The mighty stronghold of Carrickfergus castle is on the shores of Belfast Lough and easily accessible on Belfast tours !!
It was once the centre of Anglo-Norman power in Ulster and is a remarkably complete and well-preserved early medieval castle that has survived intact despite 750 years of continuous military occupation.
From its strategic position on a rocky promonotory originally almost surrounded by sea , the castle commanded Belfast Lough , and the land approaches into the walled town that developed beneath its shadow.
The core of the castle – the inner ward and keep – was built by John de Courcy , who conquered east Ulster in 1177 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 which was 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 and must have been very cramped , especially after the keep was built in the north corner.
Probably built in the late 1180s the keep is a massive four-storey tower. It is 90-feet high with a second-storey entrance. Its entry chamber was originally one large poorly lit room with a double latrine and no fireplace. It served as the public room. A shaft gave access to a well below and a mural stair led down to the vaulted storage cellar. De Courcy also probably used the third storey which was another poorly lit room with a fireplace and a single latrine. The fourth storey was a high, brightly lit room with windows in all four walls and again a fireplace and single latrine. It was the principal chamber and must have served as de Courcy’s private quarters.
Following its capture by King John in 1210 the castle passed to the Crown and constables were appointed to command the place.
Then in 1217 the new constable was assigned £100 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 except for along the seaward side where it survives with a postern gate and the east tower. It is notable for a fine array of cross-bow loops at basement level.
After being restored to the Ulster Earldom in 1227 Hugh de Lacy returned to Carrickfergus where he remained until his death in 1242.
It was almost certainly de Lacy who enclosed the remainder of the promontory to form an outer ward thus doubling the area of the castle. Its curtain wall follows the line of the rock below with two polygonal towers on the west and an impressive gatehouse with twin flanking towers on the north.
Both towers were originally circular in plan much like the contemporary gatehouse at Chepstow in Gwent. But during the sixteenth century were cut in half and lowered in height to accommodate artillery.
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.
The ribbed vault over the entrance passage, the murder hole and the massive portcullis at either end of the gatehouse are later insertions and were probably part of the remodelling that followed Edward Bruce’s long and bitter siege of 1315-16.
After the collapse of the Earldom of Ulster in 1333 the castle remained the Crown’s principal residential and administrative centre in the North.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a number of improvements were made to accommodate artillery. Notably externally splayed gunports and embrasures for cannon.
Though be aware these improvements did not prevent the castle from being attacked and captured on many occasions during this time.
In fact when General Schomberg besieged and took the castle in 1690 its importance was already in decline.
In 1760 it was captured and held by French invaders under the command of Thurot.
Later it served as a prison and during the Napoleonic Wars was heavily defended. But only six guns on the east battery remain of the twenty-two that were used in 1811.
For over a century it remained a magazine and armoury before being transferred to the Government in 1928 for preservation as an ancient monument.
It is something of a hidden gem but something you should see on any tours of Ireland…providing you are interested in history and castles.
If you are in Belfast on a cruise ship in 2010 it is a short jaunt from the docks to this magnificent castle. Why not incorporate it on a Belfast tour with Ireland Luxury Tours. Our day tours are fantastic.