ByRoute 9.1 Co. Kildare & Co. Laois

The Rock of Dunamase


The Rock of Dunamase (Dun Masc – “the fort of Masc”) stands 150ft (46m) tall in the heart of a flat plain. (Photo by Sarah777)


Bronze age settlers were the first to fortify it, followed by the Gaels, notably the warlord Laois Mór, whose name was later adopted by the county. The Vikings plundered it in 845 AD.


In the C12th the king of Leinster, Diarmiud Mac Murrough, built the specacular castle crowning the rock to this day, and subsequently presented it as a gift to his new son-in-law, Strongbow. His daughter Isabel married William Marshal, Seneschal of Leinster, through whose daughter Eva it passed to the Mortimer family, who had no interest in it, and let it decay into ruin.


Entrance. (Photo by Sarah777)


Some say a Mortimer landlord was ousted in 1342 by a descendant of Laois Mór, Lisagh O’More, himself killed by a drunken servant that Christmas, and that his descendants renovated the castle and successfully defended it for over a century until the arrival of planters in 1607. Others maintain that there is no evidence that the castle was occupied after 1350, and that the late medieval improvements visible are in fact part of an  Banqueting Hall that Sir john Parnell began to construct among the ruins inthe late C18th.


The stronghold was finally sacked in 1650 by Oliver Cromwell‘s troops, whose military trenches are still visible. Although the popular version is that the castle was defended to the death by heroic Irishmen, it is now thought that it saw no fighting, but was “slighted” to prevent its further use.


View from Rock, including church of Holy Trinity. (Photo by Sarah777)

Dysart is the site of a recently restored old graveyard and ruined church dating from c.1750. Dysart is associated with Saint Aengus the Culdee, who is reputed to have once lived and later founded a church here. It seems that the old parish of Dysart Enos took its name from Diseart Oenghusa – “Aengus’s retreat or hermitage”.

Portlaoise (Co. Laois / Central)

Portlaoise / Port Laoise (older spelling Port Laoighise), (all pronounced Port Leeshah); (formerly Maryborough / Maryboro) (pop. 14,500), on the River Triogue, is the county town, best known throughout Ireland for its prisons. Unsurprisingly, it is a rather dreary place, although recent efforts to redeem this have had some success, notably the excellent, ecologically diverse new town park.

Portlaoise History


A stronghold founded in 1548 by the boy King Edward VI’s Lord Deputy, Sir Edward Bellingham,  as ‘Fort of Leix’ or ‘Fort Protector’, the remains of which can be seen in the town centre, was given formal recognition as “the Fort of Maryborough” by the 1556 Act of Parliament under Queen Mary that established Queen’ County and King’s County.


In 1570 the settlement was given full Borough status by a Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth I. It had an important garrison, initially to fight the local O’Moore clan, who conducted guerrilla warfare in the area for many years.


The Wars of the Thee Kingdoms saw Cromwellian forces under Colonels Hewson and Reynolds capture the fort from Royalist troops and demolish it in 1650.


Maryborough became a market town, the seat of the Queen’s County Assizes and the headquarters of the County Constabulary.


The town was renamed after a public competition in 1920.

The original County Gaol, scene of many public executions, the last being that of the notorious highwayman Jeremiah “Ger” Grant in 1816, continued in use as a bridewell and police barracks, then housed the municipal library, and is now home to the Dunamaise Theatre and Arts Centre.

The County Gaol and House of Correction (1830) is still in use today as the maximum security  Portlaoise Prison, used to incarcerate terrorists and armed robbers. The last successful escape was in 1974, when 19 IRA activists got away in broad daylight, although another was shot dead. The security features now include soldiers armed with rifles and anti-aircraft machine guns who patrol the perimeter, the rooftops and man the watch towers. The perimeter consists of high walls, cameras, sensors and acres of tank traps. An air exclusion zone operates over the entire complex.  An attempted mass break-out by IRA inmates failed in 1985 when their home-made bomb failed to detonate.

Portlaoise Prison (Photo – Irish Times).

The new Midlands Prison (2000) is a larger medium security facility located next door.

The Garda Barracks, built in 1808 as a military depot, became the County Garda Headquarters in 1922.

Portlaoise Courthouse, designed by Sir Richard Morrison, was built in 1872 to replace the previous 200-year-old building, destroyed by fire.

These establishments are the town’s major sources of employment, along with the Department of Agriculture and the modern Midlands Regional Hospital. Portlaoise also has a large and growing population of DUBLIN commuters.

St Peter’s church (CoI), partly designed by James Gandon, was the first building to be erected on the Great Green of Maryborough. It was opened in 1803 (and consecrated in 1804) as a replacement for an Old St. Peter’s Church which had been built during the reign of King Philip and Queen Mary.

The War Memorial, situated at Mill View, was erected in 1928 to the memory of the 177 officers and men of the 4th Battalion (Leinster) Queen’s County Regiment who died in WWI.

Fitzmaurice Place in the centre of Portlaoise commemorates James Christopher Fitzmaurice, (1898 – 1965), ‘father of civil aviation’ in Ireland. Following a heroic WW1 career with the RFC (later RAF) as a pilot, he joined the infant Irish Army Air Corps and became its commanding officer. On the 12th April 1928 he co-piloted the aircraft ‘Bremen’ with Capt. Hermann Koehl and Baron Von Huenefeld, on the first flight west across the North Atlantic. Having landed in Labrador, the flyers were given a tickertape reception in New York.

Annefield House, built for Rev. Canon Thomas Mosse, CoI Rector of Maryborough from 1691-1731, was the birthplace of Dr. Bartholomew Mosse (1712-59) who founded Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital in1745.

Portlaoise Town Park

In 2007 Cllr. Rotimi Adebari from Nigeria became mayor of Portlaoise, the first person of African origin to hold the post in any town in Ireland.

Portlaoise is within easy reach of Mountmellick on ByRoute 10.


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