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’…