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the 1641 Rebellion
The two castles at Croghan and Keelagh were heavily besieged throughout the winter and spring of 1641-2. They were finally reduced by starvation, forced to surrender and both garrisons allowed to go free to Drogheda. Rev. Henry Jones, D.D., has left us a rather interesting contemporary account of the siege as seen through the eyes of one of the settlers. Inside a week of the rebellion breaking out on 23 October 1641, the whole of Cavan had fallen to the insurgents under Philip McHugh O'Reilly and Mulmore or Myles O'Reilly, better known as 'Myles the Slasher', who styled himself sheriff of the county. Only the two garrisons at Keelagh and Croghan continued to hold out.
The buildings at Castle Hamilton (Castle Keelagh) today
Sir Francis Hamilton had 200 foot and six horse, three barrels of powder and provisions for six months at Keelagh. Both castles became places of refuge for fugitive English and Scots settlers fleeing from Leitrim and west Cavan. The defense of the castles was hampered by the presence of 700 refugees at Keelagh and 120 at Croghan.
Myles O'Reilly sent his father Edmund, to take the two castles. He was joined by a force of the O'Rourkes from Carrigallen and Ballinamore so that together they made up 2,000 men. Hamilton heard of their advance and to prevent them occupying Killeshandra town he had it burned to the ground. He knew that the insurgents could not face the cold of winter in the open.
In a skirmish near Keelagh castle, Edmund O'Reilly was repulsed and Loughlin O'Rourke and Brian O'Rourke were taken prisoners. They were promptly exchanged for Bishop Bedell, Protestant Bishop of Kilmore, his son and his son-in-law, Mr. Clogy, who were prisoners at Loch Uachtair Castle. To prevent the insurgents taking refuge in the woods around, Hamilton burned the country for a radius of three miles around the castle. In another skirmish a Fr O'Rourke, a friar, was killed in his habit while leading the rebels and two important men, Owen O'Rourke and Philip O'Reilly, were captured and held as hostages.
When Myles O'Reilly heard of his father's failure to take the castles he withdrew from the siege of Drogheda and marched to Cavan. He was joined by a force from Leitrim and by 300 men under Robert Nugent of Westmeath. Once again the rebels were driven off after a skirmish at Windmill Hill near the town. Rev Mr Jones tells us that Myles O'Reilly was so annoyed at his failure to take the castles that he went to Belturbet and had 60 English settlers who had been allowed to stay on in the town thrown from Belturbet bridge into the Erne. In revenge for this Sir Francis Hamilton went to Derewily on the Leitrim border with 100 foot and 30 horse. He surprised 60 natives in a wood there at dawn, killed 27 of them and hanged fourteen others. The remainder, who escaped, were intercepted by Sir James Craige who killed ten and hanged four.
The insurgents, who found it impossible to capture strong castles for want of artillery, decided to surround the castles and reduce them by starvation. By March 1642 supplies in both castles were running down. They had lost all contact with the outside world and were hopelessly abandoned. On 8 April, Sir James Craige died. His castle was wasted by disease - one hundred and sixty died of hunger and disease and the remainder were too weak to defend the castle. Hamilton was forced to take on the defence of both castles. A number of men were sent in turn each day to defend Croghan. They could not stay in the castle lest they take the disease. On 4 May the Irish were told of the plight of both garrisons by a fugitive called Barlow who fled from Keelagh to the enemy. They decided to make another attempt to take the castles. Two thousand men under Colonel Philip Mac Hugh O'Reilly drew up before both castles. They cut off the water supply from Croghan by throwing a dead dog and the body of a man into the well which supplied it. The inhabitants were dying of thirst. In Castle-Hamilton or Keelagh the position was little better. They killed their milch cows first, then their horses and dogs and finally were forced to eat hides of animals killed months before. The soldiers began to mutiny and six or seven of them fled to the enemy. Sir Francis himself was sick. He was forced to surrender and an agreement was drawn up between the O'Reillys and the O'Rourkes on one side and Sir Francis Hamilton, Sir Arthur Forbes, Master Bedell and Master Price on the other. The Irish agreed to let the garrisons go free to Drogheda and guaranteed them protection on the way. Sir Francis Hamilton marched out from Keelagh Castle on 15 June 1642. They marched away for Drogheda, with matches burning, banliers full, drums beating and colours flying, and under escort by the O'Reillys.