Dozens of disappointed Derry visitors have found themselves repeatedly unable to gain access to Inishowen’s iconic Grianán of Aileach ring fort.
The gate on the internationally renowned monument has been locked for random and prolonged periods, especially over Christmas and New Year.
The lockout seems to stem from a number of recent, poorly publicised interventions in the official management of the historic site and fort.
Visitor and community frustration with the situation has grown considerably in the intervening weeks. An online petition started by local historian, Bettina Linke, to “Restore open access to Grianán of Aileach” has garnered more than 1,000 signatures in under a week.
Modern gate on historic Grianán of Aileach Fort were newly designated opening hours exclude sunsets and sunrises.
Grianán sits 250 metres above sea level and boasts spectacular and panoramic views across counties Donegal, Derry, Tyrone and Antrim. It recorded a staggering 110,000 visitors annually pre-pandemic.
It was Donegal’s third most popular tourist attraction in 2019, according to Fáilte Ireland’s Annual Visitor Attractions Survey – pipped to the post by Glenveagh Castle and Sliabh Liag Cliffs.
The current disastrous situation at Grianán was accurately predicted by Donegal county councillor Paul Canning (Fianna Fáil) in February 2021.
At that time, Derry News sister paper, Inish Times, reported his comment that “tourists and locals may have no option but to view Grianán from the N13, which runs through Burt, if the Office of Public Works (OPW) [which manages heritage sites in the Republic of Ireland] gets its way”.
Cllr Canning was speaking at an Inishowen Municipal District (IMD) meeting which discussed the new Conservation Management Plan drawn up for Grianán.
The plan set out the Implementation Strategy and Action Plan for the conservation of the Fort and contained a proposal to restrict the number of visitors allowed up to Grianán.
Newly opening hours at Grianán of Aileach designated without community consultation.
According to Cllr Canning, the OPW was placing a lot of restrictions on the site, even down to what could be done in the adjoining car park.
At that time, Cllr Canning proposed a meeting with the OPW so the Inishowen councillors could “tease out how restrictive these policies were going to be”.
He added: “I do not want Grianán to end up like Newgrange, where visitors cannot see it or get near it. We need an in-depth conversation with the OPW. We all attended the meeting regarding the Fort [in 2017], the least the OPW could have done was come back with a draft document, so councillors could have had an input,” said Cllr Paul Canning.
Speaking to Derry News this week, Inishowen councillor Jack Murray (Sinn Féin) said: “OPW has outright refused to give a date for a meeting, in spite of the fact Pádraig Mac Lochlainn TD received ministerial assurance, in response to a Parliamentary Question, such a meeting would take place.
“We want to encourage visitors to Grianán. I do not know why OPW will not hire a tour guide to bring people to Grianán. Somebody there on a full time basis could welcome visitors and be a watchful pair of eyes over the site.
“OPW hires staff in sites in Donegal which attract as few as 5,000 visitors per year. Grianán of Aileach attracts upwards of 110,000 visitors per year,” said Cllr Murray.
Derry people have a well known fondness for Grianán. It has featured prominently in Derry’s recent cultural calendar. In 2013, a Dawn Chorus at the Fort opened the Mid-Summer (June 21) Music City event and in 2018 it was the destination of the inaugural Chieftain’s Walk in memory of Martin McGuinness.
However, Derry man now living in Inishowen Peter Mullan – author, historian and Fáilte Ireland certified tour guide – told Derry News it was his feeling there was “something deliberately happening here in terms of restricting the visiting times and visitor numbers to Grianán Fort.”
On December 14, 2023, Deputy Mac Lochlainn asked Minister for Public Expenditure; National Development Plan Delivery and Reform, Paschal Donohoe (Fine Gael) why Grianán was closed for three weeks previously.
The Minister answered that the Fort was only closed for two days – December 5 and 6, 2023, for health and safety reasons.
His answer is disputed by visitors who claimed the site was closed during the few short opening hours on many days from November 14 to December 7, at least.
Peter Mullan described the lack of accurate information as “strange”.
He added: “Grianán is a key site for Inishowen and Derry. It was strategically placed there thousands of years ago because the site is central to this whole area.
“It was strategic then and, for a different reason, it is strategic now. It is strategic in terms of tourism and attracting people to our area.
“It is accessible to us all. It is central to us all in Derry and in Inishowen. It is one of the central attractions for people coming to our area and for this to be messed about with while Fáilte Ireland are pouring hundreds of thousands of euro into into the likes of Dunree Fort and trying to get Malin Head up and going, with all the objections, it just doesn’t make sense. It is very, very wrong,” said Peter Mullan.
Derry News contacted Donegal County Council, Fáilte Ireland, Office of Public Works, Department of Tourism and Department of Heritage for comment. None of the bodies replied.
We asked: What was contained in the Memorandum of Understanding signed between Donegal County Council, OPW and Fáilte Ireland – regarding ‘shared ambitions to significantly enhance the visitor experience at Grianán’?
A brief mention of the Memorandum of Understanding was recorded in the minutes of the IMD plenary held on December 5, 2023. Donegal County Council’s development officer was replying to a question on Grianán of Aileach from Cllr Jack Murray.
Apparently the enhancement of the visitor experience at Grianán of Aileach will be achieved “through the successful execution of the various site management actions highlighted within the Conservation Management Plan for the Grianán of Aileach and also contained within the Inishowen Peninsula Destination Experience Development Plan (DEDP).
“The document will serve as a basis to establish a workshop meeting date with the Elected Members, Fáilte Ireland, Council Officials and the OPW.” Although minuted it would, this meeting has never taken place.
Derry News also asked: What action, if any, do you intend to take regarding the current community campaign launched in response to the erratic opening hours at the fort?
And, how much, if anything, is OPW charging commercial coach operators to access the car park at Grianán?
According to Bettina Linke, the barrier at the foot of the hill on the road leading up to the car park at Grianán of Aileach has been left open all the time, since September last.
She added: “There are also signs in the car park saying the Monument is closed due to adverse weather – even when it is open. This is causing considerable confusion. But, worse than that, a new gate has been installed [on the Fort] and it is now being locked as per new opening hours.
“They have designated different opening hours during different times in the year but, if you compare it with the sunrises and the sunsets, there is not a single sunset or a single sunrise people can watch anymore.
“This closure of the Monument is difficult for me because there is an upcoming alignment at the spring equinox – March 20, 2024 at 3:06am. Grianán is solar and lunar aligned to the spring and autumn equinoxes. Last spring equinox, we had visitors from all around the world.
“I found it very suspicious over the last few months that our local representatives, politicians have been ever so quiet. They have been silent. No one protested. There seems to be some involvement about which they don’t want to let us know. There has been nothing in the media.”