We travel up and down to Dublin a lot and for the longest time we kept passing the sign for the Rock of Dunamase and saying “we really have to check that out one day”! Fortunately, we eventually did get around to checking it out because this is a remarkable site and one of my favourite places to visit now.

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So if you find yourself traveling along the M7 motorway and see the signs for the Rock of Dunamase, don’t hesitate. I promise it’s well worth the diversion and you won’t regret it!

I’ve been to the Rock of Dunamase many times since that first visit, most recently last week. We had an unexpected snowfall, so I couldn’t resist stopping off on the way home from Dublin. There’s nothing like a bit of snow to make things that little bit more magical!

Image from in front of the barbican gate. The foreground is covered in snow.

A couple walk uphill towards the ruins of Dunamase Castle

What exactly is the Rock of Dunamase?

The Rock of Dunamase refers to the rocky limestone outcrop, rather than the ruins upon it. The Rock stands at 46 metres high and it’s vantage point over the surrounding countryside made it a perfect defensive site back in the day. The ruins which you can explore on the Rock of Dunamase are all that remain of Dunamase Castle. The castle was built on the site in the latter half of the 12th Century.

A pink sky at sunrise over the ruins of the main gatehouse of Dunamase Castle

The ruins of the main Gatehouse of Dunamase Castle

History

An earlier Christian settlement predated the castle in the 9th century. At that time a hill fort was constructed on the site, called Dún Masc (Fort of the Masc). Vikings pillaged the settlement in 842.

With the arrival of the Normans in the 12th century, the Rock of Dunamase became an important Anglo-Norman stronghold. Construction of Dunamase Castle began in the late 12th century and took full advantage of the site’s natural defensive features. On completion, the castle had four lines of defence which included an outer and inner barbican, curtain wall and inner keep.

Seemingly abandoned in the 14th century, the castle fell into a gradual decline. It is then believed to have been destroyed by Cromwellian forces in the mid 17th century. This was to prevent the Irish from using it against them.

Looking up at the remains of the Great Hall on the summit of the Rock of Dunamase

The remains of the Great Hall

A view through the ruins to the church and carpark at the Rock of Dunamase

Why visit the Rock of Dunamase?

The Rock of Dunamase is now a national monument and is under the protection of the state. It is open 24/7 and year round. It’s well worth a visit to explore the ruins and take in the magnificent views of the surrounding countryside and across to the Slieve Bloom mountains.

I love wandering around the ruins, imaging how amazing this castle must have been when it was intact. There’s an information panel near the base of the Rock. It has a drawing of what the castle would have looked like, to aid your day dreams. It’s a far cry from what remains today but on the plus side, the views are significantly better now without walls in the way!

Pink sunrise over the surrounding plains from the top of the Rock of Dunamase

View over the surrounding plains

Information panel at the base of the Rock of Dunamase with a reconstructed drawing of what the castle would have looked like

Drawing of Dunamase Castle on information panel at the entrance

Also, you won’t find bus loads of tourists arriving here. Often when I visit, I have the whole place to myself and have never seen it very busy, though I haven’t visited at the weekend. I met just four other people there last week.

Lastly, it’s always open and is totally free. So if you’re looking for somewhere unique and off the tourist trail then make sure you visit the Rock of Dunamase.

Looking towards the snow covered hills from behind the ruins of the main gatehouse and curtain wall. A large group of birds are flying past overhead.

Rock of Dunamase Trivia!

The Rock of Dunamase was a location used in the movie Leap Year, a cheesy rom-com starring Amy Adams. You’re forgiven if you didn’t recognise it though! “Ballycarbery Castle” is the location in the movie. In reality, it’s a mix of the Rock of Dunamase and a lot of CGI! Not to be confused with the real Ballycarbery Castle, which is in Kerry either.

Getting There

Located just outside Portlaoise, the Rock of Dunamase is only around a ten minute drive from the town along the N80. If you’re travelling from Dublin, take the M7 south towards Portlaoise. The Rock of Dunamase is clearly signposted just before the Exit 16 turn-off. Take the second left at the roundabout and follow the road till you see the Rock on your right. The next right turn will lead you up to the parking area and entrance.

View for the Rock of Dunamase and ruins from the parking area

View from the parking area. No CGI involved!

Things to do Nearby

If you’re making a visit specifically to see the Rock of Dunamase and would like to spend more time in the area, you’ll find plenty to keep you busy for a day or weekend. Visit nearby Emo Court, a beautiful neo-classical mansion. You can take a tour of the house (March – November), walk the grounds and grab a bite to eat in the café.

Completed in 1912, Heywood Gardens in Ballinakill have 50 acres of gardens, lakes and woodland to explore. The gardens are open all year round and admission is free. Once again you’ll get great views of the surroundings and towards the Slieve Bloom Mountains.

The Slieve Blooms look good from afar but are much better close up! Take a scenic drive through the Slieve Blooms and enjoy this underrated area. Stop off in some of the quaint villages or enjoy one of the many walks in this picturesque landscape. For just €5 you can join one of the guided walks that take place every Sunday.

Accommodation

Close to the Rock of Dunamase, there are plenty of accommodation options in Portlaoise or the Abbeyleix Manor Hotel is a popular option and is less than 5km from Heywood Gardens.

Kinnitty village is a great base for exploring the Slieve Blooms. Try glamping at Giltraps Townhouse & Glamping or if you fancy some luxury after a day on the trails stay at Kinnitty Castle Hotel. The stunning Gothic castle is located at the foot of the Slieve Bloom Mountains and they can organise guided walks and other activities.