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|A Survey of Monuments of Archaeological and Historical Interest in the Barony of Bunratty Lower, Co. Clare by William Gerrard Ryan|
Part 4: Castles and
tower houses c.1500
Nat. Grid Ref. R452608; ½” Sheet 17
Source: John Hinde
I propose to use the following procedure:-
The final section will deal with the availability of: a) articles and books b) information leaflets c) photographs d) post cards e) site plans e) miscellaneous items, all relating to this site.
VIKING SETTLEMENT AT BUNRATTY?
Local tradition to this day (1979) says that the Vikings built a settlement on that natural rise of ground south-west of present day Bunratty Castle and now occupied by the Church site (see section 2). If this was the case their long boats would have been berthed in the shallow water by Bunratty Point, north of Quay Island.
Other sources support this view of Viking settlement in this area of the Barony of Bunratty Lower (e.g. Westropp, 1915, page 314). In fact Mac Namara (1915, page 221) goes even further and quotes Todd who stated that the Vikings had fortified areas of Tradree (i.e. West Bunratty Lower Barony).
Brian Boru is said, by tradition, to have used Cratloe Woods and attacked the Viking settlements both along the coast of the Barony of Bunratty Lower as well as Limerick city (source “History of Cratloe Parish”, 1979 edition, page 7). Eventually this site at Bunratty was destroyed (Lynch, 1977, page 17).
All of these short and frequently vague sources certainly suggest the
existence of a Viking settlement in the Barony, in all probability centred
on Bunratty. However the Gaelic revival of the late tenth century, led
by Brian Boru, seems to have destroyed such settlements.
This article deals with the earliest Norman involvement in the area c. 1248 A.D. At that period Henry II granted the district of Tradree to Robert Musegros. An examination of the calendar of state papers for this period is interesting as it shows, for 1251 A.D. that Musegros could cut down 200 good oak trees from the King’s wood of Cratloe. The reason why so many trees were needed is not given but the fact that it occurs within a very short time of Musegros having received Tradee does suggest the erection of a Motte and Bailey, the earliest Norman defensive feature in any area. If the timber was needed for this purpose where was the site built? We are fortunate here in that a later reference in the state papers, 1253 A.D., gives Musegros the right to hold markets and an annual fair at Bunratty. This site, therefore, was the centre of early Norman control in south-east Clare. We now must ask the question does any trace survive of this mid-thirteenth century motte and bailey?
Certainly in the early part of this century a number of scholars felt that they had identified traces of this early Norman site, regarded as the first castle of Bunratty. MacNamara, 1915, shows a map on page 221 on which “motte and bailey” is represented, to the north-west of the actual castle. Westropp, in the same year (1915), supported this view:-“…it may have been the base either of the castle (motte and bailey) of Robert de Musegros, about 1250, or of some bretasche defending De Clare’s castle and town of Bunratty at the end of the century…” (Page 315).
In 1959 John Hunt was asked to excavate the generally supposed site of the motte and bailey, as a hotel was to be built in this area. This he did over a period of four days. His results are very important and amongst other things he states:- “It seems highly probable that this mound is the gun emplacement for four cannon mentioned by Penn (1646) as erected to defend the broad deep channel of water then separating the castle from the high ground to the north…” (Hunt, 1959, page 89). Thus the site Westropp and MacNamara felt was Norman in date turned out, on excavation, to date to the Confederate Wars.
Where then would the motte and bailey have been built? Having spent a number of days in this area I feel the most likely site would have been on the rise of ground to the south-west, and now occupied by the church site. However this view is solely based on field observation and without documentary support.
I have already mentioned that one Robert Musegros received a grant for the Tradree district of south-east Clare in 1248 A.D. However he was not to hold this land for long as in the early 1270’s Henry took back the title for this land and regranted it to Thomas De Clare in 1276. De Clare also proposed to use “Bonreth” (Bunratty) as his headquarters and he set about building a stone castle, which was the second “castle” of Bunratty, the motte and bailey being the first. What do we know of this stone structure? We are fortunate that some details have survived, largely based on the 1321 post-mortem Inquisition into the estates of Thomas De Clare, killed in 1318. This tells us that the De Clare castle, which was occupied from c. 1278 to 1318, consisted of a large single stone tower with lime white walls. It stood near the river, on or near the site of the present, fourth, castle. This site, as my article shows, was attacked on a number of occasions by the O’Briens and their allies. In fact on one occasion, in 1284, while De Clare was in England the site was actually captured and destroyed. On his return, in 1287, he had the site rebuilt and a fosse, 140 yards in length, built around it. The site was attacked on later occasions but it held out until 1318 A.D. In that year a major battle was fought at Dysert O’Dea which resulted in the death of Richard De Clare and his son. When Lady De Clare at Bunratty, heard this she fled to the safety of Limerick city but not before burning the castle and town.
The De Clares never returned to the area and the single towered structure eventually collapsed. Presumably the stone was carted away and used in the erection of churches and other native defensive sites in the area. There is now no trace of this, the second castle of Bunratty.
Third Castle of Bunratty:
So ended, after a very brief period, the third castle at Bunratty.
Fourth Castle of Bunratty:
Source: Commissioners of Public Works.
This is the present, restored, castle of Bunratty so well known to the thousands of people who visit it each year. I do not propose to deal with this site in any great detail due to the availability of so many articles on it.
Work originally commenced on this site c. 1450 A.D. by one Maccon Sioda MacNamara, chieftain of the Clann Cuilein (i.e. MacNamaras), he did not see the site completed in his day, rather the honour fell to his son Sean Finn who died in 1467 A.D.
In relation to the site chosen many scholars feel it was close to, if not actually on, that used by De Clare in the late thirteenth century. Though it may have occupied the same site this fourth castle was much more impressive in size and features. For on thing it has four corner towers, as distinct from the one towered structure of De Clare.
Though originally a MacNamara fortress it became O’Brien property around 1500 A.D. The reason for this change in ownership is not clear – it may have been due to war or perhaps have resulted from a marriage agreement. The O’Briens, later Earls of Thomond, were to extend this site and make it their chief seat, in place of their original castle at Ennis.
The site figured in later Irish history, especially during the Confederate wars of the 1640’s (O’Brien, 1978, pages 15 - 18 incl.). Later it came into the possession of the Studdart family, c. 1720 A.D. This family occupied the site for some time, until the early nineteenth century when they moved to Bunratty House, to the north of the castle. The site then fell into gradual decay (see photo overleaf) until the site was purchased by Lord Gort in the 1950’s. Restoration work was then carried out by the Office of Public Works. In 1960 the site was opened to the public, furnished in early furniture, tapestries and works of art all dating to c. 1600.
Much greater detail on the history and features of this fourth site are available from :-
Books and articles available on aspects of the various castles of Bunratty, 1251 A.D. to 1650 A.D.
Such site plans are to a large scale and not suitable for general copying.