Dunamse Castle appeared to be invulnerabe to any attacker who lacked a large army and adequate siege engines, yet by the mid fourteenth century the castle had been abandoned.
Just six kilometres from Portlaoise and a kilometre north of the N80 Portlaoise to Stradbally road is the Rock of Dunamase with its Medieval fortress. The fortress was built on a prominent flat-topped rocky hill with views over the whole of northern county Laois. The site is so prominent that the castle can be seen for many miles around. Today the castle is a national monument and there is parking available at the entrance.
The fortress of Dunamase originated as Dun Masc, an Early Medieval Dun or Cashel. The site was first mentioned in the Irish Annals in the year 844 when it was attacked by the Vikings and the abbot of Terryglass was killed. The walls of this early Dun survive either side of the gatehouse of the lower ward. It is not certain who built the Anglo-Norman castle but it was probably either Meyler FitzHenry, to whom Laois was first granted following the Anglo-Norman invasion, or William Marshall, lord of Leinster, who held Laois after Meyler. In its earliest phase the castle consisted of a Hall on the top of the hill with a defended gatehouse that is now in the lower yard. The castle underwent a number of rebuilings and in its final phase consisted of four concentric lines of defences consisting of an outer barbican with a deep ditch and originally a palisade which probably had a wooden gatehouse. Within this was the stone outer gatehouse and curtain wall that enclosed the inner barbican. Within this was the inner gatehouse and upper curtain wall that protected the lower and upper baileys and the inner keep of the castle.
View of the outer (foreground) and inner gatehouses (background of Dunamase castle, Co. Laois.
The fortress appears to be invulnerabe to any attacker who lacked a large army and adequate siege engines, yet by the mid fourteenth century Dunamase had been abandoned and the whole area had fallen into hands of Lysaght O'More, a local warlord based in Laois and Slievemargy. Our only reference to this is a short passage in the Annals of Friar John Clyn who recorded that O'More had taken Dunamase and Mortimer's lands in Laois. How this happened remains a mystery. In the later thirteenth century the Lordship of Laois and Dunamase passed from the Marshall family to Roger Mortimer, the Earl of March. In the 1320s Mortimer was involved in a struggle with King Edward II that resulted in his execution for treason in 1330. It was during this period that Mortimer, distracted by events in England, appears to have lost control of Dunamase. However, the exact circumstances of the fall of the castle are not recorded and there are no historical references to Dunamase after this. What happened to Dunamase Castle remains a historical mystery.
View of the outer wall of the central keep of Dunamase castle, Co. Laois.
Hodkinson, B. 2003. A sunnary account of work at the Rock of Dunamse, Co. Laois. In J.R. Kenyon and K. O’Conor (eds) The Medeival Castle in Ireland and Wales. Dublin.
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GPS coordinates 53.030891,-7.208061