Guidebook by Aran expert explores mysteries of Dún Aonghasa’s past

Author says hillfort residents had their own thriving bronze casting industry

Dún Aonghasa – one of Aran’s most spectacular monuments. Photograph: Discovery programme

Dún Aonghasa – one of Aran’s most spectacular monuments. Photograph: Discovery programme


When two Trinity College scientists landed on the Aran islands in 1891, they visited graveyards in search of old skulls, and all resident males were “measured and graded” for their “potential Firbolgery”.

“To what race or races the Aranites belong we do not pretend to say, but it is pretty evident that they cannot be Firbolgs.” Charles Browne and Alfred Haddon concluded two years later in their Royal Irish Academy paper.

Scientific ‘headhunters’

The visit by the scientific “head hunters”, captivated by Darwin’s theories of evolution, is recalled in a new guide to one of Aran’s most spectacular monuments, Dún Aonghasa.

Published by the State’s Discovery programme, the illustrated guide has been compiled by Claire Cotter who excavated the site in the 1990s and has published two of five volumes on the archaeology of the Aran Islands and the stone forts of the western seaboard.

Sea levels were lower when Dún Aonghasa was built and occupied during the Bronze Age, the guide notes, and its residents may have looked out onto a wide stretch of rocky foreshore “rimmed by extensive sand dunes and possibly backing onto a lagoon and some marshland”.

Cotter records that the hillfort residents had their own thriving bronze casting industry, producing one of the largest collections of late Bronze Age clay moulds recorded in Ireland or Britain. Swords, spearheads, knives, bracelets, pins and axes were cast there.

The author also addresses the abiding question – did half of Dún Aonghasa fall into the sea?


She says most geologists agree that it is impossible to offer any reliable estimate on the extent of land loss on the islands in the past, but it would have made “no sense” to build a circular enclosure against a cliff edge.

Between the end of the Bronze Age, about 700 BC, and the fort’s rebuilding in about AD 800, the “likelihood” is that a “good chunk” of the outer enclosure and some of the middle enclosure may have disappeared, while the original inner enclosure may have still been “intact”, she says.

Dún Aonghasa: The Guidebook by Claire Cotter is illustrated by Ian McCarthy. Its publication was marked by Heritage Council chairman Conor Newman as part of the 7th International Insular Art Conference in NUI Galway at the weekend.