Athy's tranquil setting on the River Barrow gives no hint of its stormy past during the medieval period of Irish history. The town founded in the 12th century by Anglo Norman settlers was for a long time a focal point for conflict between the towns inhabitants and the native Irish. The natives referred to as "The Wild Irish" inhabited the lands on the western bank of the River Barrow and they attacked and burnt the then village of Athy on a number of occasions during the 14th century. The O'Mores of Leix were particularly antagonistic to the newly established village.
The conflict continued into the 16th century and in the intervening years the inhabitants of the village of Athy did what they could to protect their settlement from attack. In 1515 Henry VIII granted a Charter to the village or town of Athy allowing its inhabitants to levy taxes and tolls to finance the construction of town walls. These are the earliest references to town walls in Athy but it must be assumed that there were earlier fortified defences for a village which was so perilously located in an area surrounded by the dispossessed Irish.
Just a few miles west of Athy rises the lofty eminence of the Rock of Dunamase for centuries a symbol of power and strength in that area. Initially the Rock passed into the hands of Strongbow the Anglo Norman leader after his marriage to Aoife the daughter of Dermot MacMorrough. The Anglo Normans then adapted the Rock as a fortified stronghold and it was perhaps during their period of occupation that the substantial fortification of the Rock began with subsequent frequent additions over time.
The Annals of the Four Masters record the death in 1342 of Lisagh O'More, an individual whose achievements included the destruction of the Castle of Dunamase, the property of Roger de Mortimer, another Anglo Norman. There are numerous references to Dunamase down the years, a reflection of its importance in the locality of which it was such a dominent feature. The Anglo Norman occupation of the Rock varied over time in accordance with the nature and extent of their control in the area. The Bruce Invasion of 1315 and the Black Death of 1377 inevitably left their mark on the Dunamase dwellers and for periods it remained unoccupied.
The need to fortify Athy with town walls inevitably pointed to the necessity for similar defensive measures in County Laois and throughout the medieval period further development on the Rock of Dunamase confirmed its importance as a military fortification. It was only in 1538 that the O'Mores of Laois finally renounced their claim to the Rock of Dunamase as an ancient stronghold of the O'More clan. While history may have diminished the O'More influence the importance of the Rock of Dunamase did not wane until much later when castles as primary military strongholds became outdated. The degree to which the wars of the 1690's reduced the Rock of Dunamase is unknown but the dilapidated and ruinous ivy clad walls may reveal more of the Rock's history during the coming months.
An archaeological excavation conducted by Mr. B.J. Hodkinson on behalf of the Office of Public Works is presently underway and will hopefully provide greater insight into the history of the Rock and its inhabitants. A number of young archaeologists are to be found every day on the Rock carefully cleaning away the neglect and grime of centuries as part of an ambitious long term plan to conserve and restore the Rock of Dunamase. The intent is to make Dunamase more accessible to the public and to demonstrate the important part the Rock of Dunamase played in national and local history.
While the Rock of Dunamase will never again attain the status it once had for both the native Irish and the Anglo-Norman settlers its 20th Century restoration is an acknowledgment of its importance in Irish history.