Dunseverick Castle, The Causeway Coast – Saint Patrick, The Vikings, Crusades and Destruction
The ruins of Dunseverick Castle stand on a rocky peninsular reaching out into the ocean. It is about 3 miles east of the Giant’s Causeway in the townland of Feigh in County Antrim. The castle was gifted to the National Trust in 1962 by a local farmer named Jack McCurdy. Dunseverick is nearly 60 miles from Belfast on the stunning north Antrim coast.
No-one knows for sure who had the original castle built or when it was constructed. The 1881 Street Directory states “Dunseverick Castle stands on a rock projecting into the sea…It is said to have been first built in the year of the world 3,668”.
The castle almost certainly began life as a defensive fort. It is recorded that in 1525BC Sobairce, one of the kings of Ireland, built a fortification here Dunsobairce – The Fortress of Sobairce.
“That the insulated rock, on which the Castle of Dunseverick is placed, should, from its peculiar strength, have been selected by the early settlers in Ireland as a proper situation for one of their strongholds, is not to be wondered at; but of that original fortress there is no remains. It was, no doubt, like all the ancient castles of Ireland, either an earthen dun or a cahir, or a circular stone fort, without cement”Dublin Penny Journal Vol 1 No 46 11th May 1833
Dunseverick Castle seems to have been a popular stopping off point for St Patrick on his journeys around Ireland. He is recorded as baptising many people here, including Olcan who later was to found a church in nearby Armoy. Olcan was consecrated a bishop in 474. St Olcan is said to have blessed a well on the banks of Lough Neagh. The spot at Cranfield is still a pilgrimage site.
On the north side of the castle rock is the well where St Patrick baptised his flock, St Patrick’s Well also known as Tubber Phadrick. The rock on which the saint sat to teach was thrown into the well by Cromwellian troops in the seventeenth century.
In the sixth century Dunseverick Castle was the royal seat of Fergus Mor MacErc – Fergus the Great.
Fergus was the king of Dal Riada. His kingdom stretched from north Antrim over the sea to part of the Inner Hebrides and Argyll (Coast of the Gaels) in Scotland. Fergus was a close relation (either brother or uncle) to Murtagh MacErc, High King of Ireland.
As proof of this friendship, in 500AD, Fergus set sail from Dunseverick to Scotland for his coronation, having borrowed the Lia Fail – The Stone of Destiny, for the event. The Lia Fail sits on the Hill of Tara and was the coronation stone for the ancient High Kings of Ireland. Fergus was favoured indeed.
The Irish Annals record the Fort of Dunseverick being attacked by Vikings in the year 871 and again in 924. The fort was breeched and plundered but subsequently rebuilt.
Dunseverick was held by the O’Cahan family for over 300 years, from 1000 – 1320AD. The O’Cahan Irish name has been anglicised over the centuries to O’Kane or McCain. They were a sept, or group, of the Kinel Owen branch of the northern O’Neills.
Although of lower rank than the O’Neills, they had the honour of inaugurating a new O’Neill chief. The symbolic act of throwing a shoe over the new leader’s head was the sign of their acceptance of his rule. The O’Cahans later regained the castle in the sixteenth century with the help of the MacDonnell and MacQuillan clans.
Turlough and Catriona
Turlough was the son of Kinel Owen, a powerful chief with his headquarters at Dunseverick Castle. As a young man, Turlough joined the army of King Baldwin of Flanders and Godfrey of Bouillon on the Crusades. Turlough was to prove himself a heroic soldier winning acclaim for his bravery in the battle for Antioch and again at the Holy City of Jerusalem.
“Many of the sons of the northern chiefs accompanied young Turlough of Dunseverick. Ere long these young Irishmen proved by deeds that they were second to none in Europe for warlike achievements and feats of arms, and the fame of Ireland was spread abroad as the island of warriors and scholars”Rev Hugh Forde Sketches of Olden Days in Northern Ireland 1923
A Tragic Wedding
However, on returning home to Dunseverick, Turlough discovered that the castle had been captured by Norwegians and his family slain. The only one to survive was his sister Lady Catriona O’Cahan. It is said that one of the leaders of the Norsemen, was captivated by her beauty and even consented to converting to Christianity in order to marry her. However, during the wedding ceremony, Turlough arrived in the castle. He confronted the Norseman and in a fierce fight killed him. At this point the other invaders savagely murdered Turlough. Catriona in grief and despair threw herself off the cliffs.
“And the villagers of olden times oft heard the wailing cry Of the Norsemen and brave young Turlough when waves were running high, And old Dunseveric, gaunt and bare, has no sadder tale of woe Recorded in its annals of the years of long ago"
Destruction of Dunseverick Castle
Dunseverick Castle was captured by General Robert Munro and his Scottish troops in 1642 during the Irish Confederate Wars. Munro imprisoned Gilladuff O’Cahan in Carrickfergus Castle, where he was hanged. Dunseverick castle was finally destroyed by Cromwellian troops in the 1650’s.
The High King’s Road
Dunseverick Castle was one of the key sites of ancient Ireland being situated on one of the five royal roads. Each road or slighe passed through Tara the seat of the High Kings. Slige Midluachra – The High King’s Road, led from the River Liffey to Tara then to Navan Fort County Armagh and ended at Dunseverick.
Dunseverick Castle and earthworks are Scheduled Historic Monuments. The site has not yet been excavated, but it is possible, especially with an aerial view, to make out the large rectangular area enclosed by earthwork banks. The approach to the fort is protected by distinctive wide banks and an external ditch. The basalt stack on which the castle is perched provides excellent natural defences. Although only the gatehouse now survives there is evidence of various structures and rooms and a two storey masonry tower.
While not much remains of this once grand and important fort, Dunseverick Castle is well worth a quick roadside stop if you are on the coastal road. The location and scenery are breath-taking. Other nearby attractions include Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge (seasonal), Dunluce Castle, Ballintoy Harbour, White Park Bay and Bushmills Distillery. The trip should be savoured for the visual and historical treat that it is.
King James 1 granted a royal license to make whiskey at Bushmills in April 1608. Bushmills is the oldest licensed distillery in the world
White Park Bay on the North Coast of Antrim between the fishing villages of Ballintoy and Portbraddon is noted for its ‘singing sands’
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