Dunamase Castle : Ireland’s Timeless Sentinel

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Dunamase Castle

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Perched on a rugged outcrop in the heart of Ireland, Dunamase Castle looms as a symbol of the nation’s turbulent past and enduring spirit. With its walls echoing tales of battles, sieges, and ancient dynasties, this castle is not just a structure but a storied tapestry of Irish history.

Dunamase, also known as the Rock of Dunamase (or Dún Masc in Irish), is a famous rocky outcrop located in County Laois, Ireland. Rising 46 meters above a plain, it is home to the ruins of Dunamase Castle, a defensive stronghold with a rich history dating back to the early Hiberno-Norman period.

The castle offers a breathtaking view of the majestic Slieve Bloom Mountains. Positioned near the N80 road between the towns of Portlaoise and Stradbally, Dunamase is easily accessible and attracts tourists from all over the world.

History of Dunamase Rock & Castle

Year/Time PeriodEvents at Dunamase Castle
Pre-ChristianSite believed to have had religious significance, possibly a place of worship.
9th CenturyFirst known settlement; attacked and plundered by Vikings.
12th CenturyNorman invaders constructed the initial fortifications on the Rock of Dunamase.
1170sDiarmait Mac Murchada, the deposed King of Leinster, took the fortress.
Late 12th CenturyCastle came under the control of the powerful Anglo-Norman Strongbow.
13th CenturyCastle expanded and fortified by successive owners, becoming a key stronghold.
14th CenturyCastle declined in importance; began to fall into disrepair.
1350sCastle reportedly damaged in an attack and never fully repaired.
17th CenturyPartially destroyed during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.
18th CenturySir John Parnell, Lord of Avondale and ancestor to Charles Stewart Parnell, acquired the site and attempted some restoration.
20th & 21st CenturySite conserved as a national

Excavations conducted in the 1990s revealed that Dunamase has a history spanning back to the 9th century when a hill fort or “dún” was built on the site. The earliest known settlement on the rock was Dun Masc, an early Christian settlement that fell victim to Viking attacks in 842.

In 845, the Vikings of Dublin launched another assault on the site, resulting in the death of the abbot of Terryglass. Despite the Viking invasions, there is limited evidence of occupation between the 10th and 11th centuries. The castle itself was constructed in the second half of the 12th century.

When the Normans arrived in Ireland during the late 12th century, Dunamase became a crucial Hiberno-Norman fortification in County Laois. It was at Dunamase that Dermot Mac Morrough, the King of Leinster, brought the wife of O’Rourke, the King of Breifne, after kidnapping her.

Seeking assistance, MacMurrough joined forces with the O’Connor clan to drive MacMurrough from Dunamase, forcing him to flee Ireland. As part of a deal to regain his lands, MacMurrough married his daughter Aoife to the Norman conqueror Strongbow in 1170. This alliance led to the Norman invasion of Ireland, with Strongbow and MacMurrough attacking and reclaiming MacMurrough’s lands.

Ownership Through the Years

After MacMurrough’s departure, Dunamase came under the control of the Marshal family, thanks to the marriage of Strongbow and Aoife’s daughter, Isabel who wed William Marshal He later became the Regent of England during Henry III’s minority, had five sons, all of whom succeeded him and eventually died without any heirs.

In 1247, the Marshal lands were divided among William’s five daughters, with Eva Marshal inheriting Dunamase. The castle passed on to Eva’s daughter, Maud, who married Roger Mortimer. The Mortimer family owned Dunamase until 1330 when Roger Mortimer was executed for treason. It appears that by 1350, the castle had already fallen into ruins.

O’ Moore Ownership

From the 1400s until the 16th century, Dunamase was part of the territory of the powerful O’More (later Moore or Ó Mórdha) family, who ruled County Laois for several centuries. However, the English posed significant opposition to the O’Mores during the 16th century.

Rory O’More, a prominent figure in Irish history, strongly resisted the English forces. As a result, County Laois earned the nickname “The O’Moore County.” Eventually, the O’Mores left Dunamase and settled in Kildare, following land grants from Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1574.

Dunamase Castle notably belonged to Rory O’More, Lord of Laois. The O’More family underwent a name change, becoming the Moore family in 1751. Over time, they transitioned from being one of the most powerful Irish families to standard aristocrats.

However, they declined a peerage in the 17th century and a baronetcy in the 19th century. Despite their change in status, the Moore family continued to play a significant role in Irish history after their move from Dunamase. During the Cromwellian wars, the castle played no active part and was eventually slighted in 1650 to prevent its use.

By the later 18th century, Sir John Parnell began construction of a residence and banqueting hall within the ruins of Dunamase Castle. Incorporating medieval architectural details sourced from other sites in the area, this work aimed to enhance the castle’s appeal.

However, the castle had already fallen into ruin by 1350, and its structural decline continued over the years. Despite its historical significance, Dunamase Castle stands today as a picturesque ruin amid the surrounding countryside, a testament to the turbulent history and changing fortunes of Ireland.

Who Destroyed the Rock of Dunamase?

The Rock of Dunamase saw various sieges and skirmishes throughout its history. While there’s evidence of Viking raids and subsequent conflicts, the castle’s decline was gradual, a result of both military actions and natural decay over time. The castle was largely abandoned by the 14th century and fell into ruins.

There’s a legend that Cromwellian forces in the mid-17th century further damaged the site using explosives, but solid historical evidence for this specific event is sparse.

Architectural Features of Dunamase Castle Ruins:

  1. Defensive Walls: The primary line of defense for many castles, Dunamase had strong, towering walls meant to deter attackers and protect the inhabitants.
  2. Keep or Main Tower: As a central feature in many medieval castles, the keep served both as a final line of defense and as a residence for the castle’s lord. Given its importance, it was typically one of the most robustly constructed parts of a castle, it had an earlier gate tower surviving from the earlier period along with the great hall.
  3. Barbican Gates: Dunamase had a barbican structure, including the Inner Barbican Gate, which functioned as defensive barriers, requiring invaders to breach multiple gates before accessing the castle’s inner sanctum.
  4. Curtain Wall: This is a typical feature of medieval fortifications. It’s the primary defensive wall, usually encircling the castle, separating the central keep and other essential structures from the external environment.
  5. Arrow Slits: Narrow vertical openings in the walls from which archers could shoot at attackers while remaining relatively protected.
  6. Battlements: Parapets with intervals (crenels) for observation or the release of projectiles.
  7. Machicolations: Overhanging structures on walls or towers with openings through which defenders could drop stones, boiling oil, or other materials on attackers below.
  8. Murder Holes: Similar in function to machicolations, these were openings in the ceiling of a gateway or passageway through which defenders could attack invaders.
  9. Turrets and Towers: Small towers extending above the walls or at the corners of the castle. They provided advantageous positions for archers and lookouts.
  10. Curtain Walls: These are the walls that encircle the castle, separating the inner buildings and courtyards from the outer bailey and the landscape beyond.
  11. Bailey or Courtyard: An open space within the castle walls, which might house structures like kitchens, stables, and workshops.
  12. Cistern or Well: Essential for long sieges, this provided a source of fresh water for the castle’s inhabitants.
  13. Ditch or Moat: While not all castles had moats filled with water, many, including Dunamase, had ditches, which added another defensive layer by hindering direct assaults on the walls.

Archaeological Excavations of surviving ruins

  • Prehistoric Activity: Although Dunamase is best known for its medieval history, the archaeological excavation suggest that there was activity on the site during the prehistoric era. Pottery fragments, likely from the Iron Age, have been discovered, hinting at earlier settlements or usage of the rock.
  • Early Christian Era: Evidence points to the existence of an early Christian settlement or enclosure before the site became a fortress. The presence of an early church or monastic site is suggested by some historical records, but extensive archaeological evidence is sparse.
  • Medieval Period: Most of the archaeological work at Dunamase focuses on its medieval history. Excavations have unearthed remnants of walls, battlements, buildings, and artifacts from this era. The findings have been crucial in understanding the castle’s layout, fortifications, and the daily life of its inhabitants.
  • Post-Medieval Decay: Archaeologists have studied layers that reflect the castle’s decline and periods of abandonment. This has provided insights into local warfare, sieges, and the eventual fall of the fortress.
  • Restoration Evidence: Some studies have focused on periods of restoration and rebuilding, especially those from the 18th century when attempts were made to repurpose and conserve parts of the ruins.
  • Modern Era: In more recent times, the emphasis has been on conservation archaeology, aiming to preserve the site for future generations. Modern excavations are careful to minimize disruption while still seeking to understand the site’s past.
  • Artifacts: Over time, excavations have yielded various artifacts, from pottery and tools to weapons and domestic items, painting a picture of life at Dunamase through different periods.

Significance

Dunamase Castle holds immense historical importance as a witness to Ireland’s past. It played a critical role during the Norman invasion and subsequent conflicts between the Irish and the English.

The castle’s owners, such as Dermot Mac Morrough and the Marshal family, shaped the course of Irish history through their alliances and power struggles. Dunamase stands as a reminder of these events, offering valuable insights into the medieval period in Ireland.

Dunamase Castle is steeped in local lore and legends, further enriching its significance. Stories of battles, love, and betrayal have been passed down through generations, captivating both locals and visitors alike.

When visiting Ireland, if you are in Laois it’s well worth a visit to see it and the surrounding landscape: Address: Dunamaise, Aghnahily, Co. Laois, Ireland

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