Belfast Castle is a large area of the city that comprises many different sites. The castle itself, along with the grounds of the estate, form the largest part of this site’s land and structures.
The castle is one of Belfast’s most famous landmarks, and to many it is seen as being at the heart of Northern Ireland’s troubled past. Throughout its history it has acted both as a symbol for those who support unity between Ireland and Britain; meanwhile, those who favor Irish sovereigntism see it as emblematic of British imperialism in Ireland. Today, Belfast Castle continues to act as a focal point for state occasions such as royal visits or military ceremonies through which its importance in Northern Irish society remains clear.
While the castle itself was built in the 17th century, since then it has undergone many changes. Today its structures date from every period of Belfast’s history – ranging from the medieval castle to the modern mural which is painted on the building to depict Belfast’s role in World War One.
From a military point of view, Castle Place (the lower area of Belfast Castle) was where the Union Jack first flew after it was raised over Government House (now City Hall) in December 1899. It was also where, at dawn on January 1st, 1957, British troops lowered their flag for the last time and then paraded through the streets of Belfast to a new base at Casement Park.
For the rest of the population however, Belfast Castle is, and always has been a location filled with historical importance and cultural symbolism.
THE CASTLE ITSELF
The site that would become Belfast Castle was first fortified in 1190 by Hugh de Lacy, the Lord of Ulster. It was he who built a motte and bailey castle on the Island (a man made island in the middle of what is now called Donegall Square) which he prayed would be “a perpetual memorial to himself”. What remains today are two ditches which are thought to have been part of this first castle.
De Lacy’s castle proved to be useful; in 1315, Edward Bruce, brother of King Robert the Bruce of Scotland, was forced to flee Ireland after being defeated by an army led by John De Birmingham at the Battle of Connor. He and his followers took refuge in the castle for almost a month until they were forced out.
While de Lacy’s castle had been built with defensive purposes in mind, it also had many domestic additions. In 1337, records show that there were two chapels and several domestic buildings within the walls of the castle. By 1422 however, another chapel had been added along with two walled gardens.
At some point during the 16th century, James Hamilton, a Scottish soldier and a member of the Ulster Scots (a Protestant settlement in Ireland) was given control of the castle. He held it for King Charles I, and when he was tried and executed in 1649, his family were evicted from the castle by order of Parliament.
When Oliver Cromwell’s forces took control of Ireland after 1649; they bought Belfast Castle from Richard Hamilton. It was used as a barracks by Cromwell’s New Model Army for around sixty years until 1704 after which it was sold to William Thompson. For him, the castle simply served as a place to live out his retirement.
Thompson was the first man to take interest in improving the appearance of the castle. He carried out significant renovations which included the building of a wall around the castle compound and a new house on part of the high ground where he had once slung his hammock.
In 1753, Thompson’s son, John, inherited Belfast Castle; he was later made Lord Londonderry in 1770. At this time, Belfast Castle became one of several homes that Lord Londonderry owned including Woodville House in Carrickfergus and Gosford Castle in County Armagh.
Lord Londonderry is best known for building the winding staircase in the South range of the castle. He also turned one of the chapels into a drawing room and added both a new Gothic dining room and library. This, however, was only after he had removed all traces of both De Lacy’s and Cromwell’s armies which had occupied it before him to ensure that his own historical record would be overshadowed by none.
In 1819, Lord Londonderry passed away; he left Belfast Castle to his nephew Charles Vane. However, since Vane was still a minor at this point, his father-in-law (Charles William Vane) became Belfast Castle’s landlord. The castle continued to be used by the Vane family until they too passed it on to the Crown in 1900. It was then sold for £8,000 to Belfast Corporation who intended to use it as a museum.
Fifty years later, in 1950, Belfast Castle became a military headquarters for the armed forces of Northern Ireland, as well as being used to store weapons and ammunition. However almost 200 years since it had first been converted into one kind of building or another; Belfast Castle once again became a place of civilian life when in 1997, it was opened as an Ulster Museum.
Over its 1000 year history however, there have been many more additions and changes which have been made to Belfast Castle.
If you enjoyed this article you might also like to read about: