The Old Castle - Story of Belfast

WE read of the Castle of Belfast as occupying a very important part in the old history of the town.

A Castle existed from the earliest times, but the arrival of John De Courci, in 1171, made a great change throughout the North of Ireland. He first conquered Downpatrick, where he lived in regal state, and he was the first Norman to take possession of Belfast and the country round. When he was created Earl of Ulster, it is supposed that he built the Castle, but this has not been verified. Another Earl of Ulster lived later on in the Castle. Belfast Castle was twice taken by the Earl of Kildare, and from 1503 to 1512 it was inhabited by Randolphus Lane. Then it belonged to the O'Neills, from whom it was taken, and afterwards restored. Queen Elizabeth claimed the right to grant the lands of Ulster to whom she liked. Being displeased with O'Neill, she gave Clannaboy and a great part of the country, including Belfast and the Castle, to Sir Thomas Smith and his son, who had all their duties set forth in a very lengthy document. One stipulation was that they were to be "firm and stable in their own strength, vigour and effect." However, the Smiths failed to carry out their part of the agreement, as they were weak and unstable, so their stay was a short one, and Belfast again reverted to O'Neill, the lawful owner.

O'Neill was elected as chief seated on his regal chair at Castlereagh, and was knighted, but he was again unfortunate. Sir Arthur Chichester was appointed Governor of Carrickfergus in 1599. He was a wise and prudent man and from the time he appeared there was more peace for Ulster. James the First granted him the Castle of Belfast with a large portion of the lands surrounding, and he was made Baron of Belfast. This Lord Chichester was said to have been the finest man in the country, and from the time the Chichester—afterwards the Donegall—family became connected with Belfast, the town owed its prosperity to their wise and generous rule. Lord Chichester built a fine house in Carrickfergus, where he resided when Governor. Joymount, called for Lord Mountjoy, was designed by Inigo Jones and was a fair and stately mansion with gardens and a bowling green attached to it. He died in Carrickfergus and a tomb was erected to his memory in St. Nicholas' Church.

In 1611, the Castle of Belfast was built upon the site of the former Castle. It was surrounded with spacious gardens which extended from the river along to Cromac Woods and near Stranmillis. It is curious to read of hunting, hawking and other sports in the woods and meadows where now we have long streets of houses. The gardens, shady walks, orchards, bowling greens and cherry gardens are all gone, and nothing remains of the fish ponds. The stately palace, once the centre of hospitality and culture, is now only a memory. King William was received here in 1690. He admired the Castle and all its pleasure grounds and the beautiful gardens so much that he remained on a visit for five days. He received an address from the citizens and issued a proclamation "given at our Court at Belfast." No other King ever visited Belfast again until the late King Edward VII. in 1903. The third Earl of Donegall was a soldier of great eminence and distinguished himself throughout the Spanish war. He was unfortunately killed abroad, at the age of forty years. Two years later, in 1708, the Castle was burned to the ground, three of Lady Donegall's daughters were burnt to death, and two servants also perished. The Castle was never rebuilt, and the Marquis of Donegall lived for a time in Donegall House at the corner of Donegall Place.

Ormeau was also one of the residences, and it was there that the second Marquis died in 1844. He had also lived at Annadale. Nothing now remains of the old Castle except the names which mark where the strong, stately edifice once stood. It filled Castle Place, the principal entrance was where Castle Market is now, and the old courtyard had an entrance from Castle Lane. The bowling green extended from Church Lane to Corn Market, and what is now Ann Street was called the "Back of the Green." It was named not for Queen Anne, but for Anne, Lady Donegall. Lord Donegall's pleasure-boat was moored where Arthur Square is now. The open river of the Blackstaff flowed through Police Square into Hanover Dock, and May's Dock was called for Sir Edward May, who was the brother of Lady Donegall, and so we get May Street and Great Edward Street. Sir Edward May reclaimed the land to form May's Dock from the original bed of the river and the high water line was where Great Edward Street now continues into Cromac Street. The remains of the old toll house are still in existence between the corner of Great Edward Street and the new wall of the present market at the end of Chichester Street.

Old Castle at Ormeau, Belfast

Old Castle at Ormeau, Belfast

Belfast owes a great deal to the foresight and generosity of the Donegall family. The old Poor-house received grants of land at a merely nominal rent, as did also the Belfast Academical Institution, the Brown Linen Hall and the White Linen Hall. Belfast never would have been the large and prosperous city it has become but for the practical interest successive generations of the Donegall family have shown in the place. The present Earl of Shaftesbury is the direct descendant of the third Marquis of Donegall, who had one son and one daughter. His son, Lord Belfast, died in the year 1853. His young life was full of promise for a brilliant career, he was exceptionally gifted and his early death was greatly deplored. His sister married Lord Shaftesbury and her son inherited the present Belfast Castle. The new residence is a large building on the side of Cave Hill, and the new Belfast Castle is like the old one, "a fair and stately mansion." The small private chapel belonging to the Castle is a gem of beauty, and the exquisite monument erected to the memory of Lord Belfast is not seen or known as it ought to be. Comparatively few Belfast people are aware that such a rare and beautiful piece of sculpture is in the little chapel on the slope of the Cave Hill.