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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 1: Commentary: Castles and Tower Houses: Earliest defensive-type sites

It is of course difficult to state as to when the idea of defensive sites was introduced into the Barony. One can regard the previously described Mooghaun Hillfort (site catalogue 1) as a defensive site, dating to late Bronze Age/early Iron Age times. Crannogs may, perhaps, be likewise regarded, also some of the more elaborate ringforts and stoneforts. However in Site catalogue 3 we are not concerned with such archaeological monuments but rather with the introduction of the medieval Castle and Tower House idea into the area. Sites surviving in the field are of a fifteenth-sixteenth century date, but are these the earliest? In this commentary I propose to show that they are not and that in fact defensive-type sites were built at least 200 years previously in the area by Norman adventurers.

In site catalogue 3, under Bunratty Castle, I have already dealt with Norman incursions into the Barony, and their erection of defensive sites (3.8 to 3.23). Therefore I will only summarise what has already been written.

According to the Calendar of State Papers for 1248 A.D. King Henry 2 granted one Robert Musegros territory in the western part of the present Barony. Musegros seemingly was interested in taking control of this area as in 1251 A.D. a further royal grant gave him permission to cut 200 good oak trees from the King’s wood at Cratloe. Presumably these were used in the erection of a motte-and-bailey (O’Riordain, 1979, 55). The fact that this was erected at Bunratty is suggested by a third grant, in 1253 A.D. which allowed Musegros to hold markets and an annual fair at Bunratty. Therefore for the mid thirteenth century we have a view of a motte-and-bailey at Bunratty, with perhaps a town around it.

In the early part of this century some writers thought they had identified traces of this early Norman site (MacNamara, 1915, 221; Westropp, 1915, 315). In 1959 John Hunt excavated this mound and found it to be a mid-seventeenth century gun emplacement. There is, therefore, no trace of this motte-and-bailey in the area.

In 1276 A.D. the control of this territory passed to Thomas de Clare. He also had his headquarters at Bunratty and set about erecting a stone structure. According to a 1321 inquisition into the death of his son, Richard, it was stated that the de Clare Castle consisted of a large single stone tower with white walls. When the de Clares left the area after their defeat at Dysart O’Dea in 1318 this structure was set on fire. There is now no trace of this, the second defensive site at Bunratty.

In the mid fourteenth century a third castle was built at Bunratty by Sir Thomas de Rokeby but this was captured and destroyed by the native Irish around 1355 A.D. The actual site of this castle is now unknown.

The present restored site was built a century later by the MacNamaras.

We know, therefore, from the Calendar of State Papers, and other sources listed in site catalogue 3, that three defensive type sites existed in the Barony between the mid thirteenth century and mid fourteenth century. There is now no trace of these early medieval sites visible in the field.

However fieldwork associated with this thesis did locate the site of a previously unrecorded early medieval moated site at Culleen Townland, a short distance off the main road from Ballycasey Cross to Newmarket-on-Fergus. This site has been described in detail in site catalogue 1. (pages 1.134-1.138) as it survives in the field as an earthwork. The entrance was from the east by a 3 ½ metre gap in the fosse and banks. The platform square interior (65 metres north-south and east-west) is between 1 ½ and 2 metres above the surrounding field surface. The 9 metre wide fosse and outer bank is well preserved to the west (see also Barry, 1976-7).

From the previous pages it will be seen that with the exception of Culleen moated site there is no evidence of Norman activity now visible in the area. However the same cannot be said of the later, post Norman, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Thirty seven defensive type sites are known from this period, many of these being of the Tower House class.