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Conquering the Normans
Kings and Conquerors
Knights and Chieftains
Castles and Control
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Castles and Control


As an army of occupation, the Normans built castles to defend and control the new territories that they had conquered. At first they used wood, which was plentiful in the Irish countryside, to build motte and bailey castles. Sometimes they built these on existing Irish raths (prehistoric fortified settlements). Elsewhere, they dug circular trenches and heaped the earth into great central mounds (mottes). Sometimes the trench was filled with water to make a moat. Around the motte they erected a circular wooden fence or wall. The motte usually had a wooden lookout tower.Adjacent to the motte was a large lower enclosure (bailey) for storage huts, a chapel, stables, workshops, living quarters and housing for livestock. A wooden bridge linked the motte and the bailey.

Motte and bailey castle

Today, very little of these castles remains.

Clough Castle, Co. Down

Whereas a motte could be erected in a matter of days, building a stone castle took many years. Typically, a stone castle featured a keep within a perimeter curtain wall. A good example of a ‘keep in bailey’ castle is Carrickfergus Castle, built by John de Courcy.

Who Was John de Courcy?

One of the knights who came to Ireland in the twelfth century, John de Courcy was ‘a man of courage and a born fighter, always in the front line and always taking upon himself the greatest amount of danger’, according to Gerald of Wales. He was one of those adventurous younger sons of Norman families who had come to England in 1066 with William the Conqueror. With no chance of inheriting the family estate in Somerset, de Courcy was one of those tempted by the prospect of capturing land in Ireland.In 1177, de Courcy rode north from Dublin with only about 400 soldiers to conquer Ulidia (north-east Ulster).

John de Courcy

De Courcy quickly succeeded in conquering most of the north-eastern counties of Down and Antrim. At Downpatrick, which he captured in 1177, he built a castle and a cathedral which he named after St Patrick. The Strangford Lough area was ringed with the Normans’ defensive towers and castles, including Killyleagh Castle. On his Ulster lands de Courcy settled loyal followers such as the Savage, FitzSimons, White and Russell families.De Courcy founded a Cistercian abbey at Inch in 1180. Another Cistercian monastery, Grey Abbey, was founded in 1193 by de Courcy’s wife, Affreca. By marrying Affreca, daughter of the king of the Isle of Man, de Courcy ensured that his east-coast castles would be supplied with provisions shipped across in Manx vessels. This powerful fleet would also be a military obstacle to anyone opposed to de Courcy. His father-in-law had already attempted to support Rory O’Connor, High King of Ireland, during the Norman invasion of Leinster.Shortly before 1210, de Courcy began constructing Dundrum Castle on an ancient high earthwork (dun), commanding the east Down coast. During the 1180s, on the east Antrim coast, de Courcy had built a massive four-storey keep and inner ward as his principal stronghold, almost surrounded by sea: Carrickfergus Castle.

Carrickfergus Castle

During the 27 years that De Courcy ruled Ulster, several major towns developed around his strategically sited castles and abbeys: Carlingford, Carrickfergus, Coleraine, Downpatrick, Dromore, Dundrum and Newry.Proclaiming himself ‘Prince of Ulidia’, and minting coins with St Patrick’s name on one side and his own name on the reverse, proved to be de Courcy’s undoing. Only the King’s head was allowed to be depicted on coinage. Through his alliances with some Irish chiefs, and sometimes fighting against other Normans, de Courcy’s power and independence earned him significant enemies. In 1199, John, succeeding Henry II as King, ordered Hugh de Lacy (ruler of Meath) to destroy the power of de Courcy in Ulster.De Lacy defeated de Courcy in 1204, became Earl of Ulster, and took possession of Carrickfergus Castle, where he resided until his death in 1242. John de Courcy fled into exile abroad and died in relative poverty.