The DoE is planning to build a visitor and archaeology centre at Dunluce Castle.
Excavations of the hidden early 17th century town of Dunluce buried in a field next to the windswept north Antrim castle have been put on hold, while the department seeks funding to develop a major facility at the site.
The archaeology centre would allow community groups from all over Northern Ireland to take part in the excavation of the historic town and castle. It may also offer apprenticeships to allow people to learn skills while working to conserve town and castle.
The spectacular castle, perched on a sheer rock with a huge sea cave beneath, is one of the most visited monuments in Northern Ireland and already has a visitors’ centre and shop.
Environment Minister Alex Attwood confirmed that NI Environment Agency (NIEA) had bought land beside the castle earlier this year.
He was at the monument to launch the book Dunluce Castle: History and Archaeology by Dr Colin Breen.
“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,” Mr Attwood (below) said.
“Dunluce Castle is very much a jewel in our rich heritage crown. It and our built heritage play a vital role in our tourism economy.
“The built and natural heritage will be the biggest part of future increases in tourist numbers and spend. Six out of 10 visitor attractions are our built and natural heritage. Growing tourism from a £500m to a £1bn-a-year industry will revolve around the positive protection and development of this heritage.
“I believe firmly that we can both protect and develop our natural and built heritage. We can do so on what is arguably the greatest of those assets — the Causeway Coast.”
Dr Breen of the University of Ulster’s Centre for Maritime Archaeology, who has been leading the five-year dig at Dunluce, said work has stopped as funding is sought to develop a major facility.
He stated: “Over a five-year period we want to expose the whole of the town and the castle and develop a big new visitor facility to capitalise on the new heritage tourism that is developing.
“These things really are the start of rebuilding the Northern Irish economy and building an economic and sustainable society along the north coast.”
Dr Breen pointed to the success of the Titanic Quarter and Causeway visitor centres as evidence of how heritage is drawing in a whole new kind of tourist.
He said: “It would become much more than a visitors’ centre — it would be a real community learning hub, a research centre for communities who are interested in exploring heritage.
“We would prefer to see a dynamic entity where people can come and learn how to do these things and particularly develop their skills at excavation.”