The History of Glenarm Castle

1st Marquis
& 2nd Earl of Antrim

3rd Earl of Antrim

4th Earl of Antrim

5th Earl of Antrim

2nd Marquis
& 6th Earl of Antrim

13th century

There has been a castle at Glenarm since the days of John Bisset, who was expelled from Scotland in 1242 for murdering a rival during a tournament. He promised to do penance by going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but instead he acquired lands between Larne and Ballycastle from Hugh de Lacy, the Earl of Ulster. Bisset made Glenarm his capital, and by 1260 there was a castle, which stood at the centre of the present village, with a kitchen garden, an orchard and a mill, as well as woods and meadows. The old village courthouse still incorporates some of its walls, indeed an immured skeleton was discovered there in the 1970s.

15th century

In 1495 Con O'Donnell of Tirconnell marched on ‘MacEoin of the Glens’ (as the Bisset chieftain was called), ‘for he had been told that MacEoin had the finest wife, steed and hound in his neighbourhood. O'Donnell had sent messengers for the steed but was refused it…. so he made no delay, but surmounting the difficulties of every passage he arrived at night at MacEoin's house without giving any warning of his designs. He captured MacEoin and made himself master of his wife his steed and his hound'.

16th century

The last MacEoin Bisset was killed fighting the O'Donnells in 1522. Their lands were then seized by the MacDonnells, their former partners, who occupied the Bisset’s castle until they built the new one.

17th century

The present castle was built by ‘Randle McDonnel knight Earl of Antrim having to his wife Dame Aelis O'Nill’ in 1636. It was the same square building we see today, but no architectural details remain apart from a coat of arms now incorporated in The Barbican gateway. It was probably a plain Irish Jacobean building with simple mullioned windows and a few embellishments.

In 1642 an invading Scots army burnt this castle, and thereafter the family lived first at Dunluce, and then at the nearby house of Ballymagarry, leaving Glenarm a ruin. A visitor in 1740 said 'the walls seem to be entire, and for the most part sound. The out offices of the castle are fitted up to accommodate the Earl during the hunting season. These consisted of an 'L' shaped wing built onto the ruin. The Old Kitchen, a remnant of this wing, has fine bolection mouldings round its doorways, which survive from its former use as the Earl's apartments.

Anne Catherine, Countess of Antrim in her own right

Anne Catherine,
Countess of Antrim in her own right

Charlotte, Countess of Antrim in her own right

Countess of Antrim in her own right

Hugh Seymour, 9th Earl of Antrim

Hugh Seymour,
9th Earl of Antrim

Mark, 10th Earl of Antrim

10th Earl of Antrim

William, 11th Earl of Antrim

11th Earl of Antrim

18th century

In 1750 Ballymagarry burnt down, and the fifth Earl moved to Glenarm. Christopher Myers, an English engineer, was employed on the castle. A 'very knowing and experienced workman' he was also employed to work on Ballycastle harbour. Myers transformed the ruin into a Palladian mansion. The main front had an eccentric appearance, for its entire fenestration consisted of three-light Venetian windows, possibly because Myers reused the original Jacobean mullioned openings. Curved colonnades swept forwards on either side, ending in pavilions with pyramid shaped roofs; the pavilion overlooking the river contained a banqueting hall. There was also 'a spacious Grass-plat in Front, on which is a statue of Hercules of esteemed Workmanship.' The seaward facing facade was topped by a turreted and crenellated pediment, giving it a modestly 'Gothick' air. Houses, smithies and mills around the castle were demolished, and the village confined to the other side of the river. Lord Antrim lived here while these works went on, and one evening entertained the Presbyterian minister somewhat too well; on leaving he fell over the half-finished river wall to his death.

Myers created the present entrance hall, a two storey cube, which was decorated with astonishing baroque plasterwork, its vaulted ceiling supported by grotesque caryatids while an arched screen supported on Corinthian columns sheltered doorways to the other principal rooms. Some plasterwork was so similar to that at Castle Ward in Co. Down that the same plasterers may well have worked on both buildings; Glenarm was constructed in 1756, Castle Ward circa 1760. Moreover Glenarm parish church, built in 1763, is the earliest Strawberry Hill Gothick church in Ireland and may well have been influenced by the sensation caused by Castle Ward's Gothick side.

19th century

Late eighteenth century plans exist for adding Adam-style reception rooms, but it was the 1820s before any new building was undertaken. Anne Catherine McDonnell, Countess of Antrim in her own right, wanted a fashionably romantic seat, and her architects were the Irish brothers William and John Morrison. Their plans, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1824, were not very original, for they had already 'Jacobethanised' Miltown House in Kerry with almost identical towers, crenellations, side wing and porch to Glenarm. The 'Barbican' gateway was also based on one at another house. This gateway, the revamped servants' wing and four comer turrets were quickly built, but then money ran out, and the castle kept much of its Palladian features until the 1850s, when the 'Wee Earl', Anne Catherine’s nephew, completed the Morrisons' plans.

Randal,12th Earl of Antrim

12th Earl of Antrim

Randal, 13th Earl of Antrim

13th Earl of Antrim

Alexander, 14th Earl of Antrim

14th Earl of Antrim

20th century

In 1929 the main body of the house was badly damaged by a fire that was started, it is said, by the housekeeper keeping a fire constantly going in her bedroom to warm a featherless parrot. This accident led to much unimaginative rebuilding. The gothic windows were replaced with rectangular ones and the baroque hall lost its plasterwork.

This goaded Angela Sykes, the next countess and a professional sculptor, to give the hall new vigour. During the uneasy year of peace before World War Two, and under the aegis of her husband and the author Robert Byron, she started sculpting the gods of the nine planets to act as new caryatids. However Robert Byron was killed in the war and Lady Antrim found she could not finish the work he had inspired. Instead she painted other rooms with interpretations of family and classical mythologies. Another fire in 1965 led to the demolition of the servants' wing, with the exception of the Kitchen, the only room in continuous use since the seventeenth century.

21st century

The castle is now the home of Randal, Viscount Dunluce, son of the 14th Earl of Antrim, with his wife Aurora, their son Alexander and daughter Helena.

Archives and Bibliography

The family papers are on loan to PRONI (The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland) and contain a wealth of history on the family and the estate since the early 17th Century.

Visit PRONI site

Further Reading

  • Historical Account of the MacDonnells of Antrim by Rev. George Hill
  • Civil War and Restoration in the Three Stuart Kingdoms: The Career of Randal MacDonnell, Marquis of Antrim by Jane H. Ohlmeyer
  • A History of Dunluce by Hector McDonnell
  • Fire and Swords: Sorley Boy MacDonnell and the Rise of Clan Ian Mor 1538-90 by J Michael Hill
  • The Wild Geese of the Antrim MacDonnells by Hector McDonnell
  • The Lords of the Isles by Raymond Campbell Paterson
  • Ulster and the Isles in the Fifteenth Century: The Lordship of Clann Domhnaill of Antrim by Simon Kingston