One of Ireland’s most impressive castles clings to Ireland’s wild northern coast. Dunluce Castle is a beautiful and impressive fortress that has dominated the Antrim coastline of Northern Ireland since about 1500.
From sieges to storms to supernatural visitors, Dunluce Castle has had a turbulent history nearly since the day it was built.
During the late Middle Ages, Ireland was under the rule of the British Crown (a rule that had started with the Norman conquest of Ireland). In medieval Ireland, individual regions were ruled by various clan chieftains, all meant to swear allegiance to the Crown. Those that didn’t, suffered drastic punishment.
By the 1500s, the region of Ulster (one of the four regions of Ireland) was inhabited by large numbers of who we refer to as the Ulster Scots – chiefly, Scottish (Protestant) Lowlanders who migrated to Ireland during the government-sanctioned Plantation of Ulster.
The Plantation of Ulster programme took place under the reign of English King James VI, who wanted to augment the number of Protestants in Ireland. He did so by confiscating land from Gaelic chieftains (particularly those who did not swear him loyalty) – starting with the best agricultural land of course – and giving it to those soldiers who showed loyalty to the Crown.
The first castle upon this spot was built in the 13th century, but as was custom during this time, this early medieval castle would have been predominantly built of timber or perhaps wattle and daub.
The earliest remains of what the Dunluce Castle we see today date back to about 1500. The site was established by the mighty McQuillan clan, and Dunluce Castle was the culmination of their power. But this was a time of upheaval and conflict, the McQuillans were soon ousted by the McDonnells, and the castle secured the McDonnells as the dominant family of Antrim.
Which didn’t last long. Jealous of their local power, Queen Elizabeth I (whose reign wasn’t a great time for the Irish), sent an emissary to besiege the castle – which she returned to the McDonnells on condition of unfettered fealty. It didn’t matter much – less than a decade later, all of the Ulster Gaelic chieftains rose together into a rebellion that would come to be known as the Nine Years War.
Ushering in the 1600s, while the first half of the century was calm enough, Oliver Cromwell and his armies arrived in the 1650s and generally wreaked havoc, granting land, castles and rights to Cromwellien soldiers at the expense of the Irish. Unfortunately for Dunluce Castle, it was abandoned and left to fall into ruin. It was briefly reoccupied in the second half of the century, but it was no longer the heart of the McDonnell estate, and it and the surrounding village fell back into ruin.
Today, Dunluce Castle is a spectacular ruin situated on a sweeping Antrim cliff. The village is gone – the little that remains has been partially excavated by archaeologists, but the vast majority is not visible.
Dunluce Castle comprises two sections – the outer buildings on the mainland, and the castle core on the promontory, now connected by a stone bridge that has replaced the old drawbridge. Outside the protection of the castle walls and natural cliffs were a few buildings such as a brewery, stables and visitor lodging. Within the castle walls, entered via a fortified gatehouse in typical Scottish style, find the columned remnants of a beautiful loggia, two defensive corner towers, a once-magnificent Jacobean mansion or manor house (dating to 1620), the kitchens, storage and lodgings.
Legend has it that the original kitchens and some lodgings fell off the cliff during a storm in 1639 though this can’t be true as the buildings were still part of a 19th century painting – though this doesn’t change the fact that they did indeed fall off a cliff! Just a bit later than legend claims.
Dunluce Castle is located on a clifftop along the Causeway Coast in Co Antrim. The closest town is Bushmills, home to the world-famous Old Bushmills Distillery, and only a short distance to the UNESCO site, the Giant’s Causeway.
Dunluce Castle is about 1 hour’s drive from Belfast. There are no direct connections with public transport, but it is possible to travel there by bus if you change in Coleraine and/or Bushmills.
Dunluce Castle is also located along the famous, award-winning Causeway Coast. This 52 km / 33 mile coastline can be hiked in its entirety in about 3 days – or you simply can hike sections of it. The section where Dunluce is located is amongst the Causeway Coast’s most scenic regions.
Dunluce Castle is a gorgeous ruin. Perched precariously atop a cliff, the ruinous fortress fires up our imagination. It is the kind of fantastical place that inspires stories and legends – so it is little wonder why Dunluce Castle has connections some of the greatest fantasy series’ to come out of Northern Ireland.
The hit HBO fantasy is saga about the families of the seven kingdoms of Westeros, Queen Khaleesi, a couple of dragons, raging battles and the struggle for the Iron Throne. Many of the Game of Thrones scenes were filmed in Northern Ireland, including here at Dunluce Castle, which was a stand-in for the castle of Pyke on the Iron Isles, Seat of House Greyjoy.
Fantasy author C.S. Lewis grew up in the Belfast vicinity and has admitted that many of his inspirations came from his childhood rambles around the rugged landscapes of Northern Ireland. The ruinous Dunluce Castle is said to have inspired his descriptions of the future Cair Paravel after it falls into ruin (in Prince Caspian).
Not only is this bustling, colourful little town a happening place, it is home to one of Ireland’s most beloved distilleries: Old Bushmills Distillery. It is Ireland’s oldest distillery still in use today, dating back to 1601.
Distance from Dunluce Castle: 2.5 miles
This needs no introduction – the Giant’s Causeway is famous worldwide. 40,000 basalt columns jostle for space, culminating in a “causeway” type nature formation. The mythology of the area blames this causeway as a result of two warring giants.
Distance from Dunluce Castle: 4 miles
This sleepy, picturesque cove is now a bustling wee harbour as it is famous for its Game of Thrones connection. You might recognise it as where the backdrop for scenes from the Iron Isles were filmed.
Distance from Dunluce Castle: 10.5 miles
The only inland feature on this list, the Dark Hedges was built as a grand avenue leading to Gracehill House. It also featured in Game of Thrones as the Kingsroad. Several of the fallen trees from the Dark Hedges have since been made into the famous GoT doors.
Distance from Dunluce Castle: 11.5 miles
Downhill House is a picturesque ruin occupying a windswept field in Northern Ireland. Along the coast line, find a clifftop round temple that looks like its been dropped here straight from Greece or perhaps Rome. Instead, this small temple is actually a 19th structure once built as a library.
Distance from Dunluce Castle: 17 miles
From the village of Ballycastle, you can catch a ferry that takes you to Rathlin Island. Home to a renowned bird sanctuary, spot the beautiful puffins who inhabit the rocky cliffs of Rathlin April – June. Also check out the lighthouses and lovely walks.
Distance from Dunluce Castle: 20 miles