Carrickfergus Castle is a Norman Irish castle in Northern Ireland, situated in the town of Carrickfergus in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. It sits on the north shore of Belfast Lough, 11 miles (18 kilometers) from Belfast. The town had a population of 27,903 at the 2011 Census. It is County Antrim’s oldest town and one of the oldest towns in Ireland as a whole. Besieged in turn by the Scottish, Irish, English and French, the castle played an important military role until 1928 and remains one of the best preserved medieval structures in Northern Ireland. It was strategically useful, with ¾ of the castle perimeter surrounded by water. Today it is maintained by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency as a state care historic monument, The name Carrickfergus is derived from the Irish Carraig Ḟergus or “cairn of Fergus”, the name “Fergus” meaning “strong man”. The British peerage title of Baron Carrickfergus, which had become extinct in 1883, was bestowed upon Prince William on his wedding day in 2011.
Carrickfergus is said to take its name from Fergus Mór (Fergus the Great), the legendary king of Dál Riata. According to one tale, his ship ran aground on a rock by the shore, which became known as “Carraig Fhearghais” – the rock of Fergus.
The castle was built by John de Courcy as his headquarters in 1177 after he had conquered eastern Ulster. 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 several buildings, including a chapel, kitchens and the great hall. There would also have been accommodation for the garrison and stables for their horses. Also accessible from within the ward was the massive tower or ‘keep’ used by De Courcy and his wife Affreca. The castle was further defended by a ditch cut into the rock, effectively making it an island.
From its strategic position on a rocky promontory, originally almost surrounded by sea, the castle commanded Carrickfergus Bay (later known as Belfast Lough), and the land approaches into the walled town that developed beneath its shadows. The historical walled town originally occupied an area of around 97,000 square meters, which now comprises the town center, bordered by Albert Road to the west, the Marine Highway to the south, Shaftesbury Park to the north and Joymount Presbyterian Church grounds to the east. Segments of the town wall are still visible in various parts of the town and in various states of preservation. Archaeological excavations close to the walls’ foundations have yielded many artefacts that have helped historians piece together a picture of the lives of the 12th and 13th century inhabitants.
John de Courcy ruled as a petty king until 1204 when he was ousted by another Anglo Norman adventurer, Hugh de Lacy, as authorized by King John. De Lacy oversaw the final construction of the castle, which included the gatehouse, drum towers and outer ward as an extension of the original curtain wall. This helped to defend the original entrance into the inner ward. It was at this time that he established the nearby St Nicholas’ Church.
The castle first appears in the official English records in 1210 when King John laid siege to it and placed Carrickfergus under royal authority. It was then Ulster’s premier strategic garrison. Following its capture, constables were appointed to command the castle and the surrounding area. In 1217 the new constable, De Serlane, was assigned one hundred pounds to build a new curtain wall so that the approach along the rock could be protected, as well as the eastern approaches over the sand exposed at low tide. The middle-ward curtain wall was later reduced to ground level in the eighteenth century, save along the seaward side, where it survives with a postern gate and the east tower, notable for a fine array of cross-bow loops at basement level.
A chamber on the first floor of the east tower is believed to have been the castle’s chapel on account of its fine Romanesque-style double window surround, though the original chapel must have been in the inner ward. De Lacy eventually regained his title of Earl of Ulster in 1227, however the castle and its walled town were captured several more times following his death (in 1242. The ribbed vault over the entrance passage, the murder hole and the massive portcullis at either end of the gatehouse are later insertions started by de Lacey. The castle was finished by King Henry III in around 1250.
After the collapse of the Earldom of Ulster in 1333, the castle remained the Crown’s principal residential and administrative center in the north of Ireland. The town was largely destroyed by the Scots in 1402. The Battle of Carrickfergus, part of the Nine Years War, took place in and around the town in November 1597. It was fought between the crown forces of Queen Elizabeth I and the Scots clan of MacDonnell, and resulted in a defeat for the English. A contemporary Elizabethan illustration of Carrickfergus shows ten tower-houses, as well as terraces of single-story houses, some detached cottages and 70 or more Irish beehive-type huts in the town.
Sir Arthur Chichester was appointed by the Earl of Essex to govern the castle and town in 1599 and was responsible for the plantation of English and Scottish peoples in the town, as well as the building of the town wall.
By the mid 16th century, battle technology had developed to the extent that the castle would have been unprepared for an attack involving artillery. Extensive modifications were carried out in the inner and outer wards by including externally splayed gunports and embrasures for cannon, These are quite visible even today and are easily identified by the use of brick inside and outside the walls to form the ports. These ports also required gun platforms that were built up against the existing walls. The twin gatehouse towers were also partially demolished to form semicircular or ‘half moon’ batteries with reinforced platforms to support cannon.
These improvements did not prevent the castle from being attacked and captured on many occasions during this time. Marshal Schomberg besieged and took the castle in the week-long Siege of Carrickfergus in 1689. This is also the place where Schomberg’s leader, King William III first set foot in Ireland on June 14, 1690.
In 1711, Carrickfergus was the scene of the last witchcraft trial in Ireland. Eight women were charged with bewitching a young girl, and were convicted, despite a strong indication from one of the judges that the jury should acquit. They were sentenced to a year in prison and four sessions in the pillory.
During the Seven Years’ War, in February 1760, the whole town was briefly captured and held to ransom by French troops landed from Francois Thurot’s naval squadron, after the defenders ran out of ammunition. After fierce fighting, they looted the castle and town and then left, only to be caught by the Royal Navy.
In April 1778, during the American War of Independence, John Paul Jones, in command of the Continental Navy ship USS Ranger, attempted to capture a British Royal Navy sloop of war, HMS Drake, moored at Carrickfergus. Having failed, he returned a few days later and challenged Drake to a fight out in the North Channel which the Americans won decisively.
During the 1790s, there was considerable support in the Carrickfergus area for the United Irishmen. On October 14, 1797, William Orr was hanged in the town following what was widely regarded as a show trial held in Carrickfergus Courthouse (now the Town Hall) and in 1798 United Irish founder Henry Joy McCracken was captured on the outskirts of the town while trying to escape to America.
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 twenty-two that were used in 1811.
In 1912, the people of Carrickfergus turned out in their thousands to watch as the RMS Titanic made its first ever journey up the lough from its construction dock in Belfast. The famous passenger liner was anchored overnight just off the coast of Carrickfergus, before continuing on its journey.
For a century, the castle 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 for about 750 years until 1928, when its ownership was transferred from the British Army to the new Government of Northern Ireland for preservation as an ancient monument. Many of its post-Norman and Victorian additions were then removed to restore the castle’s original Norman appearance. It remains 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. It was built and re-built three times, and still stands today.
On the day of his wedding, April 29, 2011, Prince William of Wales was created Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn, and Baron Carrickfergus. The latter title of peerage, along with the geographical barony itself, had been extinct since Victorian times. The title is now only ceremonial with no official connection to the castle.
The keep was the main residential and administrative structure of Anglo Norman castles. The keep at Carrickfergus was built originally by John de Courcy shortly after 1177. It was of massive construction and would have been considered the most secure part of the castle. It stands over 20 meters tall and has four main floors, mostly in the original 12th century positions. Access to the keep was from a first floor entrance with a main spiral staircase leading both up to the second and third floors, and down to the vaulted ground floor. This ground floor had no doors to the outside and was probably used for food storage and preparation.
The first floor would likely have been for local administration and ordinary folk were admitted to resolve issues with Crown officials. The second floor was probably the private apartment of the incumbent Lord and his Lady with their own en suite latrine accessed by a private staircase from the bedchamber. The top floor was the main hall and was most likely used for formal courts hosted by the Lord of the castle. Recent investigation confirmed the possible location of a raised gallery, most likely used by minstrels to entertain the guests below.
On October 18, 1988, Royal Mail of Great Britain released a set of four high-denomination definitive stamps designed by HRH Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, using photographs he’d taken of four castles — Carrickfergus, Caernarvon, Edinburgh, and Windsor — representing each constituent part of the United Kingdom (Scott #1230-1233). The stamps were printed in intaglio by Harrison & Sons Ltd., perforated 15 x 14.
On March 24, 1992, the high-value Castles definitives were reissued using the same designs but with the Queen’s portrait in gold silhouette and they have an elliptical hole in the vertical perforations (Scott #1445-1448). They were re-engraved to show greater detail than on the 1988 stamps while the Queen’s head was printed using a special ink that changes color from green to gold. These have syncopated perforations of 15 x 14 and were printed in sheets of 100 on unwatermarked paper free of optical brightening agents.
These were reissued again on December 6, 1994, with lines strengthened, the castles appearing darker than on the original issue. The Carrickfergus design was reissued with a 3-pound denomination on August 22, 1995 (Scott #1447A). Finally, a further re-engraving occurred (£1.50, £2, £3, and £5 values) and issued on July 29, 1997 (Scott #1446a, 1447a, #1447Ac, and #1448a). These have some changes in the lettering (the “C” and “S” of CASTLE, for example, do not have serifs) and the Queen’s head is silkscreened, feeling smooth. The elliptical perforation also begins one hole higher than on the previous issues.