Sometime in the first half of the thirteenth century Robert Muscegros, probably the son of Richard Muscegros (d.1228+) and Alice Dive, acquired Bunratty.  In 1251 Robert cut down some 200 trees from the king's wood of Cratloe, just a mile east of Bunratty.  This was probably used for building operations, though whether for constructing a wooden castle or defending a stone tower is unknown.  On 23 February 1253, Robert and his heirs were granted by Henry III (d.1272) a yearly fair at Bunratty and free warren in all his lands of Tradery and Ockormock outside of the king's forest as well as the right to make a town on their land of Clare (Clarin) in Ireland.  Nothing further is known of Robert's doings at Bunratty and it is assumed he left Ireland after his likely defeat in 1257 when Tadc O'Brian, the son of King Donnchad Cairprech of Thomond (d.1268), attacked the Norman settlers in Clare.  Robert was last mentioned for certain in March 1276.  However, on 23 October 1275, he had handed over his castle of Bonret in Ireland to the king for him to ‘hold and defend against the Irish rebels' on condition that the king would:

as soon as the contention between the king and his subjects of the lands of Ireland and the Irish rebels is settled by peace or otherwise and the said Robert has paid all expenses for its repair, defence, munition and custody while it is in the king's hand, it shall be restored to him or his heirs.

The implication of this is that the castle needed repair and therefore possibly had been ruined since 1257.  Either Robert Muscegros had soon died, leaving no near relatives to inherit, or he had simply abandoned his claim to Bunratty, for, on 4 March 1276, King Edward I informed Justiciar Geoffrey Geneville of Ludlow that Thomas Clare (d.1287) was to have in chief the castle of Bunratty (Bonred) with Tradery cantref and the theod of Oikormok which Robert Muscegros had quitclaimed to the king.

Thomas Clare had been in Ireland since at least 1274 for he had married Juliana (d.1300), the daughter of the Geraldine, Maurice Fitz Maurice (d.1287).  Thomas was engaged in building Quin castle in 1280 when he was attacked by the O'Brians and forced to flee back to Bunratty, leaving much of his army to its fate.  Bunratty was attacked and wrecked in 1284 when Thomas was in England.  On his return in 1287 he repaired the castle and had a ditch 420' long dug around it.  He then died on 29 August 1287.

After Thomas' death the castle passed to his sons, Gilbert (d.1308) and then Richard Clare.  Richard is said to have gained a military victory at Bunratty in 1310 or 1311 against Dermot O'Brian who was killed.  According to another source, John Crok was killed with many others at a battle at Bonratte on the day of the Ascension of the lord, while William Burgh was captured there.  Richard himself was killed in 1318 fighting against the Scottish invasion of Ireland at Dysert O'Dea.

On 11 May [1318] Lord Richard Clare was killed by his Irishmen of Thomond with 4 other knights, Lord Thomas Lesse, Lord Henry Capella, lords James and John Canteton and many others on Thursday morning.

After this, his unnamed widow, who later married William Birmingham (d.1332) of Athenry, is said to have burned the castle and retreated to Limerick.  Despite this, one of Richard's inquest post mortems was actually taken at Bunratty on 26 May 1321.  This found that the castle consisted of a large single stone tower with lime whitened walls, standing near the river.  Quite clearly this describes the current tower.  Certainly damage had recently been done to the district as it was noted that in Bunratty and Conyhi the churches with the chapels were ‘worth nothing in these times'.

The castle was then rebuilt and burned several times, the first being in 1325.  The castle was retaken and burned again by the Irish in 1332.  It then seems to have remained derelict until the winter of 1350-51, when Justiciar Rokeby campaigned in the west of Ireland and rebuilt Bunratty castle, while persuading settlers to reoccupy the surrounding lands.  Despite this, the fortress was taken again in 1355.  For this defeat Edward III imprisoned Thomas Fitz John in Limerick for his part in letting the castle fall into the hands of Murtough O'Brian.  When the O'Briens submitted to Henry VIII (d.1547) they were made earls of Thomond and in 1558 the lord lieutenant of Ireland, Thomas Radclyffe, took the castle for Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and gave it to Donough O'Brian.  In 1646 Barnabas O'Brian allowed Lord Forbes to occupy the castle for the Long Parliament.  The result was a long siege until the Confederates from Limerick took the castle from William Penn (1621-70), the father of the William Penn (1644-1718) who founded Pennsylvania.  The fortress was allowed to fall into ruin in the eighteenth century, but was restored by Lord Gort after 1954 and is now set in Bunratty folk park.

The castle consists of a rectangular hall block, 60' by 40', with 4 rectangular towers, 30' by 23', at the corners.  Surprisingly, considering the average thickness of the walls being some 6', there are numerous stairways built into the walls.  Quite likely they date from several eras.  The main entrance was at first floor level to the north, between the two northern towers.  This was set in a wall much thicker than the rest, being some 10' thick.  The tower seems originally to have been 4 storeys high.  Then, possibly as early as 1600, the end towers were united with eliptical arches at both the north and south sides and a new fifth floor added.  This gives Bunratty castle it's almost unique appearance, somewhat similar to Hermitage castle in Scotland.  The battlements at Bunratty are all modern as too may be the uniting of the towers.

It has generally been assumed that the earthworks north-west of the present tower marked the site of the original Bunratty castle.  However, the 1959 excavations suggested that this was the remains of a seventeenth century gun emplacement.  It therefore seems that the original castle must have been on the current site.  Indeed there is nothing implausible about the same tower house having been repeatedly rebuilt and reused.  Quin castle, only 10 miles from Bunratty, and built by Thomas Clare (d.1287), is a somewhat larger rectangular castle.  This has walls about 110' square, with round, 40' diameter towers, at the corners.  Possibly Quin in this respect merely copies the therefore older Bunratty castle.

Perhaps you would like to join me in visiting this and other great castles of Ireland in October with Scholarly Sojourns.  Details of the trip can be found by clicking here.


Copyright©2017 Paul Martin Remfry