• Ali Isaac

the rock of dunamase

Updated: Mar 16

This week I went on a road trip to Cork and back: no husband, no kids, just me and myself. The sun shone, the temperature ramped up to 26*C, Co. Cork was so beautiful, blue sea and green hills, and I felt like I was on holiday. I went to meet author Sara Baume; thanks to Words Ireland and the Irish Arts Council, she is my mentor for my Imperfect Bodies project, but more about that another time. On my return journey, I stopped at many sites I have always wanted to visit, including this one: The Rock of Dunamase, which I first fell in love with after seeing the powerful black and white images taken by photographer and blogger, Ed Mooney.

Dunamase is a particularly photogenic Anglo-Norman castle located atop a strikingly prominent craggy outcrop overlooking the relatively flat rolling plains of Co. Laois. It totally dominates the neighbouring countryside, and must have been very imposing in its heyday.

This is a site built for defence. It sits on high ground surrounded on three sides by sheer rock faces. The castle faces onto sloping ground, the only route by which attack is possible. To counter this, the castle has not one but two barbicans, and a huge ditch, or dry moat. The outer barbican was protected by earthworks, whereas the inner barbican had stone walls and a gate tower. The keep itself was located right at the very top of the site, where it was safest. The outer walls contained many narrow arrow loops where archers would have been stationed and safely fire on their enemies. See the artist's impression below to see how this castle would have looked before it fell into disrepair.

Even in its current state, Dunamase castle is beautiful and impressive. However, its history is even more compelling than its looks, because according to legend, this is where Diarmuid Mac Murchada, King of Leinster, brought Derbforgaill, wife of the King of Breifne, Tighearnán Ua Ruairc, after abducting her in 1152. This was an act which was forever to change the course of history, for it led to the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland.

As a result, Diarmuid was deposed by Ruaidri Ua Conchobair, who was High King of Ireland. Diarmuid fled to England to seek help from King Henry II, who allowed him to petition support among English and Welsh nobles and thus raise an army. He met and convinced Richard de Clere, Earl of Pembroke, otherwise known as Strongbow, to provide an army to help him recover his kingdom, but he paid a hefty price: he was to give his daughter, Aoife, in marriage to Strongbow, along with the succession to the throne of Leinster.

the marriage of strongbow and aoife painted by daniel maclise in 1854, public domain, now housed in the national gallery of ireland

In 1169, an advance party landed in Ireland and defeated Waterford, Wexford and Dublin. Strongbow arrived in Ireland in 1170, and he and Aoife were married on 25th August that year. Aoife was sometimes known as Aoife Ruadh (Red Eva) for leading troops into battle.

images of the keep

Archaeology indicates that there had been fortifications on this site dating as far back as the ninth century. This early fort was known as Dún Masc, and according to the Annals of Ulster, it was attacked by Vikings in 845 AD:

Dún Masc was plundered by the heathens, and there were killed there Aed son of Dub dá Crích, abbot of Tír dá Glas, and Cluain Eidnig, Ceithernach son of Cú Dínaisc, prior of Cell Dara, and many others.

Annals of Ulster, U845.2, Celt.UCC.ie

There were no castles in Ireland prior to the arrival of the Anglo-Normans. A dún was a fortified dwelling such as a ring-fort, and there are the remains of hundreds of these types of structures dotted throughout the Irish landscape. However, to have attracted the attention of the bounty-loving Norsemen, it must have been a dwelling well-known for its wealth and riches.

According to Kieran O'Conor, the medieval castle structure still extant on the site today is the remains of the refortification of a pre-existing fortress carried out between 1208 and 1210 AD by William Marshall the Elder, not as a defence against the native Irish, but against the factions and in-fighting of his own Anglo-Norman vassals.

William Marshall inherited Dunamase, as well as his title as Earl of Pembroke, through his marriage to Isabel de Clare, the daughter of Aoife and Strongbow, their sole (and very wealthy) heir.

an artist's impression of Dunamase in its heyday

Possession of the castle passed with the female line of the family, before abandonment some time during the early 1300s. I find it fascinating that, at a time in history when we are repeatedly told women had no power, wealth, or property, this incredible castle had such strong and enduring female connections, first with Derbforgaill, then Aoife, then her daughter, Isobel, followed by her own daughter, Eva, who in turn passed it on to her daughter, Maud. She married Roger Mortimer, Baron of Mortimer, and as the castle passed into male Mortimer possession, it also met its demise.

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