Dunluce Castle and the Antrim MacDonnells by Kathlyn Fforde

Whenever I am in the north of Ireland I hurry to the Antrim coast to look once again at the amazing sight of Dunluce Castle trembling on the edge of the sea. From some points of view, particularly when approaching it from the east, the castle seems to be made up of dozens of tall fingers of stone pointing haphazardly towards the sky. At one point, where this impression is especially strong, the coast road divides in two, creating a short stretch of one-way road in each direction, which suggests that the local council has recognized the surprising nature of the view drivers will see here and the effect it is likely to have on their driving.

In actual fact the castle is still much more solid than this first impression would suggest, although its condition is precarious enough. The coast at this point, like much of the Antrim coast, presents tall cliffs to the sea and beyond these cliffs, with its top at the same level, is a large rock, attached to the land only by ;i grassy area connecting the base of the rock to the base of the cliffs. It is on this re )ck that the castle is built and one therefore reaches it over a deep chasm by means of a narrow footbridge, replacing the original drawbridge, from which one can see, far below, cattle grazing the salt-sprayed grass and occasionally staring upwards in some surprise at the intrepid visitor above them.

The sea, pounding the castle rock to the north and north-east, and the low-lying ground, like a sort of dry, grassy moat, to the south and south-west, made the castle almost impregnable. On the northern side the sea runs up under the castle to a sea gate and to a cave which is also accessible on the southern side from a land gate. This land gate is reached from the “moat”, known as the Pound, in which cattle were always herded to supply food for the castle, so the ones we see there today are not a modern introduction. In spite of major efforts to consolidate the whole structure the sea is gradually eating into the rock on which it stands, so that it seems inevitable that it will eventually crumble away.

Dunluce stands on the north coast of Antrim between Portrush to the west and the Giant’s Causeway to the east. Its early history is obscure, but it may have been built about 1200 by Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, or one of his followers – at any rate by a Norman knight. Many of these knights settled in Ireland after the Norman Conquest of England, eventually becoming, so it was said, more Irish than the Irish. At the beginning of the 16th century the castle was in the hands of the MacQuillans, a native Irish family, but by the latter part of that century Somhairle Buidhe MacDonnell (Yellow-haired Sorley, somewhat ridiculously Englished as Sorley Boy) had established himself there. Sorley was the ancestor of the Earls of Antrim and the 6th and youngest son of Alasdair Cahanagh MacDonnell of Dunnyveg (Dun Naomhaig) and the Glens (the chief of Clan Iain Mhoir). Sorley was the most forceful and the most successful of his brothers and gradually took on the task of consolidating MacDonnell power in the north of Ireland, the Scottish territories of Clan Iain Mhoir remaining in the hands of his eldest brother, James.

From perhaps as early as 1200 Scots families, who had, of course, originally come from Ireland when the Scottish Dalriada was established, had moved to Ulster and other parts of Ireland, where they helped the Irish to win back lands from Anglo-Normans who had settled there. These Scots incomers were the galloglaigh (Irish = foreign warriors) or gall-oglaich in Scots Gaelic and gallowglasses in English. The galloglaigh are depicted as tall, strong warriors carrying Lochaber axes or 2-handed swords and wearing a strange quilted and pleated garment reaching to the knee and known as the aketon, which is often to be seen on grave slabs. This movement of galloglaigh stopped in the early 14th century, but in the 15th century Scottish mercenary soldiers again began to appear in Ireland, being then known as redshanks (from their bare legs), who hired themselves out mainly to the MacDonnells and their allies. There were constant comings and goings between Ireland and Scotland at that period and Sorley MacDonnell could, and often did call up reinforcements from Scotland by lighting a beacon fire on the coast – on Fair head perhaps or Torr Head or above Murlough Bay. On a clear day its flames could be easily seen from the Scottish coast and it only took 2 to 3 hours, in fair weather, for redshanks to cross in their galleys from Islay or Kintyre.

By Sorley’s time the build-up of Scots immigrants had thus become quite considerable. Queen Elizabeth wanted them out, as foreign interlopers in an English province, whilst the native Irish chiefs, particularly the O’Neills, who regarded themselves as High Kings of Ulster, sometimes wanted them out too and at other times were glad of their help against the English. Unfortunately for Gaeldom the three main powers in Ulster – O’Neill, O’Donnell and MacDonnell – never managed to form an alliance for more than brief periods. Had they done so they might well have pushed the English out of Ulster altogether.

Queen Elizabeth’s Ulster policy was to support one magnate, Sorley for instance, in the hope of keeping the other, O’Neill or O’Donnell or both, within bounds, but this inevitably resulted in the former becoming too strong, so that English support had to be transferred to the latter, and so on ad infinitum.

The first territories gained by the MacDonnells in Ulster were the Glens – Glentaisie, Glenshesk, Glendun, Glenaan, Glenballyeamon, Glenariff, Glencloy and Glenarm – which all have their beginnings roughly in the middle of Co. Antrim and make their way to the north and east coasts, being arranged something like the spokes in a quarter of a bicycle wheel. These areas could be controlled from the castles at Dunyanie, near Ballycastle, and Glenarm, both on the coast. To the Glens Sorley added the Route, an area to the west of the glens between the River Bush (famous for Bushmills whiskey) and the River Bann, having consolidated his power there by his defeat of the MacQuillans (former possessors of Dunluce) at the battle of Slieve an Aura in 1559. Dunluce Castle was therefore of the greatest importance to him because his new territory could be controlled from it.

His aim was to gain proper recognition from Elizabeth of his right to the Glens and the Route and to this end he tried to remain neutral during the frequent skirmishes between O’Neill and the Queen, but this was often impossible.

The interaction of these various policies and aspirations produced an extremely fluid and complicated situation in the midst of which Sorley struggled, sometimes by arms, sometimes by diplomacy, to achieve his goal.

In Sorley’s lifetime Dunluce was taken twice, on the first occasion by Shane O’Neill in May 1565 after the battle of Glentaisie in which he had defeated the MacDonnells, killed Sorley’s brother Angus and taken Sorley and his eldest brother James (Dunnyveg) prisoner, along with many other leaders from the Western Highlands and Islands. James had been wounded in the battle and died later that year. Sorley remained in captivity for 2 years. Shane forced the garrison at Dunluce to surrender by threatening to starve James and Sorley to death.

The MacDonnells got their revenge for this defeat two years later in 1567 when Shane took Sorley with him to Alasdair Og’s camp at Cushendun to negotiate an alliance with the MacDonnells. (Alasdair was another of Sorley’s brothers). Sorley was to be exchanged for MacDonnell troops which would be used to help Shane. After two days of negotiations a drunken brawl developed, or so one version has it, which ended in the death of Shane. The exact circumstances are disputed, however, an alternative version being that Shane was killed when negotiations broke down, perhaps due to a quarrel, perhaps because his death had been premeditated by Alasdair Og. Shane had in any case lost his bargaining power (in the person of Sorley) when he took him into the MacDonnell camp and thus no longer had a hold over him. Whatever the true version of this story may be, it does seem certain that Piers, the Engl ish governor of Carrickfergus Castle, called in a Cushendun afterwards and, popping Shane’s head into a pipkin of brine, sent it off to Dublin, where the sight of it rejoiced the Lord Deputy’s heart. This does suggest that there might have been collusion between the MacDonnells and the English.

After Shane’s death Sorley regained possession of Dunluce. It was taken for the second time by the Lord Deputy, Sir John Perrott, who used artillery to break down the defences in 1585.

But Sorley was soon back again and in 1586 he did at last more or less achieve his aim through a settlement in which he recognized Elizabeth as his feudal superior and in return was granted possession of the Route and also permitted to hold the Glens, by arrangement with his Dunnyveg kinsmen. He made his submission to Elizabeth in Dublin, where he was confronted by the sight of his son’s head mouldering on a spike. This son, Alasdair, had been killed in a skirmish with a Captain Mcrriman, who sought him out amongst the wounded and killed him. Sorley is said to have remarked – stoically and elliptically -“… my son hath many heads”.

In 1588 Sorley rescued three guns from the Spanish galleon the “Gerona”, wrecked at Portnaspanaigh (Port of the Spaniards) near the Giant’s Causeway and mounted them at Dunluce. Not long ago treasure from this ship was salvaged and displayed in the Ulster Museum.

Sorley died in 1590 and was succeeded by .his son James, who died in 1601 and was succeeded by his brother Ranald. Ranald was created 1st Earl of Antrim and was probably responsible for extensive repairs and additions to Dunluce. These include the rebuilding of the gatehouse, which now has corbelled-out round towers in the Scottish style. A large house of English style is also to be found inside the main courtyard, the cast iron fireback in one of the rooms with the arms of James VI and I on it, indicating its probable date.

In 1601 Ranald allied himself with the Earls of Tyrone (O’Neill) and Tyrconnel (O’Donnell), the failure of whose rising culminated in what is known as the “flight of the Earls”. During Ranald’s absence, as he marched south to support his allies at the battle of Kinsale, the Dunnyveg MacDonnells, in the person of Sir James of Knockrinsay, seized Dunluce. Sir James hoped to persuade Elizabeth that he would be a better person to control the Ulster territories than Ranald, who had proved himself untrustworthy by joining the Irish chiefs, but as Ranald quickly disassociated himself from the O’Neill rising and as it was felt in London that the MacSorley MacDonells were more desirable in the Glens and the Route than were the Dunnyveg MacDonnells, Ranald managed to get back to Dunluce.

He died in 1636 and was succeeded by his son Ranald, the 2nd Earl, who settled down at Dunluce, which remained his headquarters and home. He was an amusing, resourceful, charming, exasperating and extremely optimistic fellow and had married Catherine Manners, the beautiful young widow of the famous Duke of Buckingham, close friend of Charles I, who, as we know, had been a very important person indeed. Ranald and Catherine – “my dear old Duchess” as he-called her – were a devoted couple, but he had some difficulty in persuading her to live at Dunluce as, after the comfort and variety of the English Court, she did not take altogether enthusiastically to life perched on the sea. Her natural reluctance increased one night in 1639 when, during a storm, part of the kitchen plus the dinner and several of the cooks were swept into the sea. After that the family is said to have withdrawn to a more stable part of the castle, possibly to the more recent buildings on the mainland but, as we shall see, they seem to have been still living on the rock in 1671.

Three years later, during the rising of Sir Phelim O’Neill, a Scots Army garrison under Colonel George Monro was put into Dunluce and remained there until 1648. This army was made up of what are known as the New Scots, i.e. not Highland galloglaigh or redshanks but a Covenanting army. Monro had actually been Antrim’s guest at the time but proceeded to arrest his host, who was eventually transferred to Carrickfergus Castle by sea “hearing behind him the rocks and hills covered with the lamentation of his poor followers.”

During his enforced absence from Dunluce Ranald, who had soon managed to escape from Carrickfergus, was to and fro between Ireland and England, encouraging the Irish to support the King and cheering up the English court with his sparkling suggestions, all bound to lead to victory, and his offers of thousands of men to support the Royal cause. The late Countess of Antrim in her delightful account of her husband’s family, which is illustrated with her own cartoons, shows him holding forth, with shining eyes and hands eloquently waving, to Henrietta Maria and her ladies and gentlemen, who are all beaming with delight at the ravishing prospects he is opening up to them amongst the miseries of the Civil War. C.V. Wedgewood in “The King’s War” cleverly encapsulates his flamboyant and engaging character: “The Earl of Antrim … arrived from Ireland, alight with enthusiasm, … (and) had a joyful welcome in Oxford. With his customary ingenuity and luck, he had escaped from his Scottish captors in Ulster, looked in on the Confederate Irish at Kilkenny, offered to command all the forces they sent to England, and now announced himself at Oxford as General in Chief of the Irish. Not until some months later did it become apparent that the Confederates had given him no such appointment.” Posterity, however, has been somewhat unkind to him, for he was not by any means the only person in history to promise troops and then be unable to produce them. Above all we must not forget that it was he who organized the expedition to Scotland of AJasdair MacColla – Sorley’s great-great-nephew. This contribution consisted of only 1100 men plus their wives, children and cattle (Antrim had promised 10,000), but they became the mainstay of Montrose’s army.

In 1649 Charles I was executed and in the same year Catherine died. Antrim himself managed to return to Ulster, but the family gradually ceased to live at Dunluce and withdrew to Glenarm Castle, where they still are. Dunluce was eventually allowed to fall into disrepair. However, it must have remained reasonably habitable and been at least occasionally the family home for some time after that, as Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh and (Catholic) Primate of All Ireland visited Dunluce in 1671 to discuss the appointment of clergy with Antrim. He found some difficulty in doing this, as Antrim objected to all the names on his list. In a letter Plunkett wrote of the Marquis (Ranald had been created Marquis but the title went into abeyance when he died childless, the earldom passing to a brother): “The visitation of the Hebrides remains, but if the Sacred Congregation does not write a letter to the Marquis we shall be able to effect nothing. This nobleman has great influence in these islands, but he is in every respect…. good and prudent, but slow and scrupulous in everything. It is difficult to find people to suit the Marquis of Antrim. I proposed no fewer than twenty priests, but he had something to say against every one of them … A courteous letter to this nobleman commemorating also the piety of his ancestors will be very efficacious in promoting the matter. I was with him three days at his house in Dunluce; it is a noble building, the palace is perched on a high rock which is lashed on every side by the sea.” The daring, charismatic figure of the forties had become circumspect and perhaps a trifle crotchety in his old age. Plunkett was later suspected of being involved in the Popish Plot – the plot that never existed except in the mind of the villainous Titus Oates. As no Irish court would convict the Archbishop he was sent to England for trial and there, after a long imprisonment, was condemned to death. Owing to the very sensitive, not to say hysterical state of England at that time, with Papists feared to be under every bed, the King did not feel himself able to save him and so, ten years after his visit to Ranald at Dunluce, Plunkett was executed.

Ranald himself died only a year after Plunkett, in 1682, at the age of 72. He had remarried, his second wife being Rose O’Neill, daughter of Sir Henry O’Neill of Shane’s Castle, but how much time they spent at Dunluce is not clear.

In 1928 the 7th Earl transferred the castle to the care of the Ministry of Finance for Northern Ireland and since then it has been preserved as an Ancient monument.

But although the MacDonnells are long gone from Dunluce their castle still stands defiantly at the edge of the sea and the wall of its gatehouse still bears one of their galleys incised in its stone. Once I stood there on a day when a strange green mist rose out of the sea, encircling the castle walls and cutting them off from both sea and land, and at other times I have stood there on a clear day and seen the promontories of the north Antrim coast stretching away from me to the east and far away, to the north-east, the faint line of the Scottish coast from which the redshanks came and towards which the galleys of Alasdair MacColla, Montrose’s General, sailed. The sea crashes on the rocks below and the cattle wander over the thick green grass of the Pound. To the west is the Route, the soft low lands, stretching out to the River Bann at Coleraine. To the east are the Glens, the high lands of Antrim, where the rivers flow through deep valleys and the bright fields rush up the hillsides almost to the top, making the cattle and sheep seem to defy the laws of gravity. It is a quiet country of small farms, the sea never very faraway. So quiet that it is difficult, even amongst the tumults of the last 25 years, to remember that these are the lands that Sorley and his descendants struggled for so long to keep at the cost of so much blood.

Sources include:

A Guide to Dunluce Castle. H.M.S.O., 1984
Angela Antrim: The Antrim McDonnells. Ulster Television, 1977
Cahal Dallat: Antrim Coast and Glens. A Personal View. H.M.S.O.. 1990
J. Michael Hill: Fire & Sword. Sorlev Boy MacDonnell and the Rise of Clan Ian Mor (sic) 1538-1590, Athlone Press, 1993
David Stevenson: Scottish Covenanters and Irish Confederates. Ulster Historical Foundation, Belfast 1981
David Stevenson: Alasdair MacColla and the Highland Problem in the Seventeenth Century. John Donald, Edinburgh, 1980
CV Wedgewood: The King’s War 1641-1647. Penguin, 1983