LivingTravelHow to visit the rock of Dunamase

How to visit the rock of Dunamase

Crowning the top of a limestone outcrop near Portlaoise in Co. Laois, the Rock of Dunamase is a ruined castle perched above the Irish countryside. Its strategic location offered views of the surrounding landscape, making it easy to spot potential invaders. This ideal setting became the seat of power for the kings, the legendary Strongbow, and later the Lords of Laois. However, the castle was soon abandoned and later destroyed.

You can still see the castle ruins sitting dramatically atop the farms that now surround it. Do you want to appreciate it for yourself? Here is how to visit the Rock of Dunamase.


The earliest record of the Rock of Dunamase dates back to the 2nd century AD when Ptolemy included the site on a map. However, there is no archaeological evidence that buildings existed at the site at that time.

The first dun , or fortress, was built in the 9th century and was soon attacked and looted by the Vikings in 845. The next evidence of settlers at the same site does not come until more than 300 years later, when a castle was built in the rocky outcrop. in 1100 and used by the Normans.

It became one of Laois’ most important forts and was so strategic and desirable that Diarmuid Mac Murrough, King of Leinster, included it in his daughter Aiofe’s dowry when it was given to him in marriage to Strongbow. Strongbow then passed the castle on Dunamase Rock to his own son-in-law William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke.

Marshal added fortifications and lived on the Rock of Dunamase from 1208 to 1213. The castle remained in the Marshal family for several generations before falling to the O’Moores and finally being abandoned in the 13th century.

Already in disrepair, local legend says that the castle was destroyed by Cromwell’s forces during their conquest in 1651 to prevent it from being used as a fortress. Sir John Parnell, a member of the Anglo-Irish Parliament, briefly attempted to restore the castle in the late 1700s, but it was eventually left in its present state in ruins.


While there are no historical records, it is commonly believed that Dunamase rock was blown up by Cromwell’s forces in the 17th century. What remains of the castle are fragments of gray stone walls scattered on top of a hill.

Most of the castle walls date back to the 12th and 13th centuries, although there are also signs of a strong earlier ring. The Great Hall was located atop the rocky outcrop, protected on three sides by cliffs. The ruins of the thickest fortified walls are at the lowest point, protecting what would have been the only entrance to Dunamase Castle.

While none of the walls are completely intact, some of the holes in the collapsed walls were intentional. The heavily defended castle was designed with “assassination holes” through which archers could fire at approaching enemy forces. The design would have been avant-garde in the 13th century.

When Sir John Parnell attempted to restore the castle in 1795, he incorporated medieval architectural elements that were borrowed from other Irish castles. These can still be found mixed in with the original ruins.

Visiting the rock of Dunamase

The Rock of Dunamase is a ruined castle, but the old Irish fort is well worth a visit when you stop in Co. Laois. There is no visitor center or entrance, and the hill position offers beautiful views of the countryside. It is free to walk around the site without a guide, and an audio guide of the Rock of Dunamase is available on the Laois City Council website.

What else to do nearby

Part of the appeal of Dunmase Rock is its location in the countryside. However, this also means that there are not many things to do immediately next to the old castle.

You can explore Heywood Gardens, which is about a 10-mile drive from the Rock of Dunamase, passing Ballinakill on the Abbeyleix road. The 50 acres of gardens, wooded land and lakes have easy hiking trails and there is a deck overlooking the Laois countryside.

Emo Court, an 18th-century country house built for the Earls of Portarlington, also features formal gardens and woodlands that can be explored nearby.

A little further afield is the Donaghmore Famine Museum, a 30-minute drive away. The museum is housed within the Donaghmore Workhouse, which was established during the Great Famine (1845-1849) in order to provide shelter and meals for poor families. The workhouse became home to about 10% of the local population, and the self-guided museum aims to tell the stories of the families who lived here during that time.

The closest town to the Rock of Dunamase is Portlaoise, the county town of Laoise, which has pubs, restaurants and traditional shops.

Or hit the road again to discover some of Ireland’s best castles.

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