Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
Parke's Castle.
Parke's Castle, a fortified manor house built around 1630 using the site and stones of the earlier Newtown Castle which belonged to Sir Brian O'Rourke.

Newtown Castle | O'Rourke's Castle | Parke's Castle

Few castles in Ireland have a more beautiful setting or a more enigmatic history than Parke's Castle, County Leitrim. Overlooking the northern shores of Lough Gill, the castle has had several different phases of occupation. Leaving out the restoration work that has been carried out in more recent times, in order to make the site accessible to the public, the building as it now stands has remained largely unaltered since the end of the seventeenth century.

Parke’s Castle, Co. Leitrim:
archaeology, history and architecture, 2011.

I have chosen to refer to this site as Newtown Castle, which belonged to Sir Brian O'Rourke and was one of his chief residences, rather than by the later manor house built by and named after Robert Parke. A branch of the O'Rourke family established a village, Baile Nua or Newtown, in this location sometime after the Battle of Magh Slécht in 1256; about the same time, the Normans were beginning to arrive in force in Sligo, where they founded the Dominican abbey and built Sligo castle.

Parke's Castle viewed from the air.
Parke's Castle viewed from the air. The foundations of the original towerhouse, Newtown castle which was discovered in 1971, are visible in the courtyard.

The O'Rourke castle at Newtown was one of a pair of towerhouses, which flanked the mouth of the stream which flows out from the cleft called the Alt or Cartron Glen, close by. This mysterious glen is ultimately the key to understanding the location of Duroy and Newtown castles: they protect the entrance to the Alt, which would have served as a quarry for building materials, a refuge in times of danger, and a gigantic cattle pen.

The second towerhouse was constructed on a small promontory at Duroy, 500 meters east of Newtown castle. The remains of one corner belonging to the towerhouse, which was at least four stories tall, was still visible in 1930. However the remaining portion blew down in a storm, and the site is quite ruined with only the stump of a corner remaining today, located within a small area which was enclosed by a ditch. Castle Duroy is a site that would repay excavation.

Two images of the now destroyed Duroy castle.
Two images of the now destroyed Duroy castle; the photo on the left was published by Kilgannon in 1926, while the image on the right, which shows the complexity of the structure, is dated to 1930.

Newtown castle was built on a small rise on the north-east shore of Lough Gill, opposite the mouth of the River Bonnet. The Bonnet flows through Dromahair, the location of another famous O'Rourke stronghold and, a few miles upriver the town and castle at Manorhamilton which was founded by Sir Fredrick Hamilton in 1635. The earliest part of Newtown is the rock-cut ditch or moat which encircles the site. Within the ditch and possibly using the excavated stones, a substantial bawn wall was raised, with an entrance on the east side. Within this enclosure a towerhouse was raised; we don't have a date, but 1450 - 1500 would be a fair approximate time range.

The ruined O'Rourke towerhouse at Duroy close to Newtown castle.
The ruined O'Rourke towerhouse at Duroy close to Newtown castle.

Newtown Castle

The site at Newtown was one of the main residences of the Dromahaire branch of the O'Rourkes throughout their rule over this part of Breifne between 1256 and 1590 or so. It is highly likely that the two castles on the shore of Lough Gill were constructed for commercial purposes, which involved the sale and export of cattle. As mentioned, both castles flank the entrance to Cartron Glen, a winding canyon or ravine about one kilometer in length, which leads to the upland meadow now called Newtownmanor, which in O'Rourke's time, would have been a giant cattle pen. There are about twenty ringforts and cashels in the area, which are a sure indication of cattle rearing. The biggest item imported into Sligo in the fourteenth century was barrels of salt, which tells us that large quantities of meat, probably mutton and beef along with cow hides and salmon, were being exported from Sligo. Newtown castle, with its accessible lakeshore location, is an ideal site for such trade and export.

The site is mentioned in the Annals of Lough Cé in 1546 when 'great treachery was practiced by the sons of Alexander MacCabe against O'Ruairc in his own Town i.e. Baile Nua, his castle in the Barony of Drumahaire.' The castle is mentioned again in 1581 when Brian O'Rourke, chieftain from 1566 to his execution in 1591, had his castles at Newtown, Drumahaire and Leitrim 'broken down at the same time by O'Ruairc himself for fear the Saxon would occupy them'. The Annals of Lough Cé also state that Duroy, Dubhrath - meaning Black rath - was commenced by Brian O'Rourke in 1582, an date that seems highly unlikely considering he had just slighted his castle 500 meters away the previous year.

The King of the Fairies is a traditional Irish set dance, made popular in the 1970’s by the Irish folk rock group, Horslips. Ukulele played by Barry Mulligan, with banjo played by Martin Byrne, who both work as OPW guides at Parke’s Castle. The tune was recorded in the Banquet Hall at Parke’s Castle. Thanks to Alokeshwar Tiwary for the amazing drone footage.

Brian na Murtha O'Rourke

Brian O'Rourke, the last chieftain proper of Breifne, was a devout Roman catholic, whose grandparents Margaret and Owen O'Rourke had founded the Franciscan monastery at Carrick Patrick, now better known as Creevlea abbey, in 1508. This foundation on the banks of the river Bonnet, close the O'Rourke Hall in Dromahaire, was the last Irish abbey built before the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII between 1536 and 1540.

Carvings in the O'Rourke foundation at Creevlea near Dromahair.
Carvings in the O'Rourke foundation at Creevlea near Dromahair.

Brian became the ruler of West Breifne after two of his brothers were murdered is suspicious circumstances, which non-the-less brought to an end thirty years of clan warfare and murder among the three main branches of the O'Rourke family:

1564 - O'Rourke (Hugh Gallda, son of Brian Ballagh, son of Owen) was maliciously and malignantly slain by his own people, at Leitrim, in Muintir-Eolais; after which the whole country closed round Brian, the son of Brian O'Rourke; and it was rumoured that it was for him this treacherous misdeed was committed, though he had no personal share in perpetrating it. Hugh Boy, the son of Brian, son of Owen O'Rourke, another brother, who was younger than Hugh, but older than Brian, called himself O'Rourke by the influence of O'Neill.

1566.5 - O'Rourke (Hugh Boy, the son of Brian Ballagh) was slain by the Kinel-Connell, at Baile-an-tochair, in order that the son of the daughter of Manus O'Donnell, namely, Brian, the son of Brian, son of Owen (O'Rourke), might enjoy the lordship of Breifny.

Annals of the Four Masters

Brian was known for his proud bearing, and was violently resistant to any English incursions onto his lands or rights. He kept a force of 1,000 Scottish gallowglasses of the McCabe clan in his company. Brian's brother Conn, a Franciscian monk, had been hung by Crown forces in Kerry in 1579, when he returned from the continent. Shortly afterwards Brian O'Rourke had joined with the O'Donnell's of Tir Connell in rebellion against the Tudor incursions. It was during this time, while fighting with Sir Nicholas Malby, the Governor of Connaught, that O'Rourke demolished or at least damaged his castle at Leitrim. The site was seized and rebuilt by the English, only to be recaptured by O'Rourke, who then proceeded to demolish both it and his castles at Dromahair and Newtown. It is highly likely that O'Rourke retreated to his mountain fortress at the top of Cartron Glen, where the landscape was more secure than any of his castles.

Newtown castle illustrated by P. Manning.
A reconstruction of Newtown castle as it may have appeared in Sir Brian O'Rourke's time, illustrated by P. Manning.

When the O'Donnells made peace with the English, O'Rourke was unable to fight on alone and submitted to the colonizers. O'Rourke 'bent the knee' to the hated governor of Connaught, Richard Bingham at Dromaheir in 1583, surrendering his lands and Gaelic titles to be regranted his kingdom as a knight and tenant of Queen Elizabeth. The kingdom of west Breifne was shired, becoming the modern County of Leitrim, ruled over by Sir Brian O'Rourke, who was now a vassal of the English Crown. We do not know how badly he damaged his castle at Newtown in 1581, and he may well have been back in residence there after the events of 1583. However, he gave no sign of behaving as expected by his new masters; he refused to pay his rents and complained bitterly about his treatment at the hands of Bingham.

Brian O'Rourke was married three times and had a number of children. His first wife was Lady Mary Burke, with whom he had his son Teigue, who was his lawful heir under English law. His son with Annabel Crean, Brian Og O'Rourke, would become his heir under Gaelic law, and was the next chieftain of Breifne. This would cause problems later when the English supported Teigue to play him off against Brian Og, only to then declare Teigue's own sons illegitimate. Brian Og was taken as a hostage by Bingham in 1584, and sent to be educated in Oxford; this was to ensure the continued good behaviour of his father.

An ancient road in Cartron Glen beside Parke's Castle.
An ancient road running through Cartron Glen, part of a route between the Lough Gill castles and the high meadow now called Newtownmanor to the north. The Glen, known locally as the Alt and the Troll Wood, is located beside Parke's Castle.

The Spanish Armada

Sir Brian was outraged by the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587, and her death may have prompted a strange incident in Dromaheir. During Christmas in 1587 O'Rourke is alleged to have dragged a wooden effigy of a woman representing the Queen, 'the old cailleach across the water who would not spare a carpenter a drop of milk', with the word 'Elizabeth' inscribed on her breast, tied to the tail his horse. He proceeded to drag the figure through the streets of Dromaheir, mocking and reviling the effigy as he went. The bizarre pageant concluded when O'Rourke ordered his gallowglasses to chop the statue to pieces with their axes. Three slightly differing accounts of this event given as evidence subsequently at O'Rourke's trial for treason, and it is not known whether he defiled a statue taken from a church, a ship figure head, or a woodcut portrait of the Queen.

In 1588 Sir Brian married his third and last wife, Lady Eleanor Butler, a daughter of the Earl of Desmond. That summer he successfully arranged for this son and heir Brian Og to be smuggled out of captivity in Oxford and returned to Breifne. Young Brian celebrated his freedom by leading 400 of his father's gallowglasses on a raid to Ballymote where a large prey of cattle was seized and brought back to Breifne.

In the autumn of 1588 the King of Spain sent a massive fleet of ships laden with soldiers and cash to invade England and execute the heretic Queen Elizabeth. The Spanish Armada was routed in a great sea battle off the Cliffs of Dover, when the English sent fire ships among the fleet, causing great destruction. Many of the fleeing ships were to be wrecked as they were caught in violent storms off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Thirteen-hundred sailors are said to have been cast into the ocean at Streedagh, with many of the survivors being killed either by the native Irish or the English, who hung fourteen Spaniards from the rafters of Staid abbey, close to the shore. Brian O'Rourke gave refuge to at least eighty of the Spanish sailors and soldiers who were shipwrecked at Streedagh.

MacClancy's castle at Rosclogher on Lough Melvin close to Kinlough.
MacClancy's castle at Rossclogher on Lough Melvin close to Kinlough, photographed by William A. Green, colour added. This is the castle where de Cuéller and his nine comrades stayed in 1588.

The more rebellious of the Irish chieftains were keen to acquire Spanish troops, trained in the latest modern military techniques, to drill and train their own soldiers. The most famous of the refugees given shelter by O'Rourke was Captain Francisco de Cuéllar, who described his adventures in a letter after his escape from Ireland. De Cuéllar, having just survived the naval battle on the San Pedro, was court-marshalled and almost hung prior to being shipwrecked. He was beaten and robbed, and stripped naked several times by natives as he searched for refuge.

One of them, seeing that I came so badly treated and wounded, took me to his hut and dressed my wounds, he and his wife and sons, and he did not permit me to depart till it appeared I should be well able to reach the village I was bound for. In it I met with more than seventy Spaniards, who all went about naked and severely maltreated, because the chief was not there. He had gone to defend a territory which the English were coming to take; and although this man is a savage, he is a very good Christian and an enemy of heretics, always carrying on war with them. He is called Senor de Ruerque O'Rourke.

I arrived at his house with great exertion, enveloped in straw and swathed around the body with a piece of matting, in such a plight that no one could see me without being moved to great compassion. Some of the savages gave me a bad old blanket, full of vermin, with which I covered myself, and somewhat improved matters. Early next day, about twenty of us Spaniards collected together at the house of this Senor de Ruurque O'Rourke, in order that they might give us something to eat, for the love of God; and while we were there begging, news was told us that a Spanish ship was at the coast, that she was very large, and came for those Spaniards who had escaped.

Captain Cuellar's Adventures in Connacht and Ulster, 1589. Source.

De Cuéllar took almost a month to reach the village of O'Rourke, where he met some seventy of his fellow shipwrecked countrymen. We can't say for sure if De Cuéllar visited Newtown, which, located on the shore of Lough Gill, was far too accessible to the garrison in Sligo. Francis Kelly, author of a recent study on De Cuéllar believes he visited the village of Dromahair, but again this would not seem to be the safest place, with the English soldiers eager to capture and kill them. De Cuéllar did not get to meet O'Rourke in person, and left the village after a few days, determined to get to Killybegs, where a ship had arrived to collect Spanish sailors. He is believed to have visited Carha castle, now called Castletown close to Lurganboy on his way north. From there he was moved to MacClancy's island fortress on Lough Melvin, close to the village of Kinlough.

The view north to Inishmurray, the Holy Island of County Sligo, from the ruined Abbey at Staid close to Streedagh.
The view north to Inishmurray, the Holy Island of County Sligo, from the ruined Abbey at Staid, where De Cuéllar found the bodies of twelve Spanish sailors hanging from the rafters. The small church is on the shore close to Streedagh beach where more than 1000 sailors drowned. A further 200 were beheaded by Bingham in the nearby village of Grange.

The Death of Sir Brian O'Rourke

The Lord Deputy William Fitzwilliam toured the west coast of Ireland and viewed the carnage of wrecked ships at Streedagh. He knew Sir Brian was harbouring fugitive Spanish sailors and demanded that O'Rourke give them up, to which O'Rourke proudly refused. Crown forces were given permission to attack his residences, and Lady Eleanor was to die in childbirth in 1590, after a pair of violent raids on Dromahair, the first led by Richard Bingham the second a savage attack by Ulick Burke.

O'Rourke was declared a traitor and a bounty was placed upon his head, much to the delight of the Bingham brothers. He fled north from his kingdom of Breifne and took refuge with MacSweeney at Doe castle in the far north of Donegal. After staying for a year at Doe castle O'Rourke decided to visit Scotland and seek help from King James VI, the son of Mary Queen of Scots and a cousin of Queen Elizabeth. O'Rourke arrived in Scotland, where there was a large Irish community, and he also had many connections among his gallowglasses. He looked for an audience with the king, bringing with him six fine Irish ponies and four wolfhounds as a gift.

This ancient tune is an old Irish clan march associated with the O’Donovan family, sometimes called O’Donovan's March, but commonly known as the Eagle’s Whistle. The piece was recorded in the Model room in the Gatehouse at Parke’s Castle. Bodhran by Barry Mulligan and Uilleann pipes by Martin Byrne, both OPW guides working at the castle. The video features the beautiful Creevlea Abbey outside the village of Dromahair, which has strong associations with the O’Rourke family and Parke’s Castle. Thanks to Alokeshwar Tiwary for drone footage.

James, who was the only close heir to Elizabeth, refused to meet with O'Rourke, who was seeking help to raise a gallowgalss army. James, who had been warned by the English ambassador not to assist the Irish rebel, handed Sir Brian over to the Crown authorities. He was arrested in Glasgow on April 3rd, 1590 and imprisoned while the Scottish council debated his case. James however had O'Rourke 'sent down' to London, in what may be the first known case of extradition for crimes comitted in another country. There were riots in Glasgow on the day O'Rourke was shipped south. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London for a number of months before being sent to his execution at Tyburn on November 3rd, 1591.

in 1571 a permanent triangular frame was erected – a mammoth structure that could, and sometimes did, hang up to 24 people at a time. The Tyburn Tree was of such renown it is even mentioned in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost: “Thou mak’st the triumviry, the corner-cap of society, The shape of Love’s Tyburn, that hangs up simplicity.” Many met their end here. Records from the 1570s alone report that 704 felons were sentenced to be hanged there throughout the decade, for crimes ranging from murder to stealing cattle.

The Gruesome History of Tyburn Tree. Source.

The British penal code, which seems to have arrived with the Normans, was extremely severe, with a psychopathic determination to punish and make examples of any person who defied the authorities. An astonishing number of people met their end at the hands of the British Crown, usually by methods so cruel and barbaric, that they presumably taught a harsh deterrent against any form of lawbreaking or defience to the huge crowds who were encouraged to attend public executions.

Upon Wednesdaie the 3 of November, Bren O’Royrke was drawne to Tyborne, and there hanged, his members and bowels burned in the fire, his heart taken out, and holden up by the hangman, naming it to be the archtraytors heart, and then did he cast the same into the fire, then was the head stricken off, and his bodie quartered.

John Stowe, The Annales of England, 1605.

Sir Brian's death was particularly cruel; he was drawn from the Tower of London to his place of execution at Tyburn, his hands tied, behind a horse in a surreal parody of himself pulling the wooden statue through Dromaheir four years earlier. He was hung by the neck for a time, until he was half dead but still conscious. Then, his executioner would have castrated him before slitting his belly, pulling out his intestines and viscera with a pronged hook. These would have been burned on a brazier before his eyes as he expired. He was then beheaded and his body quartered, and sent to the four corners of the kingdom. His head was gibbeted and placed on old London Bridge as an example to all of what happened to traitors and enemies of the Queen.

The Gaelic Chieftain, a sculpture representing Red Hugh O'Donnell and the Battle of the Curlews in 1599.
The Gaelic Chieftain, a sculpture representing Red Hugh O'Donnell and the Battle of the Curlews in 1599.

The Nine Years War

The next chieftain of west Breifne was Sir Brian's son, Brian Og O'Rourke, who had escaped from his captivity as a hostage in Oxford in the summer of 1588. Brian Og, keen to avenge his father's death and assert his rights as a Gaelic ruler, joined with Red Hugh O'Donnell, recently free after years of imprisonment in Dublin Castle, and the Earl of Tyrone, Hugh O'Neill, when the Nine Years War began in 1593. That war lasted for a decade, and the Gaelic chieftains at first came close to defeating the Tudor soldiers, with many notable victories in the early years of the campaign.

Brian Og was central to the decisive victory at the Battle of the Curlews in August 1599, when his troops ambushed an English column led by Sir Conyers Clifford. Clifford had marched from Athlone to relieve the siege of Collooney castle where O'Conor Sligo, loyal to the Crown, was besieged by the forces of Red Hugh O'Donnell. Clifford's head was sent up to Collooney and delivered to the castle in a basket, causing O'Connor Sligo to promptly hand over his castle. Brian Og was the last of the Gaelic chieftains to surrender at the end of the war, and it was to his castle in Leitrim village that the remnants of O'Sullivan clan came seeking refuge after the Battle of Kinsale. Of the thousand people who set off on the march from the Beara peninsula in Kerry, only thirty arrived in Leitrim.

A view of the ruined manor house drawn by Thomas Cocking in 1791.
A view of the ruined manor house drawn by Thomas Cocking in 1791.

Brian Og O'Rourke died in County Galway in 1604 and is buried in the old abbey of Ross Erily near Headford. His half-brother Teigue, married to a sister of Red Hugh O'Donnell, became the next chieftain of Breifne. Teigue had thrown his lot in with the colonists and been promised the title, but he died barely a year later. Both are suspected to have been poisoned by British agents. Though Teigue had been promised the title to the territory of Breifne, the British declared his sons and heirs illegimate, and claimed the title to their lands. The older son, Brian the Pretender, was a hostage of the Crown living in England. He was arrested after a drunken brawl on Saint Patrick's eve in 1619, and he was imprisoned in prison in the Tower of London, where his grandfather had also spent a brief spell before his execution in 1591. His grandson Brian remained imprisoned in the Tower until his death 22 years later in 1641.

Parke's Castle.
Parke's Castle photographed from the pier on Lough Gill, June 2021.

Robert Parke's Castle

When King James VI of Scotland succeeded Queen Elizabeth upon her death in 1603, he become James I of England. James ruled until 1625, and was notable for his extragavent court and his fervent belief that kings were divinely ordained to rule mankind, 'little gods upon the earth' and subject to special rules and treatment.

Besotted by his lover, the scheming George Villers, the Duke of Buckingham, James was persuaded to keep Brian the Pretender, grandson of Sir Brian and legitimate heir to the kingdom of Breifne, locked up in the Tower of London James sanctioned the confiscation of Brian's lands for the purpose of the Plantation of Leitrim. The Duke of Buckingham and his cronies acquired huge tracts of the O'Rourke lands in County Leitrim, half of which were used to pay soldiers for their services to the Crown. The other portion of the county was granted to the 'first class natives', members of the leading families among the native Irish who had not participated in rebellion against the Crown, and the widows of some of the chieftains who had. As part of the programmes of plantation it was expected that the landless 'second class natives', people who had lost everything in the colonial conflicts, drovers, and other landless people would settle down and become rent paying tenants.

A view of the ruined manor house drawn by William Wakeman in 1880.
A view of the ruined manor house called Parke's Castle at Newtown drawn by William Wakeman around 1880.

The lands at Newtown were leased to Sir William Irving, a Scottish politician around 1620, through the agency of Con O'Rourke who was resident in Carha castle, but we know little of these events. Irving's grant of 1,500 acres at Newtown and the site of O'Rourke's castle were then passed to Sir John Spottiswood Robert Parke, a native of Malmaie in Kent, who along with his younger brother William came to Ireland around 1609 to work for their uncle, Roger Jones, a prominent Sligo landowner and businessman. Jones, a retired soldier was the constable of Sligo castle in 1612, when he also became provost of the borough of Sligo. Jones was also sherrif of Sligo on four occasions, and would have been a wealthy and influential connection for his nephews until his death in 1635.

Robert Parke arrived at his new estate at Newtown around 1630 and set about consolidating and fortifying his residence. He began by filling in the moat of the earlier O'Rourke residence which surrounded the bawn wall. He demolished what was remaining of the towerhouse and used the stones to build first a tall four-story gate tower followed, possibly with a timber house attached, followed a few years later by the fortified manor house now known as Parke's Castle. The courtyard was covered by a layer of rough limestone cobbles, obliterating any trace of the towerhouse.

An undated plan of Newtown castle from the OPW archives.
An undated plan of Newtown castle from the OPW archives, probably from around 1950, illustrates two carved stones found loose on the site, which would have come from the O'Rourke towerhouse.

Parke repaired and raised the height of the existing bawn walls and added the series of musket loops around the perimeter. He added two circular towers, the larger north-east structure was used to house soldiers, the smaller for housing pigeons on the north-western corner of the bawn, and a pair of smaller turrets for lookouts facing out across the lake. In the south-east corner of the bawn a sally port or water gate was added, which allowed entry and exit by water during times of emergency. The castle well may have been sunk within the courtyard at this time.

Within the bawn at Parke's castle in 1950. When the site came into state ownership in 1935, the manor house had not been lived in for three hundred years, while the bawn was used as a farmyard. There was no indication of the foundations of the earlier O'Rourke towerhouse.
Within the bawn at Parke's castle in 1950. When the site came into state ownership in 1935, the manor house had not been lived in for three hundred years, while the bawn was used as a farmyard. There was no indication of the foundations of the earlier O'Rourke towerhouse.

The Plantation of Leitrim

The 1630's were a time of comparative peace and consolidation for the new settlers in north Leitrim. Sir Fredrick Hamilton, the Scottish soldier and intimate of both King James and his son Charles, acquired large tracts of land in Leitrim in 1621. Hamilton spent the year of 1632 away in Germany, fighting for the Swedish King against the Holy Roman Empire, returning to his Leitrim estates as an accomplished and experienced soldier to build his castle at Cluninin O'Rourke, now called Manorhamilton, in 1635. Hamilton's castle, three times the size required by his grant terms, was constructed at the strategic point where four valleys meet in the Dartry Mountains, halfway between Sligo and Enniskillen.

The ruined Manorhamilton castle.
The ruins of Manorhamilton castle, built by Sir Fredrick Hamilton in 1635. Robert Parke spent twenty-one months here as a prisoner during 1641 and 1642 during which time Hamilton hung at least fifty-eight of the Irish rebels on a gallows he erected outside his castle.

While we don't have exact dates for Parke's renovation works at Newtown, we can imagine he was living in the gatetower on the east side of the structure, probably the earliest part of his renovations. He may have built a timber version of his manor house which was replaced with the stone building we see today. The gate tower and manor house are built using material from the demolished towerhouse. Considering that Hamilton's much larger structure took eighteen months to build from scratch, we can assume Robert Parke was in residence from 1631 or so. A stone, now missing, was set into the gatetower above the entrance, which is said to have had the date 1629 engraved upon it.

Robert Parke seems to have prospered throughout the 1630's, and he employed many Irish among his staff and kept a native harper, Dermond O'Farry in his castle. He was elected MP for Roscommon in 1641, probably under the influence of his father-in-law, Edward Povey. Parke seems to have been a prosperous and well-liked business man and landlord. He may have been working for his uncle in Sligo during the earlier part of his career, but now he was trading from his own castle and estate, and was a man of some substance. Throughout the 1630's Parke seems to have carried on with his business interests, making about £1,000 per year from his holdings at Newtown, and acquiring another 400 acres of property around Lough Garadice in south Leitrim.

The model of Captain Robert Parke in the Family Room in Parke's Castle.
The model of Captain Robert Parke, planter, landlord and businessman, in the Family Room in Parke's Castle.

Irish Rebellion and Civil War in England

The origins of the English civil war, which lasted from 1642 to 1652, are complex, and they are closely connected to events in Scotland and Ireland in 1641. The rebellion in Ireland broke out in October of 1641, saw the religious and colonial tensions break out in a spasm of violence as the old Irish gentry in Ulster led a revolt against the settlers. The revolt quickly spread to north Leitrim and Sligo, with Sligo town being seized shortly before Christmas by prominent members of the old Irish landowning class.

The Protestant settlers and planters were ejected from the town and given safe passage to Boyle thirty miles to the south. On about January 13th of 1642, most of the English settlers remaining in Sligo were moved to lodgings in Sligo Gaol, for their own protection as they were told. That night, followers of Tadgh O'Connor Sligo, including two of his brothers, entered the jail and murdered the forty or so English settlers.

These events led to an outbreak of terror and violence in the region. At least 150 refugees, mainly English planters and tradesmen from around North Leitrim were crammed within the walls of Newtown castle in the spring of 1642, as the O'Rourkes and other natives attempted to take back their lands. Robert Parke attempted to remain neutral, and refused to take any action that might draw the wrath of the native population on him. Instead he drew the wrath of Sir Fredrick Hamilton.

Though he was referred to as a Captain, Robert Parke seems to have been more suited to trading than to soldiering, and was viewed with great suspicion by his neighbouring planter, the hawkish Sir Fredrick Hamilton. Hamilton sent a contingent of soldiers from Manorhamilton to Newtown castle, which he had heard was under siege by the O'Rourkes. However, when his soldiers arrived there was no siege, and Robert Parke informed them that they had been lured into a trap and would be attacked on their way home. Surely enough, Hamiltons soldiers were ambushed shortly afterwards, though the well-trained English troops had no trouble fighting off their assailants.

A reconstruction of Manorhamilton castle by Marie McDonald.
A reconstruction of Manorhamilton castle by Marie McDonald.

Parke Arrested by Hamilton

Hamilton was outraged by this news, and marched to Newtown castle, arriving around midnight on July 1st 1642. Parke kept Hamilton at his gate for several hours before reluctantly admitting him and his troop into the castle. Hamilton ordered Parke to assemble his garrison, and when he did Parke was arrested by Hamilton in front of his men. Hamilton left twenty of his own men in charge, then, taking Parke with him as a prisoner, he proceeded on into Sligo with about 140 troops. Hamilton's forces to attacked and burnt the town at dawn, allegedly killing some 300 people in the raid. Then, hearing his own castle was under threat, he returned to Newtown with Parke, still under arrest.

Hamilton removed Parke's small garrison and replaced them with his own highly trained soldiers, looted and pillaged the castle, then returned to his own castle in Manorhamilton, where Parke was placed under arrest and kept prisoner. During the rebellion Sir Francis Hamilton claimed to have hung almost sixty of his prisoners on a gallows outside his castle, and boasted that he had killed 1,200 native rebels.

An illustration of Duroy castle by Thomas Cockring dated to 1791.
An illustration of the ruins of Duroy castle, looking west to the site of Newtown castle and village by Thomas Cockring dated to 1791.

Parke was held prisoner at Manorhamilton castle for eighteen months. We don't know what happened to his family at this time. They may have gone to Roscommon. His father-in-law, Edward Povey interceded for him, but Hamilton refused to release his neighbour whom he regarded as a traitor. A second order from the Council in Dublin demanding that Parke be taken to Ballyshannon was also disregarded by Hamilton, who exaggerated claimed the distance was too great through hostile country.

After twenty-one months of violence the rebellion concluded with an uneasy cessation of fighting. A peace was declared for one year while King Charles I attempted to gather forces to fight for him in his war with his mostly Puritan Long Parliament. Eventually Parke was released from his incarceration in Manorhamilton, much to the fury of Sir Fredrick, who was away working for the Scottish Covenanters in Derry.

Parke is next mentioned, ironically enough, as accompanying Hamilton on a raid in Dromahair in 1644. We don't know how he passed the rest of the war. His castle is listed as one of the strongholds of County Leitrim in 1646. Parke's old neighbour and nemesis, Sir Fredrick Hamilton died in poverty in Scotland in the autumn of 1647, having lost his foothold in Leitrim through both bad luck and bad manners. Parke's castle was held by Parliamentarian forces, who surrendered the building to Lord Clanrickard on July 10th, 1649. It is not clear if Robert Parke was resident in Newtown at this time. In May of 1652 Irish Royalist forces attacked, looted and burned the castle in Manorhamilton, effectively destroying its use as a fortification. Parke's castle, occupied by Irish Royalists led by Donough O'Hart, was surrendered to Confederate forces led by Charles Coote on June 3rd, 1652; it seems certain that from this time on Parke was back resident in his castle at Newtown.

Robert Parke's Family

Robert Parke continued to be one of the more distinguished landholders in the area. He was high sherrif of County Leitrim, a position of some standing, in 1656 and again in 1668. He was elected MP for the united counties of Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon in the Parliament of 1659, and he was regarded as one of the key figures in the English administration of north Connaught. Parke was seems to have been married twice; we no nothing about his first wife, but he appears to have had a son, William with her. His second wife was Anne Povey, daughter of a distinguished soldier, politician and landowner in Roscommon, Sir Edmund Povey. Ann and Robert had three children, Robert, Maggie and Ann, who were all born at Newtown castle. The small village at Newtown continued to exist, with 59 residents listed in a survey from 1659, and twenty houses mentioned in 1714.

Robert Parke died in the autumn of 1671; his young children Robert, then aged 16 and Maggie, aged 14, were to die tragically in a boating accident on Lough Gill in 1677, and his wife Ann died shortly afterwards. Their last remaining daughter and heir, Ann married Sir Francis Gore and moved west to take up residence at Ardtarmon castle. Thus Robert Parke was an ancestor of the famous Irish rebel, Constance Gore Booth, better known as Countess Markievcz of Lissadell. The last known resident of Parke's Castle was Ann's son Robert Gore, grandson of Robert Parke, who lived here in 1691.

The Last Night, a play in Parke's Castle.
The Last Night, a play by The Rabbit's Riot Theatre Company, based on the story of Maggie, Anne and Robert Parke, took place in Parke's Castle in September 2021. Photo by Catriona Bonner Photography.

The house may never have been lived in again after 1691 and became a ruin and object of antiquarian interest fairly quickly, judging by the illustrations reproduced here from Cockering, 1791, and Wakeman, 1890. The small village at Newtown continued to exist, the occupants still paying rent to the Gores who continued as landlords for the next century. Their cottages, which are probably built from stones robbed from the building, appear in the many illustrations of the castle. The residents of the village used the space within the bawn walls as a farmyard. The land passed from the Gore family to Burton Phibbs. In 1858 the property is listed to the Cunningham family, first Francis and then John Cunningham, who lived in the large cottage outside the entrance and kept horses in the castle courtyard. The land was sold Major Robert Parke of Dunally, a descendent of the original owner's brother William, in 1871.

The foundations of Newtown Castle within the bawn of Parke's Castle.
The foundations of Newtown Castle, discovered by accident in 1971 within the bawn of Parke's Castle.

A Visit and Description from 1914

The travel writer and photographer Burton Egbert Stevenson and his wife toured Ireland in the summer of 1914, and he wrote a book describing their travels and some of the people they encountered. After booking into a guest house in Sligo town, they engaged a man with a jarvey to take them on around the 25 mile circuit of Lough Gill. After an eventful episode looking for the Irish Stonehenge at Deerpark, they were taken to see Newtwon Castle:

We tore ourselves away, at last, and went silently down through the heather, which was fairly swarming with rabbits; and we mounted our car and headed back toward the lake. We came out presently close beside the shore, and followed it around its upper end. Just there, out at the end of a point of land, stands the fragment of a tower, and our jarvey told us it was all that was left of the castle from which Dervorgilla eloped with Dermot MacMurrough a tale already told by the little tailor of Limerick.

Of course I wanted a picture of it, and after much manoeuvring, I managed to get the one opposite this page, which I include only because of the beautiful Japanesy branch across one corner; for this wasn't Breffni's castle at all, as we were presently to find. A little farther on, and quite near the road, was another ruin, and a most imposing one, with drum towers at the four corners, and a dilapidated cottage hugging its wall; and I took a peep within the square enclosure, used now as a kind of barnyard.

The milestone beside Parke's Castle.
The milestone beside Parke's Castle.

There were little turrets looking out over the lake, and a spiral stair in one corner, and mullioned windows and tall chimneys and yawning fireplaces; and it looked a most important place, but I have not been able to discover anything of its history. Then we went on again, with beautiful views of the lake at our right, and high on our left the flat-topped mountain called O'Rourke's Table, where, once upon a time, as told by the old ballad, "O'Rourke's Noble Feast" was spread:

O'Rourke's noble fare will ne'er be forgot
By those who were there, or those who were not.
His revels to keep, we sup and we dine
On seven score sheep, fat bullocks and swine,

and so on. It is, indeed, a table fit for such a celebration a rock plateau with sheer escarpments of grey granite dropping away from it, and a close cover of purple heather for a cloth. The road curved on along the lake; then turned away from it through a beautiful ravine; and then a sparkling river was dashing along at our right, and beyond it loomed the grey walls of a most extensive ruin; and then we dropped steeply down into the town of Dromahair, and stopped at a pretty inn to bait the horse.

The charm of Ireland, Burton Egbert Stevenson, 1914.

The ruins of Duroy Castle in 1914.
The ruins of Duroy Castle photographed by Burton Egbert Stevenson in 1914.

Music at the Castle

Among the items found during the excavations were three metal tuning pins which belonged to a medieval wire-strung Irish harp or clairseach. It is known from records that Robert Parke had adopted the habit of the native Irish gentry and kept a harper, Dermond O'Farry, resident in his household.

The Irish are much addicted to music generally, and you shall find but few of their gentry, either man or woman, but can play the harp; also you shall not find a house of any account without one or two of these instruments, and they always keep a harper to play for them at their meals, and all other times, as often as they have a desire to recreate themselves, or others which come to their houses, therewith.

Thomas Croften Croker, 1636.

Two wire-strung harps in Parke's Castle.
Two wire-strung harps on a windowsill, in preparation for a musical recital for Heritage Week 2019 in Parke's Castle.

It is not known whether the tuning pins came from the O'Rourke or the Parke's occupation of the site, but it is likely that both castles would have had resident harpers.

The Franciscian friary at Creevlea by William Wakeman.
The Franciscian friary at Creevlea by William Wakeman.

Excavations: 1971 - 1975

The location of Newtown castle was quickly forgotten. It was believed that Duroy castle was the only Gaelic towerhouse on the lakeshore, and that references to O'Rourkes castle at Newtown referred to Duroy. Indeed in the Victorian tourist circuit, Duroy castle became romanticised as the home of Dervogilla, the princess from Meath who was married to Tighernan O'Rourke, the one-eyed king of Breifne. By 1915 John Cunningham's cottage, which appears in so many photographs and illustrations was a ruin, and it was demolished in 1916. The ruined castle came into the possession of the Healy family who lived close by. The Healy's sold the building to the Irish Government in 1935, becoming the caretakers in the process. The castle was used as a storage depot by the Board of Works, while still retaining some use to the locals.

Parke's Castle and Francis Cunningham's cottage.
Parke's Castle and Francis Cunningham's cottage probably from around 1900. Photograph NMI, colour added.

In 1971, a toilet was being installed in the gate tower, and while workers were digging a trench in the courtyard, they discovered the foundations of the destroyed O'Rourke castle. Once it became apparent that this was the base of a lost Gaelic medieval site, it was decided that the courtyard should be excavated in its entirety. The excavations lasted from 1971 to 1975 and revealed the foundations of four more buildings, the castle well, and the encircling moat outside the bawn walls. The moat had been filled in by Parke as part of his renovation programme, and test digs on the east, north and west sides showed that the rock-cut ditch was part of the O'Rourke phase, as it passed under the two towers on the north side of the bawn.

Parke's Castle excavated.
Parke's Castle during the excavations in the courtyard revealing the foundations of Newtown castle and other buildings from the 1640's.

The excavations revealed the foundations of four buildings in the courtyard. A building attached to the gatehouse may have been a kitchen before the manor house was completed. A blacksmith's forge was found on the south side of the bawn, with another possible building attached. These three buildings dated to Robert Parke's occupation of the site. A stables with a cobbled floor was constructed much later, but was still old enough to be the only building within the bawn on the 1937 Ordnance survey maps.

Restoration: 1980 - 1988

Beacuse the site is such an interesting example of a plantation castle, built with the stones from a Gaelic towerhouse, the Board of Works decided to restore the site for use as a visitor centre. The restoration works began in 1980 and lasted untill 1988. The buildings within the bawn were reconstructed on their original footprints. The forge has been thatched in the traditional manner, and refitted with tools and equiptment. The main items found here during excavations was horseshoes and horseshoe nails.

Master carpenter Dinny Harran building the oak spiral staircase in Parke's Castle.
Master carpenter Dinny Harran building the oak spiral staircase in Parke's Castle.

The castle itself was repaired, the missing stones were replaced with Glenfarne sandstone in order to distinguish the original limestone building from the repair work. Sections of the east wall, which seemed to have suffered the most damage, were also repaired. Master carpenter Dinny Harran from Grange was in charge of the restroration carpentry work, and the interior of the building was fitted out with native Irish oak grown in Longford and Tipperary.

Parke's Castle photograohed by Tadgh Kilgannon.
Parke's Castle photograohed by Tadgh Kilgannon in the early 20th century, possibly 1918, as there is an election slogan graffitied onto the wall of the castle.