The ruins of Dunluce Castle have sat on the edge of the North Antrim cliffs for centuries, providing one of the iconic images of Northern Ireland. In fact, Dunluce Castle is one of the essential stops in any proper tour of the North Coast, alongside the Giant’s Causeway and Carrick A Rede rope bridge.

It’s widely believed that even before a castle existed on this site that it was some kind of pre-Christian fort.

In estate-agent parlance, Dunluce Castle is a prime location for any aspiring warlord, and had many high-profile occupants over the years. From being founded by de Burgh to being owned by the MacQuillan clan, Dunluce was an immensely popular strategic location. It’s best known, however for its long association with the MacDonnell clan, particularly Sorley Boy and his son Randal.

The Mermaid’s Cave

At the foot of Dunluce’s cliff, there is a sea cave which cuts entirely through the rock to the land. Being accessible by sea and land, it made an excellent for anyone landing (or indeed fleeing) the castle.

The Kitchen Incident

In 1639, following a storm, part of the castle kitchen fell into the sea due to the cliff eroding. The disaster must have happened suddenly and without warning, because seven of the kitchen staff were plunged to their deaths as well.

Important Dates in Dunluce’s History

I’ve tried to summarize the major events in the history of the castle, but the MacDonnell family history and their allegiances to the Scottish and English monarchs are intricate at best.

If you have any more information about the history of the castle, please do get in touch with me and I’ll make the necessary corrections.

  • 13th Century – It’s thought that Richard de Burgh built the first castle at Dunluce.
  • 1513 – Documented as belonging to the MacQuillan family.
  • 1584 – The castle was besieged by Sir John Perrott on the instructions of Queen Elizabeth. Sorley Boy regains control of the castle when a comrade inside the building hauls McDonnell’s men up the cliff face in a basket.
  • 1588 – The Girona, a ship belonging to the Spanish Armada, is wrecked in the waters near the castle. According to reports, Sorley Boy assisted the survivors, but sold much of what was salvaged to pay for improvements to the castle.
  • 1620 – Randal MacDonnell made Earl Of Antrim by the English King James I.
  • 1639 – During a storm, a section of the cliff fell away, taking with it the castle kitchens and seven of the kitchen staff. Apparently one kitchen hand survived by cowering in a corner.
  • 1641 – Rebellion sees an Irish army besiege the castle, however it held out under command of a Captain Digby before the Earl returned to relieve them.
  • 1690 – The Battle Of The Boyne leads to the impoverishment of the MacDonnells and they abandon the castle, taking nearby Ballymagarry House as their residence. (This was later destroyed by fire in 1745).
  • 1928 – The castle became property of the Environment & Heritage Service who continue to maintain it.

For more information on Dunluce, you should read this essay on Robert Starrs’ site.

Visiting Dunluce

The visitor to Dunluce Castle today can wander around the ruins at their leisure, including the mermaid’s cave and underneath the massive arch that links the castle to the mainland.

The site is maintained by the Environment and Heritage Service and they can organise guided tours for you. There’s a visitor centre and shop for more information and souvenirs as well as accessible toilets and a picnic area.

For more details on opening times and admission prices, please visit the EHSNI website.