Dunamase Castle

Excavations in the 1990s demonstrated that the Rock of Dunamase was first settled in the ninth century when a hill fort or dun was constructed on the site.  This was known as Dun Masc, or Masc's Fort.  Masc was the son of Ugen, a king said to be of manifold beauty.  According to the Metrical Dindseanchas:

Six sons had blameless Ugen, who was eager willed for every exploit;
they bathed [their blades] abundantly, they built raths and great fortresses
Ladru, Noe, Finteng of the feats, Luad Cuar and Alb skilled in devices;
and Masc the sixth and eldest won fame from every family.
Noe in the west of Rechet unbetrayed found covering of good soil.
Masc mightiest with spear, in his impregnable stronghold dwelled undespoiled.

It would appear that Masc's impregnable stronghold was Dunamase.  
Several chronicles record the fall of Dun Masg in  843/4, when the Vikings of Dublin attacked the site and captured Aed son of Dub dá Chríchthe, the abbot of Terryglass.  He was carried off into Munster where he 'suffered martyrdom'.  In the recent excavations a coin of Ecgberht of Wessex (802-39) was found.  It is thought that the masonry remains visible to the right of the main gatehouse outside the curtain wall are the remains of Dun Masgand that the fall of the fort ended fortification at the site until the second half of the twelfth century when Dunamase was refortified by the MacMurrough kings of LeinsterKing Dermot MacMurrough of Leinster (d.1171) brought the wife of King Tierman O'Rourke of Breifne (d.1172) here after kidnapping her.  As a consequence the O'Connor and O'Rourke clans drove MacMurrough from Dunamase, forcing him to flee from Ireland.  In response MacMurrough gave Dunamase and his daughter Aoife in marriage to the Norman, Earl Richard Clare of Pembroke in 1170, as part of a deal to enlist his help to regain his lands.  The result was the Anglo-Norman-Welsh invasion of Ireland when Clare accompanied MacMurrough, along with many men, to attack and regain his kingdom.  Throughout Ireland Earl Clare is still remembered as Strongbow, although this was not his name.  He was actually lord of Chepstow that was then known as Strigoil and this is where the alleged nickname actually came from.

After Clare's death in 1176, Princess Aoife seems to have resided mainly in England and appears to have ended her days in Goodrich castle.  Her lands in Ireland passed to Crown officials, until in 1189 King Richard I granted Aoife's daughter and heir, Isabel Clare, in marriage to William Marshal, who was to become earl of Pembroke as well as lord of Dunamase.  Earl William betrayed King John early in the thirteenth century and consequently lost Dunamase to the king.  In 1211 the royal sheriff rendered an account of £53 6s 8d for the farm of the Irish of Dunamase and £13 6s 8d for the farm of the English as well as for the mill.  He also rendered £6 for the land on which
Dunmalc castle was situated.  Damas castle was returned to Earl William on 20 August 1215.  Even so, the royal barons of Ireland apparently did not agree with this move and on 31 August the king found himself obliged to order the justiciar of Ireland to order Godfrey Luterel to return the castle of Dunmathto Earl William 'as he had already been commanded to do'.  The castle seems to have played no part in Earl William Marshall's war against Hugh Lacy (d.1242) in 1224, but on 22 April 1225, the king did allow William the service due to the king ‘to enable the earl to fortify a castle in Ireland'.  Possibly this was Dunamase.  

The fortress remained under Earl William until on 11 April 1231 the constables of the Marshall castles of Kilkenny, Odoch, Wexford, Ros, Dunamase (Dumas), Carlow (Katherlach), Kildare, Kerry and De Insula were informed that their Lord William Marshall was dead and that they were now mandated to obey Walerand Teuton in his place.  The castle then passed to Earl Richard Marshall who was killed by the Geraldines at Curragh near Kildare in April 1234 after he had rebelled against Henry III.  The castle then passed to Richard's brother, Gilbert Marshall, who
on 25 May 1234, was ordered to turn Chepstow castle over to the archbishop of Canterbury and Dumas castle over to the archbishop of Dublin for the king to remit against him his 'anger and indignation and grant that he could return into the king's peace and service'.  The king also noted that he would not seize either castle into his own hand to the disherison of Gilbert or his heirs.  The seizure in any case was only nominal for on 31 May 1234 the king returned the rest of Gilbert's Irish lands and ordered Dunamase castle itself returned on 22 August.

In 1247, after the death of Earl Gilbert's last brother and heir, the Marshal lands were divided among the elder William Marshall's 5 daughters, Dunamase falling to Eva Marshal and then to her daughter, Matilda Braose (d.1301), who by this time was married to Roger Mortimer of Wigmore (d.1282).  At this time the castle and barony were worth £104 19s 1d, plus another £3 1s 10d which was assigned to the earl of Gloucester as his part of the inheritance.

In 1264, as part of the baron's wars sweeping through England, the Geraldines - the descendants of Gerald Windsor - fought against Earl Walter Burgh of Ulster.  As a result of one action, Maurice Fitz Maurice (1238-86) captured the justiciar of Ireland, Richard Rokele as well as Theobald Butler (1242-85), the lord of Nenagh castle, and John Cogan and imprisoned them at Dunamase.  Later in 1280-81, another prisoner held in Mortimer's castle of Dunamase was King Muirchertach MacMurrough of Leinster.  On the death of Roger Mortimer in October 1282 it was found that Dunamase lordship was worth a little over £35 per annum.  This suggests that the land, if not the castle, had been seriously disrupted in the past 30 years.

The castle remained in Mortimer hands until 1321 when it was seized by forces loyal to King Edward II and given to the earl of Kildare.  The castle was returned to Mortimer in 1327, though retaken by the Crown in 1330 when Roger Mortimer was executed for treason.  The king granted the castle to Fulke de la Freigne in 1334, but he seems to have been held out of ownership by first the men of the deceased earl of Kildare who claimed the right to the fortress by the 1321 grant of Edward II and then after 1335 by Lysaght O'More.  The result was an intermittent war that went on until O'More's death in 1342.  A chronicle listed one of Lysaght's achievements as being 'the destruction of the noble Dunamase castle'.  Excavation has shown that the gatehouse at least was destroyed by burning around this time.  Evidence of this can still be seen in the reddening of some stones in this structure.  When Connell O'More made his peace with Justiciar Walter Birmingham of Ireland in 1346/7, he claimed to hold some of his lands of Donmaske manor of the Mortimers.  Indeed when an O'More made his submission to King Henry VIII on 24 August 1538 he finally agreed to renounce his claim to Dunamase castle, even though the fortress had apparently been derelict since the 1330s.

Despite claims that in 1641 the castle was seized by Charles Coote and then taken by Catholic forces under Eoghan Rua O'Neill in 1646, as well as there being a resultant counter-attack in 1650 that left the castle heavily damaged, there is no contemporary evidence that any of this ever happened.  However, at the end of the eighteenth century, Sir John Parnell began to restore Dunamase keep to create a banqueting hall. It was his importation and inclusion of later medieval cut stone windows, doors etc., taken from local ruins, which has given rise to the impression of a later phase of occupation.

The castle rock is bell-shaped with a much smaller outer ward to the east.  On the summit of the hill stands a massive keep over 115' long and 66' wide with walls up to 9' thick.  The base of the keep was equipped with a powerful plinth, the rubble masonry of which is of a better quality than the external curtains.  The apparently original embrasures have round-headed Romanesque embrasure roofs.  The original structure only appears to have been one storey high, so may have simply been a large hall.

The large inner ward, over 330' across, has irregular walls 6' thick covering the summit of the rock.  A wallwalk can still be seen to the east about 12' above internal ground level, while there is a slight plinth at the wall base.  Most of the defences are crowded to the east where the easy approach from the outer ward lies.  These consist of a rectangular gatehouse and a series of ruined, rectangular buildings, one of which may have been an early entrance to the site, another may have been a long hall.  The curtain wall has a rectangular, open-backed turret at the SE corner where it joins the outer ward.  Beside this tower is what appears to be a postern doorway leading into the outer ward, while the ground floor east loop has been converted - or was designed as - the entrance onto the outer curtain wallwalk.

Internal buildings seem to have lain along the east inner wall too, judging from the loops cut through it, although the only intact one, south of the gatehouse, is a normal crossbow loop.  The tallest surviving fragment of curtain towards the north still has 3 post holes in it which show that the wall was once equipped with a wooden hoarding.  To the south is a weak-walled long barbican and postern, somewhat reminiscent of those at Carreg Cennen, Dinefwr and Denbigh.  This is an obvious addition to the inner ward curtain and once again this work contains ground floor crossbow loops.  The inner ward was subdivided with a 4' thick wall N&S from the keep to make an upper ward to the west and a lower one to the east.

The outer ward is about 100' across and has a single D shaped gatetower at the point of access.  This has a constable's chamber above with loops covering the approach and a murder hole within the porcullisless gate.  The upper chamber was reached via a flight of straight steps within the tower built against the 
north wall.  Steps lead down from the gatetower to the curtain wallwalk to the west.  Presumably the same layout exists to the south, but this portion of wall has collapsed.  The low polygonal curtain behind the rock-cut ditch was well equipped with deeply splayed crossbow loops, which parallel those of the inner ward east curtain.  Such ground floor loops in a curtain are not common and are found elsewhere, possibly at Adare as well as at Aguillar in France and Beaumaris, Flint, Grosmont and Rhuddlan in Wales. Similar loops can be seen in the early work at Goodrich and the 1220s work at Rochester in England.  The rubble masonry of this wall at Dunamase is made of much smaller blocks than the inner ward defences, which again emphasises that it was constructed at a later date.

If you would like to visit this and other great castles of Ireland I am leading a tour there in October.  Please feel free to look over the details by clicking here.


Copyright©2017 Paul Martin Remfry