The name Carrickfergus comes from 'Carraig Fergusa' which translates into English as 'Rock of Fergus'. It was and was named after King Fergus (498AD) who ruled the Kingdom of Dalriada which ran from Bushmills to near Larne and across to Argyll and Bute in Scotland. The town is one of the oldest fortified settlements in Ulster.
Fergus had moved the seat of power from Ireland to Dunadd in Scotland and on a journey back to Ulster in stormy weather his boat foundered on rocks and he was drowned close to where the present castle stands today, his body was buried at the monastic settlement of Monkstown. There are references to Fergus contracted leprosy and that he was returning to Ulster to seek a cure from a holy well. Fergus was the first Christian king in Ulster having been converted by Patricius (St. Patrick) at Armoy. The long rock which claimed his life is in geological terms a volcanic dyke and provides the foundation for Carrickfergus Castle.
This fabulous Norman fortress was built on the site of an older wooden fort by John de Courcy in the 1180s, it took several years to complete due to him being involved in continual fighting as he pushed his frontiers of power to the north west as far as the river Bann at Coleraine. De Courcy was a Norman knight who marched from Dublin in 1177 with the purpose of establishing his own territory in Ulster and expanding Norman interests in Ireland. With 25/30 armoured horsemen and 300 foot soldiers he captured the main settlement of Downpatrick, he secured a keep at the river crossing at Belfast and took Carrickfergus which was the main strategic town and port in Ulster after Downpatrick. He made Carrickfergus his strategic stronghold and from here expanded his power base. De Courcy was also responsible for founding St Nicholas Church in 1192 and Woodburn Priory.
The magnificently preserved castle strategically guards the entrance to Belfast Lough and would have originally been surrounded by water. The castle served as a stronghold for numerous governors and conquerors during its existence. It has been besieged by French, Scots, English and Irish troops. Carrickfergus remained in the ownership of De Courcy until 1203 when he was overthrown by Hugh De Lacy with the blessing of King John of England. Hugh De Lacy became the First Earl of Ulster in 1205, this was the first creation of earls, there would be a second creation and another 1st Earl of Ulster in 1271. De Lacy lost the castle in 1210 when King John arrived and forced him to flee to Scotland and then to France after a war between the Earl and FitzHenry who was the King's Judiciar in Ireland. The castle returned to Hugh De Lacy in 1227 after Henry III became king. De Lacy then added the gatehouse, towers and outer walls and also endowed the Franciscan Friary. He lived here until his death in 1242.
The history of Carrickfergus Castle makes fascinating reading and spans some 800 years, it has seen many Kings and Earls pass through its main gates. In May 1315, Edward the Bruce arrived at Olderfleet (Larne) with a well seasoned army to take up an invitation by the Irish earls to become King of Ireland and remove English rule. The Irish earls had been inspired by the victory of his brother Robert at Bannockburn which led to him being crown King of Scotland. On arrival in Ireland, Edward marched south and after numerous battles defeated the Red Earl William De Burgo at Connor near Ballymena, shortly after this he was proclaimed King of Ireland. The Earl's forces scattered but some took Carrickfergus Castle which was subsequently lay siege to by Edward's forces. The seige lasted from September 1315 until September 1316. An attempt to relieve it by Sir Thomas de Mandeville from the sea in April 1316 failed and he was killed in the process. The castle eventually surrendered and possession returned to Edward where it remained until he was killed at the battle of Faughhart in 1318. The castle reverted to an English garrison throughout the 14th century.
It was from Carrickfergus that the Earl of Essex, acting Governor of Ulster, launched his attack on Rathlin Island in 1575, a strategic move carried out by Francis Drake and Henry Sydney which resulted in the massacre of 600 people belonging to the McDonnell clan and their allies. In retaliation Sorley Boy McDonnell attacked Carrickfergus killing over 100 of the garrison and taking all their cattle and corn. A major change took place in Carrickfergus with the arrival of Sir Arthur Chichester in 1597, he took over governorship after his brother John was killed in a battle with the McDonnells at Ballymagarry. Chichester was very prominent in the Plantation of Ulster which had been strategically planned by King James 1st. and as part of this he was granted lands in Ulster including Belfast which he developed. He was responsible for building the walled defences of the town in 1608, a model which was applied to other plantation towns like Coleraine and Londonderry. You can still see part of these walls today, though Derry has the finest example in Ireland. Chichester had Joymount Palace constructed on the site of the Franciscan Friary endowed by Hugh de Lacy.
The town prospered during the plantation years with merchants and commerce, it was at this time that the harbour was developed. In 1621 the Rev John Hubbard arrived in Carrickfergus with a small congregation from Southwark which became the foundation of the North Street Presbyterian Church. Eventually Belfast developed and Carrick lost is customs and place as the main port and Carrickfergus Bay became Belfast Lough.
When Charles 1st became King, dissent took place within the Protestant faith due to the crown imposing religious restrictions. The effect brought a split in civil society between the Royalist and the Parliamentarians and civil war broke out in 1642, this fact helped fuel the rebellion in Ireland. The Parliamentarians under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell arrived in Ireland to quell the uprising and during his campaign here, he lay siege to the castle which subsequently surrendered. Afterwards Cromwell ordered all people of the Catholic faith to move outside the fortified walls of the town. Today you will find an Irish and a Scotch Quarter in the town which reflect back to this time.
King William of Orange arrived here in June 1690 after the town and castle had been secured by General Schomberg who was eighty years old at the time but nonetheless a revered military leader and strategist. The town was taken but a garrison force retreated into the castle. Schomberg lay siege to the castle and ordered a bombardment of cannon fire from ships anchored in the Lough. The governor Colonel Charles MacCarthy after some negotiation eventually surrendered the castle, Schomberg agreeing to escort him and the disarmed garrison to the nearest Jacobite stronghold. However, a large proportion of the residents of Carrickfergus were set on attacking the surrendered garrison. Schomberg had to break up and hold back the mob to allow the disarmed soldiers to retreat from the town. King William arrived by ship and embarked on the quay, the location today is marked with a blue plaque, after being greeted and refreshed he rode to the White House at Whiteabbey to meet with Schomberg before going to Belfast and then the Boyne where he engaged in battle with his father in law James II.
During the English war with France 1756-63, French prisoners were kept in the castle. In the early hours of a February morning in 1760, a French naval commander called Francois Thurot sailed into the Lough and landed a few hundred men at Kilroot, they took the town and castle after a short stand off. He then released all the French prisoners and set fire to part of the town before setting sail. The Royal Navy later intercepted the French ships off the Isle of Man which they sank and in the process Thurot was killed.
During the 1798 rebellion of the United Irishmen many local Carrickfergus men joined up including Presbyterian ministers. It was in Carrickfergus that William Orr was tried and hung for giving the oath of the United Irishmen to an enlisting soldier. At the time the case was highly controversial and widely regarded as judicial murder. Henry Joy McCracken was arrested close to Carrick on his way to Greenisland and a boat to Scotland, he was taken back to Belfast and tried then hung at the Cornmarket.
Although the castle is one of the predominant features of Carrickfergus the town itself offers some wonderful period architecture to explore which spans its history. St. Nicholson Church is well worth visiting having an ecclesiastical heritage which goes back to the time of John de Courcy. It also has the ornate and tomb of the Sir Arthur Chichester which is very impressive and unique. The Flame Gasworks is the last surviving coal gasworks in Ireland and is today preserved in the Irish Quarter West. It produced gas here from 1855 to 1967 when it closed. Today it serves as a museum to that industry complete with a working gas holder which has panoramic views of the town. There are only three examples of this type of gasworks left in the United Kingdom, Carrickfergus in the only one in Ireland.
Carrickfergus has lots to offer the visitors, a great promenade with recreational space for adults and children, one of the gems in Carrickfergus is The Coutryard located on Green Street, opposite the extensive playpark facilities of Marine Park., this is also the site of the War Memorial with a Churchill tank and field gun on permanent public display. The Courtyard is a beautiful setting with trees and seating surrounded by craft, art and gift shops combined with two food locations. Well worth a visit.