The Rock of Dunamase, or what’s left of it, sits on top of a hill 6km from the town of Portlaoise in the Irish midlands. The limestone outcrop on which the fortress is built dominates the surrounding plains of the Great Heath. Standing over 45m high, the Rock of Dunamase has been a site of strategic importance for over 1,000 years. It must have been a very impressive spectacle in its day. Alas, these days it something that has been savaged by a Rottweiler 😦
Nobody is quite sure how long the Rock of Dunamase has been used as a fortress. Although the Greek geographer Ptolemy makes reference to a place called “Dunum” on his 2nd century map of Ireland, there is no evidence to suggest this site is what he meant. It’s a nice idea though. Archaeological digs and records from the time suggest that the rock was originally a 9th century fort called Dún Masc. Easy to see how its English name Dunamase came from. In the “Annals of the Four Masters” which chronicle Irish history, it is recorded that Dún Masc was raided by Vikings in 944AD. It would’ve been more unusual if the site hadn’t been raided by the Nordic invaders, such was their fondness for raiding and pillaging. No doubt the hapless abbot of Terryglass agreed – he happened to be here when they came a-knocking and was killed as a result of this raid.
Things get a bit woolly after this. Nobody seems to know or agree on when the site became a fortress it is today. It came into the ownership of the Anglo-Normans in the 12th century and was fortified. It appears to have been owned by the wonderfully named Meiler Fitzhenry at one stage and then by William Marshall. The latter is a significant Norman figure in Irish history. It became an important centre of strategic and military importance in the region. Looking at the Office of Public Works’ recreation of the site, one can get a sense of the layout of the place.
In the 14th century, the last Anglo-Norman owner of the castle was executed by King Edward III for treason. It then came into the ownership of the Irish O’More family who didn’t handle it with care. Instead, the site was badly damaged and abandoned. Making doubly sure it wouldn’t be much use for anything, it was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in the mid 17th century. Yet another addition to the long list of reason why he’s one of the most unpopular people in Ireland’s history.
In the late 18th century, an attempt was made to partially restore the fragmented remains. The great-grandfather of the legendary 19th-century politician Charles Stewart Parnell attempted to turn the Great Hall into a banqueting hall. Some doors and windows from other sites were added to the building and they remain to this day. It was a short-lived experiment though. Soon the castle returned to its current ruinous state, overlooking the surrounding countryside.
What’s there now?
The Rock of Dunamase is easily accessed, so no lengthy journeys along winding country boreens are needed here. There’s also plenty of parking along the road that runs past it, more than can be said for some of these places.
The first feature of note on the rock is the Barbican Gate which would have been the entrance to the complex. The murder hole above the entrance can still be seen and still works, should anyone have some boiling oil to hand 😉 Still to be seen along the wall attached to this gate are narrow defensive windows through which arrows could be shot at wannabe attackers.
Beyond the Barbican Gate lie the remnants of the gatehouse, a defensive curtain wall and a deep ditch. Elements of the rock itself were used as a defensive feature. Even in its current ruinous state, it’s easy to get a sense of how tricky it would have been to attack the place. Originally there would have been wooden buildings here too but they have long since vanished.
At the top of the hill are the remains of the 12th-century keep/great hall. Even though it is ruined and is surrounded by large chunks of mangled buildings, one can still get a sense of how impressive a structure it must have been. Thanks to the failed attempt to turn it into a banqueting hall, it has been altered somewhat.
The Great Hall
It is a pity that this place was so badly damaged all those years ago. In recent years conservation work was carried out by the Office of Public Works so it’s about as safe as these sorts of places can be. It is still well worth visiting, not just to look at the remains of the fortress itself but to admire the views from the top. The lush greenery of The Heath is very beautiful too and apparently can be seen from outer space!
Fore is a sleepy village in north Co. Westmeath, nestled in the hills near Lough Lene. It’s off the beaten track and not the sort of place you’ll visit by chance. At first glance, the monastic ruins beside the village don’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. That is until you take a closer look…
A brief history of Fore
Fore gets its name from the old Irish word Fobhair which is pronounced in the same way as Fore. It means “water springs” which makes sense because there’s plenty of that around here. The monastic settlement at Fore is actually made up of two separate monasteries, split by a road. The older part of the monastery, on the left-hand side of the road, was founded by St. Féchin in the 7th century. Very little remains from that era apart from a little church that’s named after St. Féchin (more on that later). There may have been two more churches on the site but they have vanished without a trace. It is thought that in the heyday of this early monastery, 300 monks and 2,000 students lived here. Where exactly they crammed them all is another question. Further up the hill from the church is a mausoleum which is a relatively modern addition.
In 665, St. Féchin and some other high ranking clergy were approached by two kings who had an interesting request for them. They asked them to pray to God for a plague to come and wipe out the lower classes of society, reducing their number. God answered their prayers after a fashion – St. Féchin and his comrades died of yellow plague.
Across the road from are the remnants of a much more substantial monastery. These buildings were built by the Anglo-Normans and it became a Benedictine monastery with strong links to France. Indeed, this monastery is dedicated both to St. Féchin and to the French St. Taurin. The first Benedictine monks in Fore were French – what they thought of rural Westmeath has been lost in the mists of time. Because this was the era when England and France were at war, Fore frequently was seized by the English because of the French connection. It also suffered many attacks during its existence. It’s known that Fore was burned at least 12 times between the 8th and 12th centuries. Often these attacks were led by the Vikings. It’s believed that there were a staggering 3,000 monks housed in and around the abbey in Fore’s heyday. The abbey’s time finally came to an end in 1539 as part of King Henry VIII’s campaign of monastery closures in the British Isles. Luckily for the abbot in charge of Fore, he walked away with his head still attached to his shoulders and a pension from the king. All he had to do was agree to the closure of the abbey. Once this happened, it was ransacked and anything of value taken away.
A less obvious feature of the area is what has become known as the Fore Crosses. There are 18 of these little crosses, carved hundreds of years ago and placed along the road to Fore and in nearby fields. There is one in the centre of the village and others on the outskirts of the village.
It may be mostly crumbly old ruins these days but Fore still is known for its mysterious 7 Wonders. These are
The Monastery in a bog
The Mill without a race
The water that flows uphill
The tree that has three branches or the tree that won’t burn
The water that won’t boil
The anchorite (hermit) in a cell
The stone raised by St. Féichin’s prayers
Are these wonders still as wondrous as they were? You decide 🙂
The Monastery in a Bog
This 13th century Benedictine Abbey is now in ruins but there’s still lots to see. It was built around a cloister and courtyard. The partial remains of the cloister can still be seen. Two large towers were built in the Abbey, partly as accommodation, partly as defensive structures. Arrow slits can be seen on the towers and the entrance gate has a murder hole incorporated into it. These days, the ground surrounding the abbey is less marshy/boggy than it was. Perhaps a modern day miracle is that despite all the attacks and being open to the elements for centuries, there’s so much remaining.
The Mill Without A Race
Legend has it that a mill was built but it had no race. Luckily St. Fechin was on hand with his trusty crozier. He struck the ground with it and water gushed forward. Spectacular but perhaps a slight embellishment of the truth. The mill was supplied by a number of springs which flow underground from nearby Lough Lene. There are still some remnants of the old mill pond, although it’s mostly silted up these days. The existing mill (or what’s left of it) are built on the site of the original mill from St. Féchin’s time. It remained in use until around 1875 and is marked on the original Ordnance Survey 6″ map.
The water that flows uphill
Unfortunately, the subtlety of this one passed me by. It seems that if you look carefully, the stream that flows ever so slightly downhill in the field leading to the ruined abbey turns back on itself and flows uphill. Maybe.
The tree that has three branches or the tree that won’t burn/the water that will not boil
Now this one is even more bewildering than the uphill water. Especially if you’re on the lookout for a tree with three branches. The original unburnable, three-branched tree stood over a holy well known as Tobernacogny. A plaque on the wall behind it explains it all
“There was an ash tree with three branches growing over the well and it was – and still is – the custom for visitors to drive a coin edgeways into the bark. This may have been injurious to the tree which is now dead but the single surviving branch still exhibits a good selection of coinage. It is said that the wood from the tree will not burn and the water from the well will never boil. The water was taken as a cure for headache and toothache. ”
The tree that stands today is known as a rag tree or a raggedy bush. As the name might suggest, it is covered in rags and pieces of clothing. There is still a belief amongst certain people that if a piece of clothing belonging to someone who’s ill or has a problem is hung on the tree, that it will disappear as the cloth rots. There was no sign of any water in the well so perhaps it has given up on curing people’s aches and pains.
The Anchorite (or hermit) in a cell
There is a hermit’s cell in the tower of this little chapel. When a hermit entered the cell, he vowed never to go outdoors again for the rest of his life. It is believed that the last hermit in Ireland was Patrick Beglan, who was here in 1616. The tower was built in the 15th century and the rest of the chapel added on in the 18th. Unfortunately, this church is usually locked up so few people ever get to see the cell looks like.
The stone raised by St. Féichin’s prayers
St. Féichin’s church is the oldest building on the site. It was built in the 7th century as a much smaller church but was extended in the centuries after that. Its most notable feature is the lintel over the doorway. It is very heavy (it’s estimated it weighs at least 2 tons) and not something that could be lifted easily by anyone. The story goes that when the workmen building the church were having their breakfast, St. Féichin said some prayers, then lifted up the stone and put it in position.
Overlooking Fore is a hill with a rocky outcrop on top. It’s known as Carrick Balor. For anyone unfamiliar with Irish placenames, Carrick is an Anglicisation of the word Carraig which means rock. Balor was an evil-eyed monster or god from Irish mythology.
Along the gravelled walkway that leads from the car park to the ruins of the Abbey is a second holy wall known as Doaghfeighin, or St. Féichin’s Well. It’s described elsewhere as being a well surrounded by box-like stones. Alas, it’s not possible to take a closer look these days because not only is it mostly hidden by trees but it’s fenced off with a barrier. It is possible that this may have been an earlier megalithic tomb or cist.
The village of Fore developed alongside the monastery. Today it’s a quiet village with a population of fewer than 400 people. A sign of its previous importance are the two medieval town gates on its outskirts and the remnants of a jail in the village itself.
In the 19th century, an ancient bell was found in nearby Lough Lene. This was a popular haunt of Turgesius the Viking, a man who was partial to raiding Fore. The website Voices from the Dawn has put forward the intriguing theory that this bell may once have been St. Féchin’s ceremonial bell. The bell is now in the possession of the National Museum of Ireland. A smaller replica of it is used in the Irish Parliament (The Dáil) by the speaker of the house to try and maintain order.