On the way we passed the Belfast Big Fish. There is a sign saying no climbing but William missed that and clambered onto its back regardless. William is good at jumping and climbing.
The train journey alongside the western shore of Belfast Lough took just about twenty minutes and we arrived at about midday in a curiously subdued (for a Saturday morning in a fair sizes market town) Carrickfergus town centre. With nothing to distract us such as a market for example we made our way directly to the harbour and the castle.
Carrickfergus Castle is a Norman castle, the oldest , biggest and best preserved medieval building in all of Northern Ireland built on the north shore of the Lough to manage and protect the entrance to the emerging port of Belfast and the navigable River Lagan.
It was here that King William III landed in 1690 on his way to the Battle of the Boyne, a decisive battle in the struggle for supremacy in Ireland in which William was victorious and secured Protestant domination in Ireland for over a subsequent two hundred years. Carrickfergus remains even to this day a staunch Unionist/Protestant town.
There is a statue of King Billy with his massive hat close to the harbour.
We were looking forward to visiting the castle but the door was firmly closed. I told William to go and knock and he pounded so hard that anyone inside might have imagined it was under siege. A young man emerged and told us that the castle was closed today on account of this being Halloween weekend and an unofficial public holiday. This seemed odd to me, why would you close a tourist attraction on a bank holiday when you might expect higher than normal visitor numbers.
The man said ‘come back on Monday’, I said ‘We are going home tomorrow (Sunday)’ and he helpfully suggested ‘Come back next time you are in Northern Ireland’.
I was intrigued by this but it seems that Halloween is rather important in Ireland and people here tell you that Halloween traditions were begun and influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain, the beginning of Winter, the dark months, which are believed to have pagan roots. Some go further and suggest that Samhain may have been Christianized as All Hallow’s Day, along with its eve, by the early Christian Church.
Anyway, whatever, The Irish claim ownership of the Halloween tradition. Apparently they used to carve turnips and light a candle inside to represent the souls of the recently and dearly departed. Carving a woody turnip I can only imagine to be extremely hard work so the Irish must have been glad to find that when the emigrated to America that there were no turnips and pumpkins were abundant and much easier to work with.
We all know what happened next, over the years the USA hijacked the Halloween tradition and turned it into a commercial bonanza which has spread across the World. In the process the historical and cultural significance has sadly been swept away in a tsunami of tacky consumerism, much like Christmas and Easter.
We all do it…
In the UK I personally lament the fact that Halloween has completely eclipsed Bonfire Night and the ‘Penny for the Guy’ tradition but I suppose the environmentalists will applaud the fact that we no longer light thousands of polluting bonfires on November 5th.
With the castle closed and nothing to detain us longer in Carrickfergus we took the train directly back to Belfast.
Where we did some more sightseeing…