Bunratty Castle and Limerick

Our SW Ireland Tour with Small Potatoes is over (Southwest Ireland Tour and Traditional Roy Stein and Nancy TomeiIrish Music I”, June 20, 2015), but for the next 1½ days we get to hang out with our good friends Nancy Tomei and Roy Stein, who were also on the tour (and who introduced us to Small Potatoes in the first place).  We can’t go too far afield due to incipient plane flights, so we’ll visit the nearby Bunratty Castle and the city of Limerick.


Bunratty Castle was built in 1452, and like all places in Ireland it has a lot of history.  The Castle is operated as a tourist attraction, along with its adjacent “folk park”, an open-air museum of period buildings.

The castle itself is pretty darn imposing!  It sits on a strategically important site near the mouth of the Ralty River where it empties into the River Shannon (“Bunratty” is from the

Irish words for “end of the Ratty River”).  In the 1300’s the city Limerick, on the Shannon, was an important port for the English Crown, and the castle at Bunratty blocked river attacks by the pesky Irish.  Bunratty Castle is actually the 3rd stone castle built near this site (the 2nd stone castle was captured by the Irish soon after it was built).  Fifty years after it was built, the present Bunratty Castle ended up in the hands of the powerful O’Briens (and later Earls of Thomond) whom we met before (“Southwest Ireland Tour IV – Slea Head and Cliffs of Moher“, July 18, 2015).  The O’Briens expanded the site and eventually made it their chief seat, moving their base here from Ennis (“Start of our Ireland Tour“, June 16, 2015).  In 1646 the castle was in the hands of the British under the command of Rear Admiral Penn when it was put under siege by the Irish.  His infant son William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, was in the castle; both were freed after the castle surrendered.  The present castle represents what it looked like around 1619.

The lower floors of the castle (some pictures shown below) were home to the guards and

staff.  The Great Hall is reasonably impressive, with old tapestries, wooden angels hovering from ceiling supports, and the remnants of very ornate plaster work that once

decorated the wall.  The absence of a fireplace is one of the more unusual features of the Great Hall; instead of a fireplace, there is a hexagonal area for a fire in the middle of the room – see top horizontal picture – with a shielded exit hole in the roof for the smoke.  Nothing like a good campfire in the main room of the castle!  Marshmallows, anyone?

There are a number of attractive tapestries from the 1600’s or earlier hanging in the great hall; although they’re quite faded, the workmanship is impressive.

Schematic drawing of Bunratty CastleThe design of the castle is interesting: as shown in this cut-away image, each of the 4 towers of the castle has its own stairwell with small rooms coming off of it on each level.  Each tower can be entered only from the Great Hall or the lower-level guard room/kitchen area.  There is no one way to tour the castle!

Just off one of the stairwells on the Great Hall level is a small, intimate, but quite impressive public chapel, with more remnants of the ornate plaster from the 1600’s on the wall, shown below.

Further up the stairway is a bedroom with a beautifully ornate 4-poster bed, on which a dress from the 1600’s is laid out, shown below;  pretty cool!

The Earl of Thomand had two towers (and connecting private apartment) all to himself.  The pictures below show his private apartment (with a real fireplace), bedroom, private chapel, and his own kitchen/pantry (!).

There is a lot of stained glass in the windows throughout the castle, and again it’s from the 1600’s or earlier, the really old stuff.  However, much of it is actually a hodge-podge of re-assembled pieces that no longer form a coherent picture, as shown in the latter two

images above.  Other windows, however, are very impressive – either old or gorgeous, as shown below.

The “folk park” adjacent to Bunratty Castle is family friendly, with goats and such to pet, restaurants, gift shops, yada yada tourist stuff, but also some old buildings that were brought here from other areas that offer glimpses of life from several hundred years ago.  We visited a couple of the buildings (pictures below).

We had an interesting conversation with the guy who was repairing a thatched roof – a skill that today is hard to come by.  This fellow was also a skilled stone mason, and

had done a bunch of restoration work on Bunratty Castle itself.  One thing that was interesting about the thatched roof was the story of the thatch itself.  The “good stuff” was available for harvesting by the wealthy; the poor got the leftovers or the less-desirable grasses.  As a result, roofs of the wealthy lasted for about 15 years before they need repair; those of the poor, about 4 years.  The deck is always stacked, isn’t it?  Capitalism or feudalism, those in power make the rules in their favor.


Limerick is nearby, a city known for (at least) two things, King John’s Castle and a type of poem that is believed to have originated with the Maigue Poets in County Limerick in the 18th century.  Although we saw none of the later in Limerick, I would certainly be remiss if I didn’t share the general form of a limerick poem:

The limerick’s an art form complex                                                                                                    Whose contents run chiefly to sex;                                                                                                      It’s famous for virgins                                                                                                                         And masculine urgins                                                                                                                         And vulgar erotic effects.

I could share more, but Ginger won’t let me.  So we’re off to King John’s Castle.  Lots of

history here to share with you.  The first exhibits in the castle deal with Ireland’s “golden age”, when medieval Ireland was a beacon of light in the dark ages; interestingly,

they defined this golden age from the 500’s to 1169 – that last date being the year when the Norman English intruded (does that suggest an anti-English attitude?).

The history of King John’s Castle goes back to when the Vikings built a stronghold at this site in 922 and used it as a base to raid the length of the River Shannon, pillaging ecclesiastical settlements.  The Vikings were eventually defeated and reduced to the level of a minor clan in the area’s endless power struggles.  In a later inter-clan clash, warlord Dermot MacMurrough abducted the wife of Tiernan O’Rourke.  The wife was eventually returned unharmed, but O’Rourke took revenge and forced MacMurrough to flee Ireland.  In England, MacMurrough made a pact with King Henry II, pledging fealty in return for help in recovering his kingdom.  With the help of Welsh and English knights (particularly Richard de Clare, alias “Strongbow”), MacMurrough won back his kingdom in 1167 – but now under the control of Henry II.  This opened a new chapter in Ireland’s history.  The English knights and nobles who aided MacMurrough were paid for their service with Irish land, and Strongbow married MacMurrough’s daughter.  Ten years later, with a strong desire to prevent Strongbow and the transplanted English nobles from usurping his authority – and with the Pope’s authorization to take possession of Ireland – Henry II staged a successful invasion.  He appointed his youngest son John Lackland (without land) to be “Lord of Ireland” (really that small region of Ireland).  In 1199, with the death of his brother King Richard I (“the Lionheart”), John became Lord of Ireland and King of England (this is the villain John in the tales of Robin Hood, and the forced signer of the Magna Carta).  In 1200 King John ordered a castle to be built in Limmerick with troops garrisoned there to King John's castleprotect the city from the Irish kingdoms to the west and from rebellious Norman lords to the east and south.  Limerick became so prosperous under the general peace imposed by Norman rule that King John set up a mint in the northwest corner of the castle.  Apparently the city was quite a sight.  According to a

1574 document:

“Limerick is stronger and more beautiful than all the other cities of Ireland, well walled with stout walls of hewn marble….  “

Or another in 1620,

“… it is built from one gate to the other in one form, like the colleges in Oxford, so magnificent that at my first entrance it did amaze me.”

The good times were not to last.  The Irish Rebellion of 1641 attempted to force concessions for Catholics living under English rule, and fleeing (English) Protestants took refuge in the castle but were put under siege.  Without artillery, the Irish forces dug tunnels to undermine the castle walls, severely damaging them.  The Protestants surrendered when the walls were about to fall.  Four more sieges of King John’s Castle would occur in the 1600’s, as England sent the ruthless Oliver Cromwell and his armies to subjugate the Irish Catholics, with massacres of civilians, a scorched-earth policy causing famine, land confiscation and forced relocations.  In the Cromwell army’s siege of Limerick in 1651, when the defenders expelled starving women and children from the city, the army whipped them back inside, erected gallows and hung some of them as an example.  When the walls were finally breached by artillery, 5000 inhabitants had died.  For all of Ireland during this time, nearly a third of the population died in the fighting or associated plague and famine.  When Catholic King James II came to power in England, Stone on which the ill-fated Treaty of Limerick was signedIreland was treated better, but when King James II was ousted by William of Orange, the Jacobite (or Williamite) War began.  Ultimately the Jacobites lost; their last stand was at Limerick, where they held firm, but their position was hopeless.  They negotiated the Treaty of Limerick in 1691 (signing it on that rock to the left), ending hostilities while giving Catholics religious freedom and secure lands.  The Treaty of Limerick became known as the “Broken Treaty”, as the English parliament subsequently passed laws discriminating against the Catholics and setting the stage for the Great Famine.  Hope this extensive history was interesting!

In spite of the damage to King John’s Castle with so many sieges, it is one of the best

preserved Norman castles in Europe (1200 is, after all, pretty old).  It incorporated the latest in castle design; the gatehouse was the first of its kind in Ireland, and round rather than square towers were used; curved walls offered better protection from attack.  From

within the keep, it’s small size is striking.  It is hard to imagine thousands of people living

within its confines during a siege.

We’re walking to St. Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick’s last pre-Norman building and the oldest building in Limerick still in daily use.  Below are some views along the way.

St. Mary’s Cathedral was founded in 1168 by Donal O’Brien, the King of Thomond, on the site of his palace.  Parts of the palace were likely incorporated into the cathedral, most prominently the great west door, which tradition claims was the original main entrance to

the royal palace.  The north and south transepts were added in the 1200’s, and the tower and a number of chapels were a later addition in the 1300’s.  The cathedral has some history!  According to tradition, during the many sieges of Limerick the defenders of the city used the stones around the west door to sharpen their swords and arrows, and the marks they made in the stonework can still be seen.  In 1651, after Cromwell’s forces captured Limerick, the cathedral was used as a stable by the parliamentary army.  In 1691 the cathedral suffered considerable damage during the Williamite Siege of Limerick (there are retrieved cannonballs in one of the chapels in the cathedral; King William granted £1,000 towards repairs).

The graveyard at the edge of the cathedral had some beautiful Irish crosses and carvings, shown below.

The Celtic detail on the crosses is very impressive – really it has a Moorish quality to it,

intricately geometric.

The cathedral interior is wonderful in it’s massive Romanesque style, contrasting with its

delicate stained glass windows.  Which are gorgeous.  Most are from the late 1800’s, most have names based on the donor’s funding, and many are in side chapels.  I’ll share a bunch

of them with you.  Pretty amazing, yes?  How about some more?

We’ll finish with one last window, which looks older and more crudely done, but beautiful nonetheless.

Well, I’ll show just a few more interesting tidbits.  Below, the large horizontal picture

shows the upper part of the O’Brien (Renaissance) monument.  At its base is displayed the sarcophagus lid of the Cathedral’s founder, Donal O’Brien, who died in 1194.  The last picture shows the “Leper’s Squint” built into the wall of the Cathedral.  In medieval times lepers were not allowed into churches but were able to see and hear mass (and receive communion!) through such narrow openings.

Well, my apologies for such a long post, hope it was worth the wade.  In the next post we return to bonny Scotland’s Lowlands.  Back in March we had introduced you to the fascinating and history-laden town of Stirling (“The City of Stirling, home of Stirling Castle“; post of March 4, 2015).  Our next post picks up from there with Stirling Castle: home of battles and refuge of kings and queens.