Rock of Dunamase from the top of a large limestone outcrop in county Laois, the imposing fortress at the Rock of Dunamase dominates the surrounding landscape. It is strategically located, overlooking an important route between counties Carlow and Laois, and as result the castle played an important role in the early Anglo-Norman expansion in Leinster.
Today most of the surviving ruins at the site date from the late 12th and early 13th centuries AD, but evidence for earlier activity also exists. The Irish name for the castle (Dún Másc) translates as Masc’s fort and the rock appears to have been defended since at least the 9th century AD. Some evidence for this earlier fort was identified during archaeological excavations carried out in the 1990s (Hodkinson 1995 & link).
These revealed at least two enclosing drystone walls and an earthen bank which pre-dated the Anglo-Norman castle. In addition, two copper-alloy decorative pieces of 9th century date were uncovered along with a silver Anglo-Saxon penny (Ecgberht of Wessex, 802-839 AD).
This ties in with the historical record, as the first reference to Dunamase occurs in 843 AD when it was attacked by the Vikings (Annals of Four Masters). It is not exactly certain who built the subsequent Anglo-Norman castle, but it may have been Meilyr FitzHenry, or possibly William Marshall, Lord of Leinster. Construction began sometime in the late 12th century and an impressive fortification was soon erected that cleverly utilised the rocks natural defensive features. It contained at least four lines of defence, including an outer and inner barbican, a curtain wall and a substantial inner keep.