John de Courcy, a Norman knight who had participated in Strongbow’s invasion of Ireland in 1169, mounted an expedition of several hundred men north into Ulster. By 1177, he began constructing Carrickfergus Castle on the shore of Belfast Lough, around eleven miles from what would become Belfast City. De Courcy’s castle consisted of, at the least, walls encircling a bailey, or courtyard, with a great hall or keep in the interior. He was also able to spread his influence throughout most of Ulster, making him a minor king in all but title. Yet, there was a problem. John de Courcy constructed his castle and expanded his influence in Ulster without the permission of his liege, King Henry II of England.
Despite being a rogue knight, John de Courcy managed to live unmolested by the Norman kings of England for decades. He outlived Henry II (died 1189) and Richard II “the Lionheart” (died 1199)—it was the infamous King John who brought John de Courcy to task.
King John sent the powerful Hugh de Lacy (lord of Meath, constable of Dublin, justicar of Ireland, so on and so forth…) to finally end John de Courcy’s insubordination. Hugh de Lacy succeeded in his mission in 1204, defeating John de Courcy and taking Carrickfergus Castle for himself. After around twenty-seven years of relative autonomy in Ulster, John de Courcy’s bold dream was crushed.
Hugh de Lacy did not let his newly obtained castle go to waste. Instead, he improved and added to the walls and towers of Carrickfergus Castle. He also outfitted the gatehouse with a formidable portcullis and directed for more decoration to be added to de Courcy’s castle structure. In the interior of the castle, de Lacy had a vault constructed.
Since that day in 1177, when the rogue knight, John de Courcy, constructed his castle in the territory he had carved for himself in Ulster, it had been (for the most part) continuously garrisoned until 1928. De Courcy’s castle at Carrickfergus remains standing to this day, having survived attacks from the English, Scots, Irish and French.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- Tales of Irish Castles. Documentary series available on Netflix, released 2014.