Bunratty castle celebrates its fiftieth anniversary of hosting comercial medieval banquets this year however this pleasant aesthetic hides a darker history of the castle. Built in the mid 13th century, Bunratty passed to the Lord of Thomond Thomas de Clare in the 1270s. Maintaining the castle was by no means easy; it was situated on a precarious frontier several miles east of Limerick city. To the north lay the lands kingdom of the O’Briens and the lordship of Connacht ruled by the Norman de Burgh family. To the south and east lay extensive Fitzgerald estates. During this period the de Burghs and Fitzgeralds fought one the bitterest and long running feuds in medieval history and unfortunately for those living in Bunratty they got caught right between the two.
In the later 13th and early 14th century this conflict saw several violent episodes when the O’Brien kingdom descended into civil war and the de Burghs and Fitzgeralds each backed the rival factions. In the following decades of bloodshed there are two events which stand out in particular.
In 1270s the de Clares were supporting an O Brien faction lead by Brian Ruad O’Brien. To cement the alliance they swore on holy relics and entered a blood pact. By 1277 the pact no longer served the interests of the De Clares. Unfortunately Brian Ruad was now surplus to requirements and the de Clares were not shy in expressing this to him. After capturing their one-time blood brother and ally they had him ‘drawn between horses’ at the castle. This event shocked Gaelic Ireland to the core, being remembered nearly half a century later when the remonstrance of 1317 was sent to the pope, which was in effect a litany of complaints by Domnal O Neill on how the Normans treated the Gaelic Irish poorly.
Worse was to come when the wider region was ruined during the Bruce Invasion of 1315 to 1318. The O’Briens were able to take full advantage and defeated the de Clares at the battle of Dysert O Dea, killing Richard de Clare in 1318. In 1332 Bunratty itself fell to the Gaelic Irish. In 1353 it was recaptured by the Normans leading to another particularly brutal chapter in the castle’s history. After the conquest the Bishop of Waterford, the Franciscan Roger Craddock arrived at the castle and carried out an inquisition into heresy. Two Gaelic Irish men were burned after being found guilty. Craddock however was acting outside his jurisdiction, and his superior, the Archbishop of Cashel Ralph Kelly was outraged by the act. Later in the year he attacked Craddock with a ‘troop of armed men’ and ‘grievously wounded him’.
Perhaps re-enactments of the castle’s dark history would help complete the banquet ‘experience’…
The Red Wedding in Game of Thrones was perhaps some of the most shocking tv this year. Killing off several central characters with that level of brutality was always going to cause controversy. Brutal as it was though, if you’ve listened to the podcast series you’ll know medieval Irish history can match this. While its not a wedding the following is one historical event which can more or less match the Red Wedding in terms of brutality and treachery.
In the early 14th century the Anglo-Norman Lords Piers de Bermingham and John Fitzthomas were engaged in an increasingly bitter conflict against some of the Gaelic Irish families in the midlands. They did however maintain relatively good relations with the O’Connors one of the leading families in the region. De Bermingham strengthened these ties with personal connections acting as godfather to Masir O’Connor. In this context when de Bermingham invited the ruling elite of the O’Connors to his castle for a feast in 1305 there was little to fear.
However in an act not fully understood de Bermingham without warning turned on the O’Connors. Perhaps fearing he could no longer rely on their support he massacred his guests at the feast. In an act of particular barbarity, he had his godson Masir thrown from the battlements of the castle. His wife also participated in the massacre. According to the Annals of Inisfallen she ‘used to give warning from the top of the castle of any who went into hiding‘.
Unsurprisingly de Bermingham became one of the most hated figures in Gaelic Ireland, being cited in the famous remonstrance which was a complaint to the pope in 1317. Alternatively he was seen in quite different terms by the Anglo-Norman authorities. One obituary described him as the ‘noble tamer of the Irish‘. Incidentally the massacre had little effect in pacifying the midlands as the annals of Inisfallen reflected the mood in the following years ‘woe to the Gaedel who puts trust in a king’s peace or in foreigners after that’
Today, the long forgotten ruins of the medieval fortress and town of Castlekevin, situated in a remote valley in the Wicklow mountains, are serene and peaceful. There is little evidence of this scenic valley’s turbulent past. However in the early 14th century this castle became the epicentre of a ferocious struggle between Gaelic Irish and Norman Colonists in the Wicklow Mountains. This podcast is the fascinating story of the rise of Castlekevin, a colonial settlement deep in the foothills of the Wicklow mountains before charting its long and bloody battle for survival when the surrounding region became a battlezone.
By the late 13th century medieval Dublin had reached its zenith. Having benefited from over a century of trade, it was unquestionably the primary settlement in Ireland. While not the biggest walled town – it was surpassed by Drogheda and New Ross – its sprawling suburbs made it the most populous settlement with ten to fifteen thousand people living along the banks of the Liffey. Although it was the centre of Norman colonial administration, containing the exchequer buildings, it was not the busiest port, as judging from customs receipts, by the late 13th century this honour fell to New Ross.
While economically the wider Anglo-Norman colony reached its zenith between 1292-4, when the exchequer was returning around £9,000 per year, colonial society was already in decline. While Dublin was protected by the Vale of Dublin to its south and medieval county of Kildare to its west, and the Lordships of Meath and Trim to the north, in the far south west the Gaelic Irish were beginning to reconquer Norman territory.
Famine also began taking its toll as Ireland suffered serious food shortages in 1295, and again in 1308. These crises obviously had an economic impact reflected in the fall in exchequer receipts from the previous year by 1306-07 to £58931 – a fall of over 33% since the early 1290s. Worse was to come. As we shall see, from 1315 – 18 the worst famine in medieval history swept across north-western Europe; an apocalyptic event which coincided with the equally catastrophic Bruce invasion of Ireland.
By 1308 Dublin itself was directly feeling the pinch. The Vale of Dublin no longer provided protection to the city on its southern flank. Indeed scarcely one hundred metres from the city walls at the exchequer buildings on the corner of George’s Street and Exchequer Street, valuables had to be taken inside the city each night for fear of Gaelic attack2. While external tensions in wider society placed massive military, economic, and social pressures on the city, to the extent that it would threaten medieval Dublin’s very existence, within the city itself the population was far from unified.
In a court in Kerry in 1295, a Richard de Cantolup faced the accusation
‘that he allowed his pigs to eat a child which was imputed to be his own son and kept those pigs which ought to have been delivered to the coroner’
Initially this may seem like medieval imaginations gone overboard, but not neccessarily. Its worth bearing in mind that 1295 was a year of horrific famine, one of the worst in the 13th century, cannibalism was reported in Dublin and pigs are known on occasion, to eat humans.
During the high summer of 1235 the west of Ireland witnessed one of the most violent chapters in its history when the Normans invaded and conquered the province. This campaign culminated in the storming of an Island fortress using siege engines on floating platforms and fire-ships. This assault was the final chapter in a story that saw the Gaelic Irish in the province struggle to keep the Normans at bay after their initial invasion of the South and East of Ireland in the 1170s. Listen to this fascinating story of rivalry, warfare and the stuggle for survival of gaelic society in the west of Ireland.
Ball games have a long history in Ireland but in the 14th century it was often a slightly more dangerous affair. On the Octave of St John the Baptist (June 25th) 1308 John McCorcan was brought before the Justiciar’s court to answer charges brought by William Bernard arising from a ball game played at Newcastle Lyons.
A few days previously John had had been watching men from Newcastle Lyons ‘playing at ball’. During the game, the ball had come in John’s direction and though not playing, he chased in pursuit. His friend William Bernard who was playing, followed and they ‘met so swiftly’ that William was seriously injured.
It being the 14th century, William had not just pulled a hamstring, but his upper leg had a large knife wound. Unfortunately, John Mc Corcan had been wearing a sheathed knife which broke through the scabbard when they clashed, slashing William Bernard’s upper right leg. The wound was significant, being valued at five shillings. However the jury found there had been no malice involved as the two were friends. While John had to pay damages to William he received a pardon.
Incidentally the game gives a rare insight into a less understood aspect of medieval life in Ireland, that of Anglo-Norman and Gaelic Irish people who lived side by side in an era where violence was widespread between the two communities. From their surnames John was clearly Gaelic Irish while William was Anglo Norman yet they were described as ‘fast friends’ in the court.
Fin, for his sins, completed a degree in Greek and Roman Civilisation and Archaeology. After this he took a Masters in Archaeology. Miraculously he still likes history and archaeology, despite the best intentions of the education system. He spent a few years being used by shady developers in what is often called the 'archaeology industry' in Ireland. Now, not surprisingly given his qualifications he is among the 500,000 unemployed in Ireland. He recently was disappointed when the Irish government decided against hiring him as a adviser on the fall of the Roman republic but this music http://www.myspace.com/racketsquad cheers him up no end......