Castle of the Week 32 – Carrickfergus Castle

Carrickfergus Castle stands in a strategic position on a rocky spur above the harbour on the northern shore of Lough Belfast and is a perfectly preserved Norman castle, probably the earliest stone castle in all Ireland. It is in the small Northern Irish town of Carrickfergus, Co Antrim and the name means ‘rock of Fergus’, Fergus being a king who was shipwrecked and drowned there in the 6th century. Originally it was almost completely surrounded by sea.

John de Courcy, the Anglo-Norman baron who conquered much of Ulster and governed it from 1177 to 1204 started building the castle in about 1178 to guard the approach to Lough Belfast. It has three wards, the inner ward was the first and dates from this time as does the remains of the great hall. The large square keep which still dominates the castle was also started, incorporating the well. A spiral staircase climbs all the way up the keep although originally the keep’s entrance was on the first floor reached by an outside staircase. De Courcy was ousted by another Norman, Hugh de Lacy in 1204.

King John captured the castle in 1210, expelling de Lacy, and it became an administrative centre for the English government which it remained for over seven centuries. The third floor of the Keep was built during the second building phase between 1216 and 1223 and became the Great Hall. The keep is 27.5 meters high and is about 17.5 meters square. The middle ward was added with a square tower on the edge of the lough. A new curtain wall was built to guard the approach along the rock and the eastern approach over the sand when exposed at low tide. The third building phase between 1226 & 1242 added the outer ward with a twin round towered gatehouse and huge portcullis. The new ward doubled the area of the castle and its curtain wall follows the line of rock below. Hugh de Lacy recovered his Earldom of Ulster in 1227 and lived at Carrickfergus until his death in 1242.

Edward Bruce, brother of Robert the Bruce of Scotland, held all of Ulster in 1315 except for Carrickfergus. Ships carrying food for the castle’s defenders were scattered by a storm, so he laid siege to the castle intending to starve the garrison as he had no heavy siege engines. The position was becoming desperate in the castle with the garrison reduced to chewing hides and eating rats and an attempt to relieve the castle from the sea was defeated. During a parley, the garrison seized thirty of the Scots and put them in the dungeons. Legend states that eight of these prisoners were killed and eaten by the defenders. Finally after a year’s siege, they surrendered in September 1316. It was retaken by the English in 1318 and after the Earldom of Ulster collapsed in 1333, it became the principal administrative centre in the north.

In about 1560 alterations were made for artillery use with the two round towers on the gatehouse being cut in half and lowered.

During the great rebellion of 1641 and the English Civil War (1642-8) it was one of the main places of refuge for protestants in Antrim and in 1642 it was taken over by General Robert Munro for the Scots. In 1648 and 1649 control of the castle changed three times, finally to General Monk on behalf of Parliament after a three month siege. Monk held it until the restoration of Charles II in 1660. In 1688 it was held by the garrison troops for James II despite the townspeople’s sympathy for William III, but in 1689 the Duke of Schomberg besieged the castle and bombarded it with heavy mortars. Seven days later the garrison surrendered. William III landed at Carrickfergus in 1690, taking the castle in passing, on his way to fight the Battle of the Boyne. However, it was already losing its importance.

In 1760 it was captured by the French. They looted the castle and town and then left, only to be caught by the British Navy. In 1778 one of the first battles of the American War of Independence took place on the Lough just by the castle. John Paul Jones attacked a British navy ship and forced her to strike her colours. In 1797 it became a prison and it was heavily defended during the Napoleonic Wars. During the 1st World War it was used as a garrison and ordnance store and during the 2nd World War as an air raid shelter.

It was garrisoned continuously for about 750 years until 1928 when its ownership was transferred to the Government for preservation as an ancient monument and it is open to the public. The banqueting hall has been fully restored and there are many exhibits to show what life was like in medieval times.

Write-up provided by GillB. Photos courtesy of Owen Brennan from Images of Ireland, a delightful site of pictures, stories, recipes & verse from Ireland


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