The familiar landmark of Belfast Castle, overlooks the city from a prominent site 400 feet above sea level on the slopes of Cave Hill. This magnificent sandstone building, recently restored by Belfast City Council’s Parks Department, has close associations with the city’s history.
The first ‘Belfast Castle’ was built by the Normans in the late 12th century. On the same site a stone and timber castle was erected in 1611. The home of Sir Arthur Chichester, barron of Belfast, was burned down in 1708, leaving only street names (eg Castle Place) to mark the site.
The Chichesters (later the Donegalls) lived in England as absentee landlords but came to live at Ormeau at the beginning of the nineteenth century. After re-marrying in 1862, the 3rd Marquis of Donegall, decided to build a new residence within the deer park on the slopes of Cave Hill. The architect firm Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon was engaged with the junior partner John Lanyon being responsible for the plans of the castle. He followed the Scottish Baronial style, popularised some years earlier by the reconstruction of Balmoral Castle in 1853.
The building was completed in 1870, having far exceeded the initial estimate cost of �11,000. The Donegall fortune had dwindled so drastically that the project was nearly left unfinished. The son-in-law of the Marquis, Lord Ashley, heir to the title, Earl of Shaftesbury, stepped in and paid for its completion.
The 3rd Marquis died in 1884 and the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury the following year. Lord Ashley, and his wife Harriet Augusta, thus inherited the Shaftesbury title and the Donegall home. The two families are remembered in many Belfast street names eg Donegall Place, Square and Road and Shaftesbury Square. The Donegall coat of arms appears over the front door and on the north wall of the castle, while a section of the Shaftesbury crest appears on the exterior staircase. This unusual feature was not on the orginial plans but was added in 1894 by the 9th Earl of Shaftesbury as a present for his mother. The Italian style serpentine staircase connects the main reception rooms to the garden terrace.
The Shaftesbury family were philanthropists, supporting various charities and hosting garden fetes within the castle ground. The 9th Earl became Lord Mayor in 1907 and Chancellor of Queen’s University the following year. The family presented the castle and estate to the City of Belfast in 1934.
From the end of the 2nd World War until the 1970’s the castle became a popular venue for wedding receptions, dances and afternoon teas. In 1978 Belfast City Council instituted a major refurbishment programme that was to continue over a period of ten years at a cost of over two million pounds. The architect this time was the Hewitt and Haslam Partnership. The building was officially re-opened to the public on 11 November 1988.