Tales from the Castle Gate

Tales from the Castle Gate

“THERE is perhaps no more fruitful form of education than to arouse the interest of a people in their own surroundings”

– Joe Baker, Glenravel Local History Project, North Belfast.

I THOUGHT I knew a bit about local history, but even I was stunned to hear that French forces had invaded Carrickfergus! Indeed, from 21st February to the night of 25th – 26th February 1760, Carrickfergus was an overseas territory of the French realm of King Louis XV!

This event – and much more besides – can be found in an excellent book written by Charles McConnell (and published by Carmac Books, Carrickfergus in 2002). Called Tales from the Castle Gate it attempts to provide as much information as possible about the castle. As McConnell notes: “There are few buildings in Ireland with such a well-chronicled and long history as the town’s most compelling landmark and it was the strategic importance of the Castle as a military fortress that led to the succession of memorable events associated with the town’s history”.

There is so much to read in this remarkable book – chapters include The Castle Builder, Lord Edward Bruce, Roundheads and Cavaliers, The castle and the Williamite War – but the day Carrickfergus became part of France really captured our imagination! This is dealt in reasonable depth with a chapter entitled Under a Foreign Flag. It really is a fascinating account of the French invasion – and subsequent capture – of Carrickfergus.

On 21st February 1760 around 600 French troops – under the command of Commodore Francois Thurot – landed at Kilroot and advanced towards Carrickfergus. The castle and town were put on alert as soon as the French were spotted. Around 300 French Prisoners of war, captured from previous land and sea battles, were being held in the castle. (They had originally been held in Cork for two years. However, because of rumours of a French invasion of the southern coast of Ireland, they had been moved. These prisoners were first moved to the Irish midlands and then on to Belfast. Three Hundred were held in Barrack Street in Belfast and the remaining 300 held in Carrickfergus). When Thurot’s fleet was spotted these prisoners were mustered and marched off to Belfast!

During this period Carrickfergus Castle wasn’t as militarily impressive as it had been. Tales from the Castle Gate states that in “the relatively peaceful times of the first half of the 18th century in Ireland, complacency had developed about the Castle’s military role”. Thus it had fallen into a state of disrepair – indeed; there was fifty foot breach in the outer curtain wall where a section had collapsed six years earlier in 1754.

The only military forces defending Carrick at the time was a detachment of General Strode’s regiment, the 62nd Regiment of Foot. This consisted of about 160 young recruits undergoing training. There was barely only enough ammunition for each soldier’s training and there were no guns mounted! They were under the command of Colonel John Jennings. (According to Tales from the Castle Gate, the commander of Carrickfergus Castle, Colonel Jennings, later described it as “an old fortress little better than a heap of ruins”.)

The majority of those soldiers defending Carrick – the 62nd Regiment of Foot – were deployed at Joymount where the main French attack was expected. Others were deployed at North Gate, West Gate and the castle itself. A lack of ammunition saw the British troops retreat to the castle. And a series of running battles saw some of the French invaders get into castle. The bulk of the French troops had marched into Market Place. Some were then deployed on to West Street then to Cheston Street where they could fire directly at the outer castle gate. Other French forces were concentrated in Castle Street. The web-site of Carrickfergus Borough Council http://www.carrickfergus.org also notes that whilst the French were on route to the castle “the silver in St Nicholas church was stolen”.

Those defending Carrickfergus castle found themselves in an impossible situation. The lack of ammunition (which had prompted their initial retreat) meant that there was more powder than ball. Therefore, half the powder from each cartridge was fired with the bullet – the other half was used to fire a metal button from their tunics!

It wasn’t too long before the French invaders charged. Led by Captain d’Esterees they attacked the castle door, which had not been closed properly. This led to hand to hand fighting in which d’Esterees was the first to fall. Senior British officers – including Colonel Jennings – and about fifty men with fixed bayonets repulsed this initial French attack. They were aided by their comrades who although they didn’t have any ammunition threw stones and bricks at the French!

Given the inadequate state of the British defence, it’s surprising that they were able to hold off the French for several hours. However, it was clear that Colonel Jennings would have to surrender. His men were outnumbered three to one and were completely out of ammunition. Despite fighting against overwhelming odds the British defenders had two killed and five wounded. At the same time, the “French lost a surprising number of, about fifty being killed, including three officers, and about the same number wounded”. (Interestingly, one of those wounded during the fighting was Brigadier General Flobert. He originally wanted the diversionary invasion abandoned but was overruled by Thurot. Flobert was so badly wounded that he had to stay ashore to recover). Additionally, it was only a matter of time before the French discovered the massive breach in the defensive wall. This would have led to the French completely overrunning the castle and possibly killing all of its defenders.

In Tales from the Castle Gate, McConnell notes that the terms of capitulation were generous. “The garrison were allowed to march out with drums beating and flags flying and be on parole till they were exchanged for an equal number of men. The Castle was to be delivered up with the stores in it. The town was neither to be plundered nor burnt, nor the inhabitants misused.”

Once the French had occupied Carrick Castle they demanded provisions and stores from Belfast. They stated that if nothing arrived they would burn Carrick to the ground and kill all of its the inhabitants. The provisions were slow in coming so Commodore Thurot threatened to march on Belfast. The local authorities relented and met his demands – enough food and fresh water was supplied to see them back home. The French invaders also took what they could from Carrick – including any clothing they could find to protect them from the bitter winter. To ensure their safety they took some local dignitaries as hostages.

The brief French occupation of Carrickfergus ended when – on the night of 25th – 26th February – Thurot’s forces left just as the advance guard of the British reinforcements approached. However, Because Carrickfergus lies within Belfast Lough, they had to wait two days for a favourable wind to take them out to the open sea.

However Commodore Thurot never reached home. Three ships of the British fleet having been alerted, intercepted the three French ships off the Isle of Man and in the ensuing battle the French were defeated and Thurot killed.

Reviewed by John Jenkins.

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