Belfast Castle is on the slopes of Cavehill Country Park in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in a prominent position 400 feet (120 m) above sea level. Its location provides unobstructed views of the City of Belfast and Belfast Lough.
Medieval and Early Modern Castle
A castle had been erected at Béal Feirste (Belfast) by the 1220s, probably to guard the important ford across the River Lagan. This medieval castle may have been built by the Normans, who invaded East Ulster in the late twelfth-century. These Norman invaders had carved out a territory for themselves, centered on Carrickfergus and later called the Earldom of Ulster, in the 1170s. By 1333, a small settlement is thought to have developed around the castle at Belfast. This original 'Belfast Castle', located on what later became the County Antrim side of the River Lagan, was probably in the area now bounded by Donegall Place, Castle Place, Cornmarket, and Castle Lane in the centre of what is now Belfast City Centre. Although originally built in either the late twelfth-century or the early thirteenth-century, this castle was rebuilt on several occasions between the 1220s and the 1550s. This original, medieval castle was almost certainly on the same site as the much later 'Plantation-era' castle developed for Lord Chichester.
This original High Medieval, Late Medieval and Early Modern castle site was on the southern bank of the River Farset (which now flows beneath High Street), being located on a sliver of land that was bounded by the Farset to the north and the River Owenvara (Blackstaff River) to the south. Both the River Farset and the River Owenvara (Irish: Abhainn Bheara, meaning 'River of the Staff', usually known nowadays in English as the Blackstaff River) emptied into the River Lagan just to the east of this castle site.
The medieval Belfast Castle was eventually seized by a branch of the powerful Uí Néill (O'Neill) dynasty of the Cénel nEógain, probably at the end of the fourteenth-century or the beginning of the fifteenth-century. This branch of the Uí Néill carved out a túath or Gaelic territory for themselves in South Antrim and North Down which became known as Clann Aedha Buídhe (Clandeboye). The Uí Néill of Clandeboye maintained Belfast Castle as one of their main residences. The castle and its surrounding túath remained in the hands of the Uí Néill of Clandeboye throughout the fifteenth- and sixteenth-centuries, with the exception of a few years in the 1570s, when the castle was briefly seized by English forces, initially under the command of The 1st Earl of Essex, during the Enterprise of Ulster.
In October 1574, The 1st Earl of Essex and his retinue were invited to a feast at Belfast Castle by Sir Brian mac Feidhlimidh Ó Néill (Sir Brian McPhelim O'Neill), Lord of Lower Clandeboye. The feast was to celebrate a newly signed peace agreement between the English Crown and Sir Brian. After the feast was over, the English soldiers accompanying Lord Essex suddenly set upon and murdered most of the family and retainers of Sir Brian inside Belfast Castle. It seems this massacre was ordered by Essex himself. This event is usually known as the Clandeboye Massacre. The castle was then seized by Essex and his English forces. Sir Brian mac Feidhlimidh Ó Néill was not killed during this massacre. Instead, Sir Brian, along with his wife and his brother, were arrested by Lord Essex and, later in 1574, all three were executed in Dublin.
By 1603, Belfast Castle, which was probably a Gaelic towerhouse by this time, was in ruins, largely as a result of the Nine Years War. In July of 1603, Sir Arthur Chichester (later created, in 1613, The 1st Baron Chichester), then Governor of Carrickfergus Castle, offered to rebuild Belfast Castle if he was 'granted' Belfast and its surrounding lands by the Crown. This was done in August 1603, when the Crown 'granted' Belfast Castle and its surrounding estate to Chichester, who was to serve as the Lord Deputy of Ireland between 1605 and 1616. This grant of the castle and its surrounding lands was reconfirmed by the Crown the following year, in May 1604.
Sir Arthur Chichester was also 'granted' a vast estate in Inishowen in County Donegal, over in the north-west of Ulster, in 1608 or 1609. This huge estate covered almost all of Inishowen, and had been seized by the Crown from the Ó Dochartaigh (O'Doherty) clan in the aftermath of the rebellion of Sir Cathaoir Ruadh Ó Dochartaigh (Sir Cahir Rua O'Doherty), Lord of Inishowen, in 1608. Chichester, as Lord Deputy of Ireland, ensured that the huge Ó Dochartaigh lands in Inishowen were granted to himself. However, very little of this Inishowen estate was ever run directly by the head of the Chichester family; from the early seventeenth-century onwards, almost all of this vast estate was sublet by the Chichesters to several lesser landlords, often described as 'middlemen', on very long-term leases. Most of this huge Inishowen estate was sold off by the Chichester family via the Encumbered Estates Court in the 1850s and later in the nineteenth-century.
When the head of the Chichester family was advanced in the Peerage of Ireland to being an earl in 1647, they took the title Earl of Donegall due to the family's ownership of this vast estate in Inishowen. The head of the family was further advanced in the Peerage of Ireland to being Marquess of Donegall in July 1791.
Sir Arthur Chichester, one of the main architects of the Plantation of Ulster, had Belfast Castle largely rebuilt in the early 1610s, mainly in brick. However, when in Ulster, Lord Chichester, as he later became, usually resided at Joymount House in nearby Carrickfergus rather than at the 'Plantation-era' Belfast Castle. The Chichester family (later also known as the Donegall family) were to own the town of Belfast from around 1603 up until the early 1850s, when their Belfast estate was largely broken up and sold off.
On the 24th April 1708, the 'Plantation-era' Belfast Castle, which had been built for Lord Chichester, accidentally burnt down, killing three sisters and one servant of The 4th Earl of Donegall (1695-1757). This castle was never rebuilt. Following this fire, the senior line of the Donegall family (also known as the Chichester family) left Belfast. The head of the Donegall family would not live in Belfast again for almost a century, until The 2nd Marquess of Donegall (1769-1844) settled in Belfast in 1802, establishing his main residence there.
Donegall House and Ormeau House
When The 2nd Marquess of Donegall settled in Belfast in 1802, what remained of the 'Plantation-era' Belfast Castle had long been a ruin, having been destroyed by a fire almost a century before, in April 1708. This 'Plantation' castle had almost certainly been built on the site of the original, medieval Belfast Castle. By 1802, this original castle site had partially been built upon with other buildings.
Lord Donegall thus had to find an alternative residence for himself and his family. He settled at what became known as Donegall House, a large terraced house on the corner of what is now Donegall Place and Donegall Square North, only a few hundred yards from the original site of Belfast Castle, right in the centre of the town of Belfast (it did not officially become a city until November 1888). The 2nd Marquess of Donegall became the first head of his family in almost a century to actually live in Belfast. Since 1708, the Earls and, later, Marquesses of Donegall had mainly lived over in Great Britain, usually living in London.
The 2nd Marquess of Donegall also maintained a country residence called Ormeau Cottage on the Ormeau Demesne (which later became Ormeau Park). At that time, the Ormeau Demesne was on the south-eastern edge of Belfast, being in Ballynafeigh on the County Down side of the River Lagan. In the 1820s, Lord Donegall had Ormeau Cottage greatly extended in size, turning it into a mansion called Ormeau House. This country house was built in the Tudor Revival architectural style and was designed by William Vitruvius Morrison.
Lord Donegall sold off Donegall House in the centre of Belfast in the early 1820s, establishing his main residence at Ormeau House thereafter. Donegall House was converted into being The Royal Hotel in 1824. Ormeau House, where The 2nd Marquess of Donegall died in October 1844, was eventually demolished in 1869 or 1870.
The 3rd Marquess of Donegall (1797-1883), in stark contrast to his father, did not spend much of his adult life living in Belfast or anywhere else in Ireland. The 3rd Marquess joined the British Army as an officer when he was a young man. After his military service was over, he mainly lived in Great Britain, where he was very involved in politics at Westminster. He was known as the Earl of Belfast, a courtesy title, between January 1799 and October 1844, when he succeeded his father in the marquessate. The 3rd Marquess would serve at Westminster as Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard from February 1848 until February 1852 in the first government of Lord John Russell, while the Great Famine was still ravaging Ireland.
It was The 3rd Marquess of Donegall who finally sold off almost all of his family's Belfast estate in the 1850s. This left, of the 'Belfast estate', only the Ormeau Demesne and most of Cave Hill in the ownership of Lord Donegall. Curiously, it was only when he no longer owned Belfast that Lord Donegall became interested in actually living there. He decided to build what has been described as a new 'princely mansion' for himself on what was then the northern edge of Belfast in the 1860s, just over a decade after the end of the horrific Great Famine. This new residence was called Belfast Castle, in a nod to family history, even though it was built on a completely different site from the original castle, which had been located right in the centre of Belfast. By the 1860s, nothing remained above ground of the original Belfast Castle.
The new, Victorian castle was built in the Scots Baronial architectural style and was designed by the Belfast firm of Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon. However, there is some debate over who in the firm actually designed the new Belfast Castle. Although popularly attributed to Sir Charles Lanyon, some architectural historians believe that the castle was actually designed by either his business partner, and former apprentice, W.H. Lynn, or by Sir Charles's other business partner, his son John Lanyon.
The new Belfast Castle was built on what had been the Donegall family's deerpark on the slopes of Cave Hill, a location which was, at that time, on the northern outskirts of Belfast, just off the Antrim Road. The castle was mainly constructed between 1867 and 1870. This Victorian castle, which has been described by Sir Charles Brett as 'a rugged and determined exercise in the fullness of the Scottish Baronial style, perched on a highly romantic site with a superb view', remains standing and in use to the present day.
Construction cost well over the £11,000 set aside to pay for the project, forcing Lord Donegall to seek financial assistance from Baron Ashley (1831-1886), his son-in-law, in order to complete the new castle. Lord Ashley (who later became The 8th Earl of Shaftesbury) had married Lady Harriet Chichester (1836-1898), the only surviving child of Lord Donegall, in August 1857. Of Lord Donegall's three children, all by his first wife - two sons and one daughter - Lady Harriet was the only one to have had children of her own and to have outlived her father. Thus, she and her husband eventually inherited the castle and the rest of the Donegall family's vast estates in October 1883, upon the death of her father, the 3rd Marquess, while the marquessate was inherited by her elderly uncle, the former Church of Ireland Dean of Raphoe, who became The 4th Marquess of Donegall. Lord Shaftesbury, his wife Harriet, Countess of Shaftesbury, and her Chichester ancestors are remembered in the form of Belfast street names, much like how the original castles are remembered.
The Shaftesbury family were not only the castle's residents and owners, but they were also generous donors to the City of Belfast and hosted events at their home. The 9th Earl of Shaftesbury (1869-1961) even became Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1907. The castle remained a private estate until the entire property was gifted to the city by Lord Shaftesbury in January 1934.
Belfast Castle and Demesne since 1934
In the years after it was given to the city, there was some debate about what the castle should be used for. The publicity manager at the time felt that the castle should either be re-purposed into a tea and dance room, or perhaps a museum and art gallery with refreshment rooms.
The castle was just the beginning. The publicity manager also made plans for the grounds and demesne to include an open-air theatre, clay pigeon shooting, archery, tennis courts, bowling greens, squash courts, and mini golf. With such an ambitious project, a sub-committee estimated that the minimum possible cost would be £160,000 before considering the cost of employing grounds keepers and the cost of restoring the building.
Since 1945, the castle has been a popular venue for weddings, afternoon teas, and other such events.
Belfast Castle is open to the public daily with a visitor centre, antique shop, restaurant, and a playground. Visitors can see a bedroom, set up in the style of the 1920s, so visitors can see a 'snapshot in time' of what the castle looked like at the end of its life as a private residence.
While it is open to the public daily, reservations can be made for a private room to host weddings, business meetings, and parties.
Since its construction in the 1860s, the castle's sandstone walls and towers have been restored. The castle is built in the Scottish baronial style, which was born out of rising Gothic styles in the 16th Century as part of the Renaissance in Scotland. Scottish baronial style castles were typically built on asymmetrical plans and included high roofs, towers, and turrets to display the owner's status.
One of the castle's most iconic features is the winding staircase at the entrance, whose greyish-brown colour stands out against the burnt sienna sandstone and brick red detail.
As in the twentieth-century, many of the rooms have been turned into public tea rooms or are available to be reserved for private functions.
After years of successful business and popularity, the castle was closed in 1978 for a refurbishing effort. The architecture partnership of Hewitt and Haslam oversaw and carried out the over £2 million project, with the estate reopening on 11 November 1988. Since then, it has once again become a popular spot for weddings and other celebrations as well as for business meetings.
Another example of events held at the castle was the 2015 Belfast Castle Hospice Walk, held by the Northern Ireland Hospice to benefit local charities and those living with terminal illnesses.
The castle underwent another round of refurbishment in May 2003.