6 min read

Dunseverick Castle

Along the North Coast of Northern Ireland is a ruin that you'd miss if you weren't looking for it. Dunseverick Castle.
Dunseverick Castle
Looking out to Rathlin Island, Sheep Island to the right and the Mull of Kintyre in the background

Sure, it's not as grand as the ruins of Dunluce, and no tie in with Holywood blockbusters, but it is a place steeped in the history of Ireland. All that's left are the remains of a small tower, the Castle itself lost to time and the sea.

Before getting to these places I love to take in the area - visiting historical places is great but it's better to spend time about the place, soaking in the environment. For me it's then a much more immesive experience when you reach the destination.

Dooey's Cairn, Antrim

On my way up to the coast I stopped off at Dooey's cairn, much older than Dunseverick. It's named after the farmer that gave the land to the Government to protect the stones. Dating anywhere from 4000to 2000BC it's a good example of a court tomb, used to cremate and bury the dead during the Neolithic era. The cremation passage is the only one of it's type in Ireland.

It's a U-shaped forecourt that leads into a small chamber. Behind the chamber is a cremation passage, containing three pits, one of them held the remains of several individuals.

Heading on up the coast to Dunseverick, in ancient times this was the High Kings Road, Slige Midluachra - one of the five great royal highways, or slighe of ancient Ireland. They all connected to Tara, the ancient seat of the High Kings. It ran North through Eamhain Mhacha (Navan Fort in Armagh) and ended at Dunseverick Castle.

The Glens of Antrim

Driving up the coast looking and you'll see Rathlin Island, the only populated offshore island in the North. Up until the 1960s the Irish language was spoken here and was likely the main community language into the start of the 20th century. A tangible connection to Scotland, you see Kintyre in the background and the dialect found on Rathlin shared many features of both the Irish and Sottish Gaelic. Rathlin was also the site of the first Viking raids on Ireland, and most famously, it's known as where Robert the Bruce sought refuge.

Thought I'd walk a few miles of the Causeway Coast before reaching Dunseverick Castle. This area, along with most of Antrim, in the 6th Century was ruled by the Dal Riada Scotti - Scot was a word used to describe any member of the Gaelic speaking world and originally Scotia referred to Ireland.  

The Causeway Coastal Path

Of course, much of this time is not recorded and it's hard to separate the myths of origin from any facts. The Dal Riada were under pressure it seems from their western counterparts, the Ui Neill clan. At some point in the 5th century the Dal Riada migrated in large numbers to the western coast of Pictland. Looking at the roots of the word Argyll, Arregaithil, which in Gaelic is Erra-Ghaidheal, meaning the bounds of the Gaels (Scots) from Ireland. It must have been a home from home, looking across the sea you can make out the colours of the fields on a clear day. Even with expansion they held onto Antrim for a while with Dunseverick an important place in Ireland.

The Causeway Coast

The Causeway coast is a stunning walk. Looking across you imagine forests and in the foreground, on the outcrop, the Castle standing watch over the sea.

"Rotheacht having been seven years king of Ireland, was burned by lightning in Dunsobhairce. It was by this Rotheacht that chariots of four horses were first established in Ireland."
Annals of the Four Masters.

As I said there's not much left of the Castle, a couple of walls from a gate tower. Time to exercise the imagination. 1,500 years ago this was the seat of a fledging Kingdom. One that would go on to merge with Pictland, creating Alba and later, Scotland.

The name Dunseverick comes from Dún Sobhairce, meaning the Fort of Sobhairce. According to legend Sobhairce was the joint high King of Ireland, along with his brother, Cermna Finn. They were the first Kings to come from the North East, the Uliad.

It seems every site you visit has links to St Patrick though there does seem to be some truth in this case as he baptized Olcán, who became a Bishop of Ireland.

"and at DUIN SEBUIRGI sat upon a rock, which is called St. Patrick's rock to this day, and there he consecrated holy Olcan bishop, whom he himself had educated, and he returned into the plain of Eilne, and erected many other churches."

The Book of Armagh - Life Of St Patrick

The Castle was surrounded on 3 sides by the sea, perched on a steep Basalt stack and around the sides are traces of old walls, buildings on the perimeter perhaps.

Another interesting link with Dunseverick and Scotland is the Stone of Destiny, used to crown Kings and Queens on the British Isles for centuries. One tale is that it was in Ireland, having been brought here from Spain. Fergus Mór mac Eirc, Fergus the Great, was King of the Dal Raida and the first King of The Scots. It's said he took the Lia Fáil, the Irish stone of destiny used to coronate the High Kings of Ireland at Tara, to Scotland. Not long after Fergus's coronation in Scotland, he and his inner circle were caught in a freak storm off the County Antrim coast in which all perished. The stone remained in Scotland, which is why Murtagh MacEirc is recorded in history as the last Irish King to be crowned on it.

After the Kingdom of Dal Raida, the Irish Annals say the site was attacked twice by the Vikings around 871 and 924 AD

I was lucky the day I went up, an archaelogical dig was taking place. Looking at one of the trenches I was able to see what looks like a part of an old wall. Loved being able to look at a little bit of history uncovered.

In 1642 the Castle was destroyed by a Scottish army under the command of General Robert Munro,  then the final account of the castle’s capture and destruction is by Cromwellian troops in the 1650s and that was it for Dunseverick. Abandoned and now the area is managed by the National Trust. I'm glad because its an area that needs preserving.