Parkes Castle is one of my favourite places in Leitrim.
As the scion of a dispossessed native family, this Planters home shouldn’t really hold much enjoyment for me. I think it is perhaps because it has a picturesque natural setting. The soft lapping waters of Lough Gill provide a fitting foreground and the beautiful Glens of North Leitrim give it formidable background. You couldn’t fault the planter for picking such a fantastic site to set up home.
Parkes Castle isn’t in fact a Castle at all. It is a restored plantation house dating to the early 17th century. It was once the home of Mr. Roger Parke and his family but the site also once boasted a Manor House owned by Sir Brian O’Rourke or Brian na Murtha (Brian of the Ramparts). The O’Rourke Manor at Newtown was where O’Rourke entertained the famous survivor of the shipwrecked Spanish Armada, Francisco de Cuellar.
In his memoirs De Cuellar said of his host “Although this chief is a savage, he is a good Christian and an enemy of the heretics and is always at war with them.” O’Rourke was the son of Brian Ballagh O’Rourke and he became the Chief of West Breifne in 1566 after disposing of his chief rivals, his elder brothers. He was well educated in the classical fashion and was regarded by the Tudor Administration in Dublin as being proud and insolent. The president of Connacht, Sir Nicholas Malby, described O’Rourke as ‘the proudest man living in Ireland today’.
O’Rourke was knighted by the English in 1575 but his relationship with them was fraught as they extended their control into his territory. He just about survived implication in the doomed Desmond rebellion (1579) but by the mid 1580’s he was complaining bitterly about harassment by the President of Connacht Sir Richard Bingham. O’Rourke took his complaints to Dublin Castle and seems to have enjoyed, for awhile, the friendship and protection of Sir John Perrot, the Lord Deputy. Brian entered negotiations to surrender his lands and receive a royal title but does not appear to have ever taken up the letters patent.
In 1588 he was condemned for providing assistance to over 80 survivors of the shipwrecked Armada and helping most of them return to Spain. Tensions rose throughout 1589 and all talks between Bingham, O’Rourke and the new Lord Deputy, Fitzwilliam failed. Bingham invaded Leitrim in 1590 and occupied several of O’Rourke’s Manor houses. O’Rourke fled to Scotland where he was the equivalent of a political refugee seeking asylum. Queen Elizabeth seeking to rely on the recent Treaty of Berwick sought to have O’Rourke extradited and the Leitrim noble became a cause celebre. The Scots eventually did have him extradited and he soon found himself in the Tower of London. O’Rourke’s Trial for treason attracted a lot of attention but the sentence of death was inevitable.
O’Rourke was brought to Tyburn on the 3rd of November, 1591where he was hung, drawn and quartered. His final request to the hangman was reputedly to be hung in the Irish Fashion with a willow rope but this was refused.
By now Ireland was in rebellion in what became known as the ‘Nine Years War’, it would end in defeat for the Irish at the Battle of Kinsale. Brian son, Brian Og played a prominent part in defeating the English at the Battle of the Curlews in 1599. Brian died in 1604 and was succeeded by his brother Tadhg, the last ‘Lord’ of Breifne who died the following year, probably poisoned. The heirs to these last two ‘Lords’ were declared illegitimate and the family lands confiscated. Robert Parke received a grant of the lands and Manor at ‘Baile Nua’ and within a couple of years he had demolished the O’Rourke tower and built his house within the original protective walls. The house was rebuilt in the late 1600’s and was occupied until the late 1700’s when it was abandoned permanently.
The Office of Public Works has carried out a sympathetic and impressive restoration. The ‘Castle’ is definitely worth a visit and is close to the village of Dromahaire and convenient to Sligo also.