There are few buildings in Ireland with such long, well chronicled and fascinating histories as Carrickfergus Castle.
John de Courcy started building the castle in the twelfth century after arriving from Dublin determined to establish for himself the earldom of Ulster. De Courcy was a central figure in the English invasion of Ulster from 1177 to 1204. Although his foray had the seal of approval from the English king, Henry II, it was primarily a private enterprise. De Courcy reaped rich financial and political reward for over 20 years until his downfall was engineered by Hugh de Lacy.
Carrickfergus Castle first appears in the official English records in 1210 when the notorious King John laid siege to and took control of Ulster’s premier strategic garrison. De Lacy fled the castle before the arrival of John, and the castle came under the control of a constable. In 1245 a royal mandate was issued insisting that the castle and its buildings were to be maintained and protected from falling into ruin.
Lord Edward Bruce, brother of King Robert the Bruce of Scotland, invaded Ulster in 1315, but Carrickfergus castle was to remain the one sure bastion of the English in the late Middle Ages. In the sixteenth century, the castle was attacked on several occasions and, in 1602, Conn O’Neill, the chief of Clandeboye, was imprisoned there.
In 1745 almost 15m of the curtain wall on the south side of the castle collapsed and was left unrepaired. In 1760 the French forces of Commodore Thurot’s took advantage of the structural weakness during three overwhelming assaults.
Many lives were lost, and when the garrison’s ammunition ran out, buttons were torn from military uniforms for use as musket balls. When that too failed to repel the Gallic invaders, the soldiers on the ramparts resorted to bayonets and stones, but eventually the French prevailed and the castle surrendered.
In the late 1790s the castle was employed as a state and county prison and many United Irishmen were to know the grimness of incarceration there. A century later it was used as an armoury and magazine, with anti-submarine guns mounted in the early twentieth century to protect Belfast Lough during the first world war.
In 1928, 700 years of continuous military occupation ended when the war department transferred the castle to the Ministry of Finance for preservation as an ancient monument. However, ten years later it was once again in strategic use as the basements became air raid shelters during the second world war.
In August 1961 Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip landed at Carrickfergus from the Royal Yacht Britannia to begin a short visit to Northern Ireland, maintaining the regal connections of both the town and castle. The couple’s inspection of the castle was the first to have been conducted by a reigning monarch since the days of William of Orange in the 1690s.
Reproduced with kind permission of Carrickfergus Borough Council 2004