Some time ago, I took my children, the Chapples Minor, out for a day of archaeology sightseeing. Admittedly, promises of significant amounts of both bacon and ice cream had to be made to ensure compliance with the plan. Once we had attained some degree of agreement, the next question was where exactly we should go. The parameters included: sites we’d not previously visited before and distances relatively close to home. At this point, I deftly reached for my copy of ‘A Guide to the Historic Monuments of Northern Ireland in State Care’ and began to leaf through. I quickly identified a cluster of sites along the western edge of Strangford Lough as worthy of further investigation. Places like Mahee Castle and Nendrum monastic site were fairly well known to us, but other dots on the map were less so. That is how I ended up, having followed my SatNav, on a narrow road with a number of ‘Private: Keep Out’ signs, looking and feeling lost. I spoke to a passing farm worker who told me that access to the Ringhaddy Castle and Church is usually only granted by prior appointment (not something noted in the guide book)*. After a short wait, I was introduced to the landowner who explained that he was not well disposed towards casual callers as he had suffered several thefts of machinery in recent times. He eventually took the opinion that only the most enterprising thief would come equipped with an elaborate cover story involving small children and an archaeological guide book. The serious point here is that, more and more, landowners have reason to be wary of visitors to their farms and we visitors (no matter how well intentioned) would be wise to recognise this. For my part, I was prepared to retreat with either an email or postal address and wait until my credentials could be ascertained … though, whether the contents of this blog would have worked in my favour or not is debatable. In any case, reassured of our good intentions, the landowner relented and allowed us access to the sites on his land.
The castle is described in the guidebook as ‘one of the most completely surviving tower houses in the county, retaining its gables and … an original wooden window’. The latter has been removed and conserved by NIEA. It’s difficult to see under the ivy, but the castle appears to be of two major periods. The ground floor with its stone vault dates to the 15th century. The vault was replaced with a wooden floor when the upper portions of the castle were rebuilt sometime around 1600. The castle is mentioned several times in the Elizabethan portions of the Calendar of State Papers and it appears that it changed hands on a number of occasions between Bryan McArt and the English forces. One letter (26 October 1602) from Charles Blount, 8th Baron Mountjoy, to English politician and administrator, Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, notes that McArt ‘held his personal residence’ at the castle. However, on hearing of Lord Deputy Mountjoy’s arrival in the Lecale ‘he quitted his castle and beat it down to the ground’. Another letter (5 March 1602) is from Sir Ralph Lane (best known for his connection to the ill-fated Roanoke Colony in North Carolina) to Robert Cecil. Here Sir Ralph suggests that his success in reconstructing the ‘small castle of Ranahaddy’ should be followed up with a formal Plantation of the area. The castle was also used to house prisoners, as the October letter mentions a report from William Debdall, ‘Constable of Rannahady’, of an escape from the tower in May 1602. He adds that he had ‘made the castle strong enough to prevent’ further such instances. Taking these and other sources, it seems most likely that the Tower House phase relates to the McArt occupation and that the later building work was carried out by Lane in and after 1602.
Once upon a time this castle was much contested and the security of the surrounding lands depended on who held it and how they wielded their power. Today it is peaceful and quiet. The walls are ivy-covered, the ground floor only partly accessible through briars and sundry other plants. For all that, it is still a lovely site that was very much worth the time taken to visit.
The guide book says “At quay turn left through gate to castle on Castle Island”
If you go to the Northern Ireland Sites and Monuments Record [here] you can search for the site as DOW 024:012. The scanned contents of the NIEA’s SM7 file on the site is available [here].
While I have tried to present the story in a light & engaging manner, I cannot stress enough my genuine gratitude to the landowner for granting us access to the Castle and Church.