A Guide to Dunluce Castle
County Antrim’s Dunluce Castle is one of the icons of Northern Ireland. The roofless castle ruins sit on the very edge of a basalt outcrop, and are the very picture of a Tolkienesque castle.
The ruins of Dunluce Castle, Dunluce meaning “fort of the fort”, date from the early 16th century, although there was probably a defensive position sited their centuries before.
The Location of Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle is to be found about 3 miles east of Portrush, and a couple of miles west of Bushmills; and a few miles further up the coast is the Giant’s Causeway. On a clear day you can see across the open sea to Islay.
Dunluce Castle, County Antrim
The Early History of Dunluce Castle
Fortifications are thought to have been present on the site of Dunluce Castle from c 500AD, but the first written records come form the 13th century when the 2nd Earl of Ulster, Richard Og de Burgh, constructed the first castle.
Dunluce Castle comes to prominence though in 1513, when the castle is said to be in the hands of the McQuillan family. The McQuillans had arrived in Ireland from Scotland in the 13th century as mercenaries, but grown in power, and had ended up as Lords of the Route. Two drum towers on the eastern side of Dunluce Castle date from this period.
In 1554 the MacDonnells arrived from Islay, and sought to take power from the McQuillans. In 1565 the Battle of Orla saw Sorley Boy MacDonnell lead the Mac Donnells to victory, and Dunluce Castle became a centre of power for the MacDonnells.
Several years later, Sorley Boy MacDonnell would make Antrim, and Dunluce Castle his permanent home. It was not a peaceful time though, and the English, under Sir John Perrot, was subjugating Ulster to English control. Dunluce Castle was forced to surrender to the English after a siege.
The MacDonnells would subsequently lay siege themselves to Dunluce Castle, eventually taking it when their men climbed up the cliffs to take it by surprise. In 1585 though, Sorley Boy MacDonnell once again surrendered the castle to the English, but by this time he was wise enough to pledge allegiance to Queen Elizabeth I, and so Dunluce Castle was returned to the MacDonnells, and grants were made for large holdings in Antrim.
Royal favour would see Sorley Boy MacDonnell’s son, Randall, be made First Ealr of Antrim by King James I, and Randall and his wife would be welcome guests at the Royal Court in London.
In 1608 a new town of Dunluce was built next to the castle. This work was commissioned by Randall MacDonnell, and the town that grew was a metropolitan affair, mixing many different nationalities, including many people brought in from England and Scotland. The construction of Dunluce predates the Plantation of Ulster.
During the period of MacDonnell control, Dunluce Castle was greatly updated, with many Scottish castle features incorporated into the stone work.
Dunluce Castle on the edge
The Legend of Mermaid's Cave
Twenty-five metres below Dunluce Castle is the spectacular Mermaid’s Cave, a cave which has a legend associated with it.
In the time of the McQuillans, Lord McQuillan tried to force his daughter, Maeve Roe, to take Rory Og as her husband. Maeve Roe though refused, as she was in love with Reginald O’Cahan. For the act of disobedience, Maeve Roe was imprisoned in the north-east tower, a tower now known as the Turret of Mava.
On a stormy night, Reginald O’Cahan came to rescue his true love, and managed to get her out of the tower. When the pair attempted to depart by rowing boat from Mermaid’s Cave, the boat was smashed against the cliff face, killing the lovers.
The body of Maeve Roe was never recovered, and it was subsequently said that the ghost or banshee of Maeve Roe haunted Dunluce Castle, and every night her spirit would clean her former prison room.
Dunluce Castle on the brink
Castles of Northern Ireland
The Ruination of Dunluce Castle
Occupation of Dunluce Castle was short-lived, as a decision was made in 1639 by the 2nd Earl of Antrim, the grandson of Sorley Boy McDonnell, and his wife to leave the castle.
The decision is said to have come about because as with dinner about to be served, the kitchen and kitchen staff fell into the sea. Legend has it that seven cooks were killed, with the only survivor being a kitchen boy, who was sitting in a corner that remained attached to the house. Paintings of Dunluce Castle though suggest that the kitchen remained intact through until the 18th and 19th centuries.
The decision to leave Dunluce Castle was the start of the end for the castle. It was besieged in 1642 by a Scottish force, but the castle withstood the attack. The town of Dunluce though was subsequently razed to the ground and was never rebuilt. A lack of a port though, probably meant that the town would have died over time anyway.
The final death knell for Dunluce Castle came in 1690 when the MacDonnells side with James II at the Battle of Boyne, a decision which would see the family impoverished, with no more money to be spent on the castle.
The McDonnell family moved their seat to Glenarm, and in the middle of the 18th century Glenarm Castle was built as a new seat for the Earls of Antrim; and Dunluce Castle was left to fall into ruin.
Long Range View of Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle Today
Today, Dunluce Castle is open to the public virtually all year around. Details of the opening times, and admission prices are to be found on the Discover Northern Ireland website. Dunluce Castle is managed by the Northern Irish Environment Agency under a deed of guardianship, although ownership of the castle remains with the MacDonnell family.
Those that visit Dunluce Castle can see something spectacular and fantastical, and this is perhaps why Dunluce Castle is said to be the inspiration for CS Lewis’ Cair Paravel, the home of the kings and queens of Narnia. Of course, Dunluce Castle is also Pyke Castle, the seat of the House of Greyjoy, in the Game of Thrones.