Perched on the very edge of the north coast of Antrim, Dunluce Castle is certainly one of Northern Ireland’s most iconic ruins. Cited as the inspiration for CS Lewis’ description of Cair Paravel in the Narnia books, and appearing on the artwork of a Led Zeppelin album, it has survived over three hundred years of abandonment. Its most relentless enemy remains the inevitable forces of the tides, eating away at the ground beneath it. Already, a portion of the castle has been claimed. Still for the moment it remains, a testament to a much more complicated time in Northern Ireland’s history.
The first person to see the potential of Dunluce as an area for fortification was Richard Og de Burgh, the Red Earl of Ulster. He inherited his earldom as a child, but managed to avoid the complications that plague so many who have regents ruling in their stead, succeeding to his estate in 1280 AD. He was one of the premier of the Irish Norman nobles of the time, and was a clse personal friend of King Edward I. As a result, when Robert the Bruce and Edward went to war, even though his own daughter was betrothed to the Bruce it was Edward’s banner that Richard Og fought beneath. Despite this, their wedding went ahead and Eleanor became the mother of the future David II of Scotland, though the lack of respect for the alliance this represented cut both ways, and Richard Og was driven from ulster when Robert the Bruce’s brother Edward invaded Ireland. Richard had already established domination over Connaught, however, and from the kingdom of his puppet ruler there he was able to stage a reprisal that drove the Scots out and won Ulster back for the Normans.
Richard was succeeded by his grandson William, known as the Brown Earl. Richard was only 14 when he succeeded to the Earldom. His cousin, Walter Liath de Burgh, sought to take advantage of this, and took control of Connaught, an action which led to several battles between them. William captured Walter, and starved him to death. This led Walter’s sister Gylle to persuade her husband to murder William in Carrickfergus in 1333. William’s death without any clear successor prompted open warfare between different de Burgh claimants, and the division allowed most of Ulster to fall back into Gaelic-Irish hands. Dunluce wound up controlled by the McQuillans, a clan who had never appeared before in the records. Some believe they came over from Scotland as mercenaries, though there are no records of Scottish McQuillans before this. Most believe they were a clan founded by a Norman named William or Hugelin, with Hugelin de Mandeville being a likely candidate. The de Mandevilles had been forced to flee England, as they had been blamed for the chaos in Ulster. Whether it was inherited or bought from the de Mandevilles, they took over Dunluce and the surrounding area, which they renamed the Route.
The McQuillans were most notorious for their extended and bitter feud with the O’Cahans of Limavady. The feud began when the O’Cahans killed the Macquillan heir on a raid, and in retaliation the McQuillans killed Manus O’Cahan, their clan chief. One legend from the feud is that of Maeve Roe, daughter of Lord McQuillan. She eloped with Reginald O’Cahan (who she had met when he was held prisoner in the castle) to escape from an arranged marriage. (One variant even has it that Maeve’s father connived to arrange this, seeing where his daughter’s heart lay.) They descended down to Mermaid’s Cave in the cliffs below the castle, where they stole a rowing boat. However there was a fierce storm raging, and their boat was dashed on the White Rock cliffs as her father looked on helplessly. Maeve’s body was never found, though her banshee ghost was said to haunt the tower where she had been imprisoned, sweeping and cleaning it each night. Or so the story goes, at least.
The feud raged on, regardless, with most other local clans getting drawn in on one side or another (or both) at different times over the next century. It was during this time that the castle was rebuilt into the form it has today. Finally, in 1542, exactly one hundred years after the feud began, the McQuillans made a devil’s bargain and enlisted the aid of the English, who besieged Limavady and forced Manus O’Cahan to submit. The O’Cahans would try to shake free of this yoke, but would eventually be reduced by the English attacks to a powerless remnant. The McQuillans were weakened by the long war as well, and those who had relied on them and the O’Cahans to keep each other in check no longer needed to do so. It was inevitable that soon someone would take advantage, and that someone was one of the most notorious figures of the period, Sorley Boy MacDonnell.
Sorley Boy was undoubtedly one of the most influential men in the history of Ulster. The ruler of the Scottish MacDonnell clan who had come over to Ulster in pursuit of an ancestral claim of lordship over Antrim, he was born near Ballycastle in Antrim. He first appears in the records at the surprisingly late age of 45, when he was taken prisoner by the English and held in Dublin Castle for a year, until his brother James (who was clan chief at the time) negotiated his release. Sorley Boy then turned the tables by capturing the constable of Carrickfegus Castle, and gaining a considerable ransom for his release. Based on this prestige James gifted him with the lordship of the Route – although a minor detail was that it was being held by the MacQuillans at the time. Still, that proved to be only a minor inconvenience to Sorley Boy. He gathered a force in Scotland and landed them on the north coast of Ireland, where in a series of bloody battles he defeated the MacQuillans and drove them out of the Route, claiming Dunluce Castle for his clan.
Of course, that was not the end of the matter. The next century would see a constant series of battles between the MacDonnells (who allied with the O’Donnell clan of Donegal) and the MacQuillans (who allied with the O’Neill clan of Tyrone), with the conflict egged on by the English, who saw it as a great way to prevent either the Scots or the Irish becoming too strong. This culminated in Shane O’Neil capturing both Sorley Boy and James MacDonnell. As is detailed in the article about James’ daughter, Iníon Dubh, James would die in captivity while Sorley Boy would be freed after his MacDonnell relatives turned on Shane O’Neill at a feast in his honour, killing him. Sorley Boy immediately went to Scotland and returned with 600 redshanks, Scottish mercenaries, swearing on his return that he would never leave Ireland again. This was a vow he would break, as he returned to Scotland once more to gather mercenaries during the twenty years of conflict over his claim to the Route. Notable incidents from this period include the actions of Sir Francis Drake, who led part of the force that massacred the women and children of the MacDonnells on Rathlin Island, and a notable incident where the MacDonnells recaptured Dunluce Castle from the English by scaling the cliff. In the end, however, in 1586 at the age of 81 Sorley Boy was finally recognised as rightful lord of the Route and made constable of Dunluce Castle. He died four years later – but not before he gave Dunluce one final boost.
In 1588, an invasion fleet set sail from Spain. King Philip II of Spain had been co-monarch of England prior to the death of his wife, Queen Mary, and he regarded her successor Elizabeth as an illegitimate ruler. He had supported Mary, Queen of Scots, in her attempt to take the crown, but her execution by Elizabeth closed off that avenue. Instead, with the blessing of the Pope, he rode forth in a Crusade against the heretics of England. The plan was for them to collect an army from Calais and deliver it to England, but they were harrassed en route by the English and the weather, and when they were in harbour in Calais they were driven out with fireships. The fleet was driven north, and eventually planned to circle around Scotland and Ireland to return home. However a combination of poor maps and ignorance of the effect of the Gulf Stream on their longitude meant that a large portion of the ships ran aground on that trip. One such was the Girona, which had gone to port in Killybegs to repair their rudder with the aid of a friendly local chieftain. They planned to sail for Scotland, with the survivors of several other shipwrecks swelling their contingent to 1,300 men. However a gale struck and they were wrecked on the rocks of Lacada Point, near Dunluce. The ship was sunk, and the majority of the men on board (the scions of noble Spanish families) were killed. Sorley Boy MacDonnell would later be accused of helping some of the survivors escape to Scotland, but nothing was ever proved. Nor was it proved, though it was often rumoured, that he had recovered two chests of treasure from the wreck. What he did freely admit to taking from the ship were two cannons, which he mounted on Dunluce. Several others would try to retrieve the lost treasures of the Girona, but it was not until the wreck was rediscovered in 1967 that the contents of the wreck could be recovered. They now form one of the central exhibits in the Ulster Museum.
In 1642 General Robert Monro captured and imprisoned Randal MacDonnell, Sorley Boy’s grandson, as part of his campaign against an Irish rebellion that was taking advantage of the War of Three Kingdoms. He and Randal were old enemies, as Randal had tried to raise an army of Ulster-Scot Catholics to fight against the Covenanter army that Monro had commanded. Ironically, Randal was emphatically not a rebel, and in fact at the time both supported Charles I in the civil war, but Monro could not countenance such a powerful Catholic leader remaining free. Randal escaped and joined the queen in York. He spent the majority of the war working on the Royalist side, though the lack of recognition eventually saw him withdraw his support, and when Parliament prevailed, he threw in his lot with them and worked for Cromwell in Ireland. This saw him excluded from the general pardon when the monarchy was restored, and he had to argue vigorously in court to retain both his lands and his head. He succeeded, and regained Dunluce and most of his Irish lands in 1660, though the family wound up poorer for it. Still, they endured.
The MacDonnells would endure, but the castle would not. An attempt to build a trading town next to the castle failed, due to the lack of a navigable port. This was despite a lot of money and effort going into it – modern archaeological investigations have found a street network based on a grid system as well as indoor toilets, both very advanced for the time. It was burned down by the Covenanters who attacked in 1642, and by the time Randal returned there was no point in rebuilding it. Worse, the MacDonnell family backing the Jacobite side at the Battle of the Boyne left them severely impoverished and unable to afford to maintain the castle, and it and the town were both abandoned. Legend would have it that the castle was abandoned when the kitchen collapsed into the sea, taking several servants with it, but this is more fiction than fact. Not only do several paintings of the abandoned castle from the 18th and 19th centuries show the castle intact, but the date given for this collapse is 1639 – three years before Monro would take the castle from Randal. Regardless, the castle thus added decaying to abandoned and ruined, and finally in 1928 the castle was transferred to the guardianship of the State, though it remains the nominal property of the MacDonnell family (who hold the title of Earl of Antrim to this day). They began conservation work, as well as raising the profile of the castle as a tourist destination with a large number of books, postcards and paintings dating to this time. The castle has become the iconic symbol of Northern Ireland’s romantic past, and though it sits in ruins, it remains one of the most significant Irish castles.