Nearby Belfast is better known, but as the castle here proves, Carrickfergus is actually much older than the modern-day capital of Northern Ireland. Excavations in the area show settlements that date back thousands of years, but it was the strategic founding of Carrickfergus Castle in the 12th century which made the position so sought after.
The Anglo-Norman castle has survived more than 750 years of continuous military occupation, longer than any other castle in Ireland. Its stone structure is incredibly well-preserved and still makes a grand impression along the water north of Belfast.
Ready to experience the castle’s history for yourself? Here is the complete guide to Carrickfergus Castle, including what to see and how to visit.
The entire area of Carrickfergus is named for the historical figure of Fergus, first King of Scotland. It is believed that Fergus left the west coast of Scotland and set sail for Ulster in search of a cure for his leprosy in 501 A.D. However, as he neared shore, his ship struck a dangerous outcropping of basalt rock — known as a “carraig.” The Scottish king reportedly drowned and his body washed ashore. From then on, the rock that sank his ship became known as Carraig-Fergus.
Carrickfergus Castle is built upon the very rock that supposedly killed King Fergus. The first fortifications were constructed here in 1178 by John de Courcy for King Henry, who was in the midst of sending Anglo-Norman invaders to Ireland.
The location of the castle, which is surrounded by shallow sea on three sides, was extremely strategic. The kings and earls who followed in Henry’s footsteps continued construction on Carrickfergus Castle and by 1242 the castle was completed, and still looks today like it would have all those centuries ago.
For the next 600 years, Carrickfergus Castle played a key role in defending Ireland. Any invader who wished to attempt to control the Emerald Isle knew that they would have to try to conquer Carrickfergus. The Scots, French and English all attacked the castle over the years, and the castle’s military history continued into the 19th and 20th centuries.
In the 1800s, the castle became a military prison and then an armory. With the arrival of World War I, the castle was turned into a military garrison. After the great war ended, Carrickfergus Castle was transferred from the War Department to the Ministry of Finance in 1928 so it could become a protected historical site. Though it was technically retired from military duty, the castle was used as an air raid shelter during World War II. Today, Carrickfergus Castle is an iconic landmark with an informative visitor’s center.
What to See
Carrickfergus Castle is one of the best-preserved medieval castles in Ireland and you can still walk through the structure. Inside you will find a visitor’s center and a display of cannons from the 17th-19th centuries. The castle is easily spotted on along the water and can be admired from outside, but paying admission to go inside is the best way to experience the different ages that the castle has survived.
Location and How to Visit
Carrickfergus Castle is in the town of Carrickfergus in Co. Antrim, not far from Belfast.
Carrickfergus Castle is open every day from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (with the last entry available at 4 pm). In winter, which is considered October through March, the castle has slightly more limited hours and is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets are £5.50 for adults and £3.50 for children, and children under 4 are free.
Note: Repair and reconstruction work is planned for Carrickfergus Castle, including on a part of the Great Tower. The work is aimed at reinforcing the roof and walls, and preserving the castle for generations to come. While the current plan is to limit closures as much as possible, parts of the Carrickfergus Castle may be temporarily unavailable from time to time. You can confirm the exact openings within the castle complex via email by sending a message to: firstname.lastname@example.org
What Else to Do Nearby
Carrickfergus was once a fully enclosed city and its walls pre-date the more famous walls of Derry. About half of the walls still exist and you can walk along the stone structures, which date back to 1615. The north-east bastion is one of the best-preserved sections of the walls and gives an excellent glimpse at how impressive the fortifications once were.
Stop into the Carrickfergus Museum to learn even more about the historic town, and to admire the ceremonial sword and medieval artifacts that are housed in the collection. Perhaps even hum along to the famous Carrickfergus song while you explore the museum.
The town is a great place for walking, and the prettiest place to stroll is along the waterfront promenade at the Carrickfergus Marina. The well-to-do neighborhood is on the Northside of the Belfast Lough and is known for its lovely docks.
Carrickfergus has its own long history, but these days it is considered a part of the greater Belfast area. After a taste of the smaller town living, head into the Northern Ireland capital for everything from street art to opera houses, or a day at the Belfast Zoo.