There are many famous castles in Ireland. Some are famous for legends associated with them, or for heinous acts associated with them, or for their historical mysteries. But some are famous simply in and of themselves, and one of these is Bunratty Castle. No great story accounts for its fame, no presence at the turning points of history – it’s just a very nice castle, at the mouth (”bun” in Irish) of the Raite river, in the middle of what is now Bunratty folk park. This is not to say it has no history – it has plenty.
The first mention of a settlement at Bunratty is in the Annals of the Four Masters, where they speak of a settlement of Vikings destroyed by Brian Boru in 977. The site was no random choice – Bunratty sits near the mouth of the Shannon, the largest river in Ireland and a perfect route for Viking ships to take to raid the heartland of Ireland. It was for this reason that three hundred years later the King of England, Henry III, gave the right to build a castle there to Robert de Muscegros, who may have built a wooden motte and bailey at Bunratty. After 20 years, however, he gave “his castle of Bonret in Ireland” back to the King as he could not defend it against the rebels, on the condition that “as soon as the contention between the king and his subjects of the lands of Ireland and the Irish rebels is settled by peace or otherwise” it would be returned. This final claim was clearly either quite or bought off sometime between October 1275 and March 1276, as at that point it was mentioned as “quit-claimed” when it was granted to Thomas De Clare.
Although Bunratty is in County Clare, the similarity between that and the name of De Clare is actually only a coincidence. At the time, this area of Ireland was known as the Kingdom of Thomond. It would become part of the Tudor shire of Connaught, and then later be split out into Clare County, named after a local town where a large plank (”clar”) had been used as a bridge. The De Clares, meanwhile, took their name from Clare County in Suffolk. They were a powerful family, and one of their members, Richard De Clare (better known as “Strongbow”) had already changed the course of Irish history by leading the first Norman force to the island. Thomas had some pretty big boots to fill. His big headache was the local O’Brien family, descendants of Brian Boru who frequently attacked the castle. In 1284 while he was in England, the castle was seized and destroyed by the O’Briens, but De Clare simply rebuilt it, stronger than before. It was not until the invasion of Ireland by the Scottish troops of Edward Bruce that the O’Briens managed to take advantage of the chaos to create a general war between the Normans and Irish. Both Thomas and his heir Richard met their end fighting the army of Conchobhar Ó Deághaidh. Lady De Clare, on hearing of her husband and son’s deaths, burned the castle and the town down before fleeing to the Norman stronghold-town of Limerick. The De Clares would never return.
The third castle pretty much wasn’t. Bunratty remained a vital link in the defenses surrounding Limerick, and when Thomas de Rokeby, a man who had distinguished himself fighting in Scotland, was sent to Ireland as Justiciar of the English crown, he ordered a new castle built at Bunratty. It was never finished however, as the site was captured by the Irish before construction was completed. Quite how this occurred is unknown, but two years later a man named Thomas Fitzjohn Fitzmaurice was released from Limerick prison, the former Captain of Bunratty. He had apparently been imprisoned for failing in his charge and allowing Murtough O’Brien to capture the site. Quite how far along construction was at the time is unknown, but no mention of the third castle was made after that.
The area then fell into the shifting borders of the Irish tribesmen, and in 1425 they built a new castle at Bunratty, the same one that stands there today. The chief of the Clan Cullein (which was led by the MacNamara family) was Maccon MacNamara. His father had previously conquered Quin Castle from the Normans, and it having been wrecked in the process he had donated it to the church to be converted into a Franciscan monastery. Maccon had kept up the family tradition of piety, and even received a personal thanks in an encyclical from Pope Eugenius IV. Perhaps inspired by the Normans, the MacNamara also built around 50 towers and castles around Thomond during this time, and Bunratty was one such castle. In 1500, the castle became the property of the O’Briens – almost certainly not through conquest, as the relationship between the MacNamara and O’Brien clans was very close, but possibly through marriage or in tribute. They expanded the castle and at some point before 1558, it became the capital of Thomond.
In 1543, Murrough O’Brien surrendered his title of King (a title dating back to Brian Boru and beyond) and became Earl of Thomond, subject to Henry VIII. As part of the conditions of this his family abandoned Irish traditions and renounced the Catholic faith, becoming adherents of the new Anglican church. He was succeeded by his nephew Donough “the fat”. Both men had daughters named Margaret, and both of those daughters married the same man, Richard Burke (known as The Sassanach), Earl of Clanricarde. The first was divorced on grounds of witchcraft, while the second was acclaimed by the Four Masters as “the most famous woman in Ireland” when she died. The third Earl, Connor O’Brien, had to contend with his uncle Donnell who sought to take over the kingdom, and intrigued with both rebels and the French. This treachery led to the English forcing him to cede Bunratty to Donnell, who was made Sheriff of Clare. His son Donough, who succeeded him, had to work hard to escape his father’s taint but became notable as one of the most loyal Irishmen to Queen Elizabeth, and it was by his request that Thomond was transferred from the shire of Connaught to that of Munster, a tradition which has continued through to County Clare today.
Donough was succeeded first by his son Henry, who (having only daughters) was succeeded by Donough’s second son, Barnabas. Henry had been, like his father, a loyal subject of the Crown. Barnabas was anything but. He served as MP for Coleraine in the Irish House of Commons, before succeeding to the title. In this role, despite the enmity of Thomas Wentworth, Lord Deputy of Ireland, he became the Lord Lieutenant of Clare just in time for the Irish Rebellion of 1641. At first, he attempted to remain neutral, and refused to join the Catholic Confederates, although several other O’Briens did so. This refusal saw them menacing Bunratty Castle, and Barnabas was unable to find troops to defend it, so he surrendered it to the parliamentarians as a better alternative to the rebels. The castle was defended by Rear-Admiral William Penn, whose son (also named William) would found the state of Pennsylvania. Unfortunately he was not able to hold the caste, and had to flee back to Kinsale. Barnabas, meanwhile, moved to England, where he first served the King at Oxford, though he seemed quite adept at navigating the waters of English politics, managing to claim two thousand pounds in compensation for property taken by the parliamentarians at Bunratty.
His son Henry became friends with Henry Cromwell, fourth son of Oliver, and in fact the two men married sisters, the two daughters of Sir Francis Russell, a famous parliamentarian general. It’s not surprising, then, that Henry O’Brien’s petition to be restored to Bunratty was successful. Both man made it through the Restoration unscathed (though Cromwell had to retire from public life), and Henry lived to the age of 71, being succeeded by his grandson as he had outlived both his sons. His grandson (also named Henry) was the 8th and last official Earl of Thomond, as he died without any sons. I say “official”, as there was a male heir, but he was part of the Jacobite court in exile. His name was Charles O’Brien, and his grandfather Daniel had fought for King James at the Battle of the Boyne, suffering attainder and exile after the defeat. Both he and his son Charles styled themselves as Earls of Thomond.
Bunratty, meanwhile, had been sold by the last legitimate Earl to a man named Thomas Amory. His son, also named Thomas, achieved some fame for writing a fictional autobiography, “The Life of John Buncle”. In it the eponymous Buncle, a student at Trinity, embarks on a series of adventures around the British Isles while marrying seven women, each representing one aspect of womanhood. The novel has been compared to the works of Sterne and Swift, and indeed Amory fils was a friend of Swift. Incidentally, Thomas Junior’s son Robert would wind up in a heated correspondence with a Mr Louis Renas in the pages of “The Gentleman’s Magazine” over the subject of his family having owned Bunratty Castle, and it is from this that we know much of the Amory family history. Mr Renas’ diligence can be determined by his confident and utterly incorrect assertion that Bunratty Castle was “the property of the Earl of Egremont, who inherited from his uncle, who received in the will of the late Earl of Thomond”, and thus had never belonged to the Amory family. He also cast aspersions on Robert’s claim to be related to the Earl of Kerry, and when it was pointed out that a Lord of Kerry was the grandfather of Thomas senior, he commented “but they weren’t Earls yet then”. I will leave the final word to Robert Amory: “Your correspondent should have signed his name Mr Louis the ass”. Amen to that.
In the meantime, in 1720 Thomas Amory senior sold Bunratty to the family who would own it until the 20th century, the Studderts. They lived in it until 1804, when they built Bunratty House (also part of Bunratty Folk Park) and moved there, letting the castle fall into disrepair. It was occupied on and off over the next hundred years, at one point even serving as a barracks for the Royal Irish Constabulary. The last Studdert to live there was Captain Richard Studdert, who got married for the first time at the age of 62. He died twenty three years later in 1900, with five children. At some point towards the end of the century, however, the roof collapsed and the house was abandoned.
So it remained until the arrival in 1953 of Standish Vereker, the 7th Viscount Gort. Standish had inherited the title from his brother, Field Marshall John Vereker, who had commanded the British Expeditionary Force that landed in France in 1939. Standish’s own war record was nothing to be ashamed of – he had fought in both World Wars, and received the Military Cross in World War 2. He bought the castle, and encouraged by his friend and fellow antiquarian John Hunt (founder of the Hunt Museum in Limerick), set about the long task of restoring it to its former glory. He filled the castle with antiquities from the era of the McNamaras and O’Briens, seeking to recreate the feel of it in those times. It was donated to the state and opened to the public in 1960, and in 1963 the first of the “medieval banquets” was held. Nowadays it sits at the heart of Bunratty Folk Park, which comines the 16th century castle with the Regency-era gardens of Bunratty House, and the recreated folk village offering a taste of Ireland in times gone by. A happy ending, then, for the fourth Bunratty Castle.