Trace Your Irish Roots with castles of Northern Ireland
Expect the unexpected while touring the castles of Northern Ireland, with a Scots baronial pile, an eccentric two-faced marital home, a fairy-tale ruin on the Antrim Coastline and a strong hulking riverside watchman. Northern Ireland has a fascinating history spanning from early Christian times, so why not take an ancestral journey to discover your family heritage.
Belfast Castle, Belfast, County Antrim.
Surnames: Chichester; Shaftesbury
The Story: The fairy-tale beauty of Belfast Castle is rivalled only by the sublime sea and city views looking out from its ornate towers and gardens. The first Belfast Castle was built by the Normans in Belfast city centre in the late 12th century. A second castle, made of stone and timber, was later constructed by Sir Arthur Chichester, Baron of Belfast, on the same site in 1611. Sadly, the castle burned down almost 100 years later, leaving only street names, such as Castle Place, to mark its location. In 1862, the third Marquis of Donegall, a descendant of the Chichester family, decided to build a new castle within his deer park, situated on the side of Cave Hill. Originally completed in 1870 in the Scottish baronial style, this was always intended to be an exquisite mansion rather than a defensive fort. When the third Marquis of Donegall died in 1884, the castle and its estate passed to Lord Ashley, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. The Shaftesbury family were not only the castle’s residents and owners, but they were also generous donors to the city of Belfast and hosted events at their home.
The Story: Castle Ward was built as the family home of the Ward’s; who were all Judges or MP’s, around 1710, on the site of an earlier castle. When husband (Lord Bangor) and wife (Lady Anne) couldn’t agree on what sort of house to build, they didn’t fall out over it, but nor did they compromise. They built both. Her side of the castle is all gracious Palladian geometry; His side is a gothic confection that overlooks Strangford Lough. The distinction isn’t skin deep either – the inside of the castle is split down the middle, with the interiors matching their relevant facade. Rather surprisingly for the area the house did not change hands or have many changes until it was handed over to the National Trust in 1950. Castle Ward has been a key filming location for Game of Thrones® and at Winterfell Tours, located in the courtyard of Castle Ward, fans can experience everything from medieval banquets to archery lessons.
Dunluce Castle, County Antrim.
Surnames: MacQuillan; MacDonnell; McDonnell
The Story: The iconic ruin of Dunluce Castle bears witness to a long and tumultuous history. Situated in the most north-easterly tip of Ireland and first built by Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster in the 13th century, the ruins of the castle are a huge tourist attraction. The castle is surrounded by terrifyingly steep drops at either side, which would have been essential features to the Vikings and early Christians who were drawn to this magnificent place where an early Irish ring-fort once stood. The MacQuillan clan became lords of the area in the late fourteenth century. The castle often came under siege and in 1584, the famous warrior chieftain Sorley Boy McDonnell captured it. In the 1630’s the castle was owned by Randal MacDonnell, 1st Earl of Antrim, one of Sorley Boy’s sons. When the kitchen wing collapsed and fell into the sea, his English wife Catherine Manners refused to live in the castle any longer.
The Story: This beautiful late Georgian mansion was built in the 1770s by Wills Hill, first Marquis of Downshire and was later remodelled in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, it is a working royal palace functioning as the official residence of the Royal Family when they are in Northern Ireland, and it has been the home of the Secretary of State since the 1970s. From Benjamin Franklin to the Dalai Lama, countless figures who helped to build the modern world have passed through the doors at Hillsborough Castle.
Enniskillen Castle, County Fermanagh.
The Story: Enniskillen Castle, situated beside the River Erne in County Fermanagh, was built almost 600 years ago by Gaelic Maguires. The Maguire rule lasted 300 years – they even fought for their land during the Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits – until it was taken over by English settlements in the 17th century, serving as a military barracks and key strategic base along the River Erne, under control of William Cole.
Suggestion for a luxury overnight stay at a Castle hotel in Northern Ireland –
Castle Leslie, County Monaghan.
The Story: What do Winston Churchill, Attila the Hun, Game of Thrones, Paul McCartney, King Charles II and the Loch Ness Monster have in common? Answer: ties to Castle Leslie, and the colourful aristocratic family who’ve lived on this Co Monaghan estate since 1665. The Leslie Family claim they can trace their ancestry back to Attila the Hun of Hungary through a Hungarian nobleman called Bartholomew Leslie. The first Leslie in Ireland was Bishop John Leslie who moved here in 1633. Leslie was a Royalist who defeated Cromwell’s forces at the Battle of Raphoe and was known as ‘The Fighting Bishop’. He bought Glaslough Castle in 1665 which takes its name from the largest of the nearby lakes. Castle Leslie as you see it today dates largely from 1870 and is Victorian in style facing the south side and Scottish Baronial in style facing the north! The house is still home to the Leslie family. Sir Paul McCartney married Heather Mills in the family church located on the estate. Other famous faces have included WB Yeats, Michael Collins, Mick Jagger, Sir Patrick Moore not to mention various members of the Churchill family (to whom the Leslies are related).
How to go about putting together the family jigsaw?
Your research begins with you and your immediate family. Ask questions to family members to try to establish approximate dates (of births, marriages and deaths) as well as names (forenames and related family names) and places of residence. This information will point the way to relevant records on your family tree. Consult old photographs on which names and dates may be noted, newspaper clippings, old letters, family Bibles as well as family gravestones. Religious denomination is also important in determining which records are relevant to your research.
There are numerous centres for genealogical research in Ireland. In Dublin, the National Library, National Archives and General Register Office are all key sources, with the National Library and National Archives both providing free advice from trained staff.
State registration of all non-Catholic marriages began in 1845. In 1864, civil registration of all births, marriages and deaths commenced. These records are held at the General Register Office.
There is a free index to records (births over 100 years, marriages over 75 years and deaths over 50 years) with images of the certificates available on the Irish Genealogy website.
Although a census of the Irish population was taken every ten years from 1821 to 1911, the earliest surviving Census is for 1901. The 1901 and 1911 Census and fragments from the 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 Census are freely searchable online in the National Archives .
The Ulster Historical Foundation is another non-profit organization, specializing in family history research and who can assist with tracing family records (including birth, death and marriage records).
Our blog is intended only as an introduction to tracing your family’s roots in Ireland and it’s far from an exhaustive guide. We suggest using many other resources along the way – books, websites, places, people – where you can find out more or get expert assistance. It can be a challenging journey tracing your family roots, with many winding country roads along the way and we hope we’ve helped a little by pointing you in the right direction.
For a private chauffeur drive tour or a customized private tour to learn more about your Irish heritage and to explore the places your ancestors came from or to schedule that long awaited family reunion coach tour of Ireland, contact Specialized Travel Services ……. even if you don’t have a blood line connection with an Irish castle we’ll ensure to give you a superior welcome to the Emerald Isle. Fill in the Contact form or send an email request to: email@example.com
We have some wonderful castle tours to choose from and we can tailor make any of our itineraries to suit your requirements –
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