County Antrim provides the perfect snapshot of Northern Ireland, being home to both stunning scenery such as the famous Giant’s Causeway and the Nine Glens along the east coast, and dramatic ruins such as Dunluce Castle and the Round Tower.
Its historiography and geography is testament to its fascinating history, which includes periods of turbulence such as the Irish Rebellion of 1798 against British Rule. Indeed, 17th century Antrim Castle is evidence of the town’s former strategic importance. More recently, County Antrim’s wealth of historic sites set against the rugged coastline have been used as settings for the television show Game of Thrones.
Here’s our selection of 6 of the best historic sites the county has to offer.
1. Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge
The Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge is a 20m long rope bridge suspended 30m above the sea, which maintains links between Carrickarede Island and the main body of Northern Ireland. The bridge links the mainland to the tiny island of Carrickarede, a prime spot for Atlantic salmon fishers. Salmon fishing had been happening in the area since the early 17th century, but it was only in 1755 that fishermen erected a bridge in order to reduce reliance on boats to be ferried to the island.
In the 19th century and early 20th century, the salmon fishing boomed in these waters, with up to 300 salmon being caught a day until the 1960s. 80 fishers and 21 salmon fishers are recorded as working in Ballintoy Parish at its peak. The bridge has been replaced and rethought many times over the years. For most visitors, the appeal of the rope bridge is crossing it: it’s monitored by volunteers and can only take a limited number of people at any one time.
2. Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle is a ruined castle on the Causeway Coast in Northern Ireland. The first castle at Dunluce was built in the 13th century by Richard de Burgh, 2nd Earl of Ulster. However, the ruins left today are from the 16th and 17th centuries, when Dunluce became the seat of Clan McDonnell, who overthrew their rivals, the McQuillans, who were Lords of Route. The castle has its fair share of legends, including part of the kitchen collapsing into the sea, and a resident banshee, Maeve Roe, who tried to elope with her true love but drowned in the stormy seas lurking below. Since then, Dunluce has been maintained by the state. It shot to fame as the seat of House Greyjoy, the castle of Pyke, in Game of Thrones.
Dunluce is a romantic ruin today. Sitting atop the craggy rocks, with the blue sea crashing below, it truly does feel like something straight out of a film set. On a grey or stormy day, you’ll be surprised that the castle has survived this long in such a precarious position. Allow an hour or two to fully explore the ruins and soak up some of the magic.
3. Giant's Causeway
Located on the north coast of Northern Ireland, the Giant’s Causeway is an area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns which are the result of an ancient volcanic fissure eruption. According to legend, the remains were once part of a causeway built by a giant.
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1986, it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Ireland, attracting around a million visitors per year. Access to the site is free year-round, though there is a visitor’s centre nearby which offers more information about the site.
4. Antrim Castle
Also known as Massereene Castle, Antrim Castle was a castle located on the banks of the Sixmilewater River. It was first built in stages between 1613 and 1662. In the 1680s, the castle was raided by Jacobite General Richard Hamilton, losing around £3000 worth of silverware and furniture. For a time, the castle was used for political conferences. In 1813, it was rebuilt as a three-storey Georgian-Gothic castellated mansion.
During a grand ball in the autumn of 1922, the castle caught fire. Much evidence pointed to arson by the IRA, but no official charges were ever made. The castle remained a ruin until it was demolished in 1970. All that remains today is Today, the gardens are a popular tourist attraction, featuring a 17th century Anglo Dutch water garden which is one of only three in the British Isles. Another attraction within the gardens is the refurbished Clotworthy House.
5. Antrim Round Tower
Known locally as The Steeple, Antrim Round Tower is a significant reminder of Antrim’s ancient monastic settlement. Built around the 10th century as a bell-tower as part of an Early Christian monastery, it is 28 metres tall and one of the finest of its kind in Ireland. It stands on a very small circular mound of ground, making it appear much like an island, suggesting that the surrounding land was levelled in the late 18th or early 19th century.
The monastic site was burned in 1147, and any traces of other ecclesiastical buildings were removed, possibly at the same time that the ground was levelled. It was possibly struck by lightning between 1819 and 1822.
6. Carrickfergus Castle
Carrickfergus Castle was established in the 12th century and remained a prominent stronghold in Northern Ireland for 800 years. Witnessing countless sieges and battles throughout history, Carrickfergus remains today an excellent example of medieval architecture, fit with numerous examples of its many years as a military stronghold. Originally built by the Anglo-Norman nobleman John de Courcy in 1177, Carrickfergus Castle was modified repeatedly over the centuries as new weapons, tactics and threats brought fresh challenges to those defending the area. As such, significant works to Carrickfergus Castle were carried out in the 13th, 16th and 17th centuries as its needs changed.
Later uses of Carrickfergus Castle included being used as a prison, armoury, military garrison during World War One, and air raid shelter during World War Two. Today Carrickfergus Castle is a historic site run by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and is open to the public. Notable areas of Carrickfergus Castle worth seeing on a visit include the restored banqueting hall, medieval life exhibits and the 17th-19th century cannons which once formed part of the castle’s defences.