As promised I got back out on the road finally, and even managed to bring along my three little ruin hunters and my nephew. So with a packed car I thought there would be no better place to start off than one of my personal favourite sites, The Rock of Dunamase in Co. Laois. I have been here many times before and it still never fails to let me down. The views on approach to this natural Limestone outcrop are truly magnificent and the kids nearly jumped out of their seats when they spotted the castle in the distance as we approached from the North. Standing 46 metres (151 ft) above a flat plain, with breath taking views of the surrounding country side which was once under the control of the native O’Moore, the Rock was clearly a place of strategic importance. One can only imagine how in ancient times this limestone outcrop would have been a much sought after piece of land. Some of the information about the great history and archaeology of this great site comes from the guys at Abarta Heritage. Please take a moment and check out the link at the end of this post where you can hear the story for yourself with their free audio guides.
Whilst it is said that the first mention of Dunamase comes from a 2nd century map drawn by the Greek cartographer Ptolemy, which he named Dunum. Although there is little evidence to support this claim. A more likely site for Ptolemy’s Dunum, lies in Co. Down. The Metrical Dindseanchas tells us that Dunamase took its name from a local Chieftain. In Gaelic, Dún Masc, translates to “the fort of Masc”. Masc was said to have been one of the six famous sons of Ugen and was renowned for his skill with a spear. So by putting the pieces together it is quite probable to assume that a wooden fortification once stood on the Rock overlooking an important route between counties Carlow and Laois, which would have made Masc an important Chieftain at the time.
With most of the current ruins dating from the late12th and early 13th centuries, there is still evidence of earlier activity on the Rock. The first recorded mention of Dunamase comes from the Annála na gCeithre Máistrí or the Annals of the Four Masters. It mentions that an early Christian settlement on the Rock was plundered by our Viking friends in 843AD. So obviously at some stage the fort was either given to the church or included a monastic settlement by the time the Viking raiders arrived. A few years later in 84AD another raid occurred, during this attack it is noted that, Aedh, son of Dubdharchrich, whom was the Abbott of Tirdaglas & Cluaineidhnach was taken prisoner and allegedly brought down to Munster where it is believed that he suffered martyrdom. A more likely theory is that he was taken to be sold as a slave and died along the way. Another noted figure said to have been killed during this raid along with presumably many others was the Prior of Cill Dara, Ceithearnach, the son of Cudinaisg.
The most visable evidence of this early Christian settlement on the Rock was uncovered during excavations in the 1990’s which proved that the remains of two dry-stone walls and an earthen bank dated back to the 9th century. Along with two highly decorated copper-alloy pieces, one interesting find from this time was a silver Anglo Saxon penny which bore Ecgberht of Wessex, 802-839 AD. Now anyone whom has been following the entertaining Viking series on the History channel will recognise the character of Ecgberht King of Wessex and his dealings with the Viking king Ragner, unfortunately most of this can be attributed to creative license, however as the Vikings were notorious for many raids in the British kingdoms of Wessex and Murcia, the find ties in well with the attack on the Rock. The only other explanation for the coin being found here would be perhaps members of the Christian settlement at Dunamase may have travelled from one of the monasteries in Britain and brought the coin with them!
Dunamase contains at least four lines of defence. The inner and outer Barbican, A Curtain wall and a rather large inner Keep, the north side of the Castle was protected by a natural sheer faced cliff. With the inner barbican being defended by a deep ditch and high stone walls, the only way to enter was via the imposing and rather striking gateway. Unlike today there would have been no gravel pathway through this gate, chances are that there was a drawbridge in use to travel over the surrounding ditch. This would have been raised and lowered as required. In addition, if you were fortunate enough to breach this defence and enter the gateway, you would have to contend with the murder hole. Murder holes were a hole in the ceiling of an enterance through which stones and boiling oil could be thrown down on attackers, a rather simple but effective way of getting rid of unwanted visitors. The next line of defence was the large curtain wall which flanked both sides of the rock, from the south to the east and west. To enter this part of the Castle you would have to go through a rather imposing gatehouse which was at least two or possibly three stories high. The doorway would have been guarded by an outer wooden door, iron portcullis of which you can still see the groove marks in the masonry. On various levels of the gatehouse you can still see a number of inward facing arrow slits. These were quite useful for archers to pick off unwelcome guests whilst affording the archer maximum protection from attack. Inside this curtain wall there would have been a number of various dwellings which can no longer be seen as they would have been made from wood. There is however, just inside the curtain wall to the left of the gatehouse what appears to be a stone dwelling. Perhaps this was where the guards would have rested when not on duty? Then we come to the Keep which is situated in the upper ward. Also known as the Great Hall, which is now in a rather poor state with much of the south and west walls crumbled. Toward the north cliff edge there is what looks to be a large pit, perhaps this may have been a well!
So skipping on a few centuries, to the time of Diarmait Mac Murchada’s reign as the King of Leinster. As the King of Leinster, Dunamase was one of the many Irish Castles under the control of the Mac Murchada clan and as such played an important part in events which would shape the history of the entire island. Ok so I have spoken enough in previous pieces about how this Muppet was single handily responsibly for the Norman invasion of Ireland and the subsequent centuries of occupation by the British. But what events led to this disaster in our history. Well as it happens, around 1124, Mac Murchada was said to have been responsible for the alleged kidnapping of Dearbhforgaill. She was the wife of the powerful O’Rourke King of Breifne, Tigernan Mór O Ruairc. And so it was, to Dunamase that Mac Murchada took Dearbhforgaill. Eventually Turlough Mór Ó Conor and Ruaidri Ua Conchobair the high King of Ireland got involved. Along with the O Ruairc clan the O’Connor’s relieved Mac Murchada of his Kingship over Leinster. And the rest as they say is history. After the Norman invasion of Ireland, Dunamase fell into the hands of Richard De Clare, the earl of Pembroke, also known as Strongbow. As part of his agreement to help restore Mac Murchada’s throne, he married Diarmait’s daughter Aoife in 1170 and received many lands including the Castle at Dunamase. As luck would have it Diarmait did not live very long and died in 1172 which made Strongbow the lord of Leinster.
After the death of Strongbow, his lands where taken under the protection of the crown as he had no male heir at the time of his death. At some stage Dunamase is said to have come into the hands of the Norman Knight, Meilyr Fitzhenry. Fitzhenry became the chief justice of Ireland and the son of Henry Fitzhenry, the bastard child of King Henry I. Fitzhenry was well known for his adventures and had served under Strongbow during the initial invasion. He is said to have commenced some of the refortification at Dunamase. However when Strongbow and Aoife’s daughter Isabel, married the young ambitious William Marshall trouble began to brew. Marshall automatically inherited the lands of his new bride’s father, which caused conflict with Fitzhenry. Eventually in 1208 Fitzhenry was forced to give up the lands at Dunamase to Marshall. Marshall lived here between 1208 and 1213 and is said to have refortified the great hall and gate tower. Marshall was an astute commander and was responsible for the Castle at Carlow which for a time became the home of the exchequer in Ireland. Marshal later became Regent of England in the minority of Henry III, and had five sons. Dunamase 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. The castle remained in Mortimer hands until 1330 when another Roger Mortimer was executed for treason. Mortimer’s lands, including Dunamase, were forfeited to the Crown in 1330.
For the next chapter in the Rocks history, we return to the Annála Na gCeithre Máistrí, where a Friar John Clyn noted that in 1342, Lysaght O’More the local native chieftain had taken Dunamase and Mortimer’s former lands in Laois. The excavation from the 1990’s also came to the conclusion that Dunamase was abandoned sometime in the 14th century. By 1350 AD it was said to be in a ruinous state. Other finds from the excavation included various medieval arrowheads, horse equipment and a substantial collection of pottery. On a darker note it also uncovered a number of decapitated human skulls, which were believed to have been hung from the battlements of Dunamase Castle as a warning to would be attackers. Very little happened at Dunamase until the Cromwellian Wars when the Castle was said to have been besieged by the Cromwellian generals Hewson and Reynolds in 1651. Although there are no official records for this event, it is probably the most likely explanation for the current state of the castle with its large piles of stone rubble scattered around the place. In 1795, the father of Charles Stuart Parnell, Sir John Parnell whom was Chancellor of the Irish Parliament at the time was said to have attempted to turn the great hall into a residence and banqueting hall. Many of the late medieval features which you can now see in the remaining ruin were taken from other local ruins at the time and installed at Dunamase. However this work was never completed and Parnell’s son left the site to ruin. Today Dunamase is probably best known from the Hollywood movie Darby O Gill and the Little People. Thankfully Dunamase is now a protected monument and quite a popular attraction for both locals and tourists alike. Despite its popularity, it never seems to be overcrowded and you can always find parking opposite the Church of the Holy Trinity at the base of the Rock. It’s well worth a visit if you get the opportunity.