Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Tercentenary of the destruction of Belfast Castle

By Gordon Lucy

On 24/25 April 1708 Belfast Castle was gutted by fire. Three of the 4th Earl of
Donegall’s six sisters died in the blaze. The fire was caused by the
carelessness of a servant who put on a large wood fire to air a room which she
had just washed and cleaned.

James Traill, a Killyleagh merchant, provides further detail. The fire spread
across the wooden beams and staircases of the house and the wooden floors

The three girls, with two servants’ children, could be heard screeching in
their room. Rather than jump from their window to a shed which was six feet
below, they fled to another part of the castle where unfortunately they could
not be reached. They probably died of smoke inhalation because Traill recalled:
‘I don’t remember that any of them was burnt to ashes’ and ‘some of their
bodies were not much burnt’.

The castle was virtually destroyed. The site remained vacant for a great many
years. A map shows the site as an open space as late as 1757, the year of the
4th Earl of Donegall’s death.

* * *

The castle destroyed by fire in 1708 was essentially the tall semi-fortified
Elizabethan manor house built by Sir Arthur Chichester, the principal architect
of the Plantation of Ulster and subsequently 1st Baron Belfast, in 1611. It was
a much more modest structure than Joymount, the stately mansion designed by
Inigo Jones, which he built for himself in Carrickfergus. Chichester’s Belfast
house stood around modern-day Castle Lane and Castle Place, probably on the
site of the first Belfast Castle which was built by the Normans in the late
12th century.

By the late 1640s the Chichesters were the Earls of Donegall. Their house was
by far the most imposing building in 17th–century Belfast. In the 1660s the
house, which may have been enlarged since 1611, was surrounded by impressive
gardens and extensive grounds which included a cherry garden, an apple orchard,
a bowling green, an arbour and private walks to the sea. A late 17th–century
visitor to Belfast described the house and its grounds as ‘the glory and beauty
of that town’. The most prominent person to have enjoyed hospitality at the
castle was none other than William III in June 1690.

Quite apart from the fire which claimed the lives of three members of the
family, the Donegalls were almost overwhelmed by tragedy in the early 18th
century. In 1706 the 3th Earl of Donegall was killed at the siege of Monjuich
in Spain serving with the Duke of Marlborough. At the time of the 3th Earl’s
death the estate was deeply in debt and the 4th Earl was only a minor. The
Donegall family became embroiled in a series of protracted disputes over
property. The situation was further exacerbated by the 4th Earl’s manifest
mental incapacity. Lunacy proceedings were brought against him by Sir Roger
Newdigate (founder of the Prize for English Verse) which failed by a narrow
margin. Even the 4th Earl’s best friends could not deny that he was other than
‘rather weak and incapable’.

* * *

The present Belfast Castle, built on the slopes of Cave Hill for the 3rd
Marquis of Donegall, the family had been further advanced in the peerage, in
the Scottish Baronial style, was completed in 1870. . The castle and estate
were presented to the City of Belfast in 1934. From the end of the Second World
War until the 1970s the castle became a popular venue for wedding receptions,
dances and afternoon teas. In 1978 Belfast City Council undertook a major
refurbishment of the castle which extended over ten years. The building was
officially re-opened in November 1988.