This cache has been planted near the Dun Eochla fort, a small but excellently preserved stone fort which comprises an inner citadel and outer defensive wall of truly remarkable strength. While it is not as spectacular as nearby Dun Aonghasa, it is located on the highest point of the island and commands a spectacular view of the nearby islands Inis Mean and Inis Oirr, the scenic regions, Connemara and the Burren- including the Cliffs of Moher, and on a clear day, Croagh Patrick in Mayo and Mount Brandon in Kerry.
Stone forts are a common element of the archaeological remains in the west of Ireland. Most are equivalent to the earthen ringforts found throughout the country and were probably built as homesteads during the period 500 - 800AD - these stone ringforts are called cashels. However a number of stone forts stand out from the remainder either because of their large size or their prominent locations or because they have complex or massive defensive features. Around twenty-five of these forts are known - Dún Aonghasa on Inis Mór in the Aran Islands, Grianán Aileach in Co. Donegal and Staigue in Co. Kerry are the best known examples.
The area enclosed at these forts varies from 14 acres at Dún Aonghasa to under half an acre at many of the smaller forts. Some forts may have as many as three enclosing walls; the inner wall is usually the most massive and examples up to 8.50m in thickness and over 4m in height are known.
Apart from their strong defences these forts share common architectural features, such as terracing of the walls, stone steps, and passages or chambers within the enclosing walls. Four forts have the unusual feature of a chevaux-de-frise - a band of closely set upright pillars of stone which formed an extra line of defence and which must have been a formidable obstacle for any potentiall attackers. At present we know little about the people who built these forts and the social or environmental conditions which prompted the construction of such large scale defensive monuments. Architecturally some of the Irish sites are broadly comparable to Iron Age (500BC - 500AD) stone forts along the Atlantic seaboard of Western Europe. The presence of a chevaux-de-frise for example suggests links with stone forts in Northern Spain, Portugal, Scotland and Wales where this feature also occurs. Whether these links represent the spread of ideas, or the movement of people along the Atlantic seaway is a matter of opinion at present but some scholars would look to this route as the possible artery along which Celtic influences first reached Ireland.
A detailed survey of the Irish forts over the last four years suggests that many are multiperiod sites i.e. what we see today at forts such as Dún Aonghasa and Dún Chonchúir on the Aran Islands and Grianán Aileach in Co. Donegal is a result of remodelling and rebuilding over a long period of time. The stone fort at Grianán Aileach stands within a hillfort which is of prehistoric date. About 80 hillforts or hilltop enclosures have been recorded in Ireland and their construction may reflect a period of unrest marked by increasing delineation of tribal boundaries. Archaeological excavations at hillforts such as Rathgall Co. Wicklow, Haughey's Fort Co. Armagh and Dún Aonghasa on Inis Mór indicate that hillforts were probably occupied by a small elite group of people but that they had very broad social and ritual functions relating to the wider community.
Some of the Late Bronze Age hillforts (built circa 1000BC) were abandoned at an early stage but a small number (e.g. Dún Aonghasa) were substantially remodelled during the following Iron Age - it is also possible that some hillforts were built during the Iron Age but archaeologists do not have enough information at present to be certain of this. Neither can they be sure as to what function the surviving hillforts had during this period - it is possible for example that they retained some ceremonial or administrative functions. A number of sites were probably reinvested as royal centres in the Early Historic period. Grianán Aileach in Co. Donegal is a good example of this - the central stone fort was probably built in the later part of the first millenium AD and was the royal seat of the Cenél Conaill (Northern Uí Néill).
It seems likely that many of the smaller forts included in the study were also royal seats built in the period 600 - 800AD - today these represent the best examples of non-ecclesiastical monumental architecture which survives in Ireland from the pre-Norman period.
The Forts on the Aran Islands:
The Aran Islands are strategically located across the mouth of Galway Bay and geologically they are outliers of the main Burren limestone plateau. There are seven large stone forts on the islands and most of the fieldwork associated with the Western Stone Fort Project has been concentrated on this unique group of spectacular forts. All seven forts were restored towards the end of the nineteenth century - photographs taken prior to the restoration indicate that the outer faces of the main enclosing walls were well preserved and survived to their present heights. The inner faces however were very dilapidated and in 1839 the interior of Dún Aonghasa was described as "a weird chaos of heaps and ruins".
All seven forts were probably in use during the Early Medieval period (600 - 1000AD). Dún Eoghanachta, Dún Fearbhaí and possibly Dún Eochla were built at this time but Dún Aonghasa, Dúcathair and Dún Chonchúir were simply refurbished - the origins of these three forts goes back into prehistory.
The Early Medieval period was marked by political upheaval with many of the smaller kin-groups being pushed into the lower social orders by the rise of larger more powerful dynasties. The concentration of seven large forts on a relatively small land mass during the Early Medieval period may be largely due to the strategic location of the Aran Islands - historically they lay along the frontier between Connaught and Munster and were thus open to attack from both quarters. In addition the builders of the forts may have derived their wealth and power from sovereignity over the seaways. Apart from being an important source of food, the sea was the highway along which goods were transported - in the Early Medieval period these would have included commodities such as salt, wool, fish, meat, grain and iron ore.
This bivallate (double walled) fort stands near the highest point of Inis Mór. A concentration of other settlement sites (cashel, stone enclosures and house sites) occurs in the immediate vicinity. Without excavation it is not possible to say for certain when Dún Eochla was built. The remains visible today suggest that it belongs to the cashel class and this would place its construction sometime in the period 550 - 800AD. It is possible however that the present fort replaced an earlier monument but again only excavation could ascertain this. No trace of any houses are evident today in the interior.
Near the fort, at 53 07.536' 009 42.109' you can find a well-preserved World War II aerial marking. Spelling "EIRE" in 35 foot letters, it is #50 of a series placed throughout the country during World War II, to alert passing flyers they were crossing neutral airspace.
The Aran Islands, not just Inis Mor, are worth an extended visit. The vast amounts of historical sites and geographical features (cliffs, sea stacks, puffing holes, limestone pavements) could take up to 1 week to fully discover and explore.
When travelling to Aran, I would suggest booking with Aran Ferries who operate the Queen of Aran II boat. The company is the only one owned by the islanders themselves.
Also, if looking for accommodation, I would recommend Mainistir House Hostel, where we stayed during our visit. Good value for money accommodation, a central location and proprietor Joel's world-renowned nightly "Vaguely Vegetarian" all-you-can-eat buffet is great value.
The cache was placed on a visit to Aran with my girlfriend (Beki), her sister and boyfriend (chris n' lorna), her cousin (QT K8) and my brother (The Rookie).