Bunratty Castle (Irish: Caisleán Bhun Raithe, meaning “Castle at the Mouth of the Ratty”) is a large 15th century tower house in County Clare, Ireland. It is located in the centre of Bunratty village (Irish: Bun Ráite), by the N18 road between Limerick and Ennis, near Shannon Town and its airport. The castle and the adjoining folk park are run by Shannon Heritage as tourist attractions.
The name Bunratty, Bun Raite (or possibly, Bun na Raite) in Irish, means the ‘bottom’ or end of the ‘Ratty’ river.This river, alongside the castle, flows into the nearby Shannon estuary.
The first recorded settlement at the site may have been a Viking settlement/trading camp reported in the Annals of the Four Masters to have been destroyed by Brian Boru in 977. According to local tradition, such a camp was located on a rise south-west of the current castle. The site on which Bunratty Castle stands was in origin a Viking trading camp in 970. The present structure is the last of four castles to be built on the site.
Around 1250, King Henry III of England granted the cantred or district of Tradraighe (or Tradree) to Robert De Muscegros, who in 1251 cut down around 200 trees in the King’s wood at Cratloe. These may have been used to construct a motte and bailey castle, which would have been the first castle at Bunratty, but again the exact position of this is unknown. A later reference in the state papers, dating to 1253 gives de Muscegros the right to hold markets and an annual fair at Bunratty. It has thus been assumed that the site was the centre of early Norman control in south-eastern Clare. Early 19th century scholars put the structure to the north-west of the current castle. However, when a hotel was constructed there in 1959, John Hunt excavated the area and thought the remains to be that of a gun emplacement from the Confederate Wars (see below).
These lands were later handed back to (or taken back by) King Henry III and granted to Thomas De Clare, a descendant of Strongbow in 1276. De Clare built the first stone structure on the site (the second castle). This castle was occupied from ca. 1278 to 1318 and consisted of a large single stone tower with lime white walls. It stood close to the river, on or near the site of the present Bunratty Castle. In the late 13th century, Bunrattty had about 1,000 inhabitants. The castle was attacked several times by the O’Briens (or O’Brians) and their allies. In 1284, while De Clare was away in England, the site was captured and destroyed. On his return, in 1287, De Clare had the site rebuilt and a 140 yard long fosse built around it. The castle was again attacked but it did not fall until 1318. In that year a major battle was fought at Dysert O’Dea as part of the Irish Bruce Wars, in which both Thomas De Clare and his son Richard were killed. Lady De Clare, on learning this, fled from Bunratty to Limerick after burning castle and town. The De Clare family never returned to the area and the remains of the castle eventually collapsed. As the stones were likely used for other local construction works, no traces remain of this second castle.
In the 14th century, Limerick was an important port for the English Crown. To guard access via the Shannon estuary against attacks from the Irish, the site was once again occupied. In 1353, Sir Thomas de Rokeby led an English army to conquer the MacNamaras and MacCarthys. A new castle (the third) was built at Bunratty, but once again, its exact location is unknown. Local tradition holds that it stood at the site where the Bunratty Castle Hotel was later constructed. However, the new structure was hardly finished before being captured by the Irish. Documents show that in 1355, King Edward III of England released Thomas Fitzjohn Fitzmaurice from prison in Limerick. He had been charged with letting the castle fall into the hands of Murtough O’Brien whilst serving as a Governor (Captain) of Bunratty.
Robert De Muscegros, a Norman, built the first defensive fortress (an earthen mound with a strong wooden tower on top) in 1250. His lands were later granted to Thomas De Clare who built the first stone castle on the site. About this time Bunratty became a large town of 1,000 inhabitants.
In 1318 Richard De Clare, son of Thomas was killed in a battle between the Irish and the Normans. His followers were routed and the castle and town were completely destroyed. The castle was restored for the King of England but was laid waste in 1332 by the Irish Chieftains of Thomond under the O’Briens and MacNamaras. It lay in ruins for 21 years until it was rebuilt by Sir Thomas Rokeby but was once again attacked by the Irish and the castle remained in Irish hands thereafter.
MacNamaras and O’Briens
The powerful MacNamara family built the present structure around 1425 but by 1475 it had became the stronghold of the O’Briens, the largest clan in North Munster. They ruled the territory of North Munster and lived in great splendor. The castle was surrounded by beautiful gardens and it was reputed to have a herd of 3,000 deer.
Under Henry VIII’s ‘surrender and re-grant’ scheme, the O’Brien’s were granted the title ‘Earls of Thomond’ and they agreed to profess loyalty to the King of England. The reign of the O’Briens came to an end with the arrival of the Cromwellian troops and the castle and its grounds were surrendered. The O’Briens never returned to Bunratty but later they built a beautiful residence at Dromoland Castle, now a luxury 5 star hotel.
Bunratty Castle and its lands were granted to various Plantation families, the last of whom was the Studdart family. They left the castle in 1804 (allowing it to fall into disrepair), to reside in the more comfortable and modern Bunratty House, which is open to the public in the grounds of the Folk Park.
We hope you have enjoyed learning about the history of Bunratty Castle. Our Bunratty Castle maps will help your find your way around.