Dramatically poised on a cliff overlooking the sea in Northern Ireland, Dunluce Castle is undoubtedly one of the best castles in Ireland. But the sheer drop-offs surrounding the castle on every side still couldn’t protect it from being conquered by the fearsome MacDonnell clan.
Unfortunately, the castle was so precariously perched that the kitchen literally fell into the sea during a particularly bad storm and the beautiful 16th-century structure was abandoned. However, even in its ruined state, or perhaps because of it, Dunluce Castle has been used in movies and TV shows looking to showcase incredible scenery and a bit of drama.
Here is how to visit and what to see at Dunluce Castle.
The earliest written record of Dunluce Castle dates back to 1513, though the foreboding structure was probably built a few years earlier around 1500. The castle perched on a cliff in what is now northern County Antrim was built by the MacQuillan family – but they were unable to hold onto their dramatic castle for very long.
In the 1550s, the MacDonnell family seized Dunluce Castle for themselves. The castle was conquered by the Scottish clan’s famous chieftain, Sorley Boy. Because Dunluce is surrounded by sheer drop-offs on every side, the warrior chief had to get an accomplice on the inside. He arranged to have heavily armed soldiers pulled up into attacking position by being hoisted up inside a basket that hung over the side of the cliff.
The MacDonnells reinforced their newly acquired castle and most of the walls and towers that still stand were built on Sorley Boy’s orders.
By the 1600s, Dunluce Castle was being used as the seat of the earls of County Antrim and a small town grew around the castle in 1608.
Sadly, Dunluce’s awe-inspiring setting atop the sheer cliffs was not without its risks. In 1639, the castle’s kitchen fell into the sea when the land under the unlucky room eroded and tumbled into the ocean. Local legend says that all the cooks and servants were lost along with this part of the house, except for one boy who was on his way to work when the kitchen disappeared in front of his eyes.
After the collapse, Dunluce Castle was abandoned to the elements, and it did not take long for the Northern Ireland storms to take their toll. Only a few stone walls still stand today.
Even though Dunluce Castle lies in ruins, it is still enough to inspire royal daydreams. In its more recent history, it has been used as a filming location for movies and even served as the House of Greyjoy in Game of Thrones.
What to See
Dunluce Castle is in ruins and is not restored. However, this rough state adds to the overall atmosphere of the castle. Rather than formal exhibits, artifacts are displayed in glass cases, roped off with velvet, among the ruined walls.
You will be given a handout to guide you through the castle and will also be able to stop to read plaques with historical information as you tour the main grounds. For more background on the castle, the small visitor’s center has a short video and some interactive exhibits aimed at younger visitors.
The main attraction is the castle itself, which can only be accessed via a narrow bridge leading to its clifftop location. Once there, you are free to roam through the ruins and take in the spectacular views out over the sea.
There is also helpful free app, available for iPhone and Android, that uses computer-generated imagery (CGI) to show how the castle would have looked in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is ideal for helping to better imagine what the now-ruined structure once looked like. (The app does need to be updated for newer devices).
Finally, there is parking available near the visitor’s center, as well as a small tea room that is creatively named Wee Café for snacks and drinks.
Location and How to Visit
Dunluce Castle can be found on the Antrim coast in Northern Ireland. The castle is about 3 miles outside of the village of Portrush, and all the coastal buses stop at this major landmark. The castle is a quick drive from Bushmills – just put 87 Dunluce Road into your map app to find it off the A2.
Dunluce Castle is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., except on Christmas Day and Boxing Day (25 and 26 December). You can buy tickets to access the site when you arrive – but keep in mind that the last entrance is at 3:30 pm.
What Else to Do Nearby
Located underneath the ruins of Dunluce Castle is a sea cave known as Mermaid’s Cave. The rocky tunnel is a natural phenomenon but it was probably once used for escapes and attacks against the castle. It acts as a kind of tunnel leading to the crashing waves but is almost invisible from above.
One of Ireland’s top things to see, the Giant’s Causeway, is a short drive away. The natural wonder is a World Heritage site made up of 40,000 stone columns that formed thanks to volcanic activity a mere 60 million years ago.
Plan ahead and pre-book a ticket to walk across Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, a little further away up the Antrim coast. The exhilarating walkway links the mainland with a tiny island that was once an important outpost for salmon fishermen.