Sunday 12 August 2012

Visit Carrickfergus Museum and Castle!

A happy family enjoying an Irish gem!
Many moons ago I was raised in the Northern Irish town of Carrickfergus, eventually leaving in 1991 to move to England to study. There's a local saying which describes the history of Carrickfergus as being "the history of Ulster writ small", as just about any event of any importance to Irish history has a connection somewhere along the line to 'Carrick', as it is known colloquially. Once the biggest port in Ireland after Dublin, it has been invaded by the Normans, the English, the Scots, the French, and even John Paul Jones, founder of the US Navy - he hoisted a British flag on his American vessel, luring out a party from the town onto Belfast Lough (previously Carrickfergus Lough), at which point he invited them to surrender! United Irishman William Orr was executed in the town gaol ("Remember Orr!"), and Robert the Bruce's brother Edward took possession of the Norman castle a year after Bannockburn. There's a lot of history to Carrick - and two days ago, I finally got to see it displayed as it should be.

In 1990, there was a major controversy in the town when the council decided it wanted to erect a tercentenary statue to King Billy - William III, aka William of Orange - who landed in Ireland at Carrickfergus en route to the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The final depiction of the king was one issue that irritated many locals (see my blog post 2 years ago at, the other was the fact that some were arguing for a decent museum for the town, to commemorate the history of the whole historic borough, and for all communities. A bizarre attempt a few years later to create a themed ride - the "Knight Ride" - to depict the town's history was heavily criticised for a) being seriously rubbish, and b) being seriously, seriously, seriously rubbish. You basically sat in a wee helmet based car, got taken around the ceiling of the civic centre and shown cardboard cut-outs depicting some of Carrick's history - including, of course, King Billy, who stayed in the town for ten minutes before b*ggering off to Belfast.

Dragons and ladders in the keep!
Thankfully, much has changed since then. On Friday, I visited Carrick with my kids for the first time in eight years. I took them initially to Carrickfergus Castle to show them the best preserved Norman structure in Ireland. Many years ago it was used as a military museum, but thankfully it is now interpreted as it should be - a long standing edifice, some 800 years old and more, that has seen more than its fair share of historical drama. Amongst many great interpretative displays there were two wonderful audio visual presentations that portrayed the castle's development, its many sieges, and eventual decline in terms of military significance, with the growth of Belfast further down the lough. The castle website is at, where you can also see a 360 degree view of the town from its ramparts.

Fire engine
I then took the boys to Carrickfergus Museum (, where for the first time ever, I was able to look at a spectacularly brilliant exhibition of the true history of the town. The exhibits on display included such extraordinary gems as the original Elizabethan charter from the 1590s reconfirming Carrick's borough status, and an original fire engine pump, last seen many years ago on display in the castle. In the late 1970s, I lived in a place called Robinson's Row for 2 years, and at the museum I finally discovered who "Robinson" was - a local butcher in the town who developed the wee row of 6 houses.

If you're into all the Orange nonsense, then the King Billy statue is still situated in the car park of the castle - but if you really want to learn about one of the most extraordinary towns in Ireland, visit the castle and the museum, where you will find that there is actually one hell of a story to tell!

Not the King Billy statue

(With thanks to the good folk of Carrick)


Check out my Scotland's Greatest Story research service
New book: It's Perthshire 1866 - there's been a murder... (from June 12th 2012)

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