Some 150 feet above the plains of County Laois rises an outcrop of limestone called the Rock of Dunamase (from the Irish Dún Másc meaning ‘fort of Másc’). On top of this are the remains of a once-substantial fortress, the origins of which have been discovered by archeological excavation to date back to the 9th century when a hill fort (or dún) was constructed on the site. This cannot have survived very long since Dunamase was attacked and pillaged by Vikings around the year 843-44. According to the Annals of the Four Masters, ‘Dun Masg was plundered by the foreigners, where Aedh, son of Dubdharchrich, Abbot of Tir-da-glas [modern Terryglass, County Tipperary] and Cluain-eidhnach, was taken prisoner; and they carried him into Munster, where he suffered martyrdom for the sake of God; and Ceithearnach, son of Cudinaisg, Prior of Cill-dara, with many others besides, was killed by them during the same plundering expedition.’ It would appear that as a result of this devastation, no further occupation of Dunamase occurred until the 12th century and the arrival of the Normans.
By the second half of the 12th century, Dunamase was evidently in the possession of Diarmait Mac Murchada, King of Leinster since it was given as part of his daughter Aoife’s dowry when she married Richard de Clare (‘Strongbow’) in 1171. Thereafter the site continued to pass through the female line for several generations: Aoife and Richard de Clare having no adult sons, their lands went to an only daughter Isabel de Clare who married William Marshall. None of their five sons outliving them, the lands were divided between five daughters, one of whom – Eva Marshall – married the Welsh March lord William de Braose. Once more this couple only had daughters, the second of whom Maud married Roger Mortimer; in the mid-1320s their grandson, another Roger, the first Earl of March, became the lover of Queen Isabella (the She-Wolf of France) and led the revolt against her husband Edward II. When the king’s son, Edward III, had Mortimer executed for treason in 1330, the family lost their Irish property and although it was later restored to them, by that stage Dunamase seems to have come under the control of the local O’Mores. In any case, by the middle of the 14th century it had begun to fall into a state of disrepair and although there are stories that Dunamase was destroyed by Cromwellian troops (as there are about almost every other dilapidated fortress in Ireland), it seems that by the time the latter came to Ireland in the mid-17th century the site had long since become uninhabitable. Some restoration work was undertaken towards the close of the 18th century by Sir John Parnell, Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer and Lord of the Treasury (also great-grandfather of Charles Stewart Parnell): he incorporated stone door and window cases from other local antiquarian sites into the upper portion of the old castle with the intention of creating a banqueting hall but the work remained incomplete and was abandoned after his death in 1801.
After more than six centuries of neglect in an exposed position, it is understandable not a lot of the Rock of Dunamase’s Norman castle survives. Sometimes utilising the natural rock formation for defensive purposes, a series of walls had been constructed, the interior portion of the site accessed by an outer and inner barbican, the second of these incorporating a ditch and a drawbridge. The upper part of the rock was further protected by a curtain wall with its own gatehouse, and at the very top was a large hall or keep. This part of the structure was most modified by Sir John Parnell but it is likely he also undertook remedial work elsewhere on the rock and thereby secured what has survived to the present day since otherwise even more might have been lost. Now a visitor to Dunamase needs to bring along imagination in order to conceive how the place once looked. On the other hand, the views from the top remain superlative, stretching in every direction for many miles and only occasionally spoilt by injudicious development (made even more apparent from such high ground). It is easy to understand why the Rock of Dunamase was chosen as a place of defence but also, given the site’s relative inaccessibility, why it was subsequently abandoned.