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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
Chapter 33: Bunratty Parish


Nat. Grid Ref. R452608; ½” Sheet 17

Bunratty Castle

Source: John Hinde

R.C. Parish : Newmarket-on-Fergus
Townland : Bunratty West
6” O.S. Sheet number : 62 (Co. Clare)
Reference : 2.2cm West; 9.4cm North
Height (G.L.) : 23’ O.D.
1” O.S. Sheet number : 143 (Limerick)

Bunratty Castle
Unlike all other castles or tower houses in the Barony of Bunratty Lower this site, due to its importance as a national historical and tourist site, has been quite well documented. Rather than repeat what is already available in articles I will here only summarise the main features and events associated with the four castles of Bunratty.

I propose to use the following procedure:-

  1. Mention of supposed Viking settlement.
  2. Norman incursion into the area, Motte and Bailey (first castle of Bunratty) and Hunt’s excavation of this supposed mid thirteenth century site. De Clare and the second castle of Bunratty. Norman defeat, 1318, and withdrawal.
  3. Third castle of Bunratty.
  4. Present, fourth, restored castle (see postcard over).

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.

“…He (i.e. Brian Boru) seized everything possessed by the Danes there (Scattery) as well as in the other islands of the lower Shannon and Fergus…”
Annals of the Four Masters, for 977 A.D. (Cited in “County Clare” no. 1, 1977 page 24)

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.
(To date neither excavation nor chance finds has yielded definite evidence of such an occupation).

Norman Incursions:
In 1978, while working on the castles and tower houses of the Barony of Bunratty Lower, I was approached to write a short article on the Normans in Clare. This I did and I have reproduced a copy of this two page work overleaf. This article is important as it has brought together research undertaken by a number of scholars, notably Frost (1893), Westropp (1915), MacNamara (1915), Lynch (1977) to name but a few.

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:
Limerick city was an important English town and port in the fourteenth century. To gain access one had to, of course, use the Shannon estuary. To keep this important route open and free of attacks from the native Irish the castle at Bunratty had always played an important role. This castle controlled the important middle section of the estuary thus the Government realised the site would have to be reoccupied. In 1353 Sir Thomas de Rockeby and an English army made the MacNamaras and MacCarthys submit to him. To strengthen his control over the MacNamaras he had a castle, the third, built at Bunratty. We are, however, faced with a problem here. As no trace now exists of this site we do not know if De Rokeby used De Clares site to build his stone castle or if it was somewhere nearby. The annals do not give us any information on this point. Local tradition, however, states that this third castle was built on the rise of ground now occupied by Bunratty Castle Hotel (Lynch, 1977, page 17).
However this third castle was hardly constructed before the native Irish captured it. In 1355, only two years after work had commenced on this defensive site, we hear that Edward III released Thomas Fitzjohn Fitzmaurice from prison in Limerick. The charge was that as a Governor (Captain) of Bunratty he had let it fall into the hands of Murtough O’Brien.

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 :-

1915, especially 317 - 327
(This article contains site plans and interior photographs of the site before restoration began in the 1950’s)
Mac Namara,
1915, especially 222 – 228; 262 – 270.
(This article contains much useful information on the history of this fourth site, especially relating to the c. 1450 – 1500’s period).

Books and articles available on aspects of the various castles of Bunratty, 1251 A.D. to 1650 A.D.


Frost, J.,
1893, “A History and Topography of the County of Clare”. Dublin
(Refer to index).
Liddy, D.,
(Editor) 1978, “A History of Cratloe Parish”, Limerick. pages 10 – 14 inclusive.
O’Donovan and Curry
1839, “O.S. Letters”, Volume 1 & 2, Dublin. (Refer to index).
Todd, J.H.,
1867, “Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh”, London. (Translation and notes. See index).
(Abbreviation, N.M.A.J. = North Munster Antiquarian Journal).
Hunt, J.,
1959, “Bunratty Mound”, N.M.A.J., Volume 8, Number 2, pages 88 & 89.
Hunt, J.,
1960, “Bunratty Castle”, N.M.A.J., Volume 8, Number 3, pages 103 & 108.
Lynch, C.,
1977, “Bunratty Castle”, The Other Clare, Volume 1, pages 17 & 18.
Mac Namara, G.,
1913 – 1915, “Bunratty Castles”, N.M.A.J., Volume 3, Section 4 220 - 327 (this article includes a study of the fourth Castle of Bunratty by T.J. Westropp).
Moloney, Rev. M.,
1960, “Bunratty”, N.M.A.J., Volume 8, Number 3, pages 109 & 110.
O’Brien, J., 1978, “Siege of Bunratty, 1646”, The Other Clare, Volume 2, pages 15 to 18.
Ryan, G.,
1977, “Normans in Thomond”, The Other Clare, Volume 1, pages 10 & 11.
Westropp, T.J.
1902 – 1904, “Comment on the Wars of Turlough”. Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, Volume 32, Section C, pages 133 – 198.

The Photographic Section, National Parks and Monuments Branch, Office of Public Works, have a very extensive collection of black and white photographs relating to this site. Many of these show the site before and during the restoration of the late 1950’s I have included one of these photographs already, in the introduction to the fourth castle at Bunratty.
Such photographs are filed in Section 478 of the Photographic Department Records. Many of these are now available for inspection of the manager’s office, Bunratty Castle. The photographic section of Shannon Free Airport Development Company S.F.A.D.Co.
also have photos on file relating to this site. Their office is in Shannon Town Centre.

John Hinde Ltd have coloured postcards relation to this castle. One of these may be on the introductory page to the study of Bunratty Castles. Other postcards are to be found in Section 5, “Later Historical sites of Interest”, under Bunratty Bridge.

Site Plans:
As stated previously Westropp, in his 1915 article, has some site plans of this site. However much more detailed plans, of each floor are available at the Manager’s Office,
Bunratty Castle. Such plans may also be inspected at the Architect’s Office, S.F.A.D. Co., Shannon Town Centre.

Such site plans are to a large scale and not suitable for general copying.