A Travel Guide
About an hour and a half south-southwest of Dublin in County Laois, you will find a picturesque 12th century hilltop castle ruin called Dunamase Castle atop a land form called the Rock of Dunamase. And while the castle is free of charge and just waiting for you to explore, that also means there is little documentation on this spot beyond a sign at the entrance gate that gives you a small piece of it's history with dates and names that may or may not be familiar. I'll give a concise history in a few moments.
Getting to Rock of Dunamase
Just off Exit 16 on the M7 motorway, you'll find getting to the castle somewhat stress-free, until you hit the last 3.7 km past the exit. At this point the road becomes narrow and down to a single lane going both directions. I visited on a quiet day so no negotiations with other drivers was necessary, but you may have to watch for cars coming and prepare to back up, if you need to. You'll know you've reached your destination when you see this church to your right. GPS was very handy with getting me to this spot.
Holy Trinity Church
Just below the ruins of Dunamase you'll find this currently active stone church that was built in the 1860's. If it's not a day of services, you can park your car right in front of it before making your way up to Rock of Dunamase.
Note: Just down the road, take some extra time to investigate a church ruin called St. Tidel's Church. It still has an in tact graveyard, but the church is almost entirely gone.
Rock of Dunamase Experience
At the entrance to the complex, you'll find an illustration of the staged walls and the castle's design, as well as it's history. There is a moderate climb once you pass through the gate, with photo opportunities galore. As you pass the outer gateway, you'll climb up through the main castle fortifications into the Lower Ward. You can walk all the way around to the Upper Ward and enter the castle from that side. Watch your step. The grounds here are many times uneven and you could twist an ankle if you get too mesmerized by the wonderful view and forget to be mindful of your footing.
The History of the Rock and Dunamase Castle
As you can tell when you get further and further up the hill, this location is strategically brilliant as you get a 360 view of the surrounding countryside. That strategic position may have been taken as early as the 3rd century, as the astronomer Ptolemy mentions a "hillfort" in an area he called Dunum which looks to be this very hill.
It's more known history begins when the site was pillaged by the Vikings in the 9th century, and in 12th century when the Norman rulers of England began their conquest of Irish Gaelic lands this strategic hill was taken by Richard "Strongbow" de Clare from the King of Leinster (Leinster was a Kingdom covering the southeast corner of Ireland). This is seen as the beginning of the struggle between England and Ireland which has lasted over 800 years. The Norman's used the castle as an administrative point and military stronghold until the mid-13th century.
It would be an invasion from England sanctioned by Oliver Cromwell in 1650 that would bring this castle to ruin. It has stood this way ever since. However, hunting for cannonballs would be in vein. In those days a more tedious dismantling called slighting was used to render a fortress unusable for protection.
As you climb the Lower Ward, you find the walking a bit more steep, but still manageable. The payoff is coming when you get to the top!
The Legend of Bandog
If legends are your thing, it is said there is a treasure buried on this hill somewhere. However, getting to it might be a bit of a challenge. Apparently there is a nasty hellish dog named Bandog that is charged with protecting the treasure from plunder. Flames are said to shoot from his mouth and eye-sockets. Maybe you should just play the lottery - there seem to be a million lotteries around Ireland!
Taking a quick look around on your way up, you'll see the remains of the curtain wall and the lush rolling green hills of the countryside that Ireland is so famous for.
Once you reach the top, you'll want to catch your breath while enjoying the sprawling farm land before you, with the Slieve Bloom mountains teasing you from just beyond the fields. I didn't have the advantage of a sunny day, but still I was able to see quite a distance and imagined the rest.
The best way to enter is from the opposite side from the walking path. Circle around to the Upper Ward and then in through the back entrance way. While still a ruin, this is the closest you'll get to imagining the castle in it's imposing glory days. Just look past the unfortunate graffiti. With part of it's Great Hall's skeleton frame still in tact, you can get a feel for the size of the living space in the castle.
As you move toward the front of the castle, you'll find less walls and more ruin. Take a look down the hill and see the mountain range and spot your car down by the Holy Trinity Church.
The scenery is phenomenal. It is definitely worth traversing those couple of kilometers of single lane road to get to this beautiful destination.
Planning a Visit
You could easily get here from Dublin in short order. It's about an hour and a half drive down motorways. Or you could do like I did and use a town like Tullamore or Kilkenny, Ireland as a jumping off point.
I mention the single lane roads you have to take to get here. Don't sweat it. People here navigate them all the time and they pull off at the first opportunity they have to let you by. Just realize that if you're closer to a more convenient pull off, you should make the effort to pull left and off the road.
And make sure to have a camera or a good smartphone camera. You won't be disappointed in the castle or the view.