The Rock of Dunamase, Co. Laois.

Location – E of Portlaoise on the N80.  The castle is easily visible from the road.  OS: S 530 982 (map 55).
Longitude: 7° 12' 35.66" W
Latitude: 53° 1' 54.8" N
GPS: S 53012 98164 (Elevation: 200m - Accuracy: 6m) Reading taken at the barbican gate.

Description and History – The Rock of Dunamase has to sit on the top of the pile when it comes to Laois sites.  Sitting atop of a natural rock the castle can be seen from across the landscape and the ruins look like they too are a part of the natural rock.  The great thing about this site is that it is a popular tourist spot but it has not been over commercialised.  There is no visitors centre, no shops or restaurants, no toilets and no tours.  The site is as is and the only work done has been archaeological and to make the site safer for visitors.  It is always windy on the top of the rock and you always feel as if you are in a wild place.  The site is also a popular location for film crews.  On a recent visit to the site I saw a high cross just next to the path.  I had never seen this before and assumed that it had been hidden in the undergrowth until now. Further up the path I saw at least 5 other crosses.  Unable to believe my eyes I started to hope that these were recently found at the site or that they were being returned after a long time in restoration. I touched one of the crosses and realised that it was fake and made from polystyrene and wood.  They were all fake, and further up there were fake ogham stones and gravestones.  There was even an entirely fake piece of wall made from wood.  By this stage I had started to get angry and thought that maybe these were put here to make the site more interesting to visitors which is ridiculous as the site is fantastic on its own. Luckily a man at the bottom of the hill told us that they were all props for a film.  I was very very relieved.

The age of the site is disputed but the present remains are undoubtedly medieval.  The Greek cartographer Ptolemy mentions a ‘Dunum’ in the area of Dunamase in the 2nd century BC.  There is, however, no archaeological evidence for any sort of fortress or settlement at this early stage but the mention of a place with a similar name in the right location is intriguing.  A fortress was in existence, backed by historical and archaeological evidence, in the 9th century AD and it was plundered by the Vikings in 843-845AD.  The abbot of Terryglass was killed during this attack.  There is little evidence of occupation during the 10th and 11th centuries.  The present castle was built in the 12th century and was built more than likely by the Normans.  The castle became the property of the Norman Marshal family and later the Mortimers.  During the Gaelic resurgence the castle fell out of Normal control into Irish hands.  There is no evidence that the Gaelic lords ever used Dunamase as a stronghold and it seems to have become abandoned by 1350.  After Cromwell’s Irish campaign the castle was blown up to prevent it from being used again.  Some rebuilding was done by Sir John Parnell (the father of Charles Stuart Parnell) in the 18th century who wanted to make the site into a banquet hall.  It is due to his rebuilding that the castle is preserved.  If he had not have acquired the site it may have fallen even further into ruin.  He appears to have stopped the collapsing process and even re-erected portions of wall.  The present remains consist of a large D shaped enclosure on the top of the hill with large banks and fosses surrounded by thick stone walls.  Portions of the great hall survive, although large sections of the wall lay where they landed after being blown up.  The best preserved sections are the two gatehouses (the inner and outer) and the walls around them which form a triangular courtyard.  A large pit at the N end of the site may have been a well.

This is a site that anybody with a love of castles must see before it inevitable becomes more and more sanitized and commercial.  This site should be seen now while it is still wild and rugged.  This site ranks among my favourites and can’t fail to impress any visitor.

Difficulty – This site is easy to find as it can be seen from the road.  There is ample parking and the climb up the path is not too steep.  Be careful on the rock as many rocks are concealed by undergrowth and it is easy to trip.  There are also many sheer drops over the edge of the outcrop so keep an eye on any children as it is windy up there.

View from the South.

The outer gatehouse.

Fallen masonry near the great hall.

Looking S at the defensive walls.

Looking into the great hall from the North.

The outside of the great hall.

*These are not my images and belong to John B. Shelton.  These images were taken on a trip we made to the site long before I ever conceived of a website and I felt that images did the site more justice than any of my own.