Other Names: The Rock of Dunamase
Dunamase Castle sits atop the Rock of Dunamase - a rocky limestone outcrop that rises to 46m, dominating the flat landscape that surrounds it. Archaeology conducted at the site indicates that it was first settled in the 9th Century when it was in use as a hill fort. Following that, the earliest recorded settlement is Dun Masc ("Masc’s Fort") which was an early Christian settlement. The Annals of Ulster record that it was attacked in 844AD by Vikings, and the abbot of Terryglass killed within. Little other detail is given.
In 1170AD, Diarmuid MacMurrough, King of Leinster, enlisted the help of Richard "Strongbow" de Clare to regain lands from which he'd been driven. This led to the Norman invasion of Ireland, and MacMurrough gave Dunamase (and also his daughter Aoife in marriage) as part of the bargain.
Like much of Irish history, the occupancy of Dunamase remains shrouded in mystery and somewhat unclear. It is believed that construction of the castle was originally undertaken around 1180AD by Meiler Fitzhenry, but it may equally have been Strongbow himself, or even William Marshall to whom Leinster passed when he married Strongbow's daughter and heir, Isabella de Clare.
In 1247AD when the Marshall line ended without producing any male heirs, his lands were divided between William's five daughters. The castle passed into the hands of the Mortimers via marriage, and they remained in control of it until 1330AD when Roger Mortimer was executed for treason. At this time, it seems that the site was abandoned and probably fell into decay until 1650AD when it was destroyed (or "slighted") by a Cromwellian army in order to place it beyond defensive use.
Today, Dunamase Castle is an imposing ruin visible for miles around. As with many Irish sites, there are no entrance fees or tourist facilities. There's little doubt that were it in England, this site would be a major tourist attraction. In Ireland however, it lies abandoned and largely forgotten. I didn't see anyone else during my visit, and for me, this just adds to the charm.
Despite the heavily ruinous state of the castle, there's a lot here to see. Much of the walls survive, along with the remains of the banqueting hall, gatehouse and inner barbican gate. Along with the spectacular setting and views out over the surrounding landscape, this makes Dunamase Castle well worth a visit.