Castle Robin: A Millennium of History from Rath to Motte & Castle

Published by P&P on

Castle Robin – Early History

Home » Places » Historical Places » Castle Robin: A Millennium of History from Rath to Motte & Castle
Castle Robin exterior view with loophole window
Castle Robin exterior view with loophole window

Castle Robin

Castle Robin Fort in the townland of Mullaghglass, between Stoneyford and Lisburn, has a long lost story that may surprise many.

In ruins for hundreds of years this ancient fortification in County Antrim, was once an important site for defence and changed hands many times over the course of its turbulent history.

Raths or Ring Forts

Archaeologists have discovered that this location was originally an ancient Celtic settlement comprising two ring forts. These forts, often known as raths, are particularly common in Ireland. It is estimated that the number of raths throughout Ireland is around 40,000 . Although some sources (e.g. Wikipedia) incorrectly date them to the Bronze age, it is now accepted that they date back to around 500-1000AD (Source: Irish Archaeology website).

A rath fort, generally constructed on level ground, consisted of a circular defensive wall of various sizes, either made of earth or stone . An earthen rampart around the rath would be reinforced with a wooden palisade. A settlement would then be safely enclosed within these defences.

A substantial Rath or Ringfort at Rathra (Rathbarna Enclosure Complex,) Co_Roscommon, Ireland (Shared under CC BY-SA 4.0)
A substantial Rath or Ringfort at Rathra (Rathbarna Enclosure Complex,)
Co_Roscommon, Ireland (Shared under CC BY-SA 4.0)

‘Fairy Forts’

For many years the remains of these raths were known to Irish folk as ‘fairy forts’. It was a general belief that after the defences had been abandoned they became the meeting places for the Sidhe or the ‘little people’.

Fairy celebrations would also be held within the circular enclosures. It is said that if you held your ear to the ground you would hear music and if you fell asleep within a rath the music would enter your soul.

However, to damage or demolish a rath or take away stones for building, would incur the anger of the fairies and incur severe punishment.

“Many instances of that superstitious dread which accompanies the destruction of old forts may be observed among the inhabitants of this parish. Some consider such an occupation little less than sacrilegious; and support their opinion with many miraculous stories, of the dire misfortunes which befell the property, as well as the persons, of the principals, aiders, and abettors in these crimes”

George Benn, A History of the Town of Belfast 1823

While these beliefs have faded in the modern age, they have not disappeared completely. The downfall of various businessmen, such as Sean Quinn (Ireland’s wealthiest person in 2008 and bankrupt by 2011) and John DeLorean (creator of Back to the Future’s DeLorean motor vehicle), has been blamed on the fact that they tampered with fairy forts.

We should be grateful for this widespread ‘respect’ for fairy property from an archaeological viewpoint, as there are an estimated 45,000 raths still existing in Ireland today.

Mist-shrouded Motte
Mist-shrouded Motte

The Anglo-Norman Mottes

John de Courcy’s conquest of the north

With the twelfth century Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland and John de Courcy’s conquest of the north, this area was of significant importance. Lying in the lush Lagan valley, the district had strategic value. Whoever controlled the River Lagan controlled the surrounding land, travel, communication and the important crossing points.

De Courcy had a string of mottes built along the valley. Castle Robin was in line with the Dunmurry and Dundonald mottes. Other examples of mottes along the course of the Lagan can be found at Belvoir, Edenderry, Dromore and Duneight. These were designed to defend the Lagan route and to repel the Gaelic chieftains.

What is a Motte?

A motte was a man-made mound of earth like a small hill. The top was flattened and a small castle or keep was built on top for the lord and his family. This would be enclosed with a wooden or stone wall.

The Motte
The Motte

Around the base of the motte would be a larger walled enclosure. This often had the extra protection of a deep ditch or moat.  This was known as the Bailey and it was where the people lived and worked and kept their livestock. The summit of Castle Robin commands excellent views of the Lagan Valley.

If one motte was attacked a fire would be lit on top of the mound which would signal the other Anglo-Norman strongholds to come to their aid.

Castle Robin mount / motte

“The fort at Castle Robin, locally called Castle Robin mount, is made chiefly of earth and stands 15 yards south west of the old castle. Time and partial dilapidation seem to have had some effect on its original shape, which appears to have been circular. It now approaches to the same and measures 35ft in diameter on the top. The existing part of the moat varies from 7 to 10ft wide”

Thomas Fagan, Ordnance Survey Memoirs Vol 8 1837
The motte and the castle remains
The motte and the castle remains

The O’Neills – 16th Century

During the sixteenth century the site of Castle Robin on the White Mountain became a stronghold of the O’Neill clan. The O’Neills of Clannaboy held large tracts of land in County Antrim. Their chief residence was at Edenduffcarrick, now Shane’s castle. They also had forts at Killelagh and Castlereagh.

“The position of Castle Robin in former times was considered one of some strategic importance. It gave the owner a good view of the enemy for some distance all round, from the hills behind to Lis-na Garvach in front, now Lisburn.

This fort was the scene of many a festive gathering in the good old times, when the O’Neill’s, the O’Lynns, including the historic Brian, the O’Lavery’s, the O’Hagans and the O’Hanlons, with the Teagues of Bohill and their cousins from Moyntaghs, near Lough Neagh, all met to talk matters over”

Robert Redman Belshaw, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 1895
Castle Robin illustration 1895 - Robert Redman Belshaw, Ulster Journal of Archaeology
Castle Robin illustration 1895 – Robert Redman Belshaw, Ulster Journal of Archaeology

The Construction of the castle

After the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland the land was parcelled out to English supporters. The Norton brothers, soldiers of the Crown were rewarded with various prizes.

Fulke Norton, the eldest was ‘granted’ an estate at Templepatrick, now Castle Upton. Gregory Norton was put in charge of the English garrison at Carrickfergus. McSkimin records Capt. Gregory Norton as mayor of Carrickfergus in 1601.

The youngest brother, Robert, was given the old O’Neill castle in Mullaghglass. It is said that Robert, who was one of the Earl of Essex’s captains, was awarded this on condition that he build a strong fortification on the site.

Castle Robin exterior in the mist
Castle Robin exterior in the mist

Description of the castle

According to Cathal O’ Byrne (As I Roved Out 1946), the castle was rebuilt in 1579. Other historians have given a later date of 1603. The three storey tower-house measures 84ft long and 36ft wide. The stone tower rose to a height of 40ft. The building was called Castle Robin, named as a diminutive of Robert.

“The shape of the castle seems to have been very irregular…It is built on solid rock which crops up through the grass all around, and the mortar between its stones is as hard as when they were first set – stone on stone- by the splendid old builders of that far-off time”

Cathal O’ Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946
Castle Robin remains
Castle Robin remains

The Ordnance Survey Memoir records a large moat, 10ft deep, surrounding the castle except on the north side, where the only entrance was located. This could be “filled with water at pleasure and thereby obstruct all attempts at taking the castle by surprise”.

Castle Robin loophle window from the inside
Castle Robin loophole window from the inside. The inside loophole opening is wider than the outside to allow the castle defenders a wider range of vision for defence with a reduced chance of being hit.
Exterior view of Castle Robin loophole window
Exterior view of Castle Robin loophole window
Castle Robin exterior view with loophole window
Castle Robin exterior view with loophole window

Aftermath of the 1641 Rebellion

The tower-house at Castle Robin was one of the casualties of the 1641 Rebellion. It was burnt to the ground and never rebuilt.

A story with a (slight) association to Castle Robin is recorded by Cathal O’Byrne among others.

In 1643 the Earl of Antrim, Randall McDonnell, had been imprisoned in Carrickfergus Castle by General Robert Monroe. The general doubted the Earl’s loyalty. However, the officer, a man named Gordon, appointed to guard the Earl was sympathetic and aided the Earl and his servant to escape.

The fugitives made their way to Glenarm Castle but had to flee again as Monroe’s troops approached. Deep in the woods McDonnell and his servant switched clothes to confuse the Scottish soldiers. The unfortunate servant was chased, captured and hung at Carrickfergus.

The Earl meanwhile made his escape. However, when his allies did not arrive at the arranged meeting place, the Earl tried to make his way through the countryside, lost and alone.

By chance he found himself at the walls of Castle Robin. Here on a cold October morning as dawn was breaking, he was met and befriended by an old herdsman. The old man secured food of bread and beef from Lisburn for McDonnell. He hid him in a secure location, until under the cover of darkness; he was able to guide the Earl along secret paths to safety.

“All through life the Earl proved grateful to the old herdsman of Castle Robin. He befriended him in many ways, and provided him with an ample pension, which enabled him to live in comfort and security for the remainder of his days”

Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946
Tree inside Castle Robin remains
Tree inside Castle Robin remains

The 18th Century

However, the flat land around the ruins of Castle Robin was to witness further military display in the eighteenth century. It was known as Plover Plain as it was home to “large flocks of a variety of plovers resort and constantly inhabit” Ordnance Survey Memoirs.

This plain was used as a parade ground and exercise yard for the Union Regiment of the Irish Volunteers whose headquarters were in Lisburn.

“Here, in after years, the yeomanry companies of the district, infantry and cavalry, from Brookhill, Magheragall, Lisburn etc often met. On the declaration of peace after Waterloo, they had a grand review there, under James Watson of Brookhill, which lasted two days”

Robert Redman Belshaw, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 1895
Fields surrounding Castle Robin in early morning mist
Fields surrounding Castle Robin in early morning mist

Castle Robin Today

Very little remains of this historic site that has been witness to so much change in the history of our land.

The motte, while overgrown, still retains much of its original shape. However, the tower-house now consists of a couple of broken-down walls shrouded in wild foliage.

There is not even a sign post to mark the site or explain its historical significance.

Yet the fact that some of these stone walls from the sixteenth century have survived at all is truly amazing and certainly worth preserving.

Castle Robin walls pierced by ivy
Castle Robin walls pierced by ivy


The ruins of Castle Robin tower-house and motte are situated on the A501 Mullaghglass Road, just over 3 miles from Lisburn. Although there is no parking at the site itself there is a petrol station/ grocery store a couple of hundred yards away (at the junction with Pond Park Road East) that provides an opportunity to park and stock up on some groceries or coffee-to-go on your visit.

Image Gallery

Early morning mist around Castle Robin
Early morning mist around Castle Robin
Castle Robin overgrown wall
Castle Robin overgrown wall
Castle Robin
Castle Robin
Remains of the motte
Remains of the motte
Introduction - Robert Redman Belshaw, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 1895
Introduction – Robert Redman Belshaw, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 1895
The overgrown exterior walls
The overgrown exterior walls

Due to illness it is likely that BelfastEntries posts will appear less frequently for the near future. We hope to see things back to normal in coming months. P&P
Do you want to see all new BelfastEntries Posts?
If you like our Facebook posts and would like to see more then please add yourself as a friend to our PandP profile screen or follow our BelfastEntries page. We cannot add posts to all groups and the only way to be sure of receiving notifications of new posts is to follow our page. You will see that the Belfast Entries page has a 5 star rating from readers

If you enjoyed this article please consider a small donation

Belfast Entries is a husband & wife hobby website featuring articles on our shared history, memories and entertaining stories of our past. To help us meet rising website hosting costs please click the coffee cup below to learn how to make a small donation. Please note that every contribution is valued and that we will not contact you directly in order to respect your privacy.

Buy Us a Coffee
Buy Us a Coffee

Donations this month 2 🙂

Thank you Victoria

Thank you Alastair

We had 10 donations last month

Help Us Find New Readers

If you like our posts please help us to grow our readership by sharing any posts that you like using the social media sharing icons shown with each post.

What are others reading now?

Galboly cottage view

Galboly – The County Antrim Village Lost in Time

By P&P / 30 September 2021 / 4 Comments
Mill chimney - a common sight in Belfast

Ardoyne – The Story of a Village

By P&P / 13 November 2021 / 2 Comments
Bodies Illustration at the scene Belfast Telegraph 13th March 1890

Nora’s Grave 1890 – Love & Death

By P&P / 19 March 2022 / 0 Comments
Belfast Long Bridge crossed the River Lagan between 1688 and 1841

Unusual Laws in Old Belfast 1613 – 1816

By P&P / 11 March 2022 / 0 Comments
Hy Brasil Appears (AI image © Bing Image Creator)

Hy Brasil – The True Story of a Mythical Island

By P&P / 9 September 2022 / 0 Comments

Cost of Living Crisis

Given the current cost of living crisis that will impact so many in coming months we have added a page signposting organisations that may be able to offer support. We have no relationship with these organisations and cannot offer financial advice but we hope that some of the links may prove useful.

Ancestry Antrim Arthur Chichester artist Belfast Belfast Entries Belfast Family belfast roots Carrickfergus Castle Cemetery Church Clifton House County Antrim County Down Department Store Donegal education. family tree Famous Folk Forgotten folk Genealogy Ghost graveyard Historical places History Hotel Ireland Irish Census Records Irish Family Irish genealogy irish roots Mary Ann McCracken Operation Overlord Otto Jaffe Outlaw People Philanthropist Places to see Poor House Sailortown St Patrick Titanic Tourism United Irishmen

Belfast Entries posts & photos are our intellectual property and copyrighted to us. Where we use photos that do not belong to us, it is because we believe them to be in the public domain or shared under a Creative Commons licence with appropriate attribution. None of our content or images can be used without our consent. Note that a link to our Copyright & Takedown notice is included in the website footer on all pages.


We are a Belfast couple adding information on Belfast and the surrounding counties. Over coming months we will add a range of posts covering the people, places, products and stories that interest us and will hopefully be of interest to you. Over time we hope to build up information of use to locals & visitors alike and welcome your feedback on subjects of interest or stories that might be interest to the wider audience. Let us know what you think.


Esmee Cunningham Gichuke · 19 January 2022 at 1:04 pm

Enjoying Belfast Entries tremendously. They are a commendable work by both of you. Thank you for this contribution to the history of the Province. Reminders of our past and our present. Yours sincerely, Esmee

    P&P · 19 January 2022 at 2:03 pm

    Thank you for the kind comment Esmee

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Would you like notifications of new Belfast Entries posts? OK No thanks