Belfast Castle (Irish: Caisleán Bhéal Feirste) is a castle on the slopes of Cavehill Country Park in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in a prominent position 400 feet (120 m) above sea level. Its location provides unobstructed views over the City of Belfast and Belfast Lough. The current castle is a Victorian structure, built between 1867 and 1870. The main entrance into the Belfast Castle Demesne is now where Innisfayle Park meets Downview Park West, just off the Antrim Road (part of the A6). The original main entrance into the demesne was formerly on the Antrim Road itself, where Strathmore Park now meets the Antrim Road.
A castle had been erected at Béal Feirste (Belfast) by the 1220s, probably to guard the important ford across the River Lagan. This medieval castle may have been built by the Normans, who invaded East Ulster in the late twelfth-century. These Norman invaders had carved out a territory for themselves in the 1170s, which was centered on Carrickfergus and was later called the Earldom of Ulster. By 1333, a small settlement is thought to have developed around the castle at Belfast. This original ‘Belfast Castle’, located on what later became the County Antrim side of the River Lagan, was probably in the area now bounded by Donegall Place, Castle Place, Cornmarket, and Castle Lane in the centre of what is now Belfast City Centre. Although originally built in either the late twelfth-century or the early thirteenth-century, this castle was rebuilt on several occasions between the 1220s and the 1550s. This original, medieval castle was almost certainly on the same site as the much later ‘Plantation-era’ castle developed for Lord Chichester.
This original High Medieval, Late Medieval and Early Modern castle site was on the southern bank of the River Farset (which now flows beneath High Street), being located on a sliver of land that was bounded by the Farset to the north and the River Owenvara (Blackstaff River) to the south. Both the River Farset and the River Owenvara (Irish: Abhainn Bheara, meaning ‘River of the Staff’, usually known nowadays in English as the Blackstaff River) emptied into the River Lagan just to the east of this castle site.
The castle and its surrounding túath largely remained in the hands of the Uí Néill of Clandeboye throughout the fifteenth- and sixteenth-centuries, with a few brief exceptions. The castle was briefly seized from the Uí Néill in 1489 by Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill (Red Hugh O’Donnell), Rí na Tír Chonaill (King of Tír Chonaill), an immensely powerful Gaelic ruler from the west of Ulster. Ó Domhnaill, whose chief residence was Donegal Castle in Donegal Town, had invaded Clandeboye with his army. Belfast Castle was again seized from the Uí Néill and occupied for a few years in the 1570s, this time by English forces, initially under the command of The 1st Earl of Essex, during the Enterprise of Ulster. The castle was briefly seized from the Uí Néill of Clandeboye on several other occasions as well.
In October 1574, during the Enterprise of Ulster, The 1st Earl of Essex and his retinue were invited to a feast at Belfast Castle by Sir Brian mac Feidhlimidh Ó Néill (Sir Brian McPhelim O’Neill), Lord of Lower Clandeboye. The feast was to celebrate a newly signed peace agreement between the English Crown and Sir Brian. After the feast was over, the English soldiers accompanying Lord Essex suddenly set upon and murdered most of the family and retainers of Sir Brian inside Belfast Castle. It seems this massacre was ordered by Essex himself. This event is usually known as the Clandeboye Massacre. The castle was then seized by Essex and his English forces. Sir Brian mac Feidhlimidh Ó Néill was not killed during this massacre. Instead, Sir Brian, along with his wife and his brother, were arrested by Lord Essex and, later in 1574, all three were executed in Dublin.
Belfast Castle is open to the public daily with a visitor centre, antique shop, Millennium Herb Garden, restaurant, and a playground. Visitors can see a bedroom, set up in the style of the 1920s, so visitors can see a ‘snapshot in time’ of what the castle looked like at the end of its life as a private residence. The Cavehill Visitor Centre is located inside the castle.
Belfast Castle was closed in 1978 for a restoration and refurbishing effort. The architecture partnership of Hewitt and Haslam oversaw and carried out the over £2 million project, with the castle and demesne reopening on Armistice Day, 11 November 1988. Since then, it has once again become a popular spot for weddings and other celebrations as well as for business meetings.
Another example of events held at the castle was the 2015 Belfast Castle Hospice Walk, held by the Northern Ireland Hospice to benefit local charities and those living with terminal illnesses.
The castle underwent another round of refurbishment in May 2003.