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Friday 27 January 2023 Dublin: 4°C
# winter is coming
Heritage Ireland: This may be the most stunning location for a castle
Archaeologist Neil Jackman tours Dunluce Castle in Antrim, the ‘least-understood’ of the Boyne Valley tombs, and the wonderful Drumcliff in Sligo.

THERE’S STILL A chance to enjoy the glory of autumn in the next few weeks – and here are some fantastic Irish historical spots to visit on your trip!

Dunluce Castle, Co Antrim

Spectacularly positioned on the cliffs overlooking the North Atlantic, Dunluce Castle has to be one of the most picturesque heritage sites on the island. The earliest parts of the castle are thought to date to the 14th century, but the majority of visible remains date to the 16th and 17th centuries, when it was the fortress of the MacQuillans and later the MacDonnells, who were descended from a powerful Scottish clan.

These families were embroiled in near constant conflict to control the area of North Antrim known as ‘The Route’ which extended between the Rivers Bann and Bush.

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 the crushing defeat at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, Randal MacDonnell surrendered and received a pardon. He prospered when King James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth to the English throne. Randal brought large numbers of Scottish settlers to the area as part of the Plantation of Ulster.

He established a new town for his settlers here at Dunluce. However the prosperous years of the MacDonnells of Dunluce would soon end, as his son, (also called Randall), forfeited Dunluce and his lands during the rebellions of the mid-17th century.

Following the Restoration of the Monarchy, King Charles II regranted Dunluce back to the MacDonnells, however by then the castle had fallen into disrepair.

It was abandoned as a main residence and quickly fell into ruin. Today it is a stunning site to visit with simply incredible views. You can find it along the scenic Causeway Coastal Route (A2 road). For information about opening hours and entry fees please visit here. Please note that it is free entry for anyone bearing a valid OPW Heritage Card.

Dowth, Co Meath 

Dowth 2

The Boyne Valley is one of the most important archaeological landscapes in the world and this region sheltered in a bend of the River Boyne, is home to three massive Neolithic passage tombs; Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. A number of smaller tombs and features of huge importance are also contained within this area, but in this article I’ll be focusing on Dowth – perhaps the least understood of the three major tombs. Dowth is located around 2km northeast of Newgrange.

Unlike Newgrange and Knowth, Dowth has never been properly excavated by archaeologists so there is far less known about the site. However in the middle of the 19th century, an extremely large hole was dug into the top of the mound by antiquarians.

Dowth is thought to be around 5000 years old. It measures approximately 85 metres in diameter and is ringed by 115 kerbstones, some of which display megalithic art. Two tombs are known at the western side of the large mound at Dowth and the setting sun in winter seems to illuminate the southernmost of these. Unfortunately, on the day we visited, we couldn’t access the passageways of the tombs as they were behind locked gates.

Dowth was known in early literature as Dubad and Sid mBresail (the otherworld mound of Bresal). The medieval manuscripts known as Dindseanchas explains how Dowth (Dubad) got its name. They tell the story of how all the men of Ireland were commanded by the king to come together for just one day to build a tower that would reach the heavens.


The king’s sister secretly used magic and stopped the sun in the sky so that there would be an endless day. As time wore on the men of Ireland became exhausted and realised that they had been tricked.

However the magic spell was broken when the King and his sister committed incest. Darkness swiftly covered theland and work on the great mound was abandoned, it was said that Dubad (darkness) would be the name of this place from that day.

Dowth is free to access and there are no on-site guides, though the nearby Brú na Bóinne visitor centre gives a really good overview of the archaeology and history of these fascinating sites. A day out to the visitor centre to see Newgrange and Knowth and then a short drive to see Dowth is a really atmospheric and rewarding day, I highly recommend it! For more information on the Visitor Centre please see here.

Drumcliff monastic site, Co Sligo

The important early medieval monastery of Drumcliff, now divided in two by the busy main road, is thought to have been founded in the late 6th century.

Today the main visible reminders of the importance of the monastery are a high cross (that probably dates to the eleventh century) and the remains of a round tower. The high cross is a particularly fine example, and it has elaborate depictions of Biblical scenes from the Old and New Testament.

These crosses were often used to help to illustrate some of the key stories of the Bible to the largely illiterate congregation.

The churchyard at Drumcliff has the honour of being the final resting place of William Butler Yeats (1865–1939). WB Yeats had an incredibly prolific career as a writer of the highest possible distinction, and served two terms in the Seanad. He died in Menton, France on 18 January 1939.

He was buried after a discreet and private funeral in France, as his final request had been, “If I die bury me up there at Roquebrune, and then in a years time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo”.

His wish was granted and in September 1948, his remains were reburied here at Drumcliff. The words of his epitaph are taken from the last lines of Under Ben Bulben, one of his final poems:

Cast a cold eyeOn life, on death.Horseman, pass by!

To hear more of his story try my free audioguide, The Sligo Heritage Trail.

In the words of Ned Stark, ‘Winter is coming’, so this is the penultimate edition of my Heritage Ireland series for this year. In the final edition I’ll be suggesting some of my favourite sites around the country to visit. I’d love to hear your suggestions; if you have a favourite heritage site please leave a comment below.

You can discover more great heritage sites and places on Neil’s blog, Time Travel Ireland.

Neil has also produced an acclaimed series of audioguides to Ireland’s heritage sites, they are packed with original music and sound effects and a really fun and immersive way of exploring Ireland’s past.

You can find guides to places like Glendalough, the Hill of Tara, Viking and medieval Dublin, and you can discover the history of towns like Portlaoise, Cloughjordan, Kildare, Portarlington and Kells. They are available from

If you’d like to receive daily updates about great heritage sites then please consider following us on FacebookTwitter and Google+.

All photographs © Neil Jackman /