A brief look at the early stages of Dunamase Castle, Ireland

As part of the tag challenge month I am going to briefly investigate the two themes of Ireland and Castles and Fortifications. Castles were, for the most part, military structures that were constructed in areas along frontiers to stop enemies from moving through their owners land. They could also be used aggressively both as a structure from where an invasion of a neighbouring territory could begin and also as a way politically stamping royalty or lordly authority over the land where the castle is located. Fortifications could also be seen as sites of grandeur and wealth, as while these buildings were built to defend a location they could also be used as symbols of political and social importance. Therefore, castles and fortifications were very important structures to the lords and aristocracy that built and owned them as they were both a statement of power and a means to support their image of immense wealth.

The castle that I will look at is the Irish and Anglo-Norman castle at Dunamase in the eastern area of County Laois. The original structure is believed to have been built-in the early 1170s by Meiler Fitz Henry, a Cambro-Norman nobleman on the area of rock formation known as the Rock of Dunamase during the first set of Norman incursions in Ireland. The castles founding has also been attributed to another Norman lord, Richard de Clare 2nd Earl of Pembroke or Strongbow who ruled over some of the lands of Leinster during the early 1170s. Therefore if I am understanding events correctly, while Meiler may have fortified the Rock, it was Strongbow that held it.

The castle was built at the natural fortress-like location of the Rock of Dunamase which is in essence a rock outcrop that has steep cliffs on all but the eastern and south-eastern sides. This was the ideal place to build a castle and the topography of the Rock had clearly been taken into account in its construction. Archaeologists have identified four main parts to the structure; the large keep and upper ward, the lower ward surrounded by a curtain wall, a triangular enclosure following in the south-east direction of the lower ward that forms the inner barbican and finally the timber and earth D-shaped outer barbican constructed on an area of earthworks. Whilst the early fortifications, the keep and upper and lower wards were part of the original site, the addition of the barbican seems to have been built later under the Norman lord William Marshall on the turn of the thirteenth century. According to archaeologists, as this castle was built on a rock outcrop, it would have been very unlikely that any buildings beside those that were military focused would have been built on the site at this stage.

This is just the earliest phase of the castles history, its roots shall we say. Its location makes this castle interesting simply because ‘sophisticated artificial defences were not needed over much of the castle as the natural strength of the Rock made this unnecessary in many places.’ [1] Though it served over purposes later in history, its foundations were clearly military as the site had been chosen for it defensive capabilities and its prime location in one of the early areas of Norman expansion into Ireland.

[1] Kieran O’ Conor., ‘Dunamase Castle’, Journal of Irish Archaeology, 7 (1996), 113.

Kieran O’ Conor., ‘Dunamase Castle’, Journal of Irish Archaeology, 7 (1996).

J. F O’Doherty., ‘The Anglo-Norman Invasion 1167-71’, Irish Historical Studies, 1 (1938).

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