The town of Carrickfergus has been in existence since medieval times. The earliest known name for the area was Dun-so-barky, meaning ‘strong rock or hill’. Then, in the sixth century, Fergus Mor, the son of Eric of Armoy, left Ulster to found a kingdom in Scotland but was drowned on his return. Reputedly buried at Monkstown, Newtownabbey, the area was thereafter variously called Carriag na Ferg, Krag, Carriag, Knock, Krag Fergus, and of course, Carraig Fhearghus, meaning ‘rock of Fergus’.
In 1169, Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, was dispatched by Henry II to aid the king of Leinster, and the Norman settlement of Ireland began. Eight years later, the Anglo-Norman knight John de Courcy invaded Ulster and established his castle on a volcanic dyke at Carrickfergus in 1180.
Between 1203 and 1205, De Courcy was ousted from Ulster by another Anglo-Norman knight, Hugh De Lacy. De Lacy finished the construction of the castle, building the gatehouse, drum towers and outer ward. He also established St Nicholas’s church and endowed Woodburn priory.
In 1210 King John arrived at Carrickfergus, expelled De Lacy and took the castle into royal authority. De Lacy recovered the earldom of Ulster and the castle in 1227 and endowed the Franciscan friary, where he is said to be buried.
In May 1315 Edward Bruce, brother of the legendary Scottish king Robert, landed at Olderfleet near Larne and besieged the castle for over a year. Three years later, the English army defeated Bruce at the Battle of Foghart near Dundalk, Co Louth. In retreat the Scottish soldiers laid waste to the town and countryside of Carrickfergus. The town was again razed in 1386 and 1402, destroying much of the original settlement.
The garrison town of Carrickfergus was of strategic significance in the continuing battle for sovereignty in the province of Ulster. In 1575 Brian McPhelim O’Neill of Clandeboye burned down much of the reconstructed Carrickfergus, followed two years later by an attack by Sorley Boy MacDonnell.
In 1597 John Chichester, the governor of Carrickfergus, was killed in an ambush by the MacDonnells at Altfrackyn near Ballycarry. Two years later his brother Arthur assumed governorship of the castle. A professional soldier and natural leader, Arthur Chichester settled the countryside and successfully planted the town with English and lowland Scots. He also built the town wall, restored St Nicholas’s Church and started work on Joymount Palace, a Jacobean mansion on the site of the former Franciscan friary. In 1621 the Presbyterian Church at North Street became the first meetinghouse to be established in the town.
During the rebellion of 1641, Carrickfergus was a refuge for fleeing Protestants, soon becoming a base for a counterattack and subsequent massacre of Catholics at Islandmagee. General Robert Munro captured the castle and took over the town for the Scots, but between 1648 and 1649 control of the castle would change three times. Munro gave way to General Monk on behalf of parliament, and the castle was its base until the restoration of Charles II in 1660.
Carrickfergus found itself entangled at the very heart of national and European politics when, in 1688, the town and castle were held by the garrison troops for James II despite the population’s overwhelming sympathy for the Williamite cause. In 1689 Frederick Duke of Schomberg landed with Williamite forces at Groomsport, Co Down. The siege of Carrickfergus began on August 20 with heavy mortar bombings, bringing about the surrender of the garrison troops seven days later.
Then on June 14, 1690, King William of Orange stepped ashore at Carrickfergus destined for the Battle of the Boyne, where he defeated his father-in-law James II and claimed the English crown as his own.
Carrickfergus as a strategic military base came to the fore once again on February 1, 1760, when Commodore Thurot’s French forces attacked the town. The castle surrendered and the silver in St Nicholas’s Church was stolen. After taking on provisions, the French left only to be caught at sea by the British Navy and Thurot was killed in action off the Isle of Man.
The American privateer John Paul Jones engaged his ship Ranger with HMS Drake off Carrickfergus castle in 1778, and is credited with being one of the founding fathers of the American Navy.
In 1797 the castle was pressed into service as a prison for United Irishmen. William Orr was tried and hanged on Gallows Green, and many prisoners passed through the castle during the 1798 rebellion.
Reproduced with kind permission of Carrickfergus Borough Council 2004