Dunluce Castle is a crumbling, medieval ruin perched majestically atop a steep, rocky promontory, with a huge sea cave beneath. Close to the northernmost tip of the island of Ireland, the castle, steeped in local legends, is linked to the mainland by a narrow arched footbridge.
While in recent times, the castle has become known for featuring in the HBO series Game of Thrones, visitors to Dunluce have long been captivated by its picturesque beauty.
Ireland has no shortage of castle ruins, but few boast this magnificent backdrop – the ferocious beauty of Antrim’s rugged coastline. No interior rooms remain, but a large portion of the castle walls, underground passageways and exterior features are still intact. Two of the five original towers are still partially standing. MacQuillan's Tower on the sea-facing side contains the remains of a staircase, and is infamously linked with the ghost of Dunluce.
From the gatehouse, take the steps down to the Castle's hidden surprise, Mermaid's Cave. This spectacular sea cove beneath the castle rock is almost entirely hidden, except for a small, keyhole-shaped entrance.
Once you pass through the entrance, the limestone chamber broadens suddenly, leading the a cavernous opening with the echoing sound of crashing waves. The effect is both eerie and magical.
Folk band The Irish Rovers filming their song The legend of Dunluce Castle -- at Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle Legends
Maeve Roe – The Banshee Ghost of Dunluce
In the 16th century, the castle was occupied by the MacQuillans. Lord MacQuillian wanted his daughter, the fiercely independent Maeve Roe, to be married her cousin Rory Og MacQuillan. Rory Og was later to become chief of the MacQuillan clan.
Maeve Roe, when introduced to Rory Og by her father, blurted out, “I cannot, I will not! Please do not ask me!” She was in love with Reginald Ó Catháin – son of a clan leader who was at war with the MacQuillans.
When her father, through his spies, learned of the secret relationship, he was incandescent with rage. As punishment, he locked Maeve Roe in one of the castle towers and ordered her to remain there until she agreed to marry Rory Og. “I would prefer to die here first,” she retorted.
On a stormy night when the Lord was away, Reginald made a desperate attempt to scale the tower and rescue his beloved – but the rescue ended in tragedy. They made it into a boat at Mermaid's cave, but they vessel crashed against the rocks. Reginald’s body was recovered, but Maeve Roe’s was never found. Throughout the next centuries, the servants refused to enter the tower – yet it never gathered dust or dirt. The legend went that Maeve Roe's ghost kept it clean.
Many have also claimed to seen a lady in a white shroud, wailing on the rocks at Dunluce on stormy nights. This lady is believed by some to be a banshee -- created by the restless spirit of Maeve Roe MacQuillan.
Legend of the Kitchen that Fell into the Sea
In the 1600s, according to a local myth, a powerful storm swept the castle’s kitchens into the sea – along with the lives of many servants. The legend goes something like this:
Katherine Manners, an English lady, was married in 1635 to Randal MacDonnell, known as Lord Antrim. She was already extremely wealthy by birth, and by her first husband, and had become accustomed to a lavish lifestyle. However, the couple had overspent in London, and in 1638, Lord Antrim brought her and their children to Dunluce, along with her English servants.
On a wild December night, Lady Katherine held a grand party at the castle. Nobles from throughout Ireland – such as the O’Neills, the O’Haras and the MacHenrys -- filled the large banquet hall, enjoying the fine food. Pipers and harpers provided entertainment to the distinguished gathering. But the music was disturbed by a huge rumbling coming from north side of the castle.
They rushed towards the sound --- to their astonishment, the kitchen had vanished, along with nine of the servants. A portion of the building, along with countless valuables, had plunged into the sea, over 100 feet below.
A corner of the kitchen did not fall into the sea. A gypsy, to whom Lady Katherine had refused entry earlier in the day, was standing in the only spot that did not fall. The attendees believed that the gypsy had put a curse on the castle. According to legend, Lady Antrim left the castle soon after this awful event. After a time the roof fell in, and the place has remained a ruin ever since.
The Kitchen Myth debunked?
While it is true that the 2nd Earl of Antrim lived at Dunluce with his socialite wife, and they soon left it for Waterford (see history, below), paintings of the by-then disused castle from the 18th century show its kitchen still intact.
Dunluce in Books, TV and Movies
As well as Game of Thrones, Dunluce Castle has always provided inspiration for popular culture. In the last century, it was provided inspiration for Belfast-born author C.S. Lewis, and the castle in Chronicles of Narnia, Cair Paravel, is believed to be based on Dunluce. Traditional music group the Irish Rovers have a popular folk ballad called the Legend of Dunluce Castle. Dunluce has also featured in
- The 2003 comedy The Medallion starring Jackie Chan.
- The artwork of the 1973 Led Zeppelin album Houses of the Holy
Historians believe that the O’Flynn clann built the first fortification at Dunluce, in 668 AD.
Richard de Burgh
The O’Flynn castle was occupied by the Irish noble Richard Óg de Burgh, also known as the Red Earl of Ulster, in the thirteenth century.
In the 14th century, the original castle was taken by the MacQuillans, a Cambro-Norman family who had conquered a large area of north Antrim. They rebuilt the castle—and the ruins that remain today are the ruins of the 14th century MacQuillan castle. Like many of Ireland's Norman invaders, the MacQuillans adopted local ways, intermarried with the natives, and eventually became indistinguishable from Gaelic clans.
In 1559, the MacQuillans were driven out their allies-turned-rivals, the MacDonnells, a clan from the Scottish highlands, who were by then establishing a foothold in the north of Ireland, a region that was not only geographically close but one with which they shared a common language -- Gaelic. Note: MacDonnell in Scotland was spelled MacDonald --- today this name is world famous, not for its castles! Dunluce castle became the seat of the MacDonnell/MacDonald clan for the next 100 years.
The castle's last resident, Randal McDonnell, the Marquis of Antrim, was in a unique position among Ireland's Catholic nobility, and led an extraordinary life. Due to his Scottish ancestry, he was looked upon favourably by the British establishment during the plantation of Ulster and stood to gain large tracts of land. He also had Gaelic nobility in his blood -- his was the maternal grandson of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, who had taken exile in Spain in an event known as the Flight of the Earls. McDonnell was also a proud Royalist and staunchly supported King Charles I.
The Marquis had been educated in France, and in 1635 married Katherine Manners --- a widow with three children, from a prominent English family, who was said to be the richest non-royal in England. Nevertheless, by leading an excessive lifestyle, the couple ran up massive debts and MacDonnell returned with his new family to Dunluce in 1638, in an effort to reduce costs.
Randal also began raising an army of Irish soldiers, known as the New Irish Army, to fight for the English King in Scotland. Despite trouble finding recruits, particularly among Catholics, MacDonell persisted with his New Irish Army project throughout the late 1630s and early 1640s.
Following the the Irish Rebellion of 1641, and the subsequent Catholic Confederation -- when leading Irish Catholic Royalists formed a de-facto government ruling over most of Ireland -- MacDonnell was treated with suspicion by the British forces. He was arrested twice at Dunluce, and taken to Carrickfergus, where both times he escaped. However, he did not receive his expected lands from the Ulster plantation.
During this time of political upheaval, the family left the castle, moving to Wexford, then Waterford. Frustrated that the Confederation would not support his militarily project, the Marquis now took made a dramatic -- or perhaps pragmatic -- move. He carried out contract tasks for Oliver Cromwell, who invaded Ireland in 1649 with his army in the wake of the execution of Charles I. His forces exacted a crushing penalty on the Catholic population, pillaging and massacring throughout the country.
Also In 1649, Katherine died in Waterford. A year later, MacDonnell left for London. He was in receipt of a large pension from the British crown for his services, and was granted lands in County Mayo but, in his absence, his Irish estates, including Dunluce castle, had been confiscated by Cromwell's forces.
In 1653 he married his second wife, Rose O'Neill, daughter of Sir Henry O'Neill of Shane's Castle, in Randalstown, County Antrim. In 1660, Charles II was restored to the throne. When the Marquis went to present himself to the King, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for alleged treason, due to his involvement with the Confederates. Released a year later, he then endured a four-year legal battle to recover his estates, totalling over 87,000 acres, in Dunluce and Glenarm.
By this time, Dunluce had become too neglected and war-torn for use as a residence. The Marquis moved to Shane's Castle and built a summer residence called Ballymagarry House in Portrush, where he died in February 1682, aged 72. Dunluce castle was never restored.
There is a small café at the castle, which serves light refreshments, such as tea and home-made scones.
Dunluce Castle is open all year around. Opening is 10am but closing time varies depending on the time of year. Note: even if the castle is closed, it is worth visiting for the picture-postcard views.
- All prices UK pounds
- Adult - £5.00, Child up to 16 - £3.00
- Student (with student ID) - £3.00
- Child under 4 – Free
- Family (up to 5 members) - £13.00
- Group rate(10 or more members, must be pre-booked) - £3 per person
- Dunluce Castle. Image by Greg Clarke
- Randal MacDonnell. Image: Wikipedia
- Portrait of Katherine Manners by Henri Beaubrun. Image: Wikipedia