftain”. The Aran Island chiefs were powerful and wealthy people who controlled the western sea passages – supposedly keeping the seas free from pirates on behalf of the merchants in Galway in exchange for protection money. Apparently these protectors were not against a bit of pirating themselves, but that’s another story!
Dun Aengus fort encloses a total area of 5.7 hectares (14 acres). The site is defended by 3 principal walls and a substantial chevaux de frise which lies outside the middle wall. “Chevaux de frise” is the name given to a band of closely spaced stone uprights or wooden stakes, effective against attack in horseback and often found on stony landscapes where excavating a ditch would have been difficult.
Why build the fort in that location?
The site had good defensive and offensive advantages. It overlooked most of the surrounding terrain thus reducing the risk of surprise raids. The cliff-edge location eliminated the possibility of direct raids from the sea.
The elevated site meant that the fort was a prominent feature in the landscape. It was an awesome and highly visible symbol of power which must have impressed and intimidated outsiders.
How Old is Dun Aengus?
Dun Aengus is a multi-period site i.e. the appearance of the fort today results from a number of different building phases in the past. Analysis suggests 3 main phases:
* Phase 1: Late Bronze Age: (before 500 years BC)
* Phase 2: Iron Age (500 BC – 500 AD)
* Phase 3: Early Medieval
Who Lived at Dun Aengus?
The size of the fort population appears to have been relatively small and present evidence suggests that it was limited to dominant members of society. The evidence for metal-working and the presence of exotic goods such as amber beads at Dun Aengus suggests that those who live here were of high status.
It is easy to imagine Dun Aengus as the ritual centre of the prehistoric Aran Islanders. It remains a matter of speculation whether the rock platform on the cliff-edge played a part in prehistoric ceremonies at the site, but there is evidence to suggest that a boundary line between land and sea may have some special symbolic significance.