It is thought that Carrickfergus was commenced by John Courcy
(d.1210) after he conquered eastern Ulster and became earl of Ulster in
1177. To cement his victory John married Aufica, the daughter of
King Godred III of the Isle of Man (d.1187) in 1182, but had no
children. He ruled from Carrickfergus until 1204 when he was
ousted by Hugh Lacy (d.1242) of the Norman family from Weobley, Ludlow and Longtown in the Welsh Marches. He was the son of the Hugh Lacy (d.1186) who founded Trim castle
and had been made earl of Ulster in opposition to Courcy as early as
1199. Lacy subsequently added to Carrickfergus town by building
St Nicholas' church and endowing Woodburn priory. In 1208,
despite being Justiciar of Ireland, the Lacys allied with William Braose and defied King John.
As a result the king invaded Ireland in 1210 and eventually besieged
Carrickfergus, expelling Hugh and seizing the castle. Of the
garrison we know that one member was kept incarcerated for the next
five years as on 3 July 1215 King John accepted the fine of 30 marks
(£20) from Geoffrey Minton to be liberated from prison as he had
been against the king in the castle of Crackfergus. It was only
in 1227 that Hugh regained his earldom and the castle and then endowed
the Franciscan friary where he is claimed to be buried.
From 1210 on royal
constables were appointed to command the castle and keep the followers
of Hugh Lacy at bay. In 1217 the new constable, Serlane, was told
to build a new curtain wall for £100 so that the approach along
the rock could be protected, as well as the eastern approaches over the
sand exposed at low tide. This would appear to mark the
construction of either the middle or the outer ward. In 1263
Edward Longshanks granted Ulster and Carrigfergus to Walter Burgh
(d.1271), the lord of Connaught, who was soon made earl of
Ulster. On 6 June 1333, Earl Richard Burgh, the great-grandson of
Walter, was murdered at the castle by his own men in July 1326.
Before this, in May 1315 Edward Bruce, brother of King Robert of
Scotland (1306-29), landed at Olderfleet near Larne and then besieged the castle
for over a year. After his death in 1318 his remaining
troops laid waste the town. The town was again razed in 1386 and
1402, destroying much of the original settlement. The castle,
however, survived these commotions although it is said to have been
captured and damaged by Niall Nor O'Neill in 1384.
During the 1560s the castle was remodelled for artillery. The
rear of the gatehouse was demolished and the basement filled with
rubble to make an artillery platform. Simultaneously wide mouthed
gun ports were inserted in various parts of the castle. The
battlements were also removed and the wall tops made firm for artillery
placement. Despite this the castle was taken in 1575 by Somhairle
Buidhe MacDonnell. Later in 1597 the MacDonnells ambushed and
killed the castle governor.
During the rebellion of 1641, Carrickfergus was a refuge for fleeing
Protestants, and soon became a base for counterattack. General
Robert Munro captured the castle and took over the town for the Scots,
but between 1648 and 1649, control of the castle changed hands three
times. The parliamentarian General Monk finally took over on
behalf of parliament and the castle remained in parliamentarian hands
until the restoration of Charles II in 1660.
In 1688 Carrickfergus castle was held for James II despite the
population's overwhelming sympathy for William and Mary. In 1689
Duke Frederick of Schomberg besieged Carrickfergus with heavy mortars
on 20 August, bringing about the surrender of the garrison seven days
later. The next year, on 14 June 1690, King William of Orange
stepped ashore at Carrickfergus and marched to the battle of the Boyne,
where he defeated his father-in-law, James II.
After this Carrickfergus castle was not well maintained and in January
1754 a 50' length of the south curtain collapsed. The breach was
still open when the fortress was attacked on 1 February 1760, by the
French Commodore Thurot, who first seized the town with 800 men.
Subsequently the castle garrison of 230 mostly raw recruits surrendered
after repelling 3 assaults and using up all their ammunition.
During the action the silver in St Nicholas's Church was stolen.
After taking on provisions, the French fleet left only to be caught at
sea by the Royal Navy with Thurot being killed in an action off the
Isle of Man. Only now was the breach repaired by inserting a
massive gun platform. In 1797 the castle was pressed into service
as a prison for Catholic rebels and served the anti-submarine guns
defending the lough during WWI. The castle was only
decommissioned in 1920, but the keep was used again in WWII as an air
The initial castle constructed at Carrickfergus was a rhombodial
enclosure, 150' long by 85' wide set on the end of a rocky promontory
and with a simple hole in the wall style gateway to the
the north end of the enclosure, controlling the entrance, a large keep
was built, 90' high and 55' square. This has twin barrel vaulted
cellars and twin projections to the south. The east one of these
contains a spiral stair, the other 4 garderobe chutes. Although
these projections fade back into the masonry before the summit, they
proceed beyond the battlements to form garrets. The upper floor
of the keep, above where the turrets fade out, would appear to be a
later addition as is the north to south dividing wall which infills
some Romanesque window embrasures. This is the only 'Norman'
style keep in the island, Greencastle being of a different design. In England it perhaps most closely resembles Portchester keep, although this is very much a composite building with at least 3 different builds.
The hall seems to have lain along the east wall, helping form a narrow
entrance into the castle ward from the gateway. Two lancet
windows with Romanesque embrasures remain of the hall set in the east
curtain. This initial castle of the late 1170 was surrounded on
three sides by the lough and on the fourth, to the north, by a rock cut
Somewhat later, a narrow middle ward was added, running from near the
south-west corner of the keep to the south-east corner of the inner
effectively protecting the main entrance. Presumably the gateway
to this was in or near an open backed polygonal tower at its north extremity. However, the entire north
section of this wall has now gone. To the north-east at the angle is a
boldly projecting rectangular tower. There is a shoulder-headed
postern where the middle ward meets the inner ward at its south-east junction.
It would appear that the rest of the works to the north,
now called the outer ward and containing a fine twin towered gatehouse,
were the work Henry III
ordered in 1227. The original round
towers of this were some 40' in diameter. Both towers later had
their rears rebuilt to make them D shaped and had a new gate vault,
portcullis groove and machicolations added to the front and back.
It has been assumed that this occurred after damage in the great siege
of 1315-16. At some point a drawbridge pit was cut, but the
present masonry shows no sign of a drawbridge mechanism.
Therefore any drawbridge is either an early, pre 1316, feature or the
pit was used in a manner not obvious today. The upper room in the
east gatetower was known as the chapel, but the twin light window set
in it is obviously a late insertion of an old window. Such twin towered gatehouses are quite rare in Ireland, but are more common in England and Wales.
There is a
small rectangular latrine turret just south of the gatehouse on the
west curtain. This is similar to the open backed one in the
ward on this flank. There is also an open backed polygongal tower
Most of the castle is built of a local rubble stone, but the quoins and
window furniture tends to be a light yellow, well-cut, sandstone.
If you would like to visit this and other great castles of Ireland I am leading a tour there in
October. Please feel free to look over the details by clicking
Paul Martin Remfry