During the 6th century, Fergus, the son of Eric of Armoy, left Ulster to form a kingdom in Scotland, but because he suffered from leprosy, he returned to bathe in a well known to have healing properties. On one of these visits he was shipwrecked on the rock on which the castle now stands, which took the name ‘Carrickfergus’ – the rock of Fergus.
Five hundred years later King Henry II encouraged his knights to settle in Ireland and confiscate lands, so increasing his kingdom. One of these knights was John de Courcy, who within a short period had established himself as Earl of Ulster. He built a number of castles, including Carrickfergus in 1177, which he made his headquarters.
From its strategic position on a rocky promontory, almost surrounded by sea, the castle commanded access to Belfast Lough, and the land approaches into the walled town that developed beneath its shadow. John de Courcy ruled as a minor king until 1204, when he was ousted by another Norman adventurer, Hugh de Lacy, who is credited with completing the castle. King John seized the castle from de Lacy in 1210 but he recaptured it in 1227 and died there in 1242. Edward Bruce, brother of Robert, the legendary king of Scotland, besieged the stronghold for over a year in 1315 and it was attacked again in 1386 and 1402, when the Scots destroyed much of its original walled town.
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Excavations from the Carrickfergus’s mediaeval rubbish tips and town ditch have revealed thousands of fascinating finds. Among the most intriguing are the bones of dogs, about a fifth of which show unmistakable signs of butchery, skinning and cooking. It seems that in medieval times, the family pooch may well have been on the menu.