The hidden castles under the shops of the city

Belfast’s history can be told through many of its street names and buildings, many of which reflect the city’s industrial heritage and Victorian heyday.

But in one block, under the feet of shoppers, there is a story that goes back several hundred years.

Castle Lane, Castle Arcade, Castle Place and Castle Buildings.

Each pays homage to the site of not one, but three Belfast castles, and archaeologists believe their foundations and artefacts could still lie beneath the surface.

Part of the site is the former British Homes Stores (BHS) site, which is now set to be converted into a complex of leisure and retail units.

It will be called The Keep, a nod from developers to a past first mentioned in 1262.

“Strategic Base”

It was then an Anglo-Norman castle, believed to have consisted of an earthen mound, similar to patterns that remain visible in towns such as Dundonald.

It was a “crucial part of Belfast’s medieval Norman settlement”, straddling the River Farcet, which we now know as the High Street, archaeologist Ruairí Ó Baoill told BBC News NI.

However, the site was destroyed in the 1300s as power shifted to Gaelic lords in Ireland such as the Clandeboye O’Neills.

The O’Neills in turn built a new castle, a “strategic base”, Mr Ó Baoill explained.

“We know there was a castle there because there are reports of it being attacked in the 1400s and 1500s in both Irish and English history and it actually shows up on two maps,” he said.

Medieval burials have also been documented in the Cornmarket, an area that is now home to shops, cafes and coaches.

The development site ‘The Keep’ refers to the castle in its promotional material

According to Queen’s University academic Dr Colm Donnelly, O’Neill Castle would have resembled a tower house, “a small building, perhaps four storeys”, with rooms stacked on top of each other, connected by a spiral staircase.

Similar stone towers of this period survive, including Audley Castle and Kilclief Castle, near Strangford.

“They were largely abandoned in the 17th century, but they survive in the Irish landscape,” Dr Donnelly said.

The Clandeboye O'Neill building is believed to have resembled tower houses such as the 15th-century Kilclief Castle, near Strangford

The Clandeboye O’Neill building is believed to have resembled tower houses such as the 15th-century Kilclief Castle, near Strangford

“They’re really well made, but they’re not immune to the forces of nature, like frost getting into the walls.”

This second Belfast castle was also replaced, but not completely.

“In the late 16th century the Gaelic lords rose up and were defeated by the forces of Queen Elizabeth I, one of whom was Arthur Chichester,” Mr Ó Baoill said.

“He was given land everywhere, including the city of Belfast.”

A report from the plantation commissioners in 1611 gives an account of the shops built in the new town of Chichester, with 120,000 bricks used by masons.

Among the writings is a reference to the old “cleared” castle, the O’Neill building, part of which was preserved and connected to the new Chichester castle by a staircase.

The third castle survived for a century, but burned down in 1708, killing four people, including three sisters of the 4th Earl of Donegall.

However, it is shown on a map of Belfast in 1685, along with the city walls, which were earthen ramparts that partially enclosed the city.

“It was fine in central Belfast, around the Cornmarket and Castle Arcade,” Mr Ó Baoill said.

“Underground are the ruins of at least two castles side by side, and possibly Anglo-Norman as well, but it’s really disappointing because you can’t see them.”

“Undergrounds are safe,” he added.

Because of the risk of flooding in Belfast, Mr Ó Baoill said archaeologists believed that few of the city center buildings had deep basements, meaning there was a possibility of “significant archaeological remains” across the area.

Castle Place

The castles, off modern Castle Place, were built on a site of strategic importance, according to Ruairí Ó Baoill

Historian Jim O’Neill agreed and explained that a shallow trench he once dug in Waring Street revealed that centuries of buildings had been stacked on top of each other, indicating that the ruins of the castles could exist a few meters underground.

He said the medieval tower house was believed to have contained vaulted masonry.

“If you had an unlimited budget and luck on your side, you should find this large brick structure with a masonry core, which would be amazing,” he explained.

“It would be amazing to find that and then, of course, to have the remains of domestic life from that time associated with it.”

“Increased archaeological potential”

Planned redevelopment of the BHS site has been limited to “areas of previous ground disturbance”, the Department for Communities told BBC News NI, with the need for an archaeological assessment “likely to be minimal or avoided entirely”.

He added, however, that the area was recognized as having “increased archaeological potential within the historic core of Belfast”.

The department’s Historic Environment Directorate (HED), which advises on potential archaeological impacts on planning decisions, highlighted the history of the site to Belfast City Council, which approved the project.

The council said the planning conditions “ensure appropriate mitigation of any archaeological impacts of the development”.

Jim O’Neill said the castles had always been of great interest to archaeologists and local experts would like to excavate the wider area.

“There’s always that possibility, that excitement that we might strike gold in terms of the archeology of Belfast,” he said.

Ruairí Ó Baoill added that there remains a “massive interest” from the people of Belfast, too, in the city’s history as more resources are made available to tell its story online.

“It’s disappointing that you can’t see it [the castle]but just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there,” he said.

“There are hundreds of years of history behind the Anglo-Normans in the city centre, there are thousands of years in the hills around Belfast.

“We have a really, really interesting past, a much longer past than people sometimes think.”

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