Carrickfergus Castle, Marine Highway, Carrickfergus, BT38 7BG
The striking Norman architecture of Carrickfergus Castle can be found on the shore of Belfast Lough.
The castle seen over 800 years of military occupation, the castle was besieged in turn by the Scots, Irish, English and French and it continued to play a central part in a military role until 1928, today it is maintained by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.
Proudly ranking as one of the best preserved medieval structures in Ireland, it is a popular destination for tourists worldwide wishing to delve deeper into its historical content. Visitors to the castle can avail of a self-guided tour of the walls or, on occasion, guided tours can be arranged by the Carrickfergus Historical Society. Also open to the public for fun days out, the impressive monument has canons from the 17th and 19th centuries on display, while the keep houses historical and other displays.
Surrounded by sea, the keep of the castle is a four-storey tower, 90 ft high, with a second-storey entrance. Its entry chamber, originally one large, poorly lit room with a double latrine and no fireplace, served as the public room. A shaft gave access to a well below and a mural stair led down to the vaulted storage cellar. The fourth storey, a high, brightly lit room with windows in all four walls, a fireplace and single latrine, was the principal chamber.
The core of the castle was built in 1177 by John de Courcy, after he conquered the east of Ulster and ruled as a petty king until 1204, when he was ousted by another Norman adventurer, Hugh de Lacy.
Initially de Courcy built the inner ward, a small bailey at the end of the promontory with a high polygonal curtain wall and east gate. It had a number of buildings, including the great hall. From its strategic position on a rocky promontory, the castle commanded Belfast Lough, and the land approaches into the walled town that developed beneath its shadows.
Some years later in 1778, a small but significant event in the American War of Independence began at Carrickfergus, when John Paul Jones, in the face of reluctance by his crew to approach too close to the Castle, lured a Royal Navy vessel from its moorings into the North Channel, and won an hour-long battle.
In 1797 the castle, which had on various occasions been used to house prisoners of war, became a prison and it was heavily defended during the Napoleonic Wars; six guns on the east battery remain of the 22 that were used in 1811.
For a century it remained a magazine and armory. During the First World War it was used as a garrison and ordnance store and during the Second World War as an air raid shelter.
It was garrisoned continuously until 1928, when its ownership was transferred to the government for preservation as an ancient monument. The banqueting hall has been fully restored and there are many exhibits to show what life was like in medieval times.
Life and Legend
Carrickfergus is a great tear-shaped crag that rises above the flat shore. It is a peninsula that has sheltered a harbour at its side since time began. The rock is named for King Fergus of Dál Riata who ruled North East Ulster and parts of Western Scotland. In the year 5 hundred and 30, Fergus had contracted a skin disease. He heard of a holy well on a rock in the sea where the water might cure him. His ship set out from Ballycastle, but by the time it got to south Antrim, there was a great storm and the ship was dashed against the very rock he was seeking and all on board were drowned.
The castle is one of the finest in Ireland and it is the only castle in Ireland which has been in continuous use from its first building by John de Courcy in the late 1100s until today. Indeed, it was the primary stronghold of the crown in Ulster until 1928 when it was officially retired. John de Courcy was an adventurer, originally from Cornwall who had been barracked in Dublin for a time. Bored with the life in Dublin castle, he decided to take an expedition North. He had been told there was a prophecy, that the conqueror of Ulster would one day appear as a white knight from a foreign land who would be riding a white horse and carry a shield with birds of prey on it. Of course he made sure that he matched the description exactly, for luck and to strike fear into anyone who knew the story. As it happened, he had no need of the talisman. His small force was vastly superior to the Ulstermen and most of the Ulster coast was conquered in a few weeks.
De Courcy turned his attention to Carrickfergus, to the great rock that had captured his imagination on the way north. His first defence was the Inner Ward on the southwest tip of the rock and a trench was cut into the rock around it. He began building the massive keep at the same time. Remarkably for a site right out in the sea, the rock has a freshwater spring well and de Courcy’s keep has the well at its centre. The keep is 40 metres high and its walls are 4 metres thick. The ground floor has no windows and it was used for stores and the castle’s water supply. The entrance was reached by a wooden stair on the next floor and leads into the earliest guardroom, which has windows so small that a man could not get through.
The second floor was one large room with a fireplace where the lord of the castle would hold court and the top floor was his private accommodation. Of course the battlements at the top were used as the most fantastic lookout platform and to attack any who dared to approach with malice in mind. The middle ward was built in 1215 with a square tower over the harbour and the castle crept towards the land, gradually taking in more and more of the rock. As the castle grew, many wooden buildings sprang up to house the servants and soldiers. Finally the outer ward was built in 1230 and the enclosure of the rock was complete.
The last building was the massive stone gatehouse, the strongest part of the castle because it defended the only part not surrounded by the sea. The outer wall had a wall walk which meant that soldiers could safely get to any part of the castle when it was under attack. The gatehouse had a strong door, a portcullis and a drawbridge over a moat.
A prosperous market town grew around the old church on the land beside the rock and afterwards, both the castle and the town had eventful lives. They were taken by Edward Bruce (Robert the Bruce’s brother) by siege in 1316 when the garrison finally gave up after being reduced to eating leather. In about 1560 alterations were made to the two round gate towers for the new fangled artillery and after that the next stories come from the turbulent 1600s. After the Plantation of Ulster, Sir Arthur Chichester ordered strong walls to be built around the town, like a small version of the famous Walls of Derry.
During the 1641 rebellion and the English Civil War it was one of the main places of refuge for Protestants in Antrim and like Ballintoy Church, it was never taken. In 1688 it was held as a garrison for James II, but in 1689 the Duke of Schomberg captured it and King William III himself landed at Carrickfergus in 1690 on his way to fight the Battle of the Boyne. In 1760 it was captured by a French force. They looted the castle and town and left, only to be caught and destroyed by the British Navy and in 1778, one of the first battles of the American War of Independence took place on the Lough.
In 1797 it became a prison and it was heavily defended during the Napoleonic Wars.
During the 1st World War it was a garrison and ordnance store and was given to the nation as a historic monument in 1928.
After it had gone out of service, it did its final duty between 1939 and 1945 when its cellars were used as an air raid shelter.
Like all the best castles, it is haunted and a tragic tale of love and betrayal, ending in a miscarriage of justice lies behind the haunting. Robert Rainey was a soldier stationed at the castle in the 1760s. He was a hard living man but his life changed when he fell in love with Betsy Baird. He swore to her that if she married him he would give up his drinking and gambling. Betsy agreed and he was overjoyed. The problem was that Betsy had another admirer, the brother of the constable of the castle and she was playing a double game. When Robert found out about his rival he went wild with imaginings but bided his time. The two men eventually came face to face on the road to the town and Robert attacked him with his sword. He went back to the castle and quietly got rid of any evidence that he had been out. When the wounded man was discovered, with his dying words he told that another soldier, Timothy Lavery had done the deed, because Lavery looked like Rainey and in the darkness and confusion, he had mistaken one man for the other. Lavery was charged with murder, was found guilty and sentenced to death. At the moment of his execution he swore he would haunt the castle forever and his ghostly form has often been seen at his favourite place, near the deep, dark well in the basement.
Video produced by Ambient Light Productions