An extraordinary landmark, the Rock of Dunamase towers over the plains of Laois. Strategically located, the Rock would have had commanding views of the landscape that provided formidable natural defenses. The position of this site may have been marked on a map by the Greek astronomer, mathematician and geographer Claudius Ptolemy in the second century AD. He appears to have labelled the site as Dunum, but thus far, no archaeological evidence dating to this early period has been discovered on the Rock of Dunamase.
The earliest evidence of a fort at the Rock of Dunamase dates to the early medieval period. The remains of a drystone wall thought to date to this time can be found just north of the gatehouse on the site. During this early stage the site was known as Dún Masc and it is recorded in the Annals of Ireland that Vikings raided the site in AD 844. They managed to fight their way past the defences and killed the abbot of Terryglass who was seeking shelter inside the fort.
The site was refortified after the Anglo-Norman invasions of Ireland. Dunamase was part of the dowry paid by the King of Leinster, Diarmait MacMurchada, when his daughter Aoife married Richard de Clare (Strongbow), the leader of the Norman invasions. Strongbow may have appointed Geoffrey de Constentin to fortify the site, some time in the 1170s. However, by 1181, Meiler FitzHenry had been ordered to hold the castle, which was on the dangerous and unsettled borderland with powerful Irish tribes. The famous chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis, who was a first-hand witness to the early days of the Norman invasion, described FitzHenry as, ‘a dark man with black, stern eyes and keen face … he was very strong, with a square chest … was high-spirited, proud, and brave to rashness.’
Meiler gained respect from both friend and foe for his bravery and daring in combat. In one famous exploit recounted by Giraldus, FitzHenry found himself deep in a forest, cut off from his men and surrounded by Irish warriors. He fought his way out and arrived back safe to find that his horse had been wounded by three Irish axes and two more axes were embedded in his shield, testament to the ferocity of the fighting.
FitzHenry was seen as the perfect man to hold the fiercely contested border lands of Laois. His valour saw him being given the honour of becoming Justiciar of Ireland. He constructed Dublin Castle in 1204, but Meiler regularly quarrelled with the other powerful Norman lords. In particular, Meiler FitzHenry became highly disgruntled when Dunamase was given to William Marshal as part of the dowry Marshal received upon marrying de Clare’s daughter, Isabella. It was Marshal that continued the work begun by de Constentin and FitzHenry, and who transformed Dunamase into a truly formidable fortress.
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