It is intended that this narrative is as a three-part series of Castles in Northern Ireland.
Who built these edifices and why?
Where do these castles fit into the geographical and ancient history of Northern Ireland?
Antrim Round Tower
Antrim Round Tower is situated on the northeast side of Antrim in Steeple Park. An impressive reminder of Antrim’s ancient monastic settlement, the tower was built around the 9th century as a bell-tower for protection from raiders. Locally known as The Steeple, its 30 metres tall tower is one of the finest of its kind in Ireland. The Round Tower and Witch’s Stone are impressive reminders of Antrim’s ancient monastic settlement.
The building is a beautiful example of a round tower, its relief carving over the door makes it instantly recognizable. The tower sits on a very small circular mound of ground. This suggests that the surrounding land was levelled in the late 1800’s, when it was privately owned. Even though it is a tall building the tower is difficult to see from the road because of its surrounded tall trees.
The monastery at Antrim is often linked with the monastic settlement at Bangor with references from the late 6th century. It is thought to have been founded by St. Aebh in the late 5th century.
The site was destroyed in 1017 and finally burned in mid 1100’s.
Armoy Round Tower
Armoy Round Tower is located on the B 15 six miles from Ballymoney and one mile east of Armoy village. Located in the churchyard of St. Patrick Church of Ireland, the round tower is easily seen from the road and has ample parking and a wide junction in front of the church. The tower is over 10 meters tall. The top was adapted for use as a belfry from 1843 to 1869 when the current belfry was built. There are no surviving windows. This well-maintained churchyard overlooks some of the picturesque scenery in the county.
The very fact that the tower can be entered and studied on the inside adds much to a visit here. There are four building styles in layers which gives a bit of mystery and speculation. This monastery at Armoy was said to have been founded by a disciple of St. Patrick, ‘St. Olcan’.
The tower was excavated in mid 1800’s finding some human bone which may have been from burials before the building of the tower, or possibly have been from the surrounding graveyard.
Ballygally Castle County Antrim
Ballygally Castle is located 25 miles from Belfast in the picturesque seaside village of Ballygally on the County Antrim coastline. The original stone castle has been built in the style of a French Chateau with a steep roof and corner turrets. In recent years the Castle has had several additions most recently a modern white rendered attachment. Ballygally Castle was built in 1625 by James Shaw a Scotsman who came to Ireland in 1605. He was given a piece of land on which he built the castle.
Legend has the story that with the birth of his son Lord Shaw locked the child in a room at the top of the tower. Whilst looking for her child Lady Isabella fell to her death through the tower window. It is said her spirit haunts the castle. The now named ‘ghost room’ is set in the early 1900’s era. Ballygally Castle is now a 4-star hotel. The hotel now has over forty bedrooms some of which is in the original part of the castle. The castle has traditional furnishings, beamed ceilings and beautiful views of the surrounding hills and Irish Sea.
Ballintoy Castle County Antrim
Ballintoy (meaning ‘the northern townland’) is a small village of 270 acres and a civil parish in County Antrim, around 18 miles from Coleraine and 4 miles from Ballycastle. The village which is in the historic barony of Cary lies about one mile from Ballintoy Harbour. The harbour, a small fishing spot at the end of a short steep narrow road, called Knocksaughey hill, which passes by the entrance to Larrybane Castle and the world famous ‘Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge’.
The village has two churches, commercial and social facilities such as tourist accommodation, restaurants and several small shops, it’s very distinctive white Church is on the hill above the harbour. The harbour was used for the fictional town of Lordsport in HBO’s medieval fantasy television series Game of Thrones. Ballintoy’s population was recorded at 165 people in the 2001 Census.
Ballycastle Castle County Antrim
The Castle was located in Ballycastle in County Antrim. It existed during the time of John Mor Tanister and it was rebuilt by Sorley Boy MacDonnell in 1564. Shortly after this, the castle was occupied by Shane O’Neill. However, the castle was demolished by Sir Randal Mac Donnell, the first earl of Antrim in the early 17th century. Another castle was erected in 1626 by Earl of Antrim, Sir Randal McDonnell.
Ballylough Castle County Antrim
Ballylough Castle is a ruined castle in County Antrim. It was the stronghold of the MacQuillans and the MacDonnells in the years before that. Historically, it was situated in the parish of Billy, but the area was divided into the townlands of Ballylough, Ballyloughmore and Ballyloughbeg. A piece of the old structure is visible in the rear of Ballylough House, but the lake has gone. The world-famous Giant’s Causeway is located closeby.
Once a stronghold of the MacQuillans and the MacDonnells, in 1544 Ballylough Castle is mentioned by the Four Masters, as Baile-an-locha. In 1623, the Earl of Antrim is said to have given over 100 acres of Ballylough, and the same amont of acreage of Ballintoy to Archibald Stewart and in 1627 the Earl give 100 acres at Ballylough Beg to Walter Kennedy”. Two chests from a fleeing Spanish ship of the Armada were kept by the Antrim family at Ballylough before it was taken to the castle at Glenarm in the mid 1700’s.
Ballymena Castle County Antrim
The history of the Ballymena area dates to the Early Christian period from the 4th to the 8th centuries. In the townland of Ballykeel a site known as Camphill Fort, ringforts are found.
The site in the townland of Ballee, may also have been of this type. In the 1570’s Queen Elizabeth I granted the townlands of Ballymena, to Sir Thomas Smith. The land had been forfeited to the crown after Shane O’Neill’s resistance in the 1562. Thomas Smith brought English settlers to the area, however by 1582, Smith’s settlement failed and the lands reverted to the crown.
The original castle of Ballymena was built in the early 17th century on the site off an ancient ford at the River Braid. In 1631 Charles I confirmed the grant of the Ballymena Estate to sir William Adair, who then held a market at Ballymena every Saturday which is stll takes place. He hired local workers on the estate who served as tenant farmers for the next two centuries. In 1740, the original Ballymena Castle was burned down. The Gracehill Moravian settlement was founded in 1766. During the 1798 rebellion, Ballymena was occupied from 7 to 9 June by a force of around 10,000 United Irishmen. They stormed the Market House and killed three of its defenders.
Ballymena (meaning the middle townland) is now a popular shopping hub within Northern Ireland and is home to Ballymena United Football Club.
Ballymena incorporates an area of around 238 square miles and is home to large villages such as Galgorm, Cullybackey, Ahoghill and Broughshane. The town centre has many historic buildings. According to the story, St Patrick’s capture and being bought as a slave to Ireland, he worked as a shepherd at Slemish Mountain for about 5 years, from ages 16 through 21, Slemish Mountain is open to the public and on 17 March (St Patrick’s Day) crowds flock to the top of the hill as a pilgrimage.
Shanes Castle Antrim County Antrim
Originally named Edenduffcarrick Castle, in 1722 became known as Shane’s Castle, named after the Grandfather Shane McBrien O’Neill. Home to the O’Neill family since 1344, this family were the Kings of Ulster for over 1,000 years. The castle that stands in the country park on the north shore of Lough Neagh was burnt to the ground in 1814 and left in ruins. The O’Neill family still live on-site at the present house which was built in 1958.
The castle had been reshaped by the famous architect John Nash. The arched rooms which remain intact, are beautiful, and well worth a little exploration. Shane’s Castle was used as a filming location for ‘The Game of Thrones’ in the 1st and 2nd seasons.
Stormont Castle Knock County Antrim
Stormont Castle is a manor house on the Stormont Estate in east Belfast which is used as the main meeting place of the Northern Ireland Executive. It was built in 1859 by its owners, the Clelland family. It was buld in the Scottish baronial style with structures such as bartizans used mainly for decorative purposes.
Between 1920 and 1971, it served as the official residence of the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. Although, several prime ministers chose to live at Stormont House which is the official residence of the Speaker of the House of Commons N. Ireland.
Before Devolution, it served as the Belfast headquarters of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Office Ministers and supporting officials.It was at Stormont Castle, (Castle Buildings), where the Good Friday Agreement was finalised in April 1998. The castle is open to the public each year on the Heritage Open Day weekend.
Olderfleet Castle Larne County Antrim
Olderfleet Castle is a four-storey tower house to the south of the Port of Larne, County Antrim. ‘Ulfried’s Fjord’ or ‘Ulfrecksfiord’, is the Viking name for Larne Lough and given to the castle.
Olderfleet Castle is a State Care Historic Monument in the townland of Drumalis and Curran, in the former Larne Borough Council area.
The tower house was originally built by the Bissett family of Glenarm in 1251, however these remains are thought to be those of Curran Castle, which was a large tower house built in the mid 1500’s. A map from 1611 shows that the castle was called Coraine Castle. However, there is no other documents which can confirm this name.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I thought the castle was of such strategic importance that it was seized for the crown and Sir Moyses Hill was appointed its governor in 1569. The present castle was built in the early 1600’s and in 1622 it was granted to Sir Arthur Chichester and stayed in the family until it was leased to William Agnew in 1822.
A part of the tower with pairs of gun loops in the basement is all that remains of the 4-storey tower house. The square remains shows that it had just one metre thick wall and it is without visible domestic features which suggests that it could have been built as a watchtower and a fort.
Kilwaughter Castle County Antrim
Kilwaughter Castle is situated near the town of Larne in County Antrim.
It was designed and built in 1620 for Sir Patrick Agnew, 8th Sheriff of Galloway.
In 1806 Edward Jones Agnew inherited the estate. Edward employed one of the best-known architects in British history, John Nash, (who is famous for his work in London, developing Regent Street and Buckingham Palace) to add a major extension to what was the original Tower House from the 17th Century.
This Tower House can still be seen within the Castle footprint. When Edward died in 1832 his son William inherited the Castle and its estate. He also purchased more land so that it became one of the largest landholdings in Ireland at around 10,000 acres.
Mary Maria Augusta Simon inherited the castle in 1857, she and her father moved to England.
In 1879 she married Count Ugo Balzani. Her husband came from a long line of Italian aristocrats and was also a medieval historian.
Because of these Italian links, the castle was Seized by the government during WWII, and was used to house soldiers in the early 1940s. These soldiers were members of the American 644th Destroyer Battalion and were based there during preparations for the D Day Landings. The castle was then uninhabited from that time and fell into disrepair with collapsed floors and roof.
It is now privately owned and is not open to the public. A charitable trust was formed to help stop further deterioration of the castle.
Kinbane Castle County Antrim
Located 3 miles west of Ballycastle County Antrim, on the road to Ballintoy, Kinbane Castle is situated down a long narrow limestone path and facing towards the sea.
Kinbane (meaning White Head) refers to the white limestone on which the castle stands.
Kinbane was just a 2-storey castle which was built in 1546 by the brother of Sorley Boy MacDonnell, Colla MacDonnell. It had a large courtyard with traces of other buildings, that may have been built with wood. English forces under Lord Deputy, Sir James Croft, besieged the castle in 1550, during a fight against the MacDonnell’s.
The castle was mostly destroyed by cannon fire after another siege by the English in 1553. However, the castle was rebuilt shortly afterwards. In 1556 Colla MacDonnell died at the castle. The hollow below the castle is known as ‘Lag na Sassenach’and is where in the 16th century a garrison of English soldiers who were laying siege to the castle were surrounded and killed.
Not much of the castle remains and the area surrounding Kinbane Castle is a Scheduled Historic Monument. Kinbane Castle has spectacular views of Rathlin Island and the Iron Age fort Dunagregor.
Cushendall Castle (Red Bay) County Antrim
Red Bay Castle is located in County Antrim, on a headland looking into the Irish Sea north of Glenariff above the pier on the road towards Cushendall. The 13th century Castle is on the site of an earlier building of the Kingdom of Dál Riata which was built by the Bissett family.
The Bissett family were forfeited of their lands in Scotland and so fled to Ireland. Walter de Bisset was accused of murdering Sir Patrick, Earl of Atholl, at Haddington in 1240. King Henry III of England granted Bisset large possessions in the Barony Glenarm, not far from Cushendall.
Cushendall (meaning foot of the River Dall) formerly known as Newtownglens, is a beautiful coastal village and townland in County Antrim. It is in the historic barony of Glenarm Lower and is part of Causeway Coast and Glens district. Antrim Coast and Glens Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, lies in the shadow of the table topped Lurigethan Mountain and at the meeting point of three of the Glens of Antrim, Glenaan, Glenballyemon and Glencorp.This part of the Irish coastline is separated from Scotland by the North Channel. The Mull of Kintyre lays about 16 miles away.
In the 2001 Census it had a population of 1,240 people.
Dunluce Castle County Antrim
Built in the 1200’s by the 2nd Earl of Ulster, Richard de Burgh, Dunluce Castle is on the site of an earlier fort dating back to the Vikings. In 1512 the castle was used by the MacQuillian family also known as the Lords of the Route. Consecquently it passed to the MacDonnell clan. It was Somerled MacDonnell who improved the castle in a Scottish style in 1583.
A ship from the Spanish Armada was wrecked on the rocks below the castle four years later.
The MacDonnell’s then sold the cargo and with these funds they installed the cannon in the castle’s gatehouse. The castle remained in the family until the end of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 when it was left abandoned and fell into ruins. The castle has been used as the setting for the villains’ lair in the film ‘The Medallion’ with Jackie Chan in 2000. The castle appeared in the artwork of the inner gatefold of the 1972 Led Zeppelin album Houses of the Holy.
Dunluce Castle balances on the edge of a rocky outcrop on headland overlooking the Irish Sea. Access to the castle is via a bridge which connects to the mainland. Legend has it that castle’s kitchen collapsed into the sea, only one boy survived an incident. The medieval castle is now in a totally ruined state but still has partial remains of its round corner towers and outer wall. Guided tours are offered between Easter and September.
Dunseverick Castle County Antrim
Situated in County Antrim, near the small village of Dunseverick and is close to the Giant’s Causeway. Dunseverick Castle and earthworks are Historic Monuments in the townland of Feigh, in the District of Moyle. Dunseverick Castle and the peninsula on which it stands were given to the National Trust in 1961 by local farmer. The Causeway Cliff Path also runs along its way to Dunseverick Harbour to the east and to the Giant’s Causeway to the west.
Saint Patrick is recorded as having visited Dunseverick castle at the start of the 5th century AD, where he baptized a local man who later became The Bishop of Ireland. The original stone fort that occupied the position was in 870 AD. Attacked by Viking raiders in the later part of the 6th century AD, this was the seat of Fergus Mor MacEirc. Fergus was King of Dalriada and great-uncle of the High King of Ireland, Muirceartaigh (Murtagh) MacEirc.
Galgorm Castle County Antrim
Galgorm Parks is a townland in County Antrim, Ballymena. Part of the civil parish of Ahoghill.
The townland encompasses the village of Galgorm and much of the area between Ballymena and Galgorm itself.
The boundaries for the townland are the previous estate boundaries of the Galgorm Castle which was built in 1617 by Sir Faithful Fortescue, is recognised as one of the finest examples of early Jacobean architecture in Ireland. The grounds and castle have been used for filming and TV projects, most recently a movie featuring Sean Bean, ‘The Frankenstein Chronicles’.
The castle is now on the site of Galgorm Castle Golf Club which has become one of the best golf courses in Ireland and is home to the Northern Ireland Open. Nowadays Galgorm has one of the richest assets the area as to offer in the form of the world famous Galgorm Resort & Spa.
In November 2017 the luxury estate and hotel were given the prestigious honour of being named the world’s best luxury spa and hotel at the World Luxury Hotel Awards.
Garron Tower County Antrim
Built in 1849 at a cost of £3,500 Garron Tower was a summer residence by Marchioness of Londonderry Frances Anne Vane. She had inherited this part of the Antrim estates from her mother, Anne Katherine MacDonnell, Countess of Antrim who married Sir Henry Vane-Tempest of Co. Durham.
From 1898 the tower was leased by Henry McNeill and was opened as a hotel. In there was After a major fire in December of 1913 McNeill bought the building for £8,200 and repaired the damage. The hotel closed its doors in 1938. In 1949 the buildings were acquired by the Bishop Daniel Mageean for use as a boarding school. This school opened in 1950.
St MacNissi’s College, St Aloysius’ College, and St Comgall’s College, amalgamated in 2010, to become St Killian’s College which means ‘to be willing and to accomplish’.Many significant pieces by local art from Charles McAuley and Sam McLarnon hang in the school.
Johnstown Castle County Antrim
Johnstown Castle was in the late 1100’s by the Esmonde family, Normans who came to Ireland from Lincolnshire in the early 1170’s after the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1168.n In 1649, Oliver Cromwell stayed on the estate prior to the October 1648 Sack of Wexford. His Roundhead army used the land around Johnstown Castle to prepare. Johnstown Castle was bought by the Grogan family in 1692.
Owner Cornelius Grogan was hanged for helping the 1798 Rebellion, when he was a general for the United Irishmen. Cornelius’ brother John Knox Grogan, who, with his son, Hamilton Knox Grogan-Morgan, restored the estate in 1810 as Johnstown Castle. Royal Naval Air Service airships were based at Johnstown Castle, in the First World War, and were primarily used to deal with the U-boat threat, but with limited success. Lady Adelaide Jane Frances FitzGerald (1859–1941), wife of Lord Maurice FitzGerald, was the last owner to live in the house.
Glenarm Castle County Antrim
Located on the County Antrim coastline the land in Glenarm was owned by John Bisset who acquired lands between Larne and Ballycastle from Hugh de Lacy, the Earl of Ulster. Bisset made Glenarm his capital, and in 1260 a castle was built at the centre of the present village, with a kitchen garden, an orchard and a mill, as well as woods and meadows.
The old village courthouse still incorporates some of its walls, indeed an immured skeleton was discovered there in the mid 1970’s.
Since the 13th century there has been a castle at Glenarm and it is at the heart of one of Northern Ireland’s oldest estates. Sir Randal MacDonnell, 1st Earl of Antrim built the new castle in 1635. Glenarm Castle is currently owned by Randal, Viscount Dunluce, the son of Alexander McDonnell and the 9th Earl of Antrim.
The Castle’s Walled Garden is open to the public between May and September and hosts many events. In July of every year the grounds are the site of the Dalriada Festival.
The castle has special open days where you can see the family portraits and Irish furniture from the mid 1600’s. The picturesque Glenarm Castle watches over an area of outstanding natural beauty in the Glens of Antrim and is still a working farm estate.
Bruce’s Castle (Rathlin Castle) County Antrim
Built by John de Courcy in the early 1200’s, Rathlin Castle was granted to Donnchad mac Gilla Brigte, later passed into the possession of the De Lacys a short time after. Rathlin Castle, also known as, Bruce’s Castle and located on Rathlin Island off the coast of County Antrim.
After being defeated by Sir Aymer de Valence at the Battle of Methven in 1307, the Scot King Robert I, retired to Rathlin Castle for the winter with a small group of his loyal men. English forces led by Francis Drake and John Norreys attacked the building In July 1574, with firepower and with the surrender of the garrison of some MacDonnells of Antrim, except for some prisoners, and the local residents were put to the sword.
The main army of MacDonnells of Antrim, led by Sorley MacDonnell in Ballycastle, witnessed the actulal event taking place on Rathlin Island. However, their families and valuables had been lodged for safety. A short time after Sorley Boy led his army in a very successful retaliatory raid on Carrickfergus Castle, from where the Rathlin Island raid had left.
Carrickfergus Castle County Antrim
Built in 1175 by John de Courcy, A Norman knight, Carrickfergus Castle was used as his headquarters until 1202. The original castle site consisted of a bailey, inner wall and great hall also other buildings which were surrounded by a polygonal curtain wall to protect it from the sea and attacks. In 1203 de Courcy lost the castle to Hugh de Lacy.
In 1211 the castle came under attack from King John men so the eastern side a new larger curtain wall was built to protect the castle in low tide in 1217. Hugh de Lacy also added large aduptations at the gatehouse and a vault was produced and completed in 1250.
The castle stayed in the hands of the crown throughout the 16th – 17th centuries with many improvements and additions made to strengthen the castle which include structures for the cannon’s and splayed gun ports. Even with this the castle’s defences were not sufficient to prevent it from being taken many times, most notably in 1690 by General Schomberg for King William III, again in 1760 by the French, Francois Thurot.
The well-preserved Norman castle is considered to be one the best examples of its kind in Ireland. It has wonderful views over Belfast Lough and is only 10 miles north of the city. It has a postern gate on the seaward side with an eastern tower. The tower believed to have housed the chapel, has a chamber on the first floor with a Romanesque double window and cross bow loops at basement level.
On display are cannons from the early 16-1800’s, with historical exhibits and info on the castle’s history inside the keep. Visitors can walk arround the exterior and see historical items in the interior visitor centre along with 17th-19th century cannons. The castle is open to the public daily all year.
Carra Castle County Antrim
Carra Castle is a ruined castle, just north of Cushendun, County Antrim. It dates to around the early 14th century. The castle lies in a field near the coast and the harbour of Cushendun, known as Murlough Bay. The site had once been used during medieval times as a children’s cemetery.
The castle was once occupied by Irish king Shane O’Neill, and Sorley Boy McDonnell was held as a prisoner here in 1565. In 1567, two years after being defeated by O’Neill, the McDonnells entertained him in Castle Carra during two days of hunting and feasting. However, on the third day, 1st June, due to an argument, they killed O’Neill to avenge their earlier defeat and sent his head to the English representatives of Queen Elizabeth in Dublin Castle.
In 1584, Donnell Gorm MacDonnell was besieged by the English, his father, Sorley Boy landed near the castle and drove off the besiegers. Around 1730, it was known to have been occupied by the Lynch family. Today the castle is in ruins and overgrown with ivy. What remains are the ruins of a 16th-century square tower house built over a Mesolithic flint working site.
Castle Chichester County Antrim
Castle Chichester is located at Whitehead in County Antrim. Whitehead is a Victorian railway town, built on the site of a former Hamlet around the castle. Castle Chichesters base measures 8m and around 10m high entrance. Its seaward side is now bricked up for safety, leaving no access to the interior. There are narrow windows on the 1st and 2nd floors and one incorporates a reused piece of moulded stone.
The owner has stabilised the outer walls and is also repairing the inside and the surroundings.
Its square form style suggests that its erection was in the 12th or 13th century. However, the Justices are not familiar any property in this country until the end of the 16th century. 100 years ago, a boat from Scotland would unload its cargo and deliver letters.
A small boat was used to attend the Parish to convey the letters to Belfast from Chestershire for which it received £100 annually. Unfortunatly access to the castle is probibited as the building is on private property. However, the castle can still be seen in Chester Avenue at the junction with a Kings Road.
Castle Upton County Antrim
Castle Upton is situated in the village of Templepatrick County Antrim, 11 miles north-west of Belfast. Originally the site of a 12th-century fort priory of the Knights of St John, the building what is now the east wing was constructed in 1609 by the Norton family who came here during the Plantation of Ulster. Sir Robert Norton was an officer under Sir Arthur Chichester, Governor of Carrickfergus who obtained lands along the Six Mile Water.
The castle was purchased in 1624 by Henry Upton, who had served under the Earl of Essex, and renamed it for his own family. Upton became Member of Parliament for Carrickfergus in 1633, and several of his descendants served as Members for Carrickfergus and for Antrim County.
The family supported the protestant William III in the war against the Catholic James II.
The castle was remodelled in 1778 by the design of Robert Adam who also designed the stable block. Upton was bought in 1963 by Robin Kinahan and Coralie de Burgh. Following restoration, the stable block was eventully converted to housing and the castle later opened as a wedding reception venue. In 2015 the property was sold the Hughes family.
Chaine Memorial Tower County Antrim
The Chaine Memorial Tower located in the coastal town of Larne in County Antrim.
The tower is a memorial to James Chaine who was once a Member of Parliament for County Antrim, who died in 1884.
The tower is a cylindrical stone lighthouse with a conical roof situated on the north side of entrance to the Port of Larne. James Chaine helped to develop Larne’s sea route to Scotland as well as establishing the town as a transatlantic port. The memorial was in 1887 by public subscription, is a replica of an Irish round tower. A plaque on the tower esteems the affection to James Chaine from the people of the town.
In 1898 a light was added to the tower and because of this the Commissioners of Irish Lights took over and looked after the tower and an oil powered navigational light was erected on top.
The light was installed to aid the navigations of the Hunter Rock, a submerged rock approximately 5 miles off the shore.
The light was converted to coal gas from the Larne mains gas supply in 1904 and finally to electrical power in 1934. The memorial is situated at the mouth of Larne harbour, and is reached by Chaine Memorial Road. There is access from Curran Road through Bay Road.
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