Carrickfergus Castle – Knights, soldiers, pirates and ghosts


Some castles are found at the hearts of cities. Edinburgh Castle, for example, sits above the Scottish metropolis. Others, however, are abandoned. Time moves on, and as a society becomes less militarised, so the centre shifts from the most strategic location to the best location for trade. So it was with Carrickfergus Castle, built at the mouth of what became Belfast Lough. For centuries it defended the bay from all enemies, except for the march of time and the relentless growth of the metropolis to the south. It still watches and waits, standing guard on the country that has left it behind.

Carrickfergus Castle as it would have been in Norman times. Image source unknown.

Carrickfergus Castle as it would have been in Norman times.
Image source unknown.

Carrickfergus Castle was built by John de Courcy, a Norman lord in the 12th century, as part of his bid to become an independent King of Ulster. John had come to Ireland with Richard de Clare, better known as Strongbow, at the invitation of the former King of Leinster, Diarmait Mac Murchada. The Norman lords had chafed under the gradually increasing power of the crown in England, and each sought to carve themselves a private fiefdom, free of Henry II’s power. In 1177, six years after he came from Ireland, John decided to head north and make himself a king. He took 22 knights and 300 footsoldiers, and set off – without, crucially, bothering to seek permission from the King. After several battles he defeated the King of Ulaid, Ruadhri Mac Duinnshleibhe, bringing to an end the ancient kingdom that once Cuchullain served. That done, he built himself a castle at the mouth of the great sheltered harbour that was at the time known as Carrickfergus Bay, but which today is called Belfast Lough. Clearly he saw the potential for trade with the north of Britain that the ideal situation provided, and so on the rock of Fergus he made his capital. He married a princess of the Kingdom of Mann (now the Isle of Man), and seemed to be making definite moves towards setting himself up as King of a new Norman kingdom.

A statue of John de Courcy, currently on display in Carrickfergus Castle.

A statue of John de Courcy, currently on display in Carrickfergus Castle.

Of course, the only reason John de Courcy got as far as he did in the road to independence was the apathy of the English King of the day, Richard “the Lionheart”, towards his Irish adventures. Richard was himself as a French lord, and barely even concerned himself with his English possessions, never mind Ireland. In 1199, however, Richard died and his brother John became king. John cared about Ireland quite a lot. John had been made Lord of Ireland in 1177, the same year that John de Courcy had set off to conquer Ulaid, and so in his head it was his lands that de Courcy had usurped. Not to mention that to allow a man who had sworn fealty to his father to set up his own kingdom set a dangerous precedent. So as soon as he ascended the throne King John commissioned Hugh de Lacy, a Norman lord living south of Dublin in Carlow, to bring de Courcy to heel. This was no small task – de Courcy had not been sitting idle the last 22 years, and had built himself a powerful kingdom. For five years de Lacy harried de Courcy, until he received intelligence that for Good Friday de Courcy’s tradition was sit in vigil in the church without his armour. De Lacy was a less devout man, and he sent his men to capture de Courcy in the church. This they did, though not before he (according to the Book of Howth) killed thirteen of them with the cross from the altar. De Courcy would later lead an army from Mann to try to recapture his kingdom but failed, and was imprisoned by King John for the rest of his life, until as an old man he was released to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Hugh de Lacy was made Earl of Ulster by King John, on the condition of his surrendering Carrickfergus to the Crown, which he at first refused to do. The King brought his army across from the mainland and laid siege to the castle, and eventually de Lacy surrendered it to the crown. For the next seven hundred years, Carrickfergus Castle would remain a military installation.

Painting of Carrickfergus Castle. Age and painter unknown to me.

Painting of Carrickfergus Castle.
Age and painter unknown to me.

Nearly four hundred years later, when the Irish lords rebelled against the growing English control in what became called the Nine Years War (under the leadership of Hugh O’Neill and Red Hugh O’Donnell), Carrickfergus (known at the time as Knockfergus) was the toehold of the English in Ulster, surrounded by the forces of the (originally Scottish) MacDonnells. The MacDonnells had come to dominate the area under Sorley Boy MacDonnell (Boy in this case coming from the Irish “bui”, meaning yellow and referring to his hair). He had died seven years earlier at the ripe old age of 84, however, and it was his son (or possibly nephew, reports vary) Sir James MacDonnell, who went to meet with the English to discuss their troop movements. He came to Carrickfergus at the head of an army of 1300 infantrymen and 500 musketeers. The English governor, Sir John Chichester led his army out to meet them. He had recently recaptured Carrickfergus Castle from the McBryans, who had managed to take it while his predecessor was allegedly in a drunken stupor. Tension was high, and it is uncertain if the Irish had any intention to honour the parley – the English clearly did not. After a few messengers went back and forth, the order came down to charge the Scots. However, the English had misjudged the ground and their charge faltered, allowing the Scottish musketeers to fire and break it, wounding the governor in the shoulder. Still, he tired ferociously to rally his men, striking at his own soldiers with his sword until a Scottish musket ball to the head killed him. At this the English forces routed completely and fled the field. Around a hundred and sixty of them were killed, the rest retreated to the castle in complete disarray. Constable Eggerton found himself the sole remnant of authority in the garrison, and sent a letter to Sir James asking his intentions, to which Sir James wrote back claiming self defense. Eggerton also sent to the English army letting them know what had happened, and the castle was reinforced. The incident decided the MacDonnells’ direction, and they joined the two Hughs in rebellion. However their leader Randal MacDonnell was a canny man, and he would switch sides to the English before the rebellion failed, taking an English title. The MacDonnells would be one of the few clans to manage to survive, and a descendant of Sorley Boy holds the title of Earl of Antrim today.

Randal MacDonnell, one of the few Irish nobles to survive O'Neill's rebellion with his title.

Randal MacDonnell, one of the few Irish nobles to survive O’Neill’s rebellion with his title.

It was during the period that some claim that Carrickfergus Castle acquired its ghost, a soldier named “Button Cap”, who some stories label as Captain Nicholas Marmion. He was a sixteenth century English soldier who led a company against the MacDonnells and the O’Neills. Marmion was born in the town of Carlingford, an ehtnically English town in the southern part of Ulster, and became one of the premier soldiers in the “Irish Companies” that fought for the English. He is reputed to have defeated Alexander MacDonnell, one of Sorley Boy’s sons, in single combat, sending his head to the Lord Deputy of Ireland as a gift. This earned him great renown, as well as the undying enmity of the Scots. He fought at the Battle of Carrickfergus, and in fact it was his council that was said to have persuaded Chichester to charge. He was wounded in the battle, but was one of those to escape back to Carrickfergus. There he took ship back to Dublin, but only three miles of coast he fell from the boat and was drowned. An ignominious end for such a martial man, and his legend states that his spirit appears to stand guard on the castle walls when a war is coming, eager to see battle once again. As we shall see later, this is far from the only story of “Button Cap”.

A statue of King William stands outside Carrickfergus Castle to celebrate his landfall.

A statue of King William stands outside Carrickfergus Castle to celebrate his landfall.

Carrickfergus would go on to pay an iconic role in the 17th century, when it served as where King William III landed in Ireland, before heading south to defeat James II in the Battle of the Boyne. The castle had been captured by Williamite forces from the Jacobite garrison the year before. The Duke of Schomberg, an old soldier in his 70s who had become a military legend for his successes in the continental wars of the time, bombarded the town and the castle with mortars for seven days before Colonel Charles McKarty Moore surrendered. Schomberg would accompany William to the Battle of the Boyne, where he fought (despite his age) in the front lines to rally his men, but was surrounded by Irish horsemen while crossing the river and killed.

Francois Thurot, French privateer.  Detail from an engraving by Giles Petit.

Francois Thurot, French privateer.
Detail from an engraving by Giles Petit.

Seventy years later, France was at war with Britain. What began as a proxy war in the American colonies soon escalated into full-scale European conflict. In order to cause damage to British trade, the French gave letters of marque to privateers to prey on British shipping. One such privateer was Captain Francois Thurot. Thurot had an Irish grandfather and Irish sympathies, and had previously been captured by the English while serving as a ship’s surgeon on a privateer vessel. He spent a year in prison before escaping and becoming captain of his own vessel before that war with England ended. In peacetime he became a merchant, which is to say a smuggler too cunning to be caught, until his ship was seized by the British off the coast of Ireland. Although no contraband was found, they still refused to return it to him, and when the war broke out again it was beyond recovery. Thurot took the letter of marque and a ship given to him by the French navy, and led a squadron that harried the British coast from 1756 to 1760. The tales of his derring-do made him both a folk hero in France and a priority target for the English. He led a major attack in 1760 that was intended to serve as a diversion for a French invasion of England, but the invasion fleet was defeated and the British navy was freed to harry him across the seas. In 1760 he landed at Carrickfergus, capturing the castle in what became known as the second Battle of Carrickfergus and commandeering supplies from the local people. It was the last landfall he would ever make – his squadron was cornered by the English at Luce Bay in Scotland, where he was killed by a stray musket ball in an exchange of fire. His death was met with public mourning in both France and England, where he had garnered a reputation as a worthy and honourable opponent.

John Paul Jones, father of the American Navy.

John Paul Jones, father of the American Navy.

He was not the last pirate to menace the castle, however. In 177 the American captain John Paul Jones led a lightning raid on the British coast in order to force them to commit ships to its defence (and thus take them away from the colonies). One of his targets was HMS Drake, which was anchored at Carrickfergus. He attacked it at night, but the sailor responsible for dropping anchor was drunk and mistimed it, leaving him out of position when the British watchmen spotted him. He was forced to cut his anchor rope and flee, with the Drake in pursuit. They came to battle off the coast and and it was Jones who emerged triumphant, capturing the British ship intact. Overall Jones would capture 11 British ships on his raid, eight of which made it back to Boston to be sold for a combined total of a million dollars – an immense sum for the time.

John Paul Jones' ship, the Ranger, in combat with HMS Drake off the coast by Carrickfergus. Painting by Patrick O'Brien

John Paul Jones’ ship, the Ranger, in combat with HMS Drake off the coast by Carrickfergus.
Painting by Patrick O’Brien

As rebellion rose in Ireland once more, the castle became a prison for rebels, and it was during this period that another origin story for the famous castle ghost, “Button Cap”, takes place. The story is that one soldier, named Robert Rainey, found out that his fiancee had been cheating on him with a man named Jennings, brother of the commander of the garrison. He attacked the man in the night and dealt him a fatal blow before fleeing. Jennings lived long enough to name his attacker, however he had mistaken him for another soldier there who bore a resemblance to Rainey named Timothy Lavery. Despite his protestations of innocence, Lavery was sentenced to fifty lashes, which proved fatal. His last words were a vow to haunt the castle forevermore. This story is the most common, so it’s a shame that it’s complete fiction. Literal fiction – it’s a garbled version of a scene from the Ulster-Scots author James McHenry’s 1825 novel Hearts of Steel. There Rainey is an old farmer, who on his deathbed confesses to his crimes – not only to the murder of Jennings, but to having created the legend of Button Cap out of guilt at his friend having died in his place. He had dressed as Lavery to make the garrison think that his promise to haunt them had been fulfilled, and so to realise that he had been truthful in his protestations of innocence. Ironically, while this story of “Button Cap” is frequently repeated, the author who created him is almost forgotten – a great loss, as he is one of the few writing in the period from the viewpoint of the Ulster-Scots. He studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin, and wrote most of his novels under the pen-name “Solomon Secondsight” after he emigrated to America. In 1842 he served as American Consul in Derry (or, as a proud Presbyterian like himself would probably have named it, Londonderry).

St Cedma's in Larne, where Doctor McHenry was buried. He spent his last few years living in the town of his birth.

St Cedma’s in Larne, where Doctor McHenry was buried. He spent his last few years living in the town of his birth.

Haunted or not, Carrickfergus Castle remained a military base until the 20th century, serving as an armoury during Victorian times and through World War I. In 1928 it was handed over to the Northern Irish government as an ancient monument, and a great effort was taken to return it to its medieval state, with most of the 16th century and later additions being removed. This included a railway line laid into the yard by the Victorians, as well as a 19th century escape tunnel that was forgotten about until an archaeology dig in March of 2014 uncovered it. Nowadays the medieval banqueting hall has been restored, and the castle attracts a steady stream of tourists who come to see the old soldier, who stood guard for so long, resting now at last.


4 thoughts on “Carrickfergus Castle – Knights, soldiers, pirates and ghosts

  1. Pingback: Today’s Scribbling: Carrickfergus Castle – Knights, soldiers, pirates and ghosts | Daily Scribbling

  2. Pingback: There he is, in that cold heartless bank day after day, hammed in by mounds of cold heartless money. I don’t like to see any living thing caged up. Bert – GREETINGS FROM THE DRAGON LAIR DIVA

    1. shinyemptyhead Post author

      Was it? I know it had the regimental museums of the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars and the North Irish Horse in it up until 1986, and then the Northern Ireland Office took it over to turn it into a general museum. Perhaps there were people living onsite to do the work?


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