Carrickfergus Castle

From the Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 1, No. 15, October 6, 1832

Carrickfergus Castle, 1832

For the view of Carrickfergus castle which we have given above, we are indebted to Alexander Johns, Esq. Ordnance store-keeper of the castle, and in giving a few particulars respecting the history of the place, we must express our acknowledgments to Mr. S. M'Skimin, whose history of Carrickfergus is allowed to be one of the best local works which has ever appeared in Ireland. Placed on a rock, and in a convenient position for commanding the best harbour on the north-east coast of our country, it is a very natural supposition that this place should have been early selected as the site of a fortress, which is said to have been a strong hold of the Dalaradians, and distinguished by the name of Carraig-Fear-gusa, or the rock of Fergus, after a king of that name, who was drowned near the place. John de Courcy, having received from Henry II. a grant of all the land he might conquer in Ulster, set out from Dublin with a small band of seven hundred followers to secure his prize. Observing the convenient position of the strong fort, he erected here, according to the Norman practice, a castle, which with subsequent additions, now remains, and may justly be considered as one of the noblest fortresses of the time now existing in Ireland.

De Courcy having fallen into disgrace with the succeeding English monarchs, his castles and possessions fell into the hands of the De Lacy family, who becoming oppressive and tyrannous, were in their turn ejected by King John—fled to France—were restored—again became obnoxious to the English monarch, and the Lord Justice Mortimer being sent against them, they fled a second time, and passing over into Scotland, invited Edward Bruce the brother of the famous Robert Bruce, to invade their country, and become their king.

In May 1315, Lord Edward Bruce, having obtained the consent of the Scotch parliament, embarked six thousand men at Ayr, and accompanied by the De Lacy's, and many nobles of the Scotch nation, landed at Older-fleet, for the purpose of conquering Ireland from the English. Numbers of the Irish chiefs flocked to his standard; and having in a battle totally routed the Earl of Ulster, and slain and taken prisoners various of the Anglo-Norman nobles, he laid siege to Carrickfergus. During the progress of the siege, he had well nigh been discomfited by the courage and desperation of the garrison. Thomas, lord Mandeville, who commanded, made a sally upon the Scotch army, who were apprehending no danger, their only guard being sixty men under Neill Fleming, a man of great courage and address. He perceiving that the Scotch army would be surprised and probably routed, despatched a messenger to inform Bruce of his danger, and then with his sixty men, threw himself in the way of the advancing English, crying out, "Now of a truth they will see how we can die for our lord!" His first onset checked the progress of the enemy, but receiving a mortal wound, he and his little party were cut to pieces. Mandeville, dividing his troops, endeavoured to surround the Scotch army; but was met in person by Bruce who with his guards was hurrying forward. In front of Bruce's party was one Gilbert Harper, a man famed in the Scotch array for valour and strength, and he knowing Mandeville by the richness of his armour, rushed on him, and felled him to the ground with his battle-axe, and then Bruce despatched him with a knife. The loss of the English commander so disheartened the soldiers that they fled back towards the castle; but those who remained in the garrison, seeing the Scots close behind, drew up the drawbridge, leaving their comrades to the mercy of enemies.

Soon after the garrison agreed to surrender within a limited time, and on the appointed day, thirty Scots advanced to take the possession of the place. But instead of surrendering, the garrison seized them as prisoners, declaring they would defend the place to the last extremity! And to a deplorable extremity they were at last reduced, for before they did surrender, it is said that the want of provisions made them devour the thirty Scotchmen whom they had treacherously taken prisoners!

Bruce having secured Carrickfergus, advanced to Dublin, and came so near as Castleknock, within four miles of the city. But finding the citizens prepared for his reception, he entered the county of Kildare, and advanced near Limerick, laying waste the country by fire and sword. But having again to retreat northwards, he was attacked near Dundalk by Sir John Birmingham, was slain, and his army totally routed. King Robert Bruce arrived with a large army; but on learning the fate of his brother, he returned to Scotland, and thus this unfortunate expedition, which had been originally undertaken, not for the good of Ireland, but to gratify the pride and rebellious spirit of an Anglo-Norman chieftain, left the country in a state of greater desolation than any former period of history records.

Carrickfergus continued for many long years to be a stronghold of the English; and even when their power was confined and limited, and the revenues of the Pale so low as that the Irish government thought it too much to maintain a standing army of 140 horse, the lofty and securely built castle remained in their possession. In the year 1503, Con O'Neill, chief of south or upper Clandeboy, whose Castle was that of Castlereagh, was confined here, on account of the following affair. Having about Christmas, 1602, a "grand debauch" at Castlereagh, with his "brothers, friends, and followers," he sent his servants to Belfast for more wine. They, in returning, quarrelled with some English soldiers, near the Knock church and they lost the wine. Con was doubtless not a little vexed; and having learned from them that their number exceeded the English soldiers, he swore by "his father, and souls of his ancestors," that they should never be servants of his until they had beaten the "buddagh Sassenagh soldiers" This threat roused their courage—they returned, attacked the soldiers, several of whom were killed in the affray. Con was soon after seized as an abettor, and confined for some time. But though he was permitted, after a time, to walk out through the town attended by a soldier, Con did not relish his limited liberty. But one Thomas Montgomery, the master of a barque which traded to Carrickfergus with meal for the garrison, being employed by his relation Hugh Montgomery, to effect Con's escape, and letters having been conveyed to the prisoner that measures were planning, he made love to Annas Dobbin, the daughter of the provost-marshal, and marrying her, she (and small blame to her) got O'Niell conveyed on board her husband's vessel, and set sail for Ayrshire. Con was afterwards pardoned by James the First, but in the meantime he had been simple enough to make over the greater part of his estate of Clandeboy to the cunning Hugh Montgomery, who procured a new patent, and entered on the possession.

During the wars of 1641, and following years, Carrickfergus became an object of interest to the contending parties, being alternately in the keeping of the Scotch, English and Irish.

The year 1760 is memorable as being the year in which the French, under the command of Commodore Thourot, landed in Carrickfergus, and attacked the town. Though the castle was in a most delapidated state, a breach being in the wall next the sea fifty feet wide, no cannon mounted, and the garrison few in number, yet Colonel Jennings, encouraged by the mayor and other inhabitants, bravely met the invaders, and when driven back by the superior strength of their assailants, they retreated into the castle, and repulsed the French even though they forced the upper gate. But all the ammunition being expended, a parley was beaten, and the garrison capitulated on honorable terms. During the attack several singular circumstances occurred. When the French were advancing up High-street, and engaged with the English, a little child ran out playfully into the street between the contending parties. The French officer, to his honour be it recorded, observing the danger in which the little boy was in, took him up in his arms, ran with him to a house, which proved to be his father's, the sheriff, and having left him safe, returned to the engagement. This really brave and humane man was killed at Carrickfergus castle gate. During the plundering which took place, two French soldiers entered the house of an old woman named Mave Dempsey, and one of them took her silk handkerchief. Mave, who was a pious Roman Catholic, presented her beads, doubtless expecting that he would be struck with compunction at so forcible an appeal to his conscience. "Ah," said the soldier, with a significant shrug, "dat be good for your soul; dis be good for my body!"

The French kept possession of Carrickfergus for some time; but the alarm having been carried all over the country, and troops gathering fast to attack them, they were constrained to embark on board their vessels and set sail; and two days afterwards were attacked off the isle of Man by an English squadron, when Commodore Thourot was killed, and the French ships captured, and so ended an expedition which was better executed than planned, cost the French money, men, and ships, without one single advantage to be derived which any man of experience and military discernment could possibly look for.

When we return to Carrickfergus, we will introduce many remarkable and singular things connected with its history, which Mr. M'Skimin has so ably and so industriously collected.