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View of Dunluce Castle, County Antrim, Ireland

Scientists find 15th century town near historic Irish castle

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Archaeologists have excavated a home in what may have been the site of a small 15 th century town near a historic Irish castle that was later the ground for a battle between the MacDonnell family and troops sent by Queen Elizabeth I in the 17 th century.

The scientists were searching for a lost 17 th century town near Dunluce Castle in Northern Ireland, near the Giant’s Causeway World Heritage site.

Black basalt columns of the Giant's Causeway, a natural formation, in Northern Ireland, near Dunluce

Black basalt columns of the Giant's Causeway, a natural formation, in Northern Ireland, near Dunluce (Wikimedia Commons photo by Man vyi)

They did radiocarbon dating of a fireplace they unearthed and were surprised to find that it is from the late 15 th century and may be part of a settlement around the castle. The home had a doorway in the corner, which was not normal for structures of the time. The home may date to around the time the MacQuillan clan built the castle.

Mark H. Durkan, environment minister for Northern Ireland, told

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.

Up to now we knew there was a substantial 17th century settlement in the fields around Dunluce.

What we are now beginning to uncover are traces of earlier and extensive late medieval settlement activity which are equally as important as the remains of the 17th century Dunluce Town.

Durkan called the discovery of the earlier town exciting. He said very few homes from the 15 th century are standing in Ireland unless they are constructed entirely of stone.

The excavated home with the doorway in the corner.

The excavated home with the doorway in the corner. (Northern Ireland Environmental Agency photo)

The castle is on cliffs overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean. Its earliest parts date to the 14 th century. The majority of the castle visible date to the 1500s and 1600s. At that time it was home to the MacQuillans and later the MacDonnells, who were descendants of a Scottish clan, says  The family was constantly in conflict to control the Route, an area of North Antrim between the rivers Bush and Bann.

The castle overlooks the Atlantic Ocean in the far north of the Irish island

The castle overlooks the Atlantic Ocean in the far north of the Irish island (Flickr photo by Sitomon) says:

The MacDonnells rose to become the most dominant family of The Route and the Glens of Antrim, but they fell into conflict with the English Crown. In 1584, Queen Elizabeth Ist sent the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir John Perrot, to deal with the growing power of the MacDonnells. He laid siege to Dunluce and successfully took the castle. It was granted back to Sorley Boy MacDonnell in 1586 after he pledged his allegiance to Elizabeth, but the MacDonnells rose in rebellion again during The Nine Years War.

After defeat in the 1601 Battle of Insale, Randal MacDonnell surrendered, was pardoned and went on to prosper when King James VI succeeded Elizabeth I. He brought many Scottish settlers  to the area and established a town for them at Dunluce. The prosperity ended in the during the rebellions of the mid-17 th century, when his son forfeited Dunluce and his lands.

The Nine Years' War lasted from 1688 to 1697. It was a major war fought mainly on the European mainland between various nations and alliances, but there were also hostilities in Ireland.

After the Restoration of the Monarchy, King Charles II regranted the castle and town back to the MacDonnells, but the castle was in disrepair.

The archaeologists have found artifacts in the ground at the dwelling, including pottery shards and a merchant’s seal matrix.

Merchant's seal matrix

Merchant's seal matrix (Northern Ireland Environmental Agency photo)

Archaeologists uncovered the lost town of Dunluce, dating back to 1608, from 2009 to 2012. That town was destroyed by conflict. They are planning a major dig at the site to find more of the buried town and the castle gardens.

A previous environment minister called Dunluce “little Pompei” because of its historic value.

Featured image: View of Dunluce Castle, County Antrim, Ireland (Wikimedia Commons photo by Osioni)

By Mark Miller

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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