Old Belfast Castles – What lies beneath our streets?

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Castle Buildings Exterior View
Castle Buildings , Castle Place – The Site of Belfast Castle?

Belfast’s Old Castles – Norman times

Although there would always have been small settlements, some fortified, around Belfast, the history of Belfast’s old castles really begins in Norman times. After the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169, many adventurers saw the opportunity to capture and hold land for themselves.

One such was John de Courcy (de Curci), the son of a Somerset knight. In a freelance operation he rode north from Dublin with 22 knights and 300 foot soldiers and established his headquarters at Carrickfergus. However, realising the strategic importance of Belfast he also built a smaller castle here. The fortification was built by the Normans to guard the ford of the River Lagan. The ‘castle’ at this time was probably a stone keep within earthwork defences. The Anglo-Norman settlement at Belfast is known in official documents as ‘Le Ford’. The site was reinforced by a ring of small garrisons or mottes, which were placed in the hands of loyal officers. These defensive ‘castles’ ran from Holywood through Dundonald to Edenderry, Dunmurry to Mullaghglass.

“The borough town established at Belfast sat within a protective ring of small castles and this military ring of mottes still exists”

Ruairi O’ Baoill: Hidden History Below our Feet. 2011

The growth of Belfast around the castle

The castle of Belfast was the subject of a power struggle between various Norman lords but reverted to the English crown in 1242 with the death of Hugh de Lacy. By 1333 a small community had grown up around the castle and over the centuries this developed into the city of Belfast. The original castle was situated in what is now Belfast city centre close to Cornmarket – reflected in the nearby street names Castle Place, Castle Street, Castle Lane and Castle Arcade.

Old Belfast Castle Location Mapview-©-OpenStreetMap
Old Belfast Castle Location -©-OpenStreetMap

At this time, the River Farset ran down the centre of High Street to the River Lagan with several bridges along High Street used for crossings. Bridge Street in Belfast City centre marks the location of one such bridge. (The Farset was subsequently covered and now runs in a tunnel under High Street, joining the Lagan near the site of The Big Fish)

Belfast Castle and The O’Neills

By the reign of Henry 3rd a newer castle at Belfast is recorded, though who built this new structure remains unknown. Towards the end of the fifteenth century the medieval castle was captured by a branch of the Ulster O’Neill family. The O’Neills were a powerful family and managed tracts of land in south Antrim and north Down (known then as Clann Aedha Buidhe and now known as Clandeboye).

The castle in this era probably took the form of a Gaelic towerhouse. These buildings were made of stone and usually have four storeys. The castle would be surrounded by a moat or bawn. The ceiling of the ground floor room was also made of stone to act as a firebreak.

The O’Neill’s lived in Belfast Castle for a good part of the sixteenth century although it changed hands several times during the period due to battles and ownership disputes. In 1503 it was stormed & heavily damaged by the Earl of Kildare but subsequently repaired. In 1551 it was garrisoned and improved by the Lord Deputy Sir James Croft and in 1571 it was ‘gifted’ by England’s Queen Elizabeth 1 to Sir Thomas Smith for a short period. However, when Thomas Smith displeased her, possession was restored to the O’Neills.

The Clandeboye Massacre

In 1574 a peace treaty was signed between the English forces and the Irish lord Sir Brian McPhelim O’Neill. In October of that year, Sir Brian invited the 1st Earl of Essex, Walter Deveraux, to a celebratory feast in Belfast Castle. Deveraux was an English nobleman and soldier, who had offered to subdue the Irish of Ulster as a sign of his loyalty to Elizabeth I, and presumably in the hopes of being well rewarded. When the feast ended, having lasted three days, the English soldiers killed Sir Brian’s family, retinue and servants on the orders of Essex

“At the expiration of this time, when they were agreeably drinking and making merry, Brian, his brother and wife were seized upon by the Earl, and all his people put unsparingly to the sword – men, women, youths and maidens – in Brian’s own presence”

Annals of the Four Master. 1846

Sir Brian, his wife and brother were taken to Dublin, where they were executed and their corpses quartered. This would not be the English Earls last ignoble act as the subsequent Rathlin Island Massacre on 26th July 1575 ended with the slaughter of over 600 Scots & Irish men, women and children allied to the MacDonnells of Antrim.

In 1597 Shane O’Brien took the castle but it again fell into English hands under Sir Ralph Lane. The fact that the castle was frequently under attack is a testament to its strategic significance in Belfast.

Sir Arthur Chichester

In July 1603 the English Sir Arthur Chichester, the governor of Carrickfergus, offered to rebuild Belfast Castle which was now in ruins. Arthur Chichester was a seasoned soldier having fought in Portugal, the West Indies and France. His ruthlessness in the Nine Years War when the Irish chieftains were defeated, led to him being rewarded with land grants in Counties Antrim and Down. The recently crowned James I ‘granted’ Chichester the castle and surrounding land. A patent dating 3rd November 1603 records that Chichester received “the Castle of Bealfaste ot Belfast, the Appurtments and Hereditaments, Spiritual and Temporal, situate in the Lower Clandeboye”. The Chichesters also held large parts of Inishown in County Donegal. When elevated to the peerage in 1647, the Chichesters took the title Earls of Donegall.

In 1613 the king granted Belfast a charter to set up a Corporation to maintain the growing town. This consisted of twelve burgesses headed by a Sovereign or Mayor. However, as the Donegall family nominated all those who could stand for office, the city was still under this English family’s control. The Chichester/ Donegall house basically owned Belfast from 1603 until the early 1850’s (as reflected in many Belfast’s street names).

Chichester’s Belfast Castle

The Plantation Castle under Chichester was completed in 1611. With the castle at one end of High Street and the Church at the other (See From Capello de Vado 1306AD to St George’s Church) , the municipal town was laid out between these two locations.

Castle Place Belfast 1612
Castle Place Belfast 1612

The initial brick built castle was 50ft long and 20ft wide, but in succeeding years both house and gardens were extended. The estate stretched from Castle Place to the banks of the River Lagan and to the woods of Stranmillis and Cromac. The main gate was at Cornmarket.

The land was designed in lawns, a bowling green, fish ponds and orchards. The site of the current City Hall was then a cherry tree garden. In 1635 Sir William Brereton described Belfast Castle as a “dainty stately house…the glory and beauty of the town”.

Belfast Castle Destroyed

On 24th April 1708 Belfast Castle was consumed by fire – apparently an accident. The then-Earl, Edward Chichester the 4th Earl of Donegall, lost his three sisters, Jane, Francis and Henrietta in the blaze. One servant, Catherine Douglas also perished. The castle was never rebuilt. MacLanachan’s map of 1715 shows the location of “the old castle and garding [garden]” where once this impressive building stood.

Belfast High Street Map -©-OpenStreetMap
Belfast High Street Map -©-OpenStreetMap

The Emergence of Modern Belfast

Gradually the site was built over by streets and houses. The Donegall family granted leases to builders to erect properties on the land on the condition that they were constructed of stone or brick and built to height of 28ft. This ensured the grandeur of the area and maintained its status as the centre of Belfast.

Although no sign of the old Belfast castles remain and its turbulent history is largely forgotten, an excavation in 2005 at Castle Place discovered the remains of a stone structure. This possibly relates to the castle portrayed on the map of 1685. There is a distinct possibility therefore, that further remnants of Belfast’s castle have survived beneath our streets!

Castle Buildings Exterior View
Castle Buildings , Castle Place – The Site of Belfast Castle?
Castle street names
Castle street names

See also: Saint George’s Church, the current Belfast Castle and ‘The Big Fish’

Belfast Castle
Belfast Castle Garden

Click below to read the story of the present Belfast Castle on the slopes of Belfast’s Cave Hill overlooking the city

Big Fish - view with the Albert clock & the Boat apartments in background
Big Fish – view with the Albert clock & the Boat apartments in background

Click below to read the story behind Belfast’s Big Fish

St George's Church From Entrance Gate
Saint George’s Church, March 2021

St George’s Church is a place of peace within Belfast’s city centre that visitors cherish, on a site used for worship since Capello de Vado

Click below to find out more…


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