Rock of Dunamaise, Laois, Ireland

Growing up in the midlands of Ireland you sometimes get jealous of the coastline counties with their hills and mountains, and perhaps this is why to a midlander like myself the Rock of Dunamaise is such an impressive structure. Standing 46 metres in height the imposing structure looms over the surrounding countryside and it is easy to see why this place held such strategical and historical importance. There are early mentions of a structure being built on this site, the first being a recording of a Viking raid in 843AD and the murder of the Abbot of Terryglass. However the structure that remains today may have first been built by Meiler Fitzhenry, shortly after the Norman invasion, around 1180. The rock was later taken under the control of the infamous Norman Strongbow and Aoife Mac Murrough (daughter of Dairmuid Mac Murrough, King of Leinster). When Isabel, the daughter of Aoife and Strongbow, got married to William Marshall it came under his domain.

Marshall was a very important character in the development of Leinster, building castles in both Kilkenny and Carlow, he also helped to build the port of New Ross and set about refortifying Dunamaise. Over the next hundred years the lordship of Leinster was broken up in a remarkable way, as all four sons of Marshall became Lord of Leinster but each died without having a son. This meant the Lordship was broken into five parts and given to the daughters of Marshall, being further subdvided when one daughter Sybll died without any male heir. The breakup of the Lordship weakened Norman power in the area. Intermittently throughout the early 1300s, and with an ever increasing ferocity the local Irish Clan’s who had been driven to the bogs and mountains began to attack. This coupled with the breakup and infighting amongst the Norman’s led to the site being abandoned around 1330 when Roger Mortimer was executed for treason.

It seems the castle was unoccupied during the next few centuries though the Gaelic O’ Moores retook the lands of Dunamaise. The castle itself fell into ruin and seems to have been further demolished around 1650 by a Cromwellian army intent on insuring that the rock would not used as a defensive battlement by the Irish. Only 150 years later in 1795 was an attempt made to rebuild the castle when Sir John Parnell, chancellor of the Irish parliament, tried to rebuild the grand hall, main residence and banqueting area. Some of the later medieval features such as windows were taken from other ruins and added to the castle at this time. It was a short lived revival as the residence fell into decay once Parnell died.

The Rock Of Dunamaise is a beautiful site, as you walk up the hill towards the gate of what was the Inner Barbican you can almost make out the remains of an outer barbican in the surrounding earth. As you wind your way through this primary gate and towards the main castle that was used for housing, and it is here the early medieval wooden structures would‘ve lined the walls. The two-story keep at the top of the rock would have housed the castle’s nobility at any given time, and was restructured during John Parnell’s renovations. Though only a short climb the views from the peak of Dunamaise are epic, the nearby Slieve Bloom mountains conjure up images of how it must have appeared from the castle when both the Gaelic chiefs, and much later the Cromwellian army, waited patiently for the right moment to attack this impressive fortress.

GPS: 53.0312, -7.20819

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