Dunseverick Castle - Sketches of Olden Days in Northern Ireland

From Sketches of Olden Days in Northern Ireland by Rev. Hugh Forde

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Dunseverick castle stands on an isolated rock nearly surrounded by the sea in a small bay about one mile and a half east of the Giant’s Causeway. It had been the family residence of an old Irish sept called O’Cahan, a branch of the Kinel Owen, from a very early date. This family held it until the rebellion of 1641, when its chief, Gilladuff O’Cahan, was taken by General Munro and hanged at Carrickfergus some years after the rebellion was ended. Munro destroyed all the castles around the coast except Dunluce, which he garrisoned with English soldiers. Dunseverick was all thrown down except a piece of wall at the entrance six feet thick, which his men were not able to remove.

The most curious thing about this castle is a well on the north side, about three yards from the edge of the cliff, which is over one hundred feet above the sea. This well, it is said, never goes dry. It is called Tubber Phadrick, or St. Patrick’s Well. It was at one time considered one of the holy wells of Ireland. St. Patrick, it appears, visited Dunseverick on several occasions on his travels through the North. A great many people brought their children to him to be baptized, and amongst them St. Olcan, who afterwards became Bishop of Annoy, now a small town in North Antrim. A large stone stood beside the well, called St. Patrick’s Rock, but it was tumbled into the well by the soldiers of General Munro. The saint used to sit on this stone when he came to Dunseverick.

Colgan, in an interesting note on the antiquity of Dunseverick, says: "Dunseverick is a maritime and remotely ancient fortress in the territory of Dalriada, which derives its name from Sovaric, the son of Eberic, the first founder of the fortress, about the year of the world 3668 A.M., as may be learned from the Four Masters in their Annals, and from Dr. Keating in his catalogue of Irish kings. In the year 870 A.D. Dunseverick Castle was stormed (by whom it is not said), a thing which never happened before. Again it was plundered by Mave, Queen of Connaught, but the date is uncertain. She came into Ulster with a great host of warriors from Connaught, and amongst other places she surprised Dunseverick, and drove off a great herd of cattle, and amongst them was the famous tarif bhan (white bull) of Cuiligne. This started a long and bloody war between Ulster and Connaught."

An extract from an old English manuscript gives an account of another disaster to Dunseverick Castle in the 12th century: "Many hundred years ago there stood on Erin’s northern coast a stately castle called Dunseverick. It was inhabited by a noble family of the Kinel Owen. It was thronged with gallowglasses and kerns and attendants of the powerful chief who dwelt in it. No foe had dared to annoy it for many years.

At last news reached Ireland that King Baldwin of Flanders and Godfrey de Bouillon were enrolling a body of young men to join the Crusaders. The young heir of Dunseverick got his father’s consent, and got enrolled under the banner of the Cross. 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. When Antioch was besieged young Turlough was among the first to mount the walls, and ten months later, when the Holy City was taken, Turlough was found in the thick of the fight till the last of the Turks was slain and the streets were running with blood. Then Godfrey de Bouillon was crowned King of Jerusalem, with the title of Protector of the Holy Sepulchre. Most of the Crusaders then returned home, and with them was Turlough of Dunseverick. But in his absence a terrible calamity had befallen his family and his home. The Norwegians had arrived with a great fleet of ships, and landed some place not far from Dunseverick, and marched at night-time to the castle and gained admission to it through stratagem, and massacred all the inhabitants of the castle. The only one of the family who was spared was the young Lady O’Cahan, sister of Turlough. This beautiful young girl, with her dark brown hair and blue eyes, won the heart of the Norseman, and he determined to spare her for himself; but she was deaf to all entreaties until he would become a Christian. To this he soon consented to accomplish his purpose. One of the monks of Camus, on the river Bann, was sent for to prepare and baptize him, and the wedding-day was fixed.

A great assembly was gathered to witness the ceremony of the baptism and marriage of the Norseman and the young Irish lady. At length the penitent advanced to the middle of the great hall to make a public confession of his crimes, and then the priest advanced with mitre, stole, and crozier in hand and solemnly addressed the kneeling penitent. A tall, dark, powerful-looking figure appeared amongst the crowd, clad in a great shaggy cloak of native Irish fashion, and pushed through the throng until he came to the middle of the hall where the priest and penitent were. This was the young Crusader from Palestine, Turlough of Dunseverick. In the deadly conflict that ensued between Turlough and the Norseman the castle caught fire, and the horror-stricken assemblage fled down the steep incline that led to the causeway below, which connected the rock that the castle stood upon, to the mainland. A wild cry went up from the crowd below when they heard that the young bride rushed out from the burning castle and flung herself from the cliff on the north side into the sea. Thus was Dunseverick left in ruins once more.

“And the villagers of olden times oft heard the wailing cry

Of the Norseman 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.”

These events are recorded by antiquarian writers, from whom I quote on the authority of ancient manuscripts, and the tales they tell are historic facts of the past mingled with legend. How long Dunseverick lay waste after this calamity is not known, but it is certain the castle was rebuilt and taken possession of by another branch of the same family, and was finally captured and destroyed in 1662 by the ruthless General Munro.

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