By Gemma Grant
Not many of Ireland’s medieval castles are functioning as they used to back in their golden age when they entertained the great, good and the noble. Bunratty Castle in Co. Clare, can lay claims to doing just that. The castle and staff, in medieval attire, offer today’s discerning visitors, the splendour of a medieval banquet, complete with honey mead.
Guests are invited to step back in time as the Earl of Thomond welcomes them to the Great Hall to enjoy a feast, fit for a king. Over three million visitors worldwide have accepted the invite to dine in one of Ireland’s most historic of castles and enjoy the entertainment provided by the famous Bunratty singers.
Before the present-day Bunratty castle, with a céad míle fáilte for all, like every other Irish castle, it saw its fair share of fighting and bloodshed. Prior to construction of the current castle, it started out in life as a motte and bailey c1270, with a commanding view of Limerick’s water-traffic.
With such a strategic location established, the wooden castle was replaced by a stone structure when Bunratty, and surrounding lands, came into the hands of Sir Thomas de Clare in the 1270s, courtesy of King Edward 1 of England. With castle construction, came a thriving town. However, not all were happy with the expansion as it was seen by the native Irish as encroachment into their lands.
By 1318, the son of Thomas de Clare, Richard, was defeated and killed by the O’Briens of Thomond. When the Irish moved into Bunratty, they found it abandoned. One source cites, Richard de Clare’s widow burned down, not only the castle but the town as well. Over a thousand townspeople, mostly English settlers fled, fearing for their lives.
Battles played out between the Irish of Thomond and the English, with Bunratty being captured and retaken, until eventually the powerful Irish clan MacNamara, established themselves as the new lords of Bunratty.
Building and restoration in the 1450s resulted in an impressive structure. The castle, through marriage, rather than war-fare, passed to the O’Brien clan, High Kings of Munster. The O’Briens, true to their station in life, enjoyed the grandeur of castle living, complete with spectacular gardens and reportedly, some 3,000 head of deer.