Castle Robin – Early History
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. They were usually constructed in the Bronze Age (3300 BC – 1200 BC).
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. The settlement would then be safely enclosed within these defences.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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
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”.
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
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
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.
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.
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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