There are many Irish castles but Carrickfergus Castle is probably the best preserved of the old castles in Northern Ireland and certainly worth visiting. It is a typical example of how castles in the Middle Ages looked like.
It is ideal to visit with children as it easy to access it and the life-size figures will make history come alive. You can even host worry-free children's birthday parties there.
How to get there
It is easily accessible from Belfast, just 15 minutes away by car on the M5 north and then A2 along Belfast Lough through Whiteabbey and Jordanstown.
If you are staying in Belfast you can arrange a visit when it suits. If you are staying further afield, you might want to combine a visit to Carrickfergus Castle with other sights on a day tour.
Carrickfergus is also the name of the town where the castle is situated.
What's in a Name
“Carrick” means “rock” in Gaelic. The name Carrickfergus means “the rock of Fergus” and derives, according to legend, from king Fergus who died nearby in the sea during a storm.
The History of Carrickfergus Castle
The castle was built on a rock promontory by John de Courcy in 1177 to serve as his base and guard the entrance to Belfast. John was a Anglo-Norman knight who conquered Ulster for England and ruled it in theory as a vassal to the king of England, but in practice as an independent prince. However, in 1204 he was defeated by another Norman, Hugh de Lacy.
In 1210 King John captured the castle and it henceforth was a base of British rule in Ulster.
Famous Battles, Famous Events
Carrickfergus Castle has seen its share of important battles and events.
Edward the Bruce - 1315
Edward the Bruce (brother of the famous Robert the Bruce) invaded Ulster from Scotland and by 1315 conquered all except Carrickfergus. In 1315 he laid siege to the castle. An attempt to relieve the castle from the sea was defeated. The defenders launched a surprise attack on the Scots and took some captive. According to some sources, they killed some of the prisoners and ate them! The castle surrendered in 1316, only to be recaptured by the English in 1318. The story of this war is told in the audio visual presentation in the castle, which you must see.
King William – 1690
Carrickfergus castle is also famous because King William of Orange (William III of England) landed his army here in 1690.
He then marched south and camped at Scarva village for training, a place they still re-enact the battle of the Boyne every year on July 13, the famous Sham Fight, before proceeding to the River Boyne where he defeated the Catholic forces establishing Protestant ascendancy.
There is a plaque commemorating the landing.
Vive le France! – 1760 and the Seven Years War
Carrickfergus castle also played a role in the career of the famous French privateer, Francois Thurot. In late 1759 Francois set sail with a small squadron of ships to raid British shipping and coasts in Northern Ireland and Scotland. After bad weather prevented him from raiding Londonderry Francois, desperate for supplies, landed 600 men and attacked Carrickfergus.
The castle had a handful of defenders and after fierce fighting surrendered. The French looted the castle and the town and set sail. While trying to escape they were intercepted by three British warships. His vessel Belle-Isle was attacked and boarded by the Aeolus but Francois Thurot was already dead, having been killed by a musket shot.
American Adventures – 1778
Carrickfergus and the waters beyond it became the scene of possibly the only time the American Navy scored a victory against the Royal Navy without having an overwhelming advantage.
The year is 1778 and the American Revolution is in full swing. A number of American captains including John Paul Jones with his ship, the Ranger, set out to raid British merchant shipping in the Atlantic. Jones enter the Irish Sea where he can operate with some impunity as the majority of the British Fleet is either fighting in America or assembled in the Channel to avert a feared French attack.
After failing to attack Whiteheaven on the coast of England, Jones sails to Carrickfergus to attack the British ship Drake. On the morning of April 24 the Drake set sail to meet the Ranger and after an hour long battle 15 miles to sea from Carrickfergus the Drake surrendered and was taken to France.
Jones' victory caused a sensation – the Royal Navy could be defeated. To be fair to the Drake however, it was only a merchant vessel, under supplied with war material, and fitted with guns that showed remarkable instability when fired. Key officers were absent during the fight and replaced by novices without naval experience or knowledge of the vessel. The North Channel Naval Battle as it came to be called, was one of the better known episodes of the naval war between Britain and America.
We visited Carrickfergus a number of times. When you plan your visit, check Opening times to avoid disappointment. Plan to spend about an hour though you can easily spend two if you are keen.
First go to the Keep, the 27.5 meter high tower were most of the function took place. In it you can see a model of the castle and the area as it would have been in ages past. You can climb to the first floor that was the main reception and dinning area and where the king and the knights held council. It is nicely maintained and can be let out for wedding receptions, business meals and other functions. On the top floor were the living quarters, sparsely furnished but spacious. Castles in the Middle Ages were not build for comfort but defense. Hence the sparse decorations and spartan environment. But you do have a a vantage point to look out. Have a look out the window for a great view over the Belfast Lough, or play some of the games medieval kings and knights might have played.
Once you are finished with the Keep, walk through the Carrickfergus castle grounds. Scattered around are life size human figures that represent either soldiers defending the castle or important persons associated with it. You will notice John de Courcy and his wife Affreca Godfredsdorrir, the viking princess of Mann who married John but was missing her home in the Isle of Man and so is looking nostalgically out to sea.
Make sure you visit the chapel and the “murder hole” next to it (they are easy to miss) from where they would pelt attackers trapped by the portcullis (a trap at the castle entrance) with rocks, arrows or douse them with boiling oil.