The O’Rourke, Rourke or Rorke Family

O'Rourke Family heraldry

(Crest No. 85. Plate 51.)

O’ROURK, Maguire, those souls of fire, whose names are shrined in history,

Think how their high achievements once made Erin’s greatest glory.

The O’Rourke family is descended from Milesius, King of Spain, through the line of his son Heremon, and belonged to the Hy Brune tribe. The founder of the family was Aedh Finn, or Hugh the Fair, A. D. 630, of the line of Brian, son of Eocha Moy Veagon, King of Ireland, A. D. 350. The ancient name was Ruirigh and signifies “Sovereign Prince.”

The surname was taken from Art O’Rorke, King of Connaught, A. D. 1046. The O’Ruaircs or O’Rourkes, took their name from one of their ancient chiefs, Ruarc, who was Prince of Brefney in the tenth century. The title of their chiefs was Prince of Brefney, and their possessions embraced the present County of Leitrim, with the present barony of Tullaghagh and part of Tullaghonoho, in the County of Cavan, the river at Ballyconnell being the boundary between Brefney O’Rourke and Brefney O’Reilly.

Ancient Brefney was in the tenth century divided into two principalities, the O’Rourkes, as Princes of West Brefney, being the principal chiefs, and the O’Reillys, as Princes of East Brefney, possessing the territory of the present County of Cavan. Brefney O’Rourke was separated from Fermanagh, or Maguire’s country, by Lough Melvin, Lough MacNean and Cuileagh Mountain. It appears also that a small portion of the barony of Carbery, in the County of Sligo, belonged to Brefney O’Rourke. Conmacni, also called Conmacni of Moy Rein, of which the O’Rourkes were also lords, was an ancient territory which derived its name from Conmac, one of the sons of Maive, the celebrated Queen of Connaught, at the beginning of the Christian era. It comprised the southern part of Leitrim, namely, the baronies of Carrigallen, Leitrim and Mohill, with a portion of the northern part of Anally, of County of Longford, extending nearly to Granard.

The O’Rourkes had also the title of Kings of Brefni and Conmacni, and in the tenth century, as mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters, two or three of the name are styled Kings of Connaught.

It is recorded that the O’Rourkes were inaugurated as Princes of Brefney at a place called Cruachan O Cuprain, supposed to be Croaghan, near Killeshandra. The O’Rourkes had their chief castles at Dromahaire, Leitrim, Cloncorick or Carrickallen, and Castle Car, near Manorhamilton.

This name has become familiar to all English readers through Thomas Moore’s beautiful lyric on the “Return of O’Ruark.” That poem is founded on an event which, according to our historians, afforded the English the first opportunity to profit by Irish dissensions. Dervorgil, daughter of the King of Meath, and wife of O’Ruark, Prince of Brefney, for whom the King of Leinster had long conceived a violent affection, informed the latter, we are told, that her husband was about to go on a pilgrimage, and conjured him to avail himself of that opportunity of conveying her from a husband she detested to a lover she adored. MacMurrough promptly obeyed the summons and had the lady conveyed to his capital of Ferns. The monarch Roderick espoused the cause of O’Ruark. while MacMurrough fled to England, and besought and secured the assistance of King Henry II., thus bringing about the first Anglo-Norman invasion.

This story, in the light of modern research, has been shown to be baseless. The late Eugene O’Curry, one of the greatest of Irish antiquarians, has declared that the universally received story of the falsehood of Dervorgil, wife of O’Rourke, is founded on a misconception of the historical facts; and said he could establish by incontestable evidence, the innocence of that lady.

O'Rourke, Prince of Brefney


Many celebrated chiefs of the O’Rourkes often contended with the O’Conors for the sovereignty of Connaught. One of them, Tiernan O’Rourke, who possessed East Meath, was treacherously murdered by Hugh de Lacy, to whom King Henry the Second of England had “granted” O’Rourke’s lands. O’Rourke resisted de Lacy’s encroachments, and on being induced to meet the latter in conference, was slain by de Lacy’s knights at a signal from their master. O’Rourke was a brave and pious man, who had done much for his people and the foundation and support of religion.

Another O’Rourke, Prince of Brefney, was deprived of his possessions by the English for having afforded shelter to three hundred shipwrecked Spaniards, whose vessel had foundered on the coast of Sligo. He escaped to Scotland, after his defeat, but King James VI., afterward James I. of England, having become reconciled to Queen Elizabeth, who had just murdered his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, sent O’Rourke in chains to Elizabeth, who ordered him hanged at Tyburn, without trial. Before his death he was visited by a Protestant bishop, who exhorted him to conform to “the religion of the Queen;” but O’Rourke firmly replied: “Remember from what you yourself have fallen; think of returning to the Church that you may regain the grace of God; as for me I shall die in the religion which you have deserted.”

The O’Rourkes maintained their independence, however, as Princes of West Brefney, down to the reign of James I., and had considerable possessions even until the Cromwellian wars, when their estates were finally confiscated.

Many of the O’Rourkes rose to distinction in the Irish Brigades in the service of France and Spain; and we read of their name being represented down to our own day among the nobility of the ranks of Prince and of Count in Russia. Captain Tiernan O’Rourke, who went to France with the Irish army in 1691, won high recognition for his courage and skill on various occasions; and his son, Dr. O’Rourke, was chaplain and domestic secretary to Prince Eugene, until he was invited to Ireland to become Bishop of Killala, where he suffered the death of a martyr, under the penal laws.

Major O’Rourke, of O’Mahony’s Regiment of Dragoons, who fell at the siege of Alcoy, in Spain, was esteemed one of the best of the Irish officers in the Spanish service. There are several representatives of this distinguished Irish family in Ireland and in the United States of social and commercial prominence. Among them may be mentioned the name of Mr. Edward Rorke, of the well-known house of Edward Rorke & Co., of Barclay street, New York City; and Mr. Edward Rorke, Jr., the Hon. James Rorke, President of the Irish Emigrant Society of New York, and the well-known wealthy contractor, Mr. John O’Rorke of Brooklyn, N. Y.