Belfast derives from Irish 'Beal Feirste' and means ‘Mouth of the Sandy Ford’. The sandy ford was once a crossing point to County Down over a tidal estuary close to where the river Farset and Lagan met. A chapel existed beside the crossing approximately where Saint George's Church of Ireland is today, near the Albert Clock. This chapel served as a place of prayer for those about to cross what were extremely dangerous tidal mud flats.
At this time the settlement would have consisted of no more than a chapel, a stone keep and a collection of shacks which served the strategic crossing point. The river Farset which is now covered, followed the line of the present day High Street past Custom House Square where it flowed into the river Lagan, boats were able to navigate the Farset for a few hundred metres.
The first castle keep at Belfast was built by the Norman knight John de Courcy who in 1177 had taken control of Downpatrick and passed through Belfast on his way to Carrickfergus where he built a substantial stronghold. During his time in Ulster he built many fortified castles, these were strategically placed and the one in Belfast was to guard the strategic crossing point to County Down and access to the river.
The castle was located several hundred yards from the chapel at Castle Place, named after the original castle which was destroyed and rebuilt several times, the last time being by Sir Arthur Chichester in 1611. The castle that he built burnt down in 1708 and was never rebuilt. The Belfast Castle we know see today located in woodlands just below Cave Hill was built by the 3rd Marquis of Donegall in 1870, a descendant of Sir Arthur Chichester.
The sandy ford was also where William De Burgo, the 3rd Earl of Ulster was killed in 1333 by Sir Richard de Mandeville and John de Logan. This was a revenge assassination arranged by the wife of Richard de Mandeville, a sister of Walter de Burgh whom the Earl had starved to death in Northburgh Castle, (Greencastle) in 1332.
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