The Rock of Dunamase: Vikings, Anglo-Norman Nobles, and Oliver Cromwell Paint the Castle’s History
The Rock of Dunamase is a large limestone outcrop located in County Laois, a county in the middle of the eastern Irish province of Leinster. The site is today known for the ruins of Dunamase Castle, which was built during the Middle Ages by Anglo-Norman nobility. Archaeological evidence suggests that an earlier defensive structure had already occupied the outcrop, and been attacked by Vikings, as early as the 9th century AD.
The Fort of Masc
The Rock of Dunamase is known in Irish as ‘Dun Masc’, which may be translated to mean ‘Fort of Masc’. This rocky outcrop rises to a height of 46 meters (151 feet) over the surrounding plains, making it a prominent feature in the landscape. This rock was a strategic point in the landscape as it allowed anyone occupying its top to have a commanding view over the area. Moreover, the Rock of Dunamase overlooks an important route between Carlow and Laois, two important counties in the eastern part of Ireland.
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Top: Layout of Rock of Dunamase. Photo taken from information board at Dunamase. Bottom: Still shot from drone footage. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Rock of Dunamase History
It is said the Rock of Dunamase was already known in ancient times. In Geography, which was produced by the Greco-Roman geographer, Claudius Ptolemy, a site called ‘Dunum’ is mentioned. It has been alleged that ‘Dunum’ and Dunamase are one and the same place. This theory, however, has yet to be supported by archaeological evidence.
Castle walls at Rock of Dunamase. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
What is more certain, however, is that the Rock of Dunamase was referred to in the Annals of the Four Masters (known also as the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland ), which is a compilation of chronicles of Medieval Irish history.
In these annals, the Rock of Dunamase is recorded to have originally been a Christian dun. It goes on to state that in 842/3 AD, the rock was attacked and sacked by Viking raiders from Dublin. Furthermore, it was also recounted that during the raid, the abbot of Terryglass, Aed son of Dub da Chrích, was killed. This 9th century settlement was destroyed by the Vikings, though some evidence supporting its existence has been unearthed by archaeological excavations that have been carried out on the site.
Remains of the Great Hall, Rock of Dunamase. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
The next important phase in the history of the Rock of Dunamase occurred between the late 12th and early 13th centuries. During this time, the Normans, who had been in control of England since the second half of the 11th century, invaded the island. A castle was built around this time on the Rock of Dunamase, which became one of the most important fortresses in County Laois and played a significant role in the early Norman conquest of Lenister.
Remains of a gateway at Dunamase. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Who Built the Rock of Dunamase Castle?
It is unclear, however, who was responsible for the construction of this castle. It is known that just prior to the arrival of the Normans, Dunamase was part of the Kingdom of Leinster, whose king was Diarmait Mac Murchada. It was Mac Murchada who requested the Normans to invade Ireland, as he had been deposed as King of Leinster, and wanted to regain this position. It has been suggested that Mac Murchada may have commissioned the castle.
Another possible candidate is Richard “Strongbow” de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, the leader of the invading Normans. de Clare married Aoife, the daughter of Mac Murchada, and when the king died, took control of Leinster.
Remains of the main gatehouse. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
de Clare and Aoife had a daughter, Isabel, who married the knight William Marshal, who, through Isabel, became Lord of Leinster. It has been suggested that Marshal oversaw the building of the castle’s outer fortifications between 1208 and 1210.
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The castle remained in the hands of the Anglo-Norman nobles until the 14th century. Around 1320/30, the castle was taken by a local warlord by the name of Lysaght O’More. Occupation of Dunamase Castle, however, did not continue for long, as it was abandoned by the second half of the same century.
Fortification walls at Dunamase. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
For the next few centuries, the history of the Rock of Dunamase was rather peaceful. Although it was owned by various wealthy families, it seems that it had not been occupied. The situation changed during the 1640s, when it was reused during the Irish Confederate Wars.
The castle was besieged about a decade later by the forces of Oliver Cromwell. The besiegers, who emerged victorious, destroyed large parts of the castles. The ruins of the Dunamase Castle are today a National monument of Ireland and may be visited by the public.
Top image: Dunamase Caste at sunset Source: CC BY SA 4.0
All images courtesy of Ioannis Syrigos.
By Wu Mingren
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