Black Fort of Aran Coast


Black Fort of Aran

Neil Oliver discovers how the island of Aran was once a bigger island by visiting the prehistoric Black Fort built thousands of years ago.


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This is Inis Mor, or traditionally, just Aran,

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the biggest of the three Aran Islands.

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The people only live on the north-east side of the island,

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their homes stretching like a long street from end to end.

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To the south-west lies an expanse of bare rock,

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punctuated here and there by a resilient blade of grass.

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And yet people DID once live here, on the other side of the island.

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Perched on top of dramatic 300ft cliffs is Dun Aonghusa,

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acknowledged to be one of the finest prehistoric monuments in Western Europe.

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But not for me the well-worn tourist trail.

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No, I'm off in search of another ancient fort on a cliff edge.

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Dun Duchathair...the Black Fort.

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This landscape of booming ocean and jagged rock,

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it all suggests power and strength and nothing says it more clearly than this massive curving wall.

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The Victorians rebuilt this thing but they were working from a known footprint,

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and they represented the known scale of the thing in their own hands.

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It looks like the work of giants but it's not, it's the work of people

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thousands of years ago and the scale of it takes your breath away.

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But why go to all this Herculean effort

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to cut off the end of this barren promontory?

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I've come here to meet a man who can explain what's going on.

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For some years, geologist Michael Williams has also been trying

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to solve the conundrum of the strange location of the Black Fort.

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Did the habitation of the interior actually reach all the way to the cliff edge?

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I think it certainly did because here we are in the central part

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of the promontory

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and a very exposed part of the promontory and yet here we have a constructed,

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human-constructed wall, you can see it quite clearly, the leading edge here.

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You can see courses of it there. Exactly.

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But the habitation is not restricted simply to the inside wall of that so-called promontory fort.

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It actually exists here, out in the exposed promontory.

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But what about these huge boulders, they're not part of the fort?

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People might find this hard to believe, but these are actually washed up

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on top of this promontory 65 feet above sea level,

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by the giant waves that affect these islands on a regular basis.

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So why would you go to all that effort to block off this end

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of the promontory when it's being pounded by these things?

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The mistake we're making is looking at this fort in the context of today,

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whereas we should be looking at it in the context of 2,500 years ago when it may have been built in the first place.

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If we make a sort of rough estimate of the rates of erosion that produce this kind of debris

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and say that it comes to about 0.4 metres a year.

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Extrapolate that for 2,500 years, let's say, and we're looking at land

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extending from here, a kilometre out into the Atlantic Ocean.

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So what's now known as Inis Mor, The Big Island,

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2,500 years ago, was a heck of a lot bigger.

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So we're not looking at a promontory fort at all.

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We're talking about the remnants of a massive circular fort.

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So we should be enclosed now by the continuation of that massive wall.

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But what makes absolute sense is that any seas that can fling

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five tonne boulders far inland could eat a hilltop fort for breakfast.

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This destructive energy is borne out as we pass over Inis Meain and Inis Oirr,

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the other two Aran Islands.

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It's as though they've been cut in half with a blunt saw.

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MUSIC: "Theme Tune to Father Ted" by The Divine Comedy

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At the most easterly end of Inis Oirr, the rusting hulk of a cargo ship, the Plassey.

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But this ship is special, immortalised in the title sequence of the comedy series, Father Ted.

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But, no time to dawdle. We too must...

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IN IRISH ACCENT: "Go on, go on, go on."

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