Dunluce Castle: History and Archaeology

November 1, 2012

These are exciting times for Irish archaeology. Investigation into sites, buildings and artefacts surviving from the later medieval and early modern period (c.1200-c.1700) have yielded important new discoveries that have helped us to rethink the social world of Ireland and the British Isles. Colin Breen has been at the forefront of such pioneering work, and he has now followed his overview of the remains of southwest Ireland with a major study of one of the principal sites of the north, Dunluce Castle on the Antrim coast.

The castle has become one of Northern Ireland’s most recognisable features and is now a major tourist attraction, the ruins on a rocky outcrop appearing in numerous pictures and photographs. There were castles built along and near the north coast of Ireland from Anglo-Norman times, such as Ballylough Castle near Bushmills, most constructed by the MacQuillan family who dominated the area between 1300 and 1555. The MacQuillans began to build Dunluce at the end of the 15th century, but they were displaced by the MacDonnells from the Scottish islands who seized their lands in the middle of the 16th century. They reshaped and reconstructed Dunluce in line with contemporary Scottish castles. Secure in their domination by the late 1580s, the family started to add grand design features, building a loggia along the southern curtain wall. This kind of columned gallery originated in Italy but was adopted by powerful families in northern Europe, a sign that they wished to keep up with the times and flaunt their increasing sophistication to visitors. The north Antrim coast seems peripheral today but Dunluce was an important maritime centre before the development of roads, linking Ulster to the Western Isles.

What is most important about this book, however, is not the castle itself but the evidence of the now-dead town that accompanied it, unearthed in an archaeological dig that began in 2008. Randal MacDonnell (d.1636), who combined the roles of Scottish clan chief, ally of the O’Neills and English Privy Councillor with varying but largely impressive degrees of success, oversaw the construction of a small town around the castle in the early 17th century. The establishment of such an extensive settlement, which must have housed about two to three hundred people (Breen does not commit himself to much speculation), is an indication of just how important this site was for the MacDonnells. Unfortunately the project had major disadvantages as well as advantages. Not only was the town exposed to the cold weather from the Atlantic but it had no access to a port and so was always going to lose out to Coleraine on the navigable River Bann only a few miles away. As Breen states with admirable tact, this was a “major oversight”, showing how “Randal was essentially displaying his…inability to break with the medieval mindset”. Randal understood the need for defence, protection and loyalty, but he had little comprehension of the new economic order. Dunluce town was in decline by the 1640s and probably died out in the 1650s, buried and forgotten until now.

Coins and pottery indicate that there were extensive trade links with numerous European ports. The streets were cobbled, there were several different types of house and it is clear that, while it lasted, this was a properly functioning community. There was some industry, a blacksmith’s forge and a substantial church that the MacDonnells probably rebuilt with surviving 17th-century gravestones. Breen and his team have done us a great service in bringing to light this settlement that tells us so much about life in early modern Ireland.

Dunluce Castle: History and Archaeology

By Colin Breen. Four Courts Press. 2pp, £35.00 and £17.50. ISBN 9781846823312 and 3732. Published July 2012

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