(Irish: Carraig Fhearghasa “The Rock of Fergus”)
The importance of Carrickfergus was due largely to the natural geography of the area. Access to the rest of Co. Antrim is restricted by hills and until the 17th Century the main inland route was blocked by deep forest, so Belfast, the present Capital of Northern Ireland was of little significance. Carrickfergus became the centre of events. The town derives it’s name from the legend that Fergus, the king of Scotland drowned when his boat struck a long rock extending into what is known now as Belfast Lough.
It was on this same rock, in the year 1178, that John de Courcy began to build the castle which still dominates the town today. In fact Carrickfergus Castle remained in continuous military use for 750 years until it became the property of the Ministry of Finance in 1928.
During that time both the castle and the walled town which grew up around it have witnessed war and bloodshed, siege and famine, treachery and murder as many of the major figures of history, passed through.
King John, Hugh de Lacy, Robert the Bruce, William de Burgh all fought over it. Brian McPheliem O’Neill burned much of the town on 2nd June 1573. Sir Francis Drake operated out of the castle and harbour, slaughtering 600 Scots on Rathlin Island in 1575. In retaliation Sorley Boy MacDonnell attacked and ravaged the town.
The town wall was ordered and partially completed in 1579. In the same year the Governor of the town, Sir John Chichester was shot through the head near Ballycarry in a dispute with MacDonnell of the Glens over cattle rustling.
Conn O’Neill escaped from the dungeon in the castle in 1603 by means of ropes concealed in a cheese sent to him by his wife!
By 1615 Sir Arthur Chichester, the new Governor, had completed the town wall, parts of which still stand today. The Plantation of Antrim and Down and the rest of Ulster began in this period and Presbyterianism became established. The Rev John Hubbard arrived in 1621 with a small congregation from Southwark in London, fleeing persecution. This became the foundation of North Street Presbyterian Church. With the succession of Charles I to the throne of England and his attempt to impose High Church conformity on all Protestants, a new period of conflict in Carrick was set in motion.
The English Civil war began in 1642 and as a result of the flow of events, the Scottish soldiers and civilians here were seen as a threat to the Parliamentarians. Eventually Oliver Cromwell arrived on Irish soil in 1649 and laid siege to Carrickfergus on 2nd November. The Royalists surrendered and were allowed to march out of the town on 13th December the same year.
As a result of fears fed by rumours of a “papish plot” all members of the Roman Catholic faith were required to move outside the walls of all the cities and fortified centres in Ireland. From this grew the area in the west of the town known as the “Irish Quarter”.
On the 14th June 1690 King William of Orange stepped ashore at Carrickfergus and set off through the town, “â€¦where almost numberless crowds received him with continued shouts of acclamationâ€¦” and headed towards Belfast and the Boyne, the scene of his famous battle.
On 31st March the last witchcraft trial in Ireland took place at Carrickfergus. The eight accused women were found guilty and sentenced , “To be imprisoned twelve months, and to stand four time in the pillory in Carrickfergus.”
By this period the castle had fallen into some disrepair and was used mainly for housing French prisoners during Britain’s Seven Years War with France. In February 1760 French forces, numbering about 800, sailed into the town, overwhelmed the garrison and managed to break through the gate of the castle. They were repelled at bayonet point, but a breach in the castle wall allowed the French to capture the castle and release their prisoners. Before leaving they burnt the town. They were intercepted by Royal Naval ships and sunk.
In 1778, the American Privateer, Paul Jones, in his ship Ranger engaged HMS Drake off Carrickfergus. The Drake surrendered, victory going to the first ship to fly the Stars and Stripes.
During the late eighteenth century there was considerable support in the Carrickfergus area for the United Irishmen, many Presbyterian ministers joining their ranks. William Orr, the United Irishman was tried in 1797 and subsequently hanged. Such are the convolutions of Irish politics that the first Orange Procession in the town took place on 12th July 1823.
The town continued to expand during the nineteenth century, loyalty to the Crown being reflected in the naming of the new streets being built. Queen St., Unity St., Victoria St. and Albert Road were all build during this period. The railway line to Whitehouse opened in 1846 and to Larne in 1862. The town’s own gas works opened in 1855 and was followed by street lighting. 1896 saw the demolition of the town gaol.
During the 20th Century the town saw a new level of prosperity with numerous industries moving into the town. The Marine Highway was built in the 1960’s.
The parents of American President Andrew Jackson, were born in a small thatched cottage at Bonnybefore on the outskirts of the town.
Dean Swift, the author of “Gulliver’s Travels”, lived at Kilroot, a couple of miles outside the town and during his ministry there wrote his, “Tale of a Tub.”
Another link from Carrickfergus to the US can be found in the US Rangers. Formed in 1942 from volunteers drawn from American Army Units based in Northern Ireland. Their induction and initial training took place at Sunnylands Camp in Carrickfergus in June of that year. The US rangers eventually left our shores to spearhead Allied invasions and battles that changed the face of history. Their early days in Carrickfergus are commemorated in the US Rangers Centre in the gardens of the Andrew Jackson homestead in Bonnybefore.