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The History of Dunluce Castle

Dunluce Castle balances skilfully on the edge of a large rocky outcrop on the headland overlooking the lovely North Channel. You can gain access to the castle via an old bridge that connects it directly to the mainland near Portrush. Nowadays, it is completely ruined, however, it still has many partial remains of its outer wall and round corner towers.

Dunluce Castle history

Dunluce Castle is one of the most picturesque and truly breathtaking castles in all of Ireland. There is plenty of evidence to suggest settlement from the first millennium. While the present castle only dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries, there is far more to know about this stunning castle.

During its time, it was inhabited by both the feuding McQuillan and MacDonnell clans. Let’s take a look at Dunluce Castles history!

File:Dunluce Castle.jpg
Dunluce has fallen into a ruinous state. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The early history

There are a handful of mentions of this castle existing in the fourteenth century as one of the main properties of de Burgo or de Burgh in the Earldom of Ulster. It was likely built in the 1200s by either Richard de Burgh or John de Courcy. If not, then it could have been built by one of their chief followers such as the De Maundeville’s.

The McQuillan’s are said to have had connections with the De Maundeville’s and they may have been the exact same family, just under a new name. However, they are recorded as one of the key owners of Dunluce Castle until it was taken from them by the MacDonnell’s in the 1500s.

Clan vs clan

At one point in time, both of the clans were allies. Though, this quickly changed when changing allegiances created a rather explosive power struggle between them. This disagreement continued on and off until the Battle of Slieve-na-Aura in 1583. This frightful confrontation helped to redefine the power structure in Ulster which, in turn, made Dunluce the main MacDonnell castle along the north coast.

Birds flocking above dunluce castle
Birds flock above the castle. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Hugh MacFelim O’Neill, Rory MacQuillan, and Captain Thomas Chatterson all lost their lives at the battle, which is ironic considering it had been planned by them in order to remove the MacDonnell’s. It all went to plan for Sorley Boy MacDonnell who knew the glens well. He went forth and positioned his forces on firm ground that was surrounded by bogland.

When the horses and foot soldiers charged, they ended up getting stuck in the unstable ground. This made it an easy fight for the lighter equipped MacDonnell’s as they had become easy victims.

Changing hands

Sir John Perrott took the castle in the year 1584 under instructions from Queen Elizabeth. He then occupied the castle for around a year before he left. After he had left the castle, it was quickly retaken by the MacDonnell’s. Sorley Boy MacDonnell eventually moved on and went to live at Dunaneenue, Ballycastle. In doing this, he left the castle to his son Randall MacDonnell.

Randall set off on a mission to restore the castle straight away. In doing this, he built a lavish manor house within the castle. His son, also named Randall, married the widow Lady Katherine Manners. Dunluce Castle became their sole residence and evidence dating from this period shows that the castle was very much a fine residence.

Local legend

In the year 1639, it is said that the Earl and his Countess were at home when part of the castle fell into the sea. It was a very significant part of the castle that was situated directly above the entrance to the mermaid’s cave. It is said that it boasted exceptional views over the ocean.

Extensive paintings from the late 18th and early 19th centuries reveal that the end of the castle was intact then. Perhaps it was a different part, or simply a myth.

Destruction ensues

In the year 1641, the rebellion was in full swing. The castle was then besieged by an Irish army and the surrounding village was burnt to the ground.  The castle held out under the command of Captain Digsby and was relieved by the Earl. Before the village was completely destroyed, most of the Scottish settlers and merchants were able to escape to Scotland.

Oliver Plunkett, the Archbishop of Armagh, was a visitor at the castle when he described it as a ‘palace washed on all sides by the sea’. In 1690, during the Battle of the Boyne, repercussions met the MacDonnell’s who had readily supported the cause of the deposed King James II. After this, Dunluce Castle was completely abandoned and Ballymagarry House became the Earl’s sole residence. When Ballymagarry House was destroyed by fire in 1745, Glenarm Castle became the seat of the Earl of Antrim and the MacDonnell clan.

Wide shot of Dunluce Castle
An old bridge is the access to the castle. Source: Flickr.

The present day

The castle had fallen to ruin and many parts of it were scavenged for other castles. Nowadays, it is still a ruin, but there is more than enough left to understand what life would have been like that long ago. You can visit Dunluce Castle during the regular opening hours that are March to October: Daily 9.30am to 5pm and November to February: Daily 9.30am to 4pm.

You may enjoy reading about other Irish Castles such as Lismore Castle.

Dunluce Castle Timeline

  • The 1200s- The castle is built by either Richard de Burgh or John de Courcy
  • The 1500s- The castle is taken by the MacDonnell’s
  • 1584- Sir John Perrott takes the castle
  • 1639- The Earl and his Countess are at home when part of the castle falls into the sea
  • 1641- The castle is besieged by an Irish army and the surrounding village is burnt to the ground
  • 1690- The castle is left to ruin

Dunluce Castle facts

  • An annual fair was once held in Dunluce but was closed down due to excessive bawdiness and debauchery
  • Over a 100-year period, the castle was besieged on numerous occasions by the English
  • The castle was once owned by Winston Churchill when it passed into the ownership of the Churchill family as a result of inter-marriage
  • The castles earlier name was Dunliphis
  • The castle appeared on the artwork of Led Zeppelin’s 1973 LP Houses of The Holy.

Featured in TV and film

  • Roaming Through Northern Ireland (1949)
  • The Buccaneers (1995)
  • The Medallion (2003)
  • A Shine of Rainbows (2009)
  • Game of Thrones (2011)

Books on Dunluce Castle

  • Dunluce Castle: History and Archaeology by Colin Breen (2012)

Who owns Dunluce Castle?

Right now, Dunluce Castle is still owned by Clan MacDonnell, now known as Clan Donald. While the castle is ruined and unlivable now, it is still well-loved by the clan. They now live in Glenarm, Northern Ireland.

Tourism

Nowadays, the site where the castle stands includes a Visitors Center, shop, ruins of the burnt village, and beautiful gardens. There are many guided tours offered between Easter and September. Dunluce Castle tickets are free for children between 0-4, £4.00 for children aged 5-17, and £4.50 for people 65 and over. Adults must pay £6.00, students £4.50, and families, £18.00.

Nearby, you can visit Giant’s Causeway, Old Bushmills Distillery, and Portrush Whiterocks Beach. Make a day of it and check out all of the beauty Northern Ireland has to offer.

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