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Ireland Gazeteer

Carrickfergus in 1836

CARRICKFERGUS, the assize-town for the county of Antrim, constituting with its liberties the county of the town of Carrickfergus in Ireland, situated on the W. shore or Antrim side of Belfast Loch, nine miles N.N.E. of Belfast, and 96 English miles direct distance N.by E. of Dublin.

The county of the town, as laid down in the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, contains 16,699 statute acres and a population of 8,698 persons. The county of the town and parish of Carrickfergus are co-extensive, with the exception of the plots of ground on which the castle, court-house, and gaol stand, which belong to the county of Antrim.

Carrickfergus Castle is supposed to have been founded by De Courcey about the end of the twelfth century, and is a place of considerable importance in the history of Ireland. From the middle of the fourteenth to the end of the sixteenth century it was the only stronghold north of Dundalk which remained uniformly in the hands of an English garrison, and to the loyalty of the townsmen of Carrickfergus is chiefly to be attributed the recovery of the Northern Pale in the reign of Elizabeth.

The castle was besieged and taken by Edward Bruce in 1315; it is said that the garrison, before surrendering, were driven to devour thirty Scots whom they had made prisoners.

In 1333 the Irish overran all the south part of the county of Antrim, and the garrison of the castle, with the inhabitants of the town that had arisen under shelter of its walls, were left alone in the midst of enemies.

In 1386 the town was burned by the island Scots, and suffered again in 1400. In 1503 Gerald Earl of Kildare, lord-deputy, afforded some relief to the struggling colonists by garrisoning the castle. In 1555 the Scots, under Mac Donnell, Lord of Cantyre, laid close siege to the castle till July, 1556, when Sir Henry Sidney relieved the garrison with great slaughter of the besiegers.

In 1573 the town was burned by Brian Mac Phelimy O'Neill, chief of Claneboy, who was hanged here along with Mac Quillan, chief of the Route, in 1575; the same year Sorley Buy Mac Donnell (a son of Mac Donnell of Cantyre, who had seized upon Mac Quillan s country a short time before) attacked the town and was repulsed with great loss.

At this time the condition of the place is thus described by Sir Henry Sidney:—‘The town of Carrickfergus I found much decayed and impoverished; no ploughs going at all, where before were many; and of great store of kyne and cattle belonging to the town, now few or none left; church and houses, saving castles, burned; the inhabitants fled; not above five householders of any countenance left remaining; so that their miserable state and servile fear was to be pitied; yet they are so comforted to hear of her Majesty's gracious disposition to wall their town (whereby they assure themselves of safety and quiet dwelling hereafter) that hope hath and doth procure and draw divers to resort and build here.'

The town had already begun to be walled with an earthen rampart in 1574, and in 1575 the corporation agreed with Sir Henry to build a stone wall seven feet thick and sixteen feet high round a part of the town at 5 shillings per foot, 6 pence per foot being allowed the inhabitants for the ground.

The work however was not completed till 1608, when after various delays the walls were finished with a wet ditch and seven bastions.

Meanwhile the Mac Donnells had again assailed the town, and Sir John Chichester, the governor, sallying out 4th November, 1597, to repel the attack of James Mac Sorley, fell into an ambuscade and was put to death by the enemy.

The plantation of Ulster and the settlement of Sir Archer Chichester's colony in the S. of Antrim, and of Sir Hugh Montgomery's on the opposite coast of Down, now relieved the inhabitants of Carrickfergus from the more immediate dangers of a hostile neighbourhood, but in the wars consequent on the rebellion of 1641 they had again their full share of the troubles of the times.

The castle was first occupied by Munroe (15th April, 1642) on behalf of the Scottish Presbyterians; next (1646) by Monk for the parliament; next (1649) by Montgomery Lord Ardes, for the king; next (1688) by Lord Iveagh, for James II; and finally, after being obstinately defended by Colonels Mac Carthy More and Cormac O'Neill, and two regiments of Irish Catholics, it surrendered, August 29, 1689, to Duke Schomberg, commanding the army of William III.

On Saturday, June 14th, 1690, King William landed here in person, and immediately proceeded S. on that important campaign which derided the future prospects of both countries at the Boyne.

On the 21st February, 1760, Commodore Thourot arrived in the bay with one 44-gun frigate and two sloops of war, and having disembarked about 800 men, attacked the town, which, together with the castle, he carried after a smart action the same day.

Five days after, the French forces re-embarked, after forcing a supply of victuals and ammunition from Belfast, and were captured on the 28th off the Isle of Man, after a severe action with Commodore Eliot, in which Thourot was killed and 300 of his men killed and wounded.

The last scene of violence connected with the history of this veteran fort was the capture of the Drake, a British sloop of war, in the roads opposite the town, by Paul Jones, in the Ranger, an American vessel, on the 24th of April, 1778.

Of the antiquities of Carrickfergus the castle is the most interesting. It stands on a rocky peninsula jutting into the sea on the south-eastern side of the town. This rock, from which the town takes its name (meaning the rock of Fergus, an Irish king of that name, drowned there in pagan times), rises gradually to an elevation of about 30 feet towards the sea, and is entirely occupied by the works of the fortress, consisting of a double ballium or upper and lower yard, with batteries mounting about 25 pieces of cannon and two ancient half moons protecting the entrance on the land side.

In the upper yard stands the keep, a square tower 90 feet high, formerly entered by an arched doorway in the second story. It has been latterly used as an armoury. The court house and gaol occupy the site of a Franciscan monastery, founded here in 1232 by the famous De Lacey who was buried within these precincts in 1264.

On the dissolution of monasteries, the friary, after serving for various civil purposes, came into the possession of Sir Archer Chichester. who built (1610) on the east side of the ruins a splendid house named Joymount after the lord deputy Mountjoy. Joymount afterwards fell to decay, and the plot of ground has ultimately been occupied as above stated.

Half a mile W. of the town is the site of the priory of Woodburne or Goodburne, on the banks of the Woodburne river, which has here some pretty falls.

The sites of two hospitals are also pointed out as well as of several of the small castles of the early inhabitants. Numerous maps and plans of Carrickfergus as it stood in the reigns of Elizabeth and James are extant, in which these castles appear surrounded by the straw and mud huts of the poorer classes, and each protected by its separate fortifications. Part of the town wall and one of the gates are still standing.

The appearance of the town is respectable, the houses being generally of stone and slated. There are several good streets, of which the chief or high street is terminated by the county gaol and court-house, founded 1799, and built at an expense of £21,785, 6 shillings, 4 pence. The gaol is calculated for 240 prisoners.

The market-house at the opposite end, where the main street diverges, one branch leading to the quays and castle, and another to the road to Belfast, is a respectable building, built 1755.

The parish church of Saint Nicholas is situated on a rising ground on the southern side of the town: its date unknown, but it is of great antiquity, and is a building of considerable size and dignity. The chancel window, presented to the parish by Mr. Burleigh in 1800, is of stained glass, and represents St. John baptizing Christ in the river Jordan. The church is cruciform; the old steeple at the west end of the building was taken down in 1778, and the present handsome spire erected in its place by subscription.

A small pier projects from the southern extremity of the rock on which the castle is built, and encloses a dock where vessels of 100 tons can lie at the quay. The custom-house is adjoining: the customs, arising chiefly from a duty on coals, do not pay more than half of the expenses of their collection.

The town is not lighted, and water is procured by pumps. There is no poor house or hospital; but a mendicity institution lately organised is understood to be succeeding well.

The governing charter of Carrickfergus bears date 11th James I, A.D. 1612. The corporation consists of a mayor, alderman, and burgesses, with recorder, two coroners, and town-clerk. The mayor is by his office admiral of the coast from Fairhead in Antrim to Bangor in Down, and formerly a third part of all customs within the same limits belonged to the corporation; this monopoly was purchased by the earl of Strafford for £3,000 in the year 1637, and materially affected the future trade of the place.

This county is distinct from the county of Antrim, and had till lately its own gaol and court-house; but these being now gone to decay the assizes for the county of the town are held in the county court-house.

The mayor and recorder sit at the quarter-sessions with the county magistrates. Carrickfergus formerly returned two members to the Irish parliament, and now returns one member to the imperial parliament; the constituency is 732.

A committee of the House of Commons, July, 1833, reported that the preceding election for the borough of Carrickfergus had been marked by gross bribery and corruption among the freemen who at present constitute the majority of the electors.

The cotton trade was at one time carried on with vigour here, but it has latterly declined. A pretty brisk trade is now carried on in tanning, brewing, and distilling; but Carrickfergus is far from being a commercial place.

A plaice and oyster fishery in the bay gives employment to a considerable number of the inhabitants. In 1823 there were 300 persons employed in various ways by this fishery. The oysters taken here are peculiarly large; the average weight is about 1 pound 4 ounces, and the measure about five inches in length and four in breadth: some have been taken that weighed 2 pounds: their price has varied at different times from 4 shillings to 18 shillings per hundred.

In 1813 the inhabitants in the county of the town were in number 6,225; in 1821 they were 8,030; and in 1831 they were 8,706. In 1834 their religious distinctions were, members of the Established Church, 1,387; Roman Catholics, 974; Presbyterians, 6,146; and Protestant dissenters of other denominations, 353; being for their numbers the most Protestant town community in Ireland.

In 1821 there were in the county of the town 25 schools, educating 427 males and 343 females; and in 1834 there were 9 schools, educating 415 males and 204 females. In 1813 the schools were in number 19, four of which were kept by Roman Catholics.