The first castle at Dunluce was said to have been built in the 13th century by Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, though nothing of this castle remains today. Not only was de Burgh one of the most powerful men in Ireland, but he was held in high regard in Scotland too as the father-in-law of King Robert the Bruce. By the 16th century, Dunluce castle was owned by the MacQuillan family, Lords of the Route. They expanded Dunluce and added to its defences by constructing at least two drum towers, a curtain wall and a gatehouse. The castle then passed to their arch-enemies and great rivals, the MacDonnells. One story states that Dunluce was taken by the MacDonnells after a huge battle, while another tells of how Evelyn MacQuillan was married to Colla MacDonnell, bringing peace to the two opposing families in the area and putting Dunluce Castle into MacDonnell hands. When Colla died, Dunluce passed to his younger brother, the famous Sorley Boy MacDonnell (who is said to be buried at Bonamargy Friary).
While under Sorley Boy’s control, Dunluce castle was captured by John Perrot, Lord Deputy of Ireland, and his men. However, Sorley Boy managed to recapture the castle through ingenious methods in 1584, after only one year of occupation. The tale that is often told describes how Sorley Boy sent one of his men to infiltrate the English garrison. Once he inveigled his way in, his man lowered a basket from a window in the castle down to a boat with Sorley Boy and his men floating below. The poor man then had to haul each of the men up the 120ft cliff into the castle. The unsuspecting English were caught off guard and Dunluce Castle fell back under MacDonnell control.
The MacDonnells left their mark on the castle too. They are said to have used the material and cannons salvaged from the nearby shipwreck of the Spanish Armada’s La Girona, installing the cannons on their Scottish style gatehouse. The rest of the ship’s goods were sold to fund the expansion of the outer ward onto the mainland, as well as the building of a manor house inside the old walls and the planning of formal gardens. In 1608, Randal MacDonnell, the first Earl of Antrim and the son of Sorley Boy MacDonnell, built a planned town near Dunluce Castle. This modern town was ahead of its time with cobbled streets and stone houses. The population who lived in the shadow of Dunluce castle were made up of native Ulster Irish and Scottish settlers, and by 1620 the town had up to 300 inhabitants.