A short distance from the town of Portlaoise, in dramatic contrast to the surrounding flat countryside of most of County Laois, rises the Rock of Dunamase, with its ancient castle on top. The “rock’s” natural attributes – in fact it is a 150-foot high limestone cliff – made it the perfect spot to erect a fortress.
In ruins since the 17th century, a climb to the summit nevertheless reveals broken, but still recognizable portions of walls, towers and gates, from what was once a very large and complex palace-like structure.
Historians believe that the site may have been occupied two thousand years ago, and may have been known to sailing Phoenician traders as far back as the second century or more. Much of the evidence surrounds a 2nd century map of Ireland drawn by the Greek cartographer Ptolemy, which identifies a site in the region with the name "Dunum". As yet however, no archaeological evidence has been found to prove that Dunum is Dunamase.
The name Dunamase means the fort of Masc -- referring to an ancient early Christian leader, belonging to a royal Leinster sept. Indeed, a Celtic castle once crowned the summit of the rock, probably a wooden structure, and the Annals of the Four Masters record a Viking invasion on this castle in 843AD.
Dermott Mac Murrough, the King of Leinster, erected the stone castle here in 1250. Mac Murrough was said to have originally invited the Normans to Ireland. His daughter Aoife married Richard De Clare – better known as “Strongbow”, the leader of the Normans. The castle passed to Strongbow as part of the princess’s dowry, and he built it up into a massive fortification, parts of which remain standing.
From 1325 until 1609, the castle belonged to the O’Moore family of Laois, before ownership passed to the Earl of Thomond. It was finally destroyed, as were so many Irish castles, after the Cromwellian invasion in 1650.
The Rock of Dunamase lies just off the N80, about 9 kilometres / 5 miles north of Portlaoise.
Barbican gate entrance to Dunamase. Image by Keith Ewing
Dunamase Castle on the Rock. Image by Keith Ewing