by Garry Bryant/Garaidh Ó Briain
Bunratty Castle, is situated alongside the River Ratty in the center of the village between Shannon and Cork which are only seven miles away. [britainirelandcastles.com, accessed 11 May 2015] Bunratty is one of Ireland's well-known castles and is Ireland's most complete standing medieval fortress, located in County Clare. Throughout its long history, Bunratty has changed hands many times; today, the government of Ireland owns and operates it as a tourist attraction next to a Folk Park.
The castle is a large single tower house over five floors, built in grey stone. It is the most authentically restored and complete medieval fortresses in Ireland and situated within a folk park of 26 acres. [britainirelandcastles.com, accessed 11 May 2015]
Originally the area of Bunratty was a Norse/Viking camp used for trading in 970 AD, then the Anglo-Normans came around 1250 AD by the name Robert de Muscegros, who built the first defensive work called a 'Mote & Bailey' (an earthen mound surrounded with a palisade and a strong wooden tower on top) in 1250. His lands were later granted by English king Edward I, who handed de Muscegros lands to Thomas de Clare in 1275, who built the first stone castle on the location.
In time Bunratty became a large town with the population of 1,000 inhabitants. [shannonheritage.com, accessed 11 May 2015] Maintaining the castle was by no means easy; it was situated on a precarious frontier several miles west of Limerick city. During the next fifty years the de Burghs and Fitzgeralds would back Uí Briain factions in their civil war and fight some of the bitterest and long running feuds in medieval history and unfortunately for those living in Bunratty whether Norman or Irish, they got caught right in the middle between the two with Uí Briains with their Dál gCais surrounding Bunratty. [irishhistorypodcast.ie/bunrattys-horrible-history/]
At the castle in 1276, King Brian Ruad Ua Briain was lured by de Clare to confirm his alliance with Brian who appointed himself king of Thomond on the death of his elder brother Tadhg, who's son was too young to ascend to the throne. Brian Ruad ruled for nine years with no opposition until his nephew, named Turlough, came of age. The Uí Briain clan was split into, half supporting Turlough and the other following King Brian Ruad, who ended up fleeing east of the Shannon River with his family and adherents for safety, displacing the O'Dongerans and occupying north Tipperary called Arra. [Maurice Lenihan, Limerick; Its History and Antiquities, Ecclesiastical, Civil, and Military... . (Dublin: Hodges, Smith & Co., 1866) Pp. 57-58.]
To cement the alliance between de Clare and Brian Ruad they swore on holy relics and entered a blood pact. By 1277 the pact no longer served the interests of the de Clare's. Inviting Brian Ruad to a feast the de Clare's captured him and had him tied 'between to horses' at the castle. The event stunned the Irish to the heart, being remembered almost fifty years later when a letter was sent to the Pope in 1317 which listed the many complaints the local Irish had against the Normans cruel treatment of them. [irishhistorypodcast.ie]
Taking advantage of the invasion by Edward Bruce from 1315-1318, the King Turlough Ua Briain faction took advantage and defeated the de Clare's and Brian Ruad faction in the battle of Dysert O Dea, where they killed Richard de Clare and defeated the Irish army under Brian Ruad's two sons. King Turlough decimated the castle, as well as the nearby town. The defeated Ui Briain faction were banned to east of the River Shannon in the north Tipperary location of the Arra hill country where these rebels became known as the Mac-I-Brien Arra, where they became a law unto themselves. The Normans won back Bunratty and the king of England rebuilt the stronghold, but in 1332 the Irish once again destroyed the castle, which was not rebuilt for the third time in 1353 by Sir Thomas Rokeby but was once again attacked by the Irish and the castle remained in Irish hands thereafter.[shannonheritage.com, accessed 11 May 2015]
In 1425, the powerful MacNamara clan gained control of the land and rebuilt the fourth and current castle around 1450 by Sioda MacConmara. The MacNamaras remained its owners until 1475, when it was given to Ua Briain, at that time the largest North Munster clan supposedly through marriage. The Ua Briain's landscaped the castle grounds and added gardens to the land that reputedly lodged 3,000 deer and lived in great splendor. During the reign of English King Henry VIII, the O'Briens were forced to leave the castle because they refused to claim loyalty to the English king at first, but were the first of the Irish chiefs to agree to the 'surrender & regrant." [Supposedly Ua Briain's father-in-law was Rev. John Fitzgerald, Knight of Glin, archdeacon of Limerick.]
Under King Henry VIII's 'surrender and re-grant' scheme, the Ua Briain's were granted the title 'Earls of Thomond' and they agreed to profess loyalty to the King of England and also give up Irish language, Irish dress and culture, accept spelling of surname in English, and convert to the Anglican Church [this applied to those who lived on his estate too]; basically become English. The reign of the O'Brien's came to an end with the arrival of the Cromwellian troops and the castle and its grounds were surrendered. The O'Brien's never returned to Bunratty but later they built a beautiful residence at Dromoland Castle, now a luxury 5 star hotel.
The English monarchy gave the castle to various loyal families, ending with the Studderts, who inherited the land in 1720 and remained there until 1804 and then a period of non occupation and disrepair . [usatoday.com, accessed 11 May 2015]
Bunratty returned to its former splendor when Viscount Lord Gort purchased it in 1954. The extensive restoration work began in 1955 with the help of the Office of Public Works, the Irish Tourist Board and Shannon Development. Lord Gort decorated the castle with about 400 medieval furniture and tapestries from his private collection around 1960 and began holding medieval banquets as a tourist attraction. It was then opened to the public in 1962 as a National Monument and is open to visitors year round including the 19th century theme park nearby. O'Brien Clan member Martin Breen has written a book about Bunratty Castle.
The medieval banquet dinner show features a four-course meal and actors portraying medieval characters, including the Earl of Thomond, one of the former owners, and medieval music performed by live musicians. Dinner shows occur twice nightly, and reservations are required. The castle is closed to visitors during July but is open daily the rest of the year. Guests can purchase admission for the castle and grounds only, or pay an all-inclusive price that includes the banquet. . [usatoday.com, accessed 11 May 2015]
My name is Garry Eugene Bryant, or in Irish, Garaidh Eóghan Ó Briain. My O'Bryan family emigrated from Ireland to Canada around 1830. They were devout Catholics and my 2nd great-grandfather, William, was informed by his parents that he was to become a priest like his two older bro-thers. He ran away changed his name by dropping the O' and adding a 't,' and ended up at Black Hawk, Col-orado about 1861. But this story was family tradition, no paper doc-ument to that gives the name change. To the rescue came Family Tree DNA and the O'Brien Surname Project which confirmed that I was not only of the Dál gCais Tribe with the R-L226 & FGC5659 snp marker's, but a distant cousin to Sir Conor M. E. O'Brien, Chief of the O'Brien Clan. So I'm not an English Bryant, but an Irish O'Brien! I have three children, all grown and married, and two grandchildren. I'm a retired photojournalist, am passionate about family history and heraldry.