Rediscovering the lost town of Dunluce Castle – heritage, community engagement and sustainability in Northern Ireland
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Ulster
Unit of AssessmentEarth Systems and Environmental Sciences
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Archaeology, Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
An archaeological research project that led to the discovery of a buried
and forgotten 17th-century town of international importance
adjacent to Dunluce Castle on the north coast of Ireland has led to the
development of school and community based archaeological initiatives in
Northern Ireland and Scotland, changes in school curricula in NI, and
significant investment in heritage preservation and tourism by the NI
government and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Specifically, the HLF has
provided £300k of funding to develop a £5m bid for development of the
site, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) and the Northern Ireland
Environment Agency (NIEA) have invested £208k for new interpretation and
improved facilities, and the NIEA has spent £200k to buy the adjacent land
beside the castle which contain the buried town and associated structures
and to facilitate the expansion of a major research project led by the
University of Ulster. Additionally, to date 27 schools and 18 different
community groups have participated in an archaeological excavation program
based at Dunluce; as a consequence 4 of the latter have received AHRC
funding to continue their community based archaeological work.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Dunluce Castle in Northern Ireland
was at the centre of a maritime lordship controlled by the MacDonnells
that spread from northeast Ulster to the Western Isles of Scotland before
it was brought under centralised government control. It played a
significant role in the socio-economic and political life of both areas
and familial connections from the medieval period remain evident in
today's communities. A 5 year programme of excavation and survey work led
by Dr. Colin Breen (lecturer / senior lecturer at the University of Ulster
since 1999), and funded by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, was
initiated at Dunluce Castle in 2008 examining these past connections.
Prior to this project little was known about the material culture and
lifeways that bound these past peoples together. This ambitious
undertaking was the first large-scale project to address the historical
archaeology of the late medieval period of this region.
Dunluce Castle is one of Ireland's most substantial and best preserved
medieval castle complexes but, surprisingly, had not been previously
studied in any systematic way. The architecture of the Castle illustrates
the complexity of Ireland's political, economic and cultural life during
the medieval period and the building expresses the complex broader
cultural influences of this area (Breen, 2012a).
Excavations within the castle uncovered an early sequence of cultural
activity dating back to the Iron Age. The undisturbed remains of an early
17-century town, discovered outside the castle walls by Breen in 2008,
represent one of the best preserved examples of the period, unparalleled
across the globe in terms of its preservation. The key research findings
from this project have revealed that the settlement was one of the
earliest examples of a regionally planned town in the early modern period
and the archaeology has provided key insights into the functioning and
structure of society at the close of the middle ages. They have also shown
that this urban site was established a number of years earlier than the
official Plantation of County Londonderry, supported by the Crown in
London, and this result significantly alters the official histories of
early 17th-century Ulster. This settlement should be understood
as part of a broader cultural process within the context of British
colonial expansion and the newly founded towns and settlements across
north America such as at Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English
settlement in the New World.
Insights into this `unofficial' plantation by Randal MacDonnell can only
be provided by archaeology due to the paucity of surviving historical
sources (Breen, 2012b).To support the emerging cultural insights from the
Dunluce project further investigations subsequently took place at Kinbane,
Ballylough and Ballyreagh castles in north Ulster and at both Dunstaffnage
castle and Dun Mhuirich in Argyll and at Dun Cholla on Colonsay (Breen et
al., 2010). Each of these sites provided a detailed regional context for
later medieval societal and landscape change and significantly enhanced
our understandings of that period (Breen 2012b; Forsythe et al., 2012).
This research highlights the significance of the historic built heritage
and associated material culture across both localities, which have been
neglected and undervalued resources, and is examining ways by which the
better utilisation of this resource can contribute to building more
resilient and sustainable societies.
References to the research
1. Breen, Colin (2012a) Dunluce Castle; archaeology and history.
Four Courts Press. Dublin. 230 pp ISBN 978-1-84682-373-2.
2. Breen, Colin (2012b) `Randal MacDonnell and early
seventeenth-century settlement in northeast Ulster, 1603-30'. In: The
Plantation of Ulster: ideology and practice. (Eds: O Siochru, Micheal and
O Ciardha, Eamonn), Manchester University Press, Manchester, pp. 143-157.
3. Breen, C, Forsythe, W, Raven, J. and Rhodes, D. (2010)
`Dunstaffnage Castle, Argyll'. Proceedings of the Scottish Antiquaries
4. Forsythe, Wes, Donnelly, Colm and Breen, Colin (2012)
`The later Medieval Period'. In: Rathlin Island: An Archaeological Survey
of a Maritime Landscape. The Stationery Office, Belfast , pp. 150-172.
Details of the impact
From the outset community engagement was a core element of the Dunluce
project. The successful research facilitated the development of an
innovative parallel programme of public participation and outreach. A
substantial portion of the excavation programme during 2009 was linked to
community participation through tours, workshops and joint excavations,
known as `The Big Dig'1, which was organised by Breen and the
Causeway Museums Service (CMS). Twenty seven schools from across Northern
Ireland and Republic of Ireland participated in a quarter of the
excavations at Dunluce, with half of them returning in subsequent years.
Eight community development groups were also involved. As a result of the
success of the community group involvement CMS was awarded £200k NEP Peace
III funding for further heritage projects.2
Involvement in this process, both in Northern Ireland and Scotland, has
enhanced cross community knowledge and understanding, developed community
heritage research skills and initiated new community-led heritage based
projects. Through the AHRC Connected Communities program, Breen
established a researcher network across Ulster and Western Scotland
including Queen's University, Belfast, Historic Scotland, Northern Ireland
Environment Agency, Kilmartin House Museum and a diverse range of schools
and community groups.3,4,5
An evaluation session carried out by Corrymeela Peace centre in
Ballycastle and the Causeway Museum Service after the Peace III 7a (2010)
"Cultural Connections: 1613-2013 The Legacy of Plantation" project (in
which Breen took part) highlighted the impact of the community-led
heritage projects on the community. Some of the responses are listed
"I will be going back into the community with more knowledge and a
desire for even more. I am enthused, willing to spread my knowledge and
challenge misconceptions in the community".
"I want to go and do more, get more involved, question the facts and
Four of the groups involved during the earlier work at Dunluce and the
Cultural Connections funded research have gone on to receive `All Our
Stories' Heritage Lottery funding (~£30k total) to continue heritage-led
development initiatives both in Scotland and Ireland. Two of the primary
schools, Millstrand Integrated Primary, Portrush, NI, and Tayvallich,
Argyll, Scotland, have formally introduced heritage and heritage fieldwork
into their school curricula.
The archaeological research at Dunluce has also significantly enhanced
its economic and tourist performance. The Castle has been a major tourist
attraction since the 19th century and remains the most visited
archaeological site in Northern Ireland. The summer excavations carried
out by Dr. Colin Breen at Dunluce began in 2008 and were completed in
2010; they resulted in an increase in the number of annual summer visitors
to the site by 4986 at the excavation peak in 2009.
The increase in visitor numbers during the research and excavation
programme at Dunluce coupled with recognition of the unique significance
and potential of Dunluce resulting from the research programme led to the
NITB, under the Tourist Development Scheme 2010-2011, and the NIEA
investing £104k each in interpretation and visitor facilities at the site6.
These facilities were informed and supported by the information gathered
throughout the research project. Dr Breen was the lead historical advisor
for the exhibit and fronts a 15 minute onsite video as part of it.6
According to the Minister for the Environment in Northern Ireland (Alex
Attwood) at the launch of this exhibit in July 2011:
"Dunluce has a fantastic story to tell, full of intrigue, plotting and
rebellion. This new exhibition makes the turbulent history of the Castle
accessible to everyone and shows what daily life would have been like
for those living here in the early 1600s. It also displays some of the
superb finds from the archaeological excavations carried out in the Lost
Town of Dunluce over the last three summers.
"Just last month archaeologists unveiled new discoveries from the
town, including the footings of several stone and wooden houses, a
beautifully preserved roadway, jewellery and pottery. We hope to have
some of these archaeological gems on display here soon.
"I am hoping to make progress in acquiring the lands that make up the
lost village of Dunluce and explore / exhaust potential heritage and
other funding to open up this little piece of Pompeii on the Antrim
The combination of the university-led research and the success of the
engagement programme resulted in the Northern Ireland Environment Agency
significantly changing its policy towards the built heritage resource in
Northern Ireland. Using Dunluce as an potential model of future
development led the organisation to employing 2 staff at the University of
Ulster to work directly on developing a Dunluce development funding
application6 and to investing £200k in 2012 to purchase lands
adjacent to the Castle which contain the buried 17th-century
town, affording them State Care protection.6,10 The potential
for development of Dunluce as a centre of excellence in heritage
management and community education and participation was recognised by
Minister Atwood as its development was made a ministerial target.8,9
At the launch of Breen's book on Dunluce Castle in August 2012, Minister
"The book and Dunluce form part of the narrative of the Causeway Coast
- they demonstrate why we need to protect and develop the assets and to
do so now, sustainably and create jobs. The Northern Ireland Environment
Agency is delighted to have a monument of the calibre of Dunluce Castle
in its care. The archaeological excavations which inspired this book has
added greatly to our knowledge of Dunluce Castle, and for the public to
have the opportunity to see those excavations, and even take part in
them, was hugely exciting.
"The Agency purchased lands beside Dunluce Castle earlier this year.
This is the first step in what we anticipate will be an ambitious,
exciting and engaging project of excavation, interpretation and
conservation of the castle and the early 17th century town that was
excavated outside the castle gates-the `lost town of Dunluce'. Not so
many years from now, our own little Pompeii could be revealed for all to
see and marvel." 10
Breen also worked with the NIEA board on the best options for sustainable
heritage management at Dunluce to enable the potential of the site to be
recognised. This resulted in a successful HLF funding application worth
£300k to develop a further bid for £5m.6
Sources to corroborate the impact
1 Cultural Development Support Scheme, University of Ulster: The
Big Dig, C.Breen, £2850, 1 Feb. 2009 - 31 May 2009.
2 Statement from Museums' Officer, Causeway Museum Services.
3 Arts and Humanities Research Council: Community-led
heritage knowledge co-production for sustainable development, C.
Breen and M. Hope, £18,990, 31 Jan 2012 - 31 Oct. 2012.
4 Arts and Humanities Research Council: Ulster &
Western Scotland Follow-up funding for community heritage research.
C.Breen, M. Hope, & A. Horning, £53,082, 14 Feb. 2013 - 31 Jan. 2014.
5 Arts and Humanities Research Council: Heritage,
Community and Sustainability: Researching the later historical
archaeology of Colonsay. C. Breen and M. Hope, £79,493, 14 Feb. 2013
- 31 Jan. 2014.
6 Statement from Assistant Director, Built Heritage, Northern
Ireland Environment Agency.
7 Northern Ireland Environment Agency press release, launch of
new visitor facilities at Dunluce Castle: http://www.northernireland.gov.uk/index/media-centre/news-departments/news-doe/news-doe-july-archive-2011/news-doe-180711-attwood-and-foster.htm.
8 Northern Ireland Environment Agency Corporate and Business
Plan 2012 - 2015: http://www.doeni.gov.uk/niea/niea_corporate___business_plan_2012-15.pdf.
(Pages 13, 21, 31.)
9 Our Passion, Our Place. Northern Ireland Environment Agency
Strategic Priorities 2012-2022. DOE NI:
10 Northern Ireland Environment Agency press release, launch
of Breen's book on Dunluce Castle: