A couple of weeks ago, I visited Dunluce Castle as part of my research for the Carrickfergus Castle siege! project. As I rounded the coastline and caught sight of the castle I was astounded by its beauty. The ruined castle was bathed in sunlight, perched on a precipitous cliff with the waves crashing against the rocks below. I got a real sense of the power of the structure, having the strength to withstand centuries of conflict and bitter northerly gales.
It is thought parts of the castle date back to 14th century; historic records show that the mainland around Dunluce was occupied in the 13th century by an Anglo-Norman manor. However, the first castle at Dunluce was built in late 15th- early 16th century by the MacQuillans; a powerful Ulster family. The MacQuillans were in constant battle with the another Ulster family, the O’Cahans who lived to the west of the Bann. In 1544, the MacQuillans asked the MacDonnells to come over from Scotland to fight for them. The MacDonnells quickly established themselves along the North Coast and within ten years they had ousted the MacQuillans from Dunluce. The land wars between the major Ulster families of MacDonnell, O’Cahan, MacQuillan, and O’Donnell continued for the next few years.
The instability of the gaelic chiefs and power of the MacDonnells came to the attention of the English crown and in 1575 the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Lord Essex, ordered an attack on the MacDonnell’s stronghold on Rathlin Island, where hundreds of islanders were massacred. Dunluce Castle was successfully besieged in 1584 by Lord Deputy of Ireland, but two years later Elizabeth I granted the castle back to the MacDonnells. Randall MacDonnell joined the rebellion with Hugh O’Neill in the battle of Kinsale, but when the Irish revolt failed he surrendered to the English and was pardoned.
Under James I, Randall undertook private plantation, establishing new settlements at Dunluce and other locations; bringing Scots over to settle his lands. Randall became the first Earl of Antrim in 1620, but the 1641 rebellion saw the MacDonnells split their allegiances. Scottish soldiers attempted to take the castle but failed and set fire to buildings in the town and many of the residents fled. The second Earl of Antrim, also called Randall, was arrested and imprisoned in Carrickfergus Castle, he later escaped disguised as a begging cripple. Cromwell granted his soldiers part of land around Dunluce in return for their allegiance. After the restoration of Charles II, Randall MacDonnell regained his estates in 1665, but attempts to revitalise Dunluce failed and by the end of the century the seat of the family had moved to Glenarm , where it continues to this day.
On a sunny and blustery day the castle is well worth a visit, but do wrap up well it is very, very cold. See the NIEA page on Dunluce Castle for more details.
- A new book entitled Dunluce Castle History and Archaeology by Colin Breen has recently be published.
- See BBC News story for more information on Dunluce Castle’s lost town.
- Listen to BBC NI Kist o Wurds interview with archaeologist Tom McErlean
- Ulster University article about excavations at the castle