87 Dunluce Road, Bushmills, County, Antrim, BT57 8UY
A medieval 17th Century Irish Castle built by Richard Óg de Burgh, 2nd Earl of Ulster, Dunluce Castle is steeped in rich history and culture.
Sited close to the edge of a headland, along the North Antrim coast, it served as the seat of the Earl of Antrim until the impoverishment of the MacDonnells in 1690, following the Battle of the Boyne.
Deemed by some as possessing a Tolkien ‘Lord of the Rings’ style fantasy setting, the castle is set in the heart of a stunning coastal scenery and offers an interesting insight into medieval Irish life with its history tracing back to the early Christian and Viking eras.
It was first occupied by the MacQuillin family in 1513. The earliest features of the castle are two large drum towers about nine metres (30 ft) in diameter on the eastern side, both relics of a stronghold built here by the MacQuillins after they became lords of the district, the chieftain of which was known as Lord of the Route, in the late 14th century.
The castle has since passed through many hands over the years, with its last occupant being the second Earl of Antrim.
Other names associated with its ancestry include Sorley Boy MacDonnell, and Sir John Perrott.
A village that once surrounded the castle was destroyed by fire during 1641, but some archaelogical remnants of walls remain. Also nearby are the ancient church ruins of St. Cuthbert’s, and the site was witness to the sinking of the colony ship the Exmouth, bound for Quebec, which broke up on rocks off Islay with 240 deaths in 1857.
Today, those wishing to visit the castle can also avail of the nearby visitor centre, shop and guided tours of the ruins, gardens and remnants of the town.
Opening times at the Dunlce Castle are Easter to the end of September from 10am to 6pm daily, while pre-booked tours are available out of season.
The castle can be found beside the coast road on the A2 between Bushmills and Portrush.
After paying a visit to Dunluce Castle tourists can also make a short trip to other attractions close by including Leslie Hill, the Giant’s Causeway, Bushmills Distillery, and the Flowerfield Arts Centre.
Life and Legend
Dunluce is the most picturesque of all the Irish castles. It stands on a basalt block with sheer vertical faces dropping thirty metres straight to the sea. The vision of it at sunset with the Skerries islands beyond is one of the fantastic sights of the north coast. It is separated from the land by a deep chasm, which once had a drawbridge and a cave runs from the sea right underneath the castle to the land beneath the bridge. It must have had an army of servants too because each need of the castle fed another. Every chimney of these had a fireplace, which had to be tended and cleaned.
The fire needed wood or other fuel which had to be gathered and cut and dried and all the people who did the work had to be fed. The feeding meant that bread was baked twenty-four hours a day in the three ovens at the castle and the ovens needed more fuel and bakers working on a shift system. Suddenly it is obvious that running a castle like Dunluce wasn’t about a lord, his lady and a few soldiers, it was really a full time professional catering operation. The castle expanded onto the land where more servants’ quarters can be seen, a two-storey accommodation block with a fireplace in each room, like modern university students’ halls. Dunluce is like an onion, with layers towards the middle and then out again.
The earliest feature on the rock is a souterrain, from about the year 800. It is an artificial cave which was used as cold storage for food and refuge in troubled times and shows that there was probably a strong Celtic cashel or round stone fort on the rock before there were any written records.
Dunluce Castle was built in the 1200s by the 2nd Earl of Ulster, Richard de Burgh, on the site of an earlier fort dating back to the time of the Vikings. The earliest parts of the castle are the round towers at the northeast and southeast. A white lady haunts the northeast tower. She was a McQuillan maiden forbidden to marry the man she loved. Her father locked her in the tower where she pined away and died of a broken heart.
In 1513 the castle was still occupied by the McQuillans, the Lords of the Route who were deposed in the later fifteen hundreds by the McDonnells. Sorley Boy MacDonnell, the charismatic clan chief improved the castle with a Scottish style gatehouse and a fancy Italian walkway. When the Girona, an important ship from the Spanish Armada was wrecked on the rocks near the castle in 1588, the MacDonnell’s plundered it. They cut two ports in the front wall of the castle to install its cannon, making the castle even stronger, but soon afterwards the McDonnells made their peace with England.
The southeast tower is haunted too, by Peter Carey who was hanged for taking the post of constable of the castle when it was the property of the McDonnells. He has been seen wandering the walls, dressed in a purple cloak with his hair in a long ponytail… or is it perhaps the rope that killed him?
In 1635 Randal McDonnell, the 2nd Earl married Catherine Manners, the widow of the Duke of Buckingham. The couple were without doubt one of the wealthiest in Europe and the Earl indulged her by building the Manor House which would have been more suited to the rolling grasslands of southern England than a windswept cliff top in North Antrim. The main kitchen is beside the hall, as it is in all castles, so the food was hot when it was served to the lord. Despite her new house, the Duchess never liked Dunluce. She said the sound of the sea made her feel uneasy and when part of the servants’ quarters fell into the sea, during a storm in 1639, she insisted on moving inland.
When the servants’ kitchen fell into the sea, only a fiddler survived because he was sitting within the wall beside the fire in the only corner of the kitchen that did not collapse. The castle remained partly inhabited until the late 1600s when it was abandoned and fell to ruin. Its cobbled floors are in such good condition because they were protected by the thousands of slates which fell on them as the castle decayed, so every visitor today walks the same stones as the heroes and heroines of Dunluce.
Until the property boom of the 1990s, Portballintrae was a quiet fishing village. Men went out in summer to tend their nets and in winter a quieter place couldn’t be imagined. Even the winter storms were softer here, but there are stories to the place. Off the car park at Bushfoot strand, there is the entrance to an astounding monument. Two sets of large concentric earthen rings lie side by side. Locals used to call them the saucers. The rings to the west are built over a spring and four thousand years ago, the builders of this place lined the bowl of its interior with impervious clay to make it watertight. This created an oval sacred pool which points at the midsummer sunset.
Just to the south, the townland is called Ballaghmore, the great road and this is the culmination of the great road which ran from Tara, capital of Ireland, right to this holy place on the North Coast. Bushfoot strand begins at the mouth of the river Bush and the earliest people have lived here too.
Workers on the Causeway Tram collected their axeheads and arrowheads in the winter months to sell to tourists and when the supply ran out, they made more from the flint which is everywhere. Runkerry House stands at the end of the bay. It too benefits from the midsummer sunsets and its sandstone walls shine golden in the summer evenings.
There are other lodges around the village because for two hundred years it was the bathing place of choice of the landed gentry.
In the First World War, a German submarine surfaced just off the coast. The Captain mistook the rock formations of the Giant’s Causeway for a fortification and opened fire. Some of the shells burst over Portballintrae and locals kept fragments of them as souvenirs.
Video produced by Ambient Light Productions