After a short drive on the N80 from Portlaoise to Stradbally in County Laois, you can discover a majestic rock rising up in the countryside – the Rock of Dunamase. What from a distance looks like the ancient greek Acropolis turns out as an assembly of ruins, all of them many hundreds of years old.
Due its prominent position one can enjoy amazing panoramic views over the surrounding landscape. It takes its name from the Irish Dún Másc, meaning the ‘Fort of Masc’. Dunamase was the seat or fort of the ancient Irish kings of Laois. In 845 the fortress or dún on top of the rock was attacked by a Viking army from Dublin, who plundered several other sites in the region. Nothing of this early fortress can be seen today today, but what does survive is one of the most spectacular Anglo-Norman fortifications in the country. Standing 46 meters above the surrounding landscape and in-between the ruins, you can enjoy breath-taking views around the countryside.
Stunning views of the surrounding countryside make the towering Rock of Dunamase a strategic place to build a fortress. Through the centuries, warriors have fought to control this limestone outcrop, known as a “hum”.
The first known settlement on the rock was Dun Masc, or Masc’s Fort, an early Christian settlement that was pillaged in 842 by the Vikings.
When the Normans arrived in Ireland in the late 1100s, Dunamase became the most important Anglo-Norman fortification in Laois. It was part of the dowry of Aoife, the daughter of Diarmuid Mac Murrough, King of Leinster, when she was given in marriage to the Norman conqueror Strongbow in 1170.
When Isabel, the daughter of Strongbow and Aoife, wed William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, Dunamase was part of her marriage portion. It is likely that Marshall carried out some building on the rock when he lived there between 1208 and 1213, though most of the castle is earlier.
The castle was successively held by Marshal’s five sons before passing to the Mortimer family through Marshal’s daughter, Eva de Braoise, who passed the castle to her daughter Maud on her marriage to Roger Mortimer. All the Mortimer’s lands, including Dunamase, were forfeited to the Crown in 1330. Shortly afterwards, the castle appears to have passed into the hands of the O’Moores and been abandoned.
Local tradition has it that the castle was besieged and blown up by the Cromwellian generals Hewson and Reynolds in 1651. While there are no contemporary records of these events, it is probably the best explanation for the ruinous state of the castle as we see it today.
In 1795, Sir John Parnell, chancellor of the Irish Parliament, tried to develop a residence and banqueting hall at Dunamase All the late medieval features such as windows and doors were taken from other ruins and added to the castle at this time. When Parnell died, his son allowed the buildings to fall into decay.
Today the ruins on the Rock of Dunamase are managed by the State. Archaeological excavation and conservation work by the Office of Public Works have ensured that the Rock of Dunamase will survive for further generations to explore.