The castle stands at the top of a slope down to the River Strule, and is the third defensive site in this area, at the heart of O’Neill territory in the pre-Plantation period. The mound called Pigeon Hill in the recreation ground across the river to the east is the first, while Harry Avery’s Castle nearby was the medieval stronghold of the O’Neills. The place seems already to have been called ‘new town’ (baile nua) before the Plantation, but the present street plan survives from the early 17th century.
The castle was built in about 1619 by Sir Robert Newcomen and was modified by his son-in-law, Sir William Stewart, after 1628. The castle was rectangular with a thick central wall. It had three storeys above a basement but only its north and west walls and a little of the south survive. The most distinctive feature is the triple gables to the street, with the tall chimney-stack over the smaller centre gable. The stepped gables are a Scottish feature while the eight-pointed-star-shaped brick chimneystack is derived from England. Half of a fine door survives near the south corner with a frustrating half date, 16.., on the remaining stone. Other features include the mullioned windows, clearly domestic and not defensive, fireplaces, a circular projecting stair tower, and a rectangular tower at the north-east corner, perhaps a flanker tower on the bawn wall. On the main front there are doorways on all three floors with the scar of stairs leading to the doors. This indicates a building which would have blocked a strip of the façade – either a timber stair turret, or possibly a service block. Another possibility is that the house divided into two separate residences.
The castle was burned by Sir Phelim O’Neill in 1641 and again by King James in 1689, on his retreat from Londonderry. The fine 19th-century arcade in the middle of the house belongs to the corn exchange, part of the local market that used three yards in a row, the castle, the inn and the town hall. Excavation in the late 1990s has revealed more of its plan and, most unexpectedly, found a two-segment Bronze Age cist with cremation burials and pottery south-west of the castle, attesting to very early activity on this site above the river.
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