12 November 2019

Compass Rose Society visit:
5, Bunratty Castle

Bunratty Castle stands out on the landscape in south Co Clare, close to the estuary of the River Shannon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Bunratty Castle is a large 15th-century tower house in Bunratty village, off the road between Limerick and Ennis, near both airport and Shannon Town. The name Bunratty (Bun Ráite, or Bun na Ráite) refers to either the ‘river basin,’ or the River Ratty, the river that runs alongside the castle and flows into the Shannon Estuary at this point.

The first recorded settlement at the site may have been a Norse settlement or trading camp that is recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters and said to have been destroyed by Brian Boru in the year 977. Local tradition says this camp stood on a rise south-west of the present castle, although there is no evidence to support this claim.

Around 1250, Henry III granted the area to Robert de Muscegros, who cut down around 200 trees in the King’s wood at Cratloe about a year later. He may have used these trees to build a motte and bailey castle that was the first castle at Bunratty, although its exact location is unknown. Later, in 1253, Robert de Muscegros was granted the right to hold markets and an annual fair at Bunratty.

The lands later returned to Henry III, and they were granted to Thomas de Clare, a descendant of Strongbow, in 1276. Thomas de Clare built a second castle that was the first stone castle in Bunratty. This large stone tower stood from about 1278 on or near the site of the present Bunratty Castle.

In the late 13th century, Bunrattty had about 1,000 inhabitants. The castle was attacked several times by the O’Briens and their allies. While Thomas de Clare was away in England, the site was captured and destroyed in 1284.

When Thomas de Clare returned to Ireland in 1287, he rebuilt the castle with a 130-metre fosse around it. The castle was again attacked but it did not fall until 1318, when Richard de Clare was killed at Dysert O’Dea. Bunratty Castle and the village were burned down and Lady de Clare fled to Limerick. The de Clare family never returned to Bunratty and the remains of the castle collapsed, leaving no traces or remains of this second castle.

In 1353, Sir Thomas de Rokeby led an army against the MacNamaras and the MacCarthys, and a third castle was then built at Bunratty, perhaps on the site of the later Bunratty Castle Hotel. However, around 1355, the new castle fell into the hands of Murtough O’Brien while Thomas Fitzjohn Fitzmaurice was the Governor or captain of Bunratty.

The present Bunratty Castle is the fourth castle on the site and was built by the MacNamara family around 1425.(Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The present castle was the fourth castle on the site and was built by the MacNamara family around 1425.

Bunratty Castle came into the hands of the O’Briens family, the most powerful clan in Munster and later Earls of Thomond, around 1500.

In 1558, Bunratty Castle as taken by the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Thomas Radclyffe (1525-1583), 3rd Earl of Sussex, from Donal O’Brien of Duagh, the last King of Thomond, who died in 1579.

Meanwhile, Bunratty Castle was given to Donal O’Brien’s nephew, Connor O’Brien. His son, Donogh O’Brien, may have moved his family seat from Clonroad in Ennis to Bunratty, and his improvements to the castle included a new lead roof on it.

During the Confederate Wars in Ireland in the 1640s, the Cromwellian commander Lord Forbes took Bunratty Castle in 1646. Barnabas O’Brien, who tried to play off the royalists against both the Irish rebels and the Roundheads, left for England, where he joined King Charles I.

The defence of the River Shannon and Bunratty Castle gave the forces holding the castle a position to blockade access from the sea to Limerick. The castle was held then by Admiral Sir William Penn (1621-1670), father of William Penn (1644-1718), the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania. After a long siege, Penn surrendered the castle to the Irish Confederates and sailed away safely to Kinsale, Co Cork.

After the Civil War in the 1640s and 1650s, Bunratty Castle returned to the O’Brien family, and in the 1680s the castle was the principal seat of the Earls of Thomond. In 1712, Henry O’Brien (1688-1741), the 8th and last Earl of Thomond, sold Bunratty Castle and 191 ha of land to Thomas Amory for £225 and an annual rent of £120. Amory in turn sold the castle to Thomas Studdert who moved in around 1720.

When the Studdert family left the castle, it to fall into disrepair and they moved into Bunratty House, which they built in 1804.

For some time in the mid-19th century, the castle was a police barracks used by the Royal Irish Constabulary. The Studdert family returned to Bunratty Castle at the end of the 19th century, and Captain Richard Studdert was living there in 1894. But the roof of the Great Hall collapsed in the late 19th century.

In 1956, Bunratty Castle was bought and restored by the 7th Viscount Gort, with the support of the Office of Public Works. He reroofed the castle and saved it from ruin. The castle was opened to the public in 1960, decorated and filled with furniture, tapestries and works of art dating from the 17th century.

Today, Bunratty Castle is a major tourist attraction, along with Bunratty Folk Park, and both the castle and Bunratty House are open to the public. The castle and the adjoining folk park are run by Shannon Heritage as tourist attractions.

Bunratty Castle is known for its mediaeval banquets, and Bunratty Folk Park is an open-air museum with an array of about 30 buildings, including traditional farmhouses, churches, schoolhouses and a pub.

By the banks of the Shannon Estuary at Bunratty (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

These notes were prepared for a tour of Co Clare by members of the Compass Rose Society on 12 November 2019

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