The name Larne derives from Latharna which was a small feudal territory that stretched from Larne to Glenarm, it was ruled by Lathar who was granted the land by his father, the high king of Ireland. From when the area was first settled after the last ice age it has been well known as a landing place with a natural harbour and sheltered water. Evidence of early settlement in the landscape around Larne and Islandmagee led ancient mariners to name it Port Saxa (port of the Standing Stones). More recent archaeology at the Curran which is a raised beach revealed thousands of flint artefacts from the mesolithic period. The area was so well known in the ancient world that it is marked on a map by the Greek astrologer and geographer Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD. The Vikings who raided and settled many parts of Ireland around 900 AD also knew Larne and used it on many occasions, they named the lough 'Wulsrichefiord’ which after their departure from Ireland changed to Olderfleet.
The ruins of Olderfleet Castle also known as Curran Castle stands at Curran Point overlooking the short stretch of water to Islandmagee, the tower you see today dates to the 1500s. This site probably developed from a fortification built by the Vikings, we know the first stone castle was built here by the Bissett family who were granted rights by Henry III in the mid 1200s. The Bissetts held the lease of Islandmagee, later the lands came into the ownership of the MacDonnells through marriage.
Edward the Bruce landed here in 1315 with 6,000 troops having been invited by the Irish Earls to become King of Ireland, he was welcomed by the Bissets at Curran Castle (Olderfleet). In 1621 the castle and lands were granted to Arthur Chichester, the Lord Deputy of Ireland who was an instrumental player in the expansion and development of Belfast during the Plantation of Ulster. Chichester is interred with his wife and child in St Nicholas Church, Carrickfergus. His brother, the governor of Carrickfergus was killed by the MacDonnells and is also interred in St Nicholas Church.
The port of Larne developed commercially from the mid 1800s when it was bought by James Chaine who invested significantly into its modernization. By 1875 he had established a regular ferry service to the mainland and a trans Atlantic service between Glasgow, Larne and New York, this ran until 1889. James Chaine died at the age of 44 years from pneumonia, to remember him the people of Larne raised funds through public subscription and built the wonderful Chaine Memorial Tower which stands at the entrance to the harbour.
Nearby another memorial marks one of the worst shipping tragedies of recent times in the United Kingdom. This occurred on 31st January 1953 when the Princess Victoria, a car ferry built in 1947 sank during horrendous seas with the loss of 133 people. The ship had put to sea during a gale warning, though none could have predicted the conditions it would encounter, the winds in parts of Ireland, Scotland and England reached 100 mph. After clearing the relative shelter of Loch Ryan the rear doors were damaged by heavy seas and the ship started taking on water which developed into a list, after losing power she drifted and eventually sank. Fifty three people survived but none of the officers. The radio operator was awarded the George Cross and the Captain the George Medal, both posthumously for staying at their posts.
The link with emigration to America is commemorated by a sculpture in Curran Park created by Ed Barton. This depicts a family going to board an emigrant ship. The first emigrant ship to sail from Larne was the 'Friends Goodwill' which left in May of 1717 bound for Boston. This was part of an early and significant migration of mainly Ulster Presbyterians to the new world. Emigration continued during the 1700s to New York, Philadelphia and Charlestown. These men and women settled the frontiers of America, fought in the Indian wars and led the revolution for American freedom. In 1878, one of the last emigrant ships operating the Glasgow - Larne - New York route, the State of Louisiana ran aground while coming into Larne to pick up emigrants. She hit Hunter's Rock and despite efforts to pull her off became a total loss. She was an iron screw 1,869 ton, barquentine rigged steamship which was built in Glasgow in 1872 and operated by the State Line Steam-ship Company.
Larne harbour was also where the Ulster Unionists smuggled a cache of weapons from Germany to equip an army in opposition to the home rule bill. The ‘Clyde Valley’ which was disguised and renamed ‘Mountjoy II’ (after the Mountjoy which took part in the relief of Londonderry in 1689) brought her cargo into Larne on 25th April 1914. In total 25,000 rifles and 3 million rounds of ammunition were smuggled into the country, these were dispatched by smaller vessels and also by road. A plaque and commemorative stone to the 'Clyde Valley' can be found near the Chaine Tower and Victoria Memorial. The outbreak of the First World War saw the issue of home rule put aside as both Nationalist and Unionist fought against fascism in Europe. Larne became a naval base operating anti submarine patrols and convoy support far out into the western approaches.
Submarine activity was high around the coast, during this time many ships were lost to torpedoes and mines, including the 14,348 ton Cunard liner ‘Tuscania’ which was torpedoed seven miles north of Rathin Island by UB-77. The 'Tuscania' was carrying 2,013 US troops and 384 crew. 230 people lost their lives and 600 of the survivors were brought to Larne. This was the first ship to be torpedoed during the First World War which was carrying US troops, the sinking caused an outrage in America. During the Second World War the port again returned to a naval base and reception centre for servicemen. When America entered the war the first troops to land in the European Theatre of War arrived on January 24th 1942 aboard convoy NA-1 from Halifax, Nova Scotia, they detached at Lough Foyle. The first American Army Air Force (USAAF) disembarked at Larne in July 1942. Thousand followed in their wake including those who would train and take part in the Normandy landings in 1944. There were many camps around Larne including Redhill at Ballycarry.
Larne is known for its roll on roll off car ferry services to Scotland and England. The first roll on, roll off service started in 1948 when three converted tank landing ships were leased by the Transport Ferry Service owned by Frank Bustard. He had served as a Colonel during the war and realised the possibilities for these ships in a civilian role. The service ran to Preston and operated until 1973, a year later a new route opened to Cairnryan which had been developed as an ammunitions naval base during the Second World War, the opening of this route created the shortest sea crossing between Scotland and Ireland. Today the port of Larne is a modern hub for freight and passengers to and from Scotland and England, between 14 and 20 sailings come and go each day. A passenger ferry service used to operate across the short stretch of water to Ballylumford which was used by workers and local people, a tradition which is documented in the grants to Chichester in 1610.