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To the East of the metropolis that is Portlaoise sits the former fiefdom of Dunamase. On this rocky hill sits the Rock of Dunamase. No one knows who actually built this fortification but someone did and it wasn’t aliens. Rumour has it that Strongbow aka Richard de Clare built it. This is the same Strongbow whose effigy is in St. Patricks Cathedral in Dublin…but that’s only a reproduction, he is actually buried in the grounds of Ferns Cathedral in County Wexford. It is believed the castle on the rock passed into the hands of the Marshal family through the marriage of Strongbows daughter Isabel hence the association. This ties in with Norman traditions of assimilation into local populations.
The first settlement on this prominent hill was a hill fort (Dún in Irish) in the 9th century. The rampaging Vikings at that period quickly destroyed that. It was not until the late 12th century that the ruins that now sit atop the hill were built. Again through marriage the castle passed from Marshal into Mortimer hands. These where unfortunate hands as the new owner Roger Mortimer had quite a colourful existence.
In 1322 Roger was thrown in the Tower of London having led a revolt against King Edward II, he then escaped to France, got together with Edwards wife, led a successful invasion against Edward, took the throne, was overthrown by Edwards son (Eddie the 3rd) and executed for treason. Quite a back story to the quiet castle ruins pasted closely by thousands on the Dublin to Cork motorway. Not surprisingly Rogers demise rendered the family claim on the Rock of Dunamase void. By 1350 the castle was falling into ruins.
However as we can see around the world, stone castles do stand the test of time. So the Rock of Dunamase was blown up in 1650 to prevent it being reused as a strong hold for rebels during Cromwellian war (1649–53). This war by the British to retake Ireland from the Irish Catholic Confederation was quite brutal and the Oliver Cromwell forces captured the north east coast first before turning their attention south to Wexford and Waterford. Cromwell’s New Model Army, led by Generals Hewson and Reynolds, are believed to have come upon the rebel stronghold of Dunamase. Having surrounded it they then preceded to blow it up.
So what’s left? With a bit of imagination quite a lot. It is in a poor state and well beyond repair. However walking up the trail you get a sense of the imposing structure this must have been on the landscape. It’s a deceptively high vantage point and the winding trail takes you through the lower Barbican gate. Through this gate you make your way as thousands before have to the main gatehouse.
Some of the curtain wall is still standing and you pass over the lower ward to the destroyed ruins of the great hall. Standing atop the ruins you can see why the Rock was the chosen site for a castle as it offers panoramic views across the landscape.
How to get there you ask?
The rock is just east of Portlaoise which is approximately 90km from Dublin, about a 1 hour drive. You take exit 16 on the motorway M7 and it is only a couple of kilometres to the site. If you are not driving Portlaoise is well served by both Irish Rail and Bus Éireann. It is about 6km from the centre of Portlaoise town as you can see on the map below.