Carrickfergus and its Ancient Inn with a Spooky Past – Dobbins Inn
Carrickfergus on the Antrim coast has a long and exciting history. It was a thriving and prosperous town when Belfast was just few cabins on the muddy shores of the River Farset.
We have previously written (briefly) about Carrickfergus Castle and the ancient church of St Nicholas. This post covers the history of its famous inn with a fascinating and ghostly backstory.
In the early 1200’s the important fortification of Carrickfergus Castle was in the hands of Anglo-Norman adventurer Hugh de Lacy.
The D’Aubins were said to have originated in Brittany, in north-western France. They were a well-off family but it was not uncommon for younger sons to join foreign expeditions in the hope of adventure and land of their own.
It was common policy at the time for such lords to reward their most trusted men with grants of land taken from the conquered natives. Hence the knight Reginald D’Aubin was awarded a plot not far from the castle itself. This later became known as High Street. On this he built a tower house for himself and his family.
D’Aubin’s Tower House
Tower houses were very common in Ireland at that time, as English & Scottish immigrants needed to build homes that were easily defended in case of attack or rebellion. The buildings themselves had a relatively small footprint but made up for this in height. (Some were more modest in size than others). As well as providing protection, this was an indicator of status. With the majority of folk poor and illiterate, the construction of these tall houses was a symbol of power.
“Tower houses …are very numerous and are quite the most evident ancient feature of the Irish landscape. Rich lands have, as might be expected, the greater numbers.”
Harold G Leask Irish Castles 1946
A typical tower house would have 4-5 stories connected by a stone staircase. The ground floor was usually used for storage. The first and second floors would hold the kitchen and the servants’ quarters. The upper levels were the lord’s accommodation, including the grand hall where he would hold meetings and entertain guests. The thick stone walls were perforated with narrow-slit windows and the roof was often castellated with a walkway for guards.
The logistical advantages of Carrickfergus and its wealth, made it a target for invaders. Whoever held the castle could control the surrounding area and the entrance to Carrickfergus Lough (now known as Belfast Lough).
Attack on Carrickfergus
In the 14th century, Ireland was attacked by Edward Bruce. He was the brother of Robert Bruce, King of Scotland.
The Gaelic chiefs and some disaffected English lords, such as the Lacys, impressed by Robert’s success at Bannockburn, asked the brothers for Scottish aid to rid Ireland of the English occupiers. In return they would recognise and support Edward as king of Ireland.
On 25th May 1315, Edward Bruce with an army of 6,000 experienced men, landed at Olderfleet, near Larne (see related post below). Carrickfergus town was captured by the Scottish army.
However, a band of Englishmen led by John Logan, were able to hold Carrickfergus castle. Among these was Thomas Dobyn, a descendant of Reginald D’Aubin. For a full year the castle held out against Edward’s men, but in September 1316, they had to surrender.
“Prior to this event they had endured the utmost horrors of famine, eating hides; and it is even said that they devoured the thirty Scots who were taken prisoners”Samuel McSkimin History and Antiquities of Carrickfergus 1890
The Dobyns of Carrickfergus
We next hear of the Dobyn family in 1401. Peter Dobyn was appointed ‘constable’ of Carrickfergus Castle. Constables were men loyal to England, who were placed in charge of castles. His salary was recorded as ‘the profits of the town’s watermill, a liberty of £23 16s 8d granted for the defence of the castle and one hundred cattle grazed free by the grace of the Corporation’.
The Dobyns, now sometimes spelled Dobbins, continued to play a leading civic role in the town. Mayors of Carrickfergus include William Dobbin (1576), James Dobbin (1662) and Rigby Dobbin (1724).
Dobbins also appear in the Sheriffs lists – William Dobbin (1571), James Dobbin (1582), Nicholas Dobbin (1607) and Anthony Dobbin (1614). A map dated 1567, shows the houses of the elite in Carrickfergus. The name Stephen Dobins is listed above a dwelling in High Street.
The family also had commercial enterprises. In 1662 Major James Dobbins is running an inn from the family property. This would make it one of the oldest hostelries in the north of Ireland.
“He, though of ancient family, yet kept an inn and sold ales”Samuel McSkimin History and Antiquities of Carrickfergus 1890.
In 1637 the cost of an Ale Licence in Ireland was twenty shillings yearly. All ‘Aquavitae or strong waters’ distilled for sale had a tax of 4d per gallon.
In 1669 the Chichester Patents confirmed the lands ‘granted’ to the Chichester family in the north of Ireland by the English monarchy. Under the heading Town of Carrickfergus which lists the castle, lands, amenities and so forth is – “A parcel of Land in the Town and Fields of Carrickfergus, the reputed property of Nichs. Dobbin, Burgess, deceased”
The Dobbins in Penal Times
During the Penal era, Catholics suffered a number of major restrictions. They were not allowed to own land, live in a town, join the army, receive an education or attend Mass. Priests had to minister to their flock ‘under the radar’. If caught and arrested they would be imprisoned, tortured and often killed. Anyone sheltering a priest automatically forfeited their property and suffered severe punishment.
The Dobbins, though from Anglo-Norman stock, were very courageous in offering their home as a ‘safe house’ for Catholic priests.
In some manor houses in Ireland (also England and Wales), belonging to adherents or sympathisers of Catholicism, installed secret panels or hiding places within their properties. Known as ‘priest holes’ these were to conceal a priest or Catholic messenger, should the authorities come looking. These were usually in a fireplace, under floors, beneath stairs or a false wall. In the Dobbin household it was hidden in a corner of the main entrance, where it can be seen today.
The Dobbin Ghosts
Another story told of the medieval Dobbins family of Carrickfergus, is of the unfaithful wife of Hugh Dobbin.
Elizabeth, known affectionately as Maude, fell in love with a young captain of the foot soldiers based in the castle. We only know him by his nickname ‘Buttoncap’.
With Hugh away in County Tyrone engaged in a long military campaign, the pair began an illicit affair. They met via a secret tunnel hidden behind the stone fireplace that connected the Dobbin house with the castle.
However, on her husband’s return the affair was discovered. Hugh put his wife ‘to the sword’. He then entered the tunnel and encountering Buttoncap waiting at the other end, removed his head from his shoulders.
It is said that a woman and a young soldier still wander the building. Numerous people have reported seeing a lady in a long dress cross the entrance hall and head towards the fireplace. Maude is also said to be fond of stroking the cheek of sleeping guests.
Further reports of ghostly happenings have been recorded from both staff and guests in this very old building. Room 21 apparently should be avoided by those of a nervous disposition!
The story of the secret tunnel has long been local knowledge. The fireplace remains in the entrance of the Dobbins building. However, it should be pointed out that experts say its link to the castle has never been proved.
Dobbins Inn through the years
Over the centuries the building and its occupants would have witnessed many dramatic events in the history of Carrickfergus.
In 1642 the town was the headquarters of the invading Scottish army led by General Munro.
On 14th June 1690 the Dutch king, William III, landed with his fleet at Carrickfergus Castle .
The French Invasion, 1760
In the 18th century the old Dobbins residence was in the hands of the Seeds family. It was described as a ‘stout inn’.
A pitched battle with French invaders took place outside Dobbin’s doors in High Street in 1760. The French were led by the naval captain Francois Thurot. The town was held for a brief time before the French were repelled. (Interestingly, Martin Haverty in his book ‘A History of Ireland, Ancient and Modern (1860)’ claims that Thurot was of Irish descent, his grandfather being a Captain O’Farrell).
A story is told that the young son of the Seeds family, Thomas, was keen to see the action outside the doors and got caught up between the two sides. A courageous French officer, D’Esterre, broke ranks to rescue the child and return him to his mother.
The French soldier then advanced at the head of his men and was killed.
“He was seen to take a picture from his bosom and died kissing it. He belonged to the noble French family of D’Esterre, and was a remarkably handsome man. Great men often have tender hearts, and the story of D’Esterre’s kindly thoughtfulness for a little child lived long in the history of Carrickfergus”Mary Lowry, The Story of Belfast and its Surroundings 1913
Henry Joy McCracken
It is said that United Irishman, Henry Joy McCracken, was taken to Dobbins’s Inn after his arrest in 1798. McCracken was recognised as he tried to escape by boat from Carrickfergus after the failed Rebellion. Apparently, some of his captors were sympathetic to his plight. However, a young soldier used the old tunnel to alert the authorities in the castle.
Henry Joy was transported to Belfast. He refused clemency in return for naming his comrades, and was hung in Cornmarket on 17th July 1798.
Dobbins Inn Today
In the 19th century the Dobbins property underwent various changes.
It was divided into two townhouses. Subsequently it was a bakery and a military barracks. It was only in 1946 that the building once again became an inn. In 2019, funded by Carrickfergus Council and a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Dobbins was renovated and restored and many of its ancient features uncovered.
“We are delighted that the project has been able to reveal some of the medieval history of Carrickfergus, which once would have had several tower houses along the High Street”Councillor Cheryl Johnston 2019
Dobbins Inn remains a popular friendly hostelry today, a ‘stone’s throw’ from the impressive castle. With welcoming staff and delicious meals, as well as hundreds of years of history it is well worth a visit!
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