Dundrum Castle, the village and the beaching of a famous ship

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Dundrum Keep
Dundrum Keep

Building Dundrum Castle

Dundrum Castle, in County Down, was constructed c.1177 by the Anglo-Norman knight John de Courcy, as part of his campaign to subdue Ulster. It is built on a hill looking south over the Bay of Dundrum, west towards Slieve Croob and east over the plains of Lecale. A strong strategic site it also controlled the main land route between Downpatrick and Drogeda.

Given its commanding position, it is clear that the castle was built on an earlier Celtic fortification. The original castle probably had earthen defences and a wooden keep, but it was quickly enclosed with strong stone walls. It is believed that the polygonal curtain wall was in place by the 1180’s and this was reinforced by a deep ditch.

Hugh De Lacy

In 1204 de Courcy was expelled from the castle by another Norman adventurer Hugh de Lacy, who was granted the title Earl of Ulster. In 1210, fearing the growing strength of these nominally loyal Norman lords in Ireland; the English King John captured Dundrum Castle. However, de Lacy was permitted to return to the earldom in 1226, under the favour of the new king, Henry III

Under de Lacy’s tenure the castle was fortified and a large circular stone keep was built. This was a tower within the castle walls and would have provided accommodation for the lord’s family. The remains of a fireplace flue and a spiral staircase suggest that the keep was three stories high. The Great Chamber had handsome windows with deep window seats and a ‘corbelled’ ceiling. The keep is 46ft in diameter and its walls are 8.5ft thick. It is the strongest place in the castle. In 1260 a new twin-towered gate was added.

Dundrum Castle Tourist Information
Dundrum Castle Tourist Information

Expansion of Dundrum Castle

In the fourteenth century the castle and seven adjoining townlands were in the hands of the Magennis clan of Mourne. This family were an important branch of the Uibh Eachach Cobha, with their headquarters at Iveagh. By the sixteenth century their territory comprised more than half of County Down. They added the second circuit of outer wall for even more protection.

Subsequently Dundrum Castle was held by the MacArtain chiefs, who were cousins of the Magennis’s. These were not peaceful times; the castle was captured and regained in 1517 and again in 1538. It was finally handed over to Lord Mountjoy in 1601 by Phelim Magennis MacArtain. Charles Blount, 8th Baron Mountjoy, acted as Lord Deputy of Ireland in the service of Elizabeth I.

Blundell House

In 1636 the castle was sold to Sir Francis Blundell however he was ousted by the Parliamentarians. When the Blundell family regained Dundrum in the 1660’s much rebuilding was required. At this time they also built an L-shaped mansion house at the south-west corner of the outer bailey, known as Blundell House.

Dundrum Castle Overview
Dundrum Castle Overview

By the nineteenth century Dundrum Castle was in ruins and in 1954 the 7th Marquess of Downshire (who was descended by marriage from the Blundells) placed the historic site in State Care.

Modern Times

In 1959 a well was discovered under the ground floor of the keep. This would explain why the keep was built in this exact location within the walls, as a fresh water supply was essential for the inhabitants of the castle. It would also be invaluable in times of siege.

Dundrum well (from tourist information)
Dundrum well (from tourist information)

A medieval lime kiln was uncovered in 2013. This would have been used to extract quicklime from stones to make mortar.

The Lime Kiln
The Lime Kiln

Whilst in ruins, Dundrum Castle is still an impressive sight. It has been described as “one of Ulster’s most evocative medieval ruins”.   Terence Reeves-Smyth    Irish Castles  1995

 The views of Dundrum Bay and the mountain are breathtaking. The remaining turrets and walls are evidence of its previous grandeur and importance in County Down. Although a peaceful setting today, it is not hard to envisage the battles and struggles that took place here to capture this mighty stronghold.

“I took another castell……called Dundrome, which I assure your lordship, as it standeth, is one of the strongest holds that I ever saw in Ireland”

Lord Grey to Henry III 1539

Dundrum Castle Gallery

Click images to view full size

Dundrum Village

The Castle sits above the picturesque village of Dundrum which is popular for its seafood eateries and walks along the Dundrum Bay shoreline against the backdrop of the Dromara Hills, north of the Mourne Mountains. It is only 4 miles from the busy coastal town of Newcastle and the natural attractions of Tollymore Forest Park.

“Dundrum is a maritime village, in that part of the parish of Kilmegan, which is in the barony of Lecale….The village, which previously consisted of one narrow street, containing only a few houses indifferently built, has been recently much improved by the Marquess of Downshire, who has widened the old street and opened several new lines of road, and has promoted the erection of many neat and comfortable dwelling-houses.  He has also built a spacious and commodious hotel, hot and cold baths, and adjoining the latter a lodging-house for himself, which is occasionally let to strangers during the summer”

Lewis Topographical Dictionary   1837

Stranded in the Bay

On the night of 22nd September 1846, the worlds most famous ship of that time, the SS Great Britain, ran aground and was left stranded on a sandbank in the Dundrum Bay. This was the longest (322ft) passenger ship in the world and had been designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. She was the first iron hulled, steam-powered ocean-going ship, purpose-built for the increasing Trans-Atlantic route.

BRUNEL’S SS GREAT BRITAIN IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT HISTORIC SHIPS IN THE WORLD.

WHEN SHE WAS LAUNCHED IN 1843, SHE WAS CALLED ‘THE GREATEST EXPERIMENT SINCE THE CREATION’.

No one had ever designed so vast a ship, nor had the vision to build it of iron. Brunel fitted her with a 1000 hp steam engine, the most powerful yet used at sea. Perhaps most daring of all, Brunel rejected using conventional paddle wheels to drive his ship. Instead, he gave the SS Great Britain a screw propeller. This was the newest invention in maritime technology. By seeing how to combine these key innovations, Brunel created a ship that changed history.

Brunel’s SS Great Britain – The Ship That Changed the World, Bristol Website

Efforts to Save SS Great Britain

The great steam ship was on only her fifth journey from Liverpool to New York when, due to navigational error, she ran aground in Dundrum’s coastal bay. The passengers and crew were all rescued and found hospitality with the locals until they returned to England.

“To the poor as to the rich in the neighbourhood the grateful thanks of the directors are due, for nothing can exceed the desire to alleviate the misfortunes of all concerned that has been manifested by everyone in the locality”

Capt. Claxton, Managing Director of the Great Western Steamship Company    London Times 28th September 1846

The stricken vessel was a remarkable sight in the bay and many journeyed to Dundrum over the months that followed to watch efforts to get her off the sandbank. The rescue operation to save the mighty ship took nearly a year and was a difficult and very expensive job – indeed it bankrupted the company who owned her.

The SS Great Britain was sold to Gibbs Bright & Co and transformed into a steam-clipper taking immigrants to Australia.

Today the great ship is fully restored and a visitor attraction at Bristol’s Floating Harbour.

Visiting Dundrum Today

Dundrum is just less than 30 miles from Belfast. It has a free car park and there is no charge to visit the castle and grounds. The impressive views of sea and mountain views makes the castle an ideal picnic spot on a warm day. Some areas of the castle may be inaccessible to those with mobility issues.

Dundrum Castle was the subject of the popular archaeological television series Time Team, first broadcast on 24th February 2013.

Address: Dundrum Castle, 2 Castle Road, Dundrum, Newcastle, County Down BT33 0NF

Dundrum Castle - Dublin Penny Journal
Dundrum Castle – Dublin Penny Journal

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