The History of Dunluce Castle

The castle as we see it today dates largely from the 16th and 17th centuries.  It is possible that everything that survives was built by the MacDonnells, but we like to think that at least the outer walls with the two round towers date back to the MacQuillans who controlled the Route and the north coast of Antrim from the 14th century.

The MacDonnells are an offshoot of the Scottish clan MacDonald, Lords of the Isles, that part of Scotland closest to the Antrim coast.  Several of them married into the important families of the north: Colla married Eveleen MacQuillan, Sorely Boy married Mary O’Neill.  The family fought with and against their neighbours and frequently fought against English raids throughout the 16th century.  Sorely Boy MacDonnell was the first to live his whole life in Ulster, a wild, violent existence.  He was captured by brother-in-law Shane O’Neill at the Battle of Glentaisie in May 1565 and held prisoner for two years after Dunseverick and Dunluce Castles had been taken.  At a banquet near Cushendun, when peace seemed possible, the MacDonnells turned on their hosts, set Sorely Boy free and killed Shane.  In 1584, Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir John Perrot, took an immense army to Dunluce Castle.  He took the castle however not because of his vast army but because he had three cannon.  In 1586 Queen Elizabeth granted the castle back to Sorely Boy and in 1588, when the Spanish Armada ship Girona crashed onto nearby rocks, he was able to salvage (among other things) three cannon to defend the castle.  The following year he died.

James MacDonnell, Sorely Boy’s son, was well known and liked by James VI of Scotland and knighted by him.  He restored the castle after Perrot’s attack in the latest Scottish fashion, including the Gatehouse and the Garden with the classical loggia.  In 1597, Sir James fought and killed Sir John Chichester, Governor of Carrickfergus, but in 1601 he died of poison, perhaps in revenge for Chichester.

When James VI of Scotland became James I of England, the MacDonnells were transformed into loyal kinsmen.  Thet were granted the whole of the Glens and the Route, in effect the coast of Antrim from the River Bann to Larne.  In 1620, Sir Randall was created Earl of Antrim in recognition of his good standing with the king.  He was required to build a castle in each of his baronies, but appears to have built little at Dunluce Castle, although he established a new small town around the castle.

In 1635 the first earl’s son, also called Randal, married Catherine Manners, the widow of the Earl of Buckingham and used to great riches and London society.  He built her the new Manor-House between 1636 and 1638, and the extensive ranges of kitchens and accommodation to suit lavish entertainment in Dunluce.

The Duchess hated the sound of the sea and indeed her prejudice was confirmed when the kitchen fell into the sea one night in 1639 during dinner.  Three years later, another unhappy dinner resulted in in General Munro, Governor of Carrickfergus, arresting his host.  Catherine salvaged their possessions from Dunluce Castle and a new house nearby and shipped them to Chester where they were stored until 1651 when they were seized by Cromwell’s agents and sold off.  An inventory of this cache, made on 9th March 1645, tells us how magnificent their household had been with tapestries, Persian carpets, an Irish harp, damask curtains, dozens of chairs, mostly upholstered in silk, damask, velvet and satin.  The favourite colour was red, but blue and green fabrics are also referred to.  Randal spent the Cromwell years in exile, returning after the restoration in 1660.  However Dunluce Castle was no longer the favourite of the MacDonnells who moved on, first to Ballymagarry House and then to Glenarm Castle.

One of the most spectacular castles in Ireland ….. a must see on any tour of Ireland.

Ireland Luxury Tours also include the castle in their day tours of the North Coast. If you are in Belfast on a cruise ship in 2010 make sure you see it.