Wednesday 14 January 2015

'Lost' medieval town of Dunluce reveals its real age

Perched atop a rocky cliff on the Antrim Coast, Dunluce Castle
was the 15th-century fortress of the MacQuillans until they were
displaced by the MacDonalds in the mid-1500s.
A recent archaeological dig in the fields around Dunluce Castle has revealed that the area had been settled much earlier than expected. A previous excavation, carried out by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency between 2009 and 2012, uncovered the so-called 'lost' town of Dunluce and dated it to 1608, but these later discoveries move the settlement clock back to the late 15th to 16th century.

Environment Minister Mark Durkan described the recent find as "a tremendously exciting historical development".

"Traces of buildings were unearthed close to the cliffs upon which the castle was built," he said. "These buildings most likely formed a small settlement, just outside the original castle gate. They pre-date the later expansion of the castle complex and development of 17th-century Dunluce Town. We are extremely lucky to make this exciting discovery.

"Very few 15th century buildings, other than those built entirely from stone, have survived in Ulster and normally there would be few traces, if any, for archaeologists to investigate.”

A further important discovery was made in a field to the east of the castle. This area was targeted for excavation as it was expected that remains of the 17th century town survived there. The archaeologists found the remains of a stone-built structure that had a doorway at the corner, which is quite different to the 17th-century buildings revealed to date. A fireplace in the building has been scientifically dated to the late 15th century. This leads archaeologists to suspect an earlier phase of settlement.

The radiocarbon date, obtained from a fireplace on the clay floor of the structure, suggests a construction date in the late 15th century, around the time the MacQuillans were building the castle. Pottery that dates from the late medieval period was also recovered from the structure. This has significant implications for current understanding of the settlement history at Dunluce and provides new avenues for research to explore as part of future investigations at Dunluce.

The upstanding remains of Dunluce Castle are believed to have been originally built and occupied by the Irish MacQuillan family in the last decades of the 15th century. From this strong fortress they controlled a territory on the north Antrim coast known as The Route which stretched along the coast between the rivers Bann and Bush. Their Scottish neighbours in the Glens of Antrim, the MacDonnells, gradually displaced them from the Route and took over Dunluce Castle in the 1550s.

During the era of the Ulster Plantation at the beginning of the 17th century the MacDonnells embarked on their own ambitious plantation enterprise, founding the small town of Dunluce in the process. Randal MacDonnell went on to become the first earl of Antrim in 1620. The town flourished until January 1642 when it was burnt, following the outbreak of conflict in 1641. The town never successfully recovered and was effectively abandoned by the 1680s.

Plans are currently in preparation for a major project to reveal the buried remains of the town and the castle gardens to the public with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund.