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The Normans

The Norman period in Ireland traditionally began in 1169 when a Norman force arrived in Ireland at the invitation of Dermot MacMurrough, king of Leinster, who was looking for political allies in his struggle for supremacy in Ireland. The following year Richard de Clare, popularly known as Strongbow, crossed to Ireland and married MacMurrough’s daughter Aoife, an arrangement that had been previously agreed between the two men. On MacMurrough’s death in 1171 Strongbow succeeded to his kingship. In the years that followed the Normans extended their control over large parts of Ireland. In 1177 a Norman knight, John De Courcey, travelled north into Down and seized the Irish kingdom of Dal Fiatach. He established a base at Carrickfergus where he built a large castle and built more castles across east Ulster as well as founding a number of monasteries. Despite being in what seemed a secure position he was defeated in battle in 1204 by his one time comrade, Hugh de Lacy.

The following year de Lacy was granted the de Courcey lands in Ulster and created Earl of Ulster. De Lacy died without heirs in 1242 and, after a period of royal control, the earldom was conferred on Walter de Burgh. The de Burghs were one of the most powerful Norman families in Ireland at this time. As a result of the invasion of Edward Bruce and his forces from Scotland in 1315-18 the lands of the Earldom were badly ravaged. In 1333 William de Burgh, the last of the de Burgh earls, was murdered near Carrickfergus by some of his own knights. This has been seen as a major turning point in Norman influence in Ulster. The earldom did not collapse immediately, but the power vacuum created by the death of de Burgh as well as the Irish recovery of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries resulted in its gradual disintegration.

The Normans in Lough Foyle

The Normans left relatively few traces in the Lough Foyle area. Norman raids into the Foyle Valley had taken place as early as 1197. However, it was not until 1305 that a permanent fortification was built. Greencastle, one of the most impressive Norman castles in Ulster, was strategically positioned close to the shore on the Donegal side of the mouth of Lough Foyle to overawe the O’Donnells and O’Neills and to curb Scottish raids in the area. The castle was also known as Northburg or Newcastle. The architectural historian, Alistair Rowan, has commented that in its polygonal towers and polychrome stonework the castle can be compared to the castles of Wales built by Edward I. For a brief period Norman power in the area was strong and rents were exacted from the tenants in what was known as the manor of Northburg. However, with the murder of the Earl of Ulster in 1333, and the destabilising impact of that act, Inishowen largely reverted to Irish control after 1333. The castle was then occupied by different forces, principally the O’Doghertys. A tower with walls 10 feet thick and traditionally regarded as a fifteenth-century O’Dogherty edifice adjoins the north wall of the castle. In 1600 it was described as ‘all ruined and not much material to be rebuilt though it might annoy the ships that come by it’. It does seem to have been occupied for a time after this by English troops.

The Normans in south County Down

Like Lough Foyle, there are relatively few traces of the Normans on the north side of Carlingford Lough. In the Newry area the Normans built two castles, one close to Ballybot to guard the water crossing and the other known as the Crown Mound in the townland of Sheeptown. Norman influence in Newry does not seem to have been as powerful as in other parts of County Down, however. The settlement here suffered in the struggles between the Normans and Edward Bruce and in 1318 Newry was plundered by Bruce’s army of Scots. Crown Mound in the townland of Sheeptown near Newry is an intriguing site. Comprising a motte with the largest bailey in County Down, it has the appearance of a classic example of Norman construction. However, that it was built by the Magennisses (a local ‘native Irish’ family) has also been suggested. If so, then clearly they were copying Norman ideas.

The most important Norman site in this area is at Greencastle near Kilkeel. Greencastle was probably begun in the 1230s and seems to have been almost completed by 1261. Its builder is likely to have been by Hugh de Lacy, Earl of Ulster. The castle stood at the southern extremity of his earldom and commanded the entrance to Carlingford Lough. Structurally, the castle was focussed on the great hall, elevated to the first floor over store-houses. Here de Lacy entertained in great style. It is thought that his own table stood on the raised platform at one end of the hall. The fireplace was also towards this end. De Lacy had two private chambers built against the curtain wall of the castle to the east of the hall. Archaeological investigations have revealed that the castle was defended with a water-filled moat. This was intended to prevent attackers from advancing as far as the base of the castle wall. There was an attempt to establish a town at Greencastle, but this seems to have been unsuccessful: certainly it did not prove durable! The castle had a turbulent history in the fourteenth century, being attacked on several occasions. In 1505 it was granted to the Earl of Kildare and in 1552 came into the possession of Nicholas Bagenal, the Elizabethan adventurer, who made a number of alterations. The castle was described in the nineteenth century Ordnance Survey memoir for Kilkeel as ‘a massive square ruin standing east and west. The masonry is very rough and the mortar used in the building consists of gravel and shells’.


The town of Carlingford preserves more of its Norman heritage than almost any similar sized settlement in Ireland and has been described as a ‘gold mine of a town’ in terms of heritage. The beginnings of Norman influence in the area can be dated to the late twelfth century when the Cooley peninsula was granted to Bertram de Verdun in c.1189-91. His daughter married Hugh de Lacy, created earl of Ulster in 1205, and he was probably the man who built the castle known as ‘King John’s Castle’. Though unlikely to be the builder of the castle, King John (of England) did stay here for a few days while on his way to attack de Lacy at Carrickfergus. The castle is prominently sited on a rock overlooking Carlingford town and Lough. Within the town walls, a building known as ‘The Mint’, because it is believed to have been the site of a mint founded in 1467, is a fortified town house. Close by and dating from around the same period is a similar structure known as Taaffe’s Castle. Carlingford was a walled town and the building still standing today and known as the ‘Tholsel’ was originally one of the gates of the town. It formerly served as the meeting place of the town’s corporation. The former Church of Ireland church is now the Heritage Centre in Carlingford and almost certainly occupies the site of the medieval parish church. Its tower is believed to have been one of the towers of the town wall. The ruins of a Dominican priory also stand in Carlingford. This religious establishment is believed to have been founded by Richard de Burgh in the early fourteenth century. What survives comprises the nave and chancel divided by the tower with traces of domestic buildings to the south.

Further reading:
•Archaeological Survey of County Down (HMSO, 1966)
•R. S. J. Clarke (ed.), Old Families of Newry and District (Belfast, 1998).
•Paul Gosling, Carlingford Town: An Antiquarian’s Guide (1992).
•J. P. Mallory and T. E. McNeill, The Archaeology of Ulster(Belfast, 1991).
•T. E. McNeill, ‘County Down in the Later Middle Ages’, in L. Proudfoot (ed.), Down: History and Society (Dublin, 1997).
•Harold O’Sullivan, ‘The Catholic parishes in the barony of Cooley. Part 1: from earliest times to the end of the 17th century’ in Seanchas Ard Mhacha (2005???)
•Alistair Rowan, The Buildings of Ireland: North-West Ulster (Harmondsworth, 1979).