Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Ramble Around Ireland #9:
Dunluce Castle & Ghosts of My Past

I had visited Ireland twice before I ever began digging around into my ancestry, tracing roots and branches of my vast family tree. Upon my research I discovered that I was a descendant of the MacQuillan clan of Antrim. Luckily for me, these MacQuillans left their mark in Ireland and it still stands today clinging impossibly to craggy ocean cliffs. They built the oldest parts of Dunluce Castle near Portrush, Northern Ireland. In fact, I had been to Dunluce Castle. I had toured it, ran my hands along the weathered rock, explored it. I had walked in fields near it, tufted in moss and wind-blown grass, peppered with gorse in full bloom. I even felt compelled to sit on the soft ground and lay back on the earth watching the play of sun and cloud, feeling the strong wind blow over me. When I unearthed that gem digging around my family tree, I was stunned that I had walked so near the footfalls of ancestors. I longed to return again one day. Last October I got my chance.  

MacQuillan Tower

Following in the footsteps of those before me, descending the stairs in a round tower built by MacQuillans.

As the photos reveal, Dunluce Castle is strategically located on an ocean cliff. Around 1500, MacQuillans built part of what remains today of Dunluce Castle including the North-East and South-East round towers and curtain wall. Unfortunately, it would be a short lived residence for the MacQuillans for in the 1550s they were ousted out of their castle by a rival clan - the MacDonnells (who also built Kinbane Castle). Nevertheless, the MacQuillans left their mark on the landscape of Northern Ireland, in their storied history, and in legend and lore.

Two MacQuillan Round Towers
I've unearthed a few legends and hauntings as I've dug around this history. The northeast tower is know as Maeve's Tower and of course, Maeve has a story. Maeve Roe was the daughter of MacQuillan Chieftain and as many sad stories go, Maeve was betrothed to marry Rory Oge O'Cahan. But she was in love with another. It is said that she and her lover met frequently under the Wishing Arch. She refused to marry Rory and was thus locked in the tower by her father until she agreed to wed. But her father had a heart and planned to have her tower unlocked and to be away long enough for her to elope with her lover without hurting his dignity or losing allies. She escaped the castle and met her lover in the Mermaid's Cave below the castle. In the end, the power of the sea overcame them. Her lover's dead body was found washed up the following day. Maeve was never seen again. Her tower is said to be haunted by a banshee - Maeve's restless spirit.

Wishing Arch viewed from Castle

Sketchy entrance to cave - larger than it appears.
Sometimes you must throw caution to the wind.

I did not know this cave existed upon our first visit. And before we returned I found it hard to find any useful information about it. So here is what I've gathered. It is called the Mermaid's Cave though I've found no folklore related to Mermaids  but I can see why Mermaids would frequent the place. There is path made of 118 stairs that you can take down below the castle's level. Once you are down you will see the no entry sign, which for liability reasons probably must exist. The cave, however, is far from the castle and any staff, it could be accessed even after the castle grounds are closed. In fact, if you time it right, you'll be the only one down there. There is a little muddy slope to get into the cave, which is actually a tunnel into the sea. I got down and up reasonably easy without help. If it is incredibly wet and muddy I can see where there might be trouble getting back up. I made a point not to get my shoes wet from the ocean to ensure footing on the way out. Also, I know little about tides, but I could tell that the ocean wasn't coming in very far when I was there. This is something to consider.  I cannot give you permission to explore this secret but I can give you encouragement: it was most incredible. The sea shining in the keyhole, the waves crashing, knocking to enter. It was a spectacular cavern of sound and surf, ancient things still sculpting the land.

I feel lucky indeed to have had the opportunity to visit Dunluce (twice!) and learn of my ancestry in this fantastic way. It was a peculiar thing to walk where ancestors did, into rooms and over thresholds that they built yet still not knowing their whole story. History has lost so many details. Time has cloaked their lives in mist and sea spray and I must use what is left, what is visible of their shrouded story to fill in what records have forgotten. 

Keyhole view to the ocean, through which the surf is crashing. A view into my past.
Where legend has it, Maeve Roe MacQuillan met her lover and untimely end.  


Dunluce Castle History and Archaelogy by Colin Breen
All photo and video copyright Abby Nolan 2010, 2015

No comments: