Dunluce Castle – Northern Ireland

This week’s journey takes us back to the spectacular clifftop ruins of Dunluce Castle (Irish: Dún Libhse) in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. This iconic landmark – perched dramatically (and rather precariously) atop a sheer basalt outcropping between Portballintrae and Portrush – is among our favorite castle ruins in the world.

Dunluce Castle was first built in the 13th century by Irish noble Richard Óg de Burgh, 2nd Earl of Ulster, on the site of an earlier fort dating back to the Vikings. By the early 1500s, Dunluce was the property of the McQuillans, hired mercenaries from Scotland who served as Lords of the Route (the medieval territory of present-day County Antrim) from the late 13th to mid-16th century. The castle was seized in the 1550s by the ambitious MacDonnell clan, who set about renovating it in the Scottish style under the leadership of warrior chieftain Sorely Boy MacDonnell (Somhairle Buidhe Mac Domhnaill). The next half-century would see a constant series of battles between the MacDonnells and the MacQuillans over claim to the Route. In 1586, at the age of 81, Sorley Boy was finally recognized as rightful lord of the territory. Dunluce Castle served as the seat of the Earl of Antrim until the MacDonnells abandoned residence of the property in 1690 following the Battle of the Boyne. Since that time, the castle has deteriorated, its parts scavenged to serve as material for nearby buildings. Today, Dunluce Castle is still owned by the MacDonnell family, managed under a deed of guardianship by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.

More than seven hundred years after its establishment, the castle remains the subject of several local legends. One states that during a stormy night in 1639, a portion of the castle kitchen collapsed into the sea, taking seven members of the cooking staff with it. [This account seems unlikely, however, as paintings from the late 18th and early 19th centuries show this portion of the castle very much intact.] Another legend recounts the tragic tale of Maeve Roe, the only daughter of Lord McQuillan of Dunluce. Imprisoned in the castle’s north-eastern tower after refusing her father’s choice of husband, Maeve and her true love, Reginald O’Cahan, escaped under the cloak of darkness and fled to Mermaid’s Cave, a massive cavern in the basalt outcropping beneath the castle. As they attempted to flee across the turbulent sea to the nearby settlement of Portrush, their small vessel was tossed violently and dashed upon the rocks. Maeve’s sad and troubled soul is said to still sweep her prison tower, wailing in despair for a rescue that will never come.

In 2011, archaeologists working near the castle unearthed the remains of long-abandoned Dunluce Town (established in 1608 by Randall MacDonnell, son of Sorley Boy and the 1st Earl of Antrim). Excavations have since uncovered a complex grid of cobbled streets and several merchants’ houses, as well as many artifacts – including coins, bone combs, dress fastenings, thimbles, gaming pieces and a wine glass stem – suggesting the town once thrived as a place of wealth and luxury. This prosperity was short-lived, however, as the town was burned to the ground by Scottish Covenanters in 1642. More than 90 percent of the town remains buried beneath the emerald green fields surrounding the castle.

I visited Dunluce Castle on a misty summer morning in August 2012 (unfortunately without T). The photographs below are my own, taken during a quiet stroll through the castle ruins with my parents, brother and sister-in-law.

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On October 26, 1588, La Girona – a galeass of the Spanish Armada – foundered and sank on the rocks near the castle. Of the 1,300 people on board, only nine survived; 260 bodies washed ashore. Sorley Boy MacDonnell recovered three brass cannons and two treasure chests from the wreckage (the cannons were mounted in the castle’s gatehouses and the treasure sold to finance castle restorations). In 1967 and 1968, a team of Belgian divers searching off the coast of Portballintrae brought up the greatest find of Spanish Armada treasure ever recovered from a wrecked ship. The Girona’s recovered gold jewelry is on display in the Ulster Museum in Belfast.

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One of our favorite things about Dunluce Castle was the lovely tea room adjacent to the ticket office, where we feasted on – hands-down – the most delicious scones we’ve ever had! My mum and I still rave about ‘those Dunluce scones’ nearly every time we’re together. If you find yourself in County Antrim, I highly encourage a visit to Dunluce Castle and its tea room – you won’t be disappointed!

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Thank you for joining me on this adventure in Northern Ireland! – B. June

Next week’s journey: Easter Egg Market at Maulbronn Abbey – Germany

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