Carrickfergus Castle – A brief history

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Carrickfergus Castle and sea
Carrickfergus Castle and sea

The Carrickfergus Name – Fergus Mór

Carrickfergus Castle is named for Fergus Mór, King of Dalriada (Dál Riata). This kingdom consisted of areas of north-east Ulster and parts of western Scotland. In 530 A.D. Fergus developed a skin disease and set sail in search of a cure for his illness but sadly his ship was wrecked on the rocks on the northern shores of Belfast Lough.

The Arrival of John de Courcy

In 1177 John de Courcy (de Curci) a Norman adventurer built a stronghold at Carrickfergus in the course of his subjugation of eastern Ulster. De Courcy, from Somerset, was a member of the Anglo-Norman invading force.

Having been barracked for some time in Dublin Castle, he decided to ‘seek his fortune’ in the north. Bolstered, it is said, by a prophecy that Ulster would be conquered by a foreigner on a white horse with birds of prey on his shield; he matched his attire to the legend and set off. De Courcy was successful and he ruled from Carrickfergus Castle until 1204.

Carrickfergus Castle

Carrickfergus Castle against sky
Carrickfergus Castle against sky

Carrickfergus Castle Location

The castle was built on a strategically important rocky promontory jutting out into Belfast Lough, then known as Carrickfergus Bay. Initially it was surrounded on three sides by water. Today, due to land reclamation, only a third of the castle’s wall is seaward.

The site was ideal, because although composed of rock it has a fresh water spring. De Courcy constructed his Keep with the well at the centre. On the land side of the castle the town and port of Carrickfergus grew up.

Layout of the Castle

Originally De Courcy built an inner bailey or courtyard, protected by a tall ‘curtain’ wall at the end of the peninsula, accessed by a gate on the eastern side. Within this were several buildings including a Great Hall. This had a large fireplace and is where the lord feasted and held court. Private family rooms were above.

The Keep was 40m high with walls 4m thick. It could only be entered by a wooden staircase to the upper floor which led directly into the guardroom. Wooden structures for servant accommodation and stores were also built inside the walls.

Hugh de Lacy

In 1204 Hugh de Lacy, the younger son of Lord Meath, was ordered by the English King John to wage war on the renegade de Courcy. De Lacy captured Carrickfergus Castle and almost all of the Kingdom of Ulaid, spanning most of counties Antrim and Down and parts of Derry.

In 1205 Hugh de Lacy was created the first Earl of Ulster. However, soon after, King John grew wary of the growing strength of these knights in Ulster, as they seemed to be amassing more power for themselves. In 1210 he laid siege and captured Carrickfergus. John subsequently appointed ‘constables’ loyal to the crown to control this premier garrison in the king’s interests. In 1217 the new constable, William de Serlane, was given £100 to build a defensive wall all along the promontory.

Edward the Bruce

In 1316, Edward the Bruce, brother of Robert the Bruce, seized Carrickfergus. Edward had a long royal Gaelic ancestry and wanted to establish the Kingdom of Ireland for himself. This would have created a second front against the English, in the ongoing war of Scottish Independence. However, after many brutal campaigns and the ravages of famine, Edward was defeated at the battle of Faugart in the summer of 1318.

Carrickfergus Castle as an English Stronghold

The Arrival of William, Prince of Orange

The castle reverted to being the main English stronghold in the north, both in military and administrative terms. During the Nine Years War (1593-1603) it provided much needed supplies to the beleaguered English forces. Its stores were depots for the surrounding area as well as the garrison at Clandeboye.

In the seventeenth century the Castle was held as a garrison for James II. Despite having been heavily fortified for artillery use and the building of embrasures for cannons, the Castle was captured by the Dutch Marshal Schomberg, after a week long siege in 1689. Schomberg had been appointed Commander-in-Chief by William III. Carrickfergus is where William, Prince of Orange, first stepped onto Irish soil.

William of Orange and Carrickfergus Castle
William of Orange and Carrickfergus Castle

Carrickfergus Castle – Modern Timeline

Over the years, Carrickfergus Castle continued to have an ‘interesting’ history. In 1760 it was briefly in the hands of the French privateer and smuggler Francois Thurot.

In 1778, the naval commander, John Paul Jones, lured a British vessel from its mooring at Carrickfergus and defeated it after an hour long struggle. This was one of the first battles of the American War of Independence. In the 1780’s the Castle became a prison for enemy soldiers and those suspected of being members of the Hearts of Steel (a protest group fighting against rent increases and evictions).

During the Napoleonic Wars Carrickfergus Castle was heavily defended but subsequently declined in military importance. In 1816 it was changed from an infantry barracks to an armoury. Subsequently, in 1834, the ammunition was transported to Charlemont and the remaining force reduced to 12 men and a sergeant.

In World War 1 Carrickfergus was an arms store and in World War 2 it was used as an air-raid shelter.

Carrickfergus Castle entrance
Carrickfergus Castle entrance

The Castle Today

Today Carrickfergus Castle, just 10 miles from Belfast, is listed as an ancient monument. Having been garrisoned continuously for 750 years it is now open to the public. Norman features have been preserved and exhibits explain what life was like for the inhabitants of the medieval castle.

Still visible is the huge portcullis at either end of the gatehouse and the ‘murder hole’ installed by Hugh de Lacy. The banqueting hall is restored and the Castle’s Chapel with its Romanesque windows can be visited. The splayed gun ports and cannons (6 of the 22 cannons remain) and the crossbow loops emphasise the Castle’s strategic importance and explain its turbulent history. Whoever held Carrickfergus Castle controlled Belfast Lough and its access to the north of Ireland.

The Carrickfergus Castle Ghost

In the 1760’s, it is said; a man named Robert Rainey, one dark night ambushed and attacked the constable of Carrickfergus Castle. His reason was jealousy, for the constable was a rival suitor for the hand of Rainey’s true love Betsy Baird. However, the dying man was found and unfortunately, in a tragic case of mistaken identity, named another soldier as his attacker. This unlucky soul, Timothy Lavery, swore at his execution that he would haunt the Castle forever. His ghost has been frequently
seen near the well in the Castle basement!

Contact Information

Carrickfergus Castle, Marine Highway, Carrickfergus, County Antrim, BT38 7Bg

Tel 028 9335 1273

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Jane McCartan · 8 July 2021 at 3:16 pm

I love Carrick. Castle as a child I lived in Irish Quarter West, my childhood memories are of playing on the castle green and climbing around the castle walls and not putting your feet on the sand. I loved the stories of Buttoncap.
It is wonderful to see the wonderful photos of the castle.

    P&P · 16 July 2021 at 5:23 pm

    Jane, we will get back to do more on Carrick at some stage – we thought the town and the castle had enough stories for at least 2 posts…

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