History & Built Heritage

The hamlet of Greencastle, nestling at the foot of the Mourne Mountains, lies along the northern shores of Carlingford Lough in a corner of County Down. It is a place of rare beauty and charm, lay claim to a rich and unique natural heritage as well as a vibrant history whose legacy can be witnessed in the ruins of its medieval fortifications, listed buildings and historical structures.

All ages are represented among the residents of Greencastle, including married couples with young children, single, middle-aged, retired, people with disabilities, and families from both the main traditions of Northern Ireland as well as further afield. Several families have lived in the hamlet for decades while others are more recent settlers in the area. Apart from the many historic buildings, development within Greencastle is entirely residential with the exception of the Carlingford Lough Commissioners building at the end of the Pier Road, farm outhouses and a until recently, a shop and post office located approximately two miles away and which serves a number of the local townlands.

Many of the homes in Greencastle are sited for the picturesque views of Carlingford Lough or the Mourne Mountains. It is this scenic beauty which makes the hamlet a popular destination for many day trippers and cyclists coming from nearby Cranfield as well as visitors from further afield. Its peaceful, sandy beach is an added attraction while many visitors also travel to view the impressive Norman castle.

A narrow hedge-lined road, the 1.7 miles long Pier Road, is the only access route leading to and from the hamlet, ending in a cul-de-sac beside Greencastle Point. Along its length are homes, farms and farmland.

And, typical for a rural area, dairy herds from the local farms can regularly be witnessed moving along the road to reach their grazing. Farming is the principal industry in Greencastle. Dairy farming is predominant, with some livestock farming also taking place. There are also local horse owners and breeders. Fishing is another important occupation for many of the local residents. This includes the commercial fishing of lobster and crab, oyster and mussels.

The hamlet’s Built Heritage includes most prominently the Green Castle itself, thought to have been built by Hugh de Lacy sometime in the 1230s, and which gives the surrounding townland its modem name. (The castle was known as Viride Castrum in early Latin documents, perhaps because of the appearance of the surrounding countryside). There is also an earlier Anglo-Norman Motte, the ruins of a noteworthy medieval church, the former Lighthouse Keepers’ dwellings built over 150 years ago and which are now listed, a boat-house and walls, dating to a similar period and which are also listed. The old wooden pier (dating c. 1880) is also listed.

Off shore is the famous 135 ft. Haulbowline Lighthouse erected in 1823 and the Block House island, where the ruins of an Elizabethan fort built in 1602 are still visible. Local legend has it that the island, a limestone outcrop, was linked to the castle by a tunnel running under the Lough. Not surprisingly, it has never been located!

According to an old tale of the Carlingford Lough area, Greencastle was once the capital of the Mourne kingdom, while its fairs were the most famous in Ulster. All that remains now of this ancient prominence are the historical ruins while the name of a narrow local road leading to the shore, the Fair Loanan, is the only physical reminder of Greencastle’s once thriving twice yearly fairs which ended before the last decade of the nineteenth century.

Greencastle had become important because of the area’s Norman links which they established here because of the strategic position occupied by Mill Bay on the shores of Carlingford Lough, effectively guarding the entrance by sea into Ulster.

Across the Lough, Carlingford town served a similar purpose. The Green Castle itself dates to the mid thirteenth century, slightly later than the presumed Anglo-Norman mote located nearby.
By Tudor times the castle had survived three centuries of attack and occupation, including briefly that of Edward Bruce. In 1552 it was granted to Sir Nicholas Bagnall, Knight Marshall of Ireland, as part of the lordships of Newry and Mourne, The Bagnalls were resident in the castle for at least three generations but by the time the Earls of Kilmorey became principal landowners in Mourne, the castle was uninhabitable and the townland itself had been outstripped as a place of importance by the steady growth of Kilkeel town nearby.

Despite some optimism that railway facilities would be extended to Greencastle in the 1880s, they were never constructed. This failure, alongside the demise of the Fair shortly afterwards and the inability to sustain the paddle steamer service to Greenore ensured that Greencastle retained an essentially rural, hamlet character into the twentieth century. And this is still the case to the present day.

But Greencastle’s history has many other fascinating chapters. The area’s location on Carlingford Lough meant it became a renowned haven for smugglers over the centuries, bringing spirits, tobacco and other goods into Ireland. Indeed in the mid-eighteenth century it was said that “one Hughes, the greatest smuggler in the Kingdom” was born in Greencastle and had all his relations and connections there. The authorities were forced to try to police the narrow creek with a row boat. Despite their efforts, smuggling into Greencastle was still apparent in the 20th century.

Carlingford Lough has also brought tragedy to Greencastle with the loss of many lives just beyond its shore. The worst shipping disaster in the area’s history was the collision between the passenger ferry, the ‘Connemara’ and the Newry steam collier, the `Retriever’, on November 4th 1916. Ninety-four people lost their lives and there was just one survivor. A farm shed in the area was used as a temporary mortuary as local people helped in the grim recovery of bodies.

An interesting footnote to the history of Greencastle is the honorary title connected to the area and which is still in existence.

The title of Baron of Greencastle was put up for sale at a London auction house in 1996 by the former NIO Minister Richard Needham who had inherited the honorific when he became the 6th Earl of Kilmorey. Even before bidding was opened a mystery buyer paid out over £20,000 for the title, which brings no land or possessions.

A legacy of the old landlord system which can still be found in modem day Greencastle is the right of local people to the ‘wrack harvest’.

“The high tidal range and stony beaches of Mourne favour an unusual wealth of inter¬¨tidal seaweeds, and their utilisation as fertilisers illustrates man’s exploitation of every available resource of land and sea. Together with weeds from greater depths which are cast up in storms they have been gathered and spread on the fields for as long as folk memory goes back. That they were of economic importance in the sixteenth century is shown by the inclusion of rights of seawrack in the grants of lands in County Down made to the ninth Earl of Kildare in 1515″
E. Estyn Evans, Mourne Country

The wrack rights along the Carlingford Lough shore were inherited and claimed by the Kilmorey Estate and, when that was broken up among different landowners and farmers in the last years of the nineteenth century, the rights were passed on in many instances. Some local people in Greencastle still exercise their wrack rights and can gather wrack from high to low water mark.

To the visitor Greencastle appears to have changed very little in the past century, and indeed with the exception of several new dwellings the townland has remained unspoilt.

The inhabitants of the hamlet have a diversity of occupations, from farming, inshore and deep-sea fishing, manufacturing, civil service, nursing, teaching, Carlingford Lough pilot, harbourmaster, clerical & consultant professionals.

It is encouraging to note that many of the younger generation choose to stay and make their home in Greencastle, even though this inevitably means travelling to work, and this in turn bodes well for future generations when Greencastle will continue to be a diverse and vibrant community.

  • Castle

    Leading Light