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Carrickfergus castle was the most significant castle in medieval Ulster. Using sources available and any evidence found how far could you support this statement?


In 1011, Scandinavian raiders came to France and demanded territory. These raiders created conflict and ended up settling in the north or France, this area came to be known as Normandy. The Normans were beginning to grow in numbers. More families were being raised and so the space they took up in France became overcrowded. The Normans now looked for new territory and France’s smaller neighbour was England. England had a surpassing quality the Normans were interested in and this was farming, the Normans lived on farming and the land in England was perfect for farming.


In 1066, the Normans made the decision to conquer England. This decision was not eagerly accepted however by the English and so conflict arose. The Battle of Hastings was fought. The Normans won this battle and England was conquered. England suited the Normans but after conquering England they began to look for new territory. England’s neighbour was Ireland.


At this time in Irish history the Irish were in inner conflict between provinces. These provinces were known as Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connaught. There were four provinces and there were five kings. A common conflict by these minor Kings would be about money and their wealth as well as power and other minor details. Ireland was not known to Christianity, in fact Christianity hadn’t even been heard of. When the Pope heard of the prospect of the Normans invading Ireland he encouraged them. This may have been a mistake by the Pope as the Normans were not known to be Christian but the Pope thought that Ireland should be introduced to the Christian faith, and he thought the Normans would be able to demonstrate the bible and it’s teachings, the word of God.


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The Normans had a keen interest in Ireland and it is most likely that they made a few “contacts.” It wasn’t until in the 1th Century that they were invited to Ireland by Strongbow (Dermit McMurrough) that they came to Ireland to tackle the Irish clans.


In a dispute to be most powerful king in Ireland, Dermit McMurrough of Leinster seeked help abroad � England. Richard FitzGilbert de Clare, Earl of Pembroke or otherwise known as Strongbow (due to his strength and accuracy when fighting with bow and arrow,) obliged to help but with two conditions. One, Dermit’s daughter Eva could be married to Strongbow. Two, when Dermit died Leinster could be given to Strongbow. Dermit obliged and the Normans took over.


It is easy to imagine that the Normans were not the most popular people history in the medieval period. They were invading countries, taking over and creating unnecessary power. Once the Normans had taken over a country they needed somewhere to stay, somewhere to keep their troops, to use as a base for other Normans coming to the country and somewhere to store things such as food or weapons. The answer to this problem was to build a castle. The purpose of the castle was to protect themselves, to store things and to use as a base. One thing we have to remember at this time of history is that a castle is not a rich house or palace as such, it is a fortified dwelling for safety and is commonly used for defence in conflict.


Castles have evolved greatly over castle history. The first type of castle to be built was called a Motte. This consisted of a mound of earth (either natural or man made) which had a castle made out of wood on top. This was not a successful castle, it had many drawbacks.


Þ The castle itself was small, so not roomy for troops and a castle needs natural resources to keep animals for food and to grow vegetables.


Þ The castle was made of wood; it was on top of a mound that was not very high. This had one major disadvantage flaming arrows could be thrown up and the wood would be set alight and would burn very quickly.


Þ Wood also could be not properly treated and so rain and the weather elements would gradually weaken the castle making it less safe.


A development was made to this castle and a Baily was added. This was basically creating an area at the bottom of the mound of earth and surrounding it by a fence, this gave room for the keep of animals, the growth of vegetables and other natural resources needed like water. However the problems with the wooden castle still persisted. This problem was tried to be resolved so it was made of stone. The stone would be carried up the mound and the castle would be built there but once the castle was complete it was too heavy for the mound of earth and in most cases subsided. If the castle remained it would be extremely easy to tunnel under the castle and attack it from the corners collapsing it.


The idea of bringing the castle down to the ground was seen as a good idea and so was improved upon. A defensive feature was added to this castle � curtain walls. This was a great advantage to the defenders of the castle but a great disadvantage to the attackers as they had around walls to batter through. This had great advantages to the castle such as extra space. Carrickfergus castle fits into this category of a castle as you can see from the diagram aside it has three curtain walls. You can also see how three sides of the castle were surrounded by water.


The next castle and the most modern in castle history is the concentric castle. The concentric castle incorporates all the assets of previous castles such as a keep, curtain walls and stone. It has modern improvements, which are extra defensive features. From the diagram below a portcullis was added. A portcullis is a defines mechanism which can be dropped stopping battering being a success to entry of the castle, if it was a double portcullis like Carrick has, you could trap offenders and afflict death upon them either via a murder hole mentioned later or by sword. The concentric castle also invented the draw bridge, to stop entry to offenders completely, they had machicolation in which offenders could drop stones and burning oil to kill any offenders to close to the castle. Machicolation also includes merlons and embrasures in which defenders could hide behind. This defence system is shown in the picture below.


Drum towers were also present and instead of having square walls circular walls were used this allowed the defender greater view of both sides of the castle on which they


were defending.


A portcullis, due to it’s material


and structure (grid like) this would be


virtually impossible to break or bend


to allow intruders into the castle.


John de Courcy was the main man or the director in building Carrickfergus castle. On a historical website he was described as such John was a tall, blond man with long bony limbs, a big man, physically very strong, and of exceptional courage. From his youth he had shown himself to be a valiant man of war, always first into action, always grasping the nettle, danger. In battle he fought like a reckless common soldier, rather than a careful commander, conscious of his value to his own troops. Yet in ordinary life he was a moderate and sober minded man, who showed that true reverence which is owed to Christ and his church. He was utterly dedicated to the worship of his God and ready always to give to God the glory, when he had achieved any success.


From this description we can decipher that John de Courcy was an adventurous, brave man. He liked adventure. At this time in history, Ulster, which was to be taken over, was run by many Irish Clans. This would be an adventure for the Norman troops with the prospect of battle.


The Normans approached Ulster from the Mournes and the first battle was fought at Down Patrick. Carrickfergus was chosen as a place for a castle for many reasons.


Þ The castle is built right beside the ocean on a natural peninsula. Here it would be easy to see enemy opposition coming from sea from approximately twenty miles away and the enemy would see the castle easily and they would presume this land is well guarded and may even rethink the possibility of a successful attack on Ireland.


Þ The natural peninsula is made of basalt rock. This rock is one of the strongest rocks in Ireland, providing perfect foundations and strength for a castle.


Þ Where the castle would be built is surrounded by ocean apart from one side. This is perfect for the castles defence, as you can see the enemy coming from far off, get the troops ready with arrows and as the castle is in the sea a ship can only come so far to the castle to shoot. With this problem the enemy had to come into land and the castle only was attached to land at one side and this could be easily defended instead of all sides being attacked.


Þ The Castle is at the end of the six mile valley; therefore natural recourses can be easily accessed.


It is not possible to prove that Carrickfergus castle is the most significant castle in medieval Ulster. However we have a lot of evidence to suggest that is an extremely strong castle that is extremely hard to conquer. Carrickfergus castle has seen many violent battles and has seen failures and successions but the castle itself has never lost a battle and remains intact. However, modern alterations are taking place to the castle, these can affect the story of Carrickfergus castle but the advantage is that the castle will remain standing for generations coming to see.


Carrickfergus had many assets that made it a very strong defensive castle.


Þ The Castle has a surviving Portcullis. This is a great defensive feature for Carrick. A portcullis was illustrated above.


Þ The windows are especially designed for the defenders of the castles, and for the bowman attackers a great disadvantage. The drawing below shows this. The windows are large from inside the castle but gradually become thinner so by the outside the window itself is only a slit, which meant for an arrow to enter the castle, the bowman must have exceptional skill.


Þ Carrickfergus’ castle walls were extremely strong. They to were made of basalt a strong rock. The walls were thick; they are approximately nine foot thick throughout. This created an extra hurdle for the attackers as the walls were very strong and so would need a lot of battering from the battering ram, which was not an easy job.


This picture above shows crenelation, which


Is commonly used in Carrickfergus castle and


Is a strong defensive feature which is useful in battle.


Þ The walls were also high. This meant even an expert at climbing would find it tiresome and as the walls are smooth in texture extremely tricky. The likelihood would be that once the strenuous climb the attacker would not be in a fit state to fight a battle.


Þ On the top of the walls crenelation was present. The diagram aside shows this. The merlon is the piece of rock that sits up, behind this defenders would hide and the embrasures are what they would shoot from.


Þ Machicolation. Here there would be holes above the entrance to the castle. Carrickfergus castle has this above the door, however these presently are boarded up. The defenders would throw heavy things like stones or even Greek fire that was a mixture of burning oil with additions such as sulphur to scald the opposition. This defensive feature was also very useful for defence.


Þ Natural well. May not seem like a defensive feature but without it the defending troops would not survive and so is an aid to success in battle.


Þ Postern gate. As Carrickfergus castle was surrounded by sea the only way to attack the castle and gain entry was by the front. If any important generals or royalty were at the castle there was no escape. The postern gate, which is basically, a door at the rear of the castle would allow the very important people to escape safely and retreat to somewhere like Scotland and resume residence until peace was found again at Carrickfergus.


Þ The keep inside the castle was a very tall square building and so needed stairs. In the keep servants and VIP’s would stay. A spiral staircase was created, however this was not your normal staircase, it has a trick. St the bottom, when attackers would be climbing, there is a ‘trip step,’ this step was ingeniously made larger than the others causing the defenders to have quite a nasty fall. A small defensive feature but a nasty one.


Now having looked at the defensive features we can decide whether Carrickfergus castle is the strongest in Medieval Ulster. From a technical point of view Carrickfergus would tend not to be the strongest Castle in Ulster, as other castles with more modern defensive features do exist. The style of Castle at Carrick is modern but not the most modern, other castles such as the castle at Dundrum are circular. This is a great advantage fore the defenders as you can see all around the castles corners where as in a square castle you cant. Also, it is easier to knock down a square castle, as its weak points are the corner stones, this means tunnelling below it could also easily knock it down. As the Castle at Dundrum is circular the builders added on a skirt, this again is an advantage to the defenders as instead of having to look over the edge to see where your attacker was you could see from a safe position. The diagram below represents this.


If the skirt was not there the defender in blue would have to look right over the edge and would be an easy target for the attacker in red, where as with the skirt the attacker is an easy target from all angles.


Carrickfergus however is still standing and is in good condition. This is due to the fact that it has always been used. Over castle history, Carrick was used as a military dwelling where troops would stay and be safe. It was also used as a home; therefore any problems with the castle would be spotted and fixed. Eventually the castle was bought by the national trust and fully restored. If you look at houses that are not lived in you will find they are run down and well are in a poor condition, this is just the same for castles. The castle in Dundrum is in a poor state as well as many others. This advantage of Carrick castle would suggest that it is a strong castle.


Carrickfergus is lacking in some factors that other castles are not, such as the aspect of visibility. Carrickfergus’ castle’s visibility is limited due to its shape of a square and that is has no skirt to see offenders. Finally, a square castle could usually be easily penetrated due to its square corners, which are its weak parts, but Carrickfergus castle is built on basalt rock so this would add to a defensive feature.


To conclude, Carrickfergus is one of the most significant castles in Northern Ireland due the fact that is still standing in an intact structure and the fact that it has seen, fought and survived many extreme battles. Other modern castles such as the castle at Dundrum are more modern in castle development but are not standing intact and so may not be seen as the strongest.





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