Bunratty's taste of mam and apple pie

It began, in the 1960s, as a flavour of Irish life for US tourists flying into Shannon

It began, in the 1960s, as a flavour of Irish life for US tourists flying into Shannon. And in those days the Co Clare folk park's portrayal of Ireland might have been pretty close to reality. But times have changed, and in more ways than one, writes BRIAN O'CONNELL

THE LATE Pete McCarthy might have summed it up best when he described Bunratty Castle Folk Park as a place where tourists can sample the “real” Ireland for a day without having to waste petrol looking for it.

Consistently one of Ireland’s most visited tourist sights, the Co Clare attraction is a collection of cliches and contradictions, a clever marketing construct that says more about society outside its walls than it does about the life it attempts to re-create. Look past the cottages-of- Ireland posters, the locals baking in the reconstructed cottages or the mock village populated by independent grocers and there is another Ireland, half-hidden and faintly recognisable.

When it opened, in the 1960s, as an attempt to keep US tourists who had landed in Shannon in the area, the park and its portrayals of Irish village life from the 19th century onwards would not have been all that different from real life in parts of rural west Clare, or Mayo or east Limerick for that matter.


Now, though, the folk park occupies an awkward cultural space. What is it saying about the Ireland that has emerged in the meantime? Is this the only place where you can see a thatcher working on a cottage roof? Or a stonemason? Or someone baking griddle bread? Where else in Ireland would these workers have time to stop and ask where you are from? And does it matter that they return to their lives after the park closes in the evening?

The difficulty with the park is not what it has become so much as what has happened to the way of life it portrays. And with tourism in decline, particularly from the US, the park has for the first time in almost a decade noticed a significant drop in the number of visitors.

John Ruddle, the chief executive of Shannon Heritage, estimates that the park has about 25 per cent fewer visitors now than it did two years ago, while the nightly banquet in the castle attracts barely more than half the number.

Also of concern are the facts that some local restaurants, such as the Red Door, have closed and that hotels are also feeling the pinch. The tourist infrastructure that has grown up around the castle and folk park, which helped retain tourists in the region for longer, is under threat.

“The reason the folk park and banquet developed was that the attraction was designed to hold people here for four or five hours during the daytime and again at night,” says Ruddle. “It gives tourism a real boost in the area. We’ve had to look at the operation, including our prices. We’re reviewing them for next year. And we are looking to the domestic market a lot more. For example, people staying over Christmas are beginning to become a tourist product.”

Bunratty Castle Folk Park now offers online discounts and events that include market days, Halloween shows and a Christmas wonderland. Despite the challenges, it is still a solid tourist product, offering a good day out for all the family.

Never mind the historical insensitivities of having a Norman castle, Georgian house and labourer’s cottages all on the one site: the variety of experiences of Irish life is what appeals here.

The castle itself, through a series of narrow staircases and large banquet halls, reveals itself to the visitor almost prudishly. There are countless steps, dark dungeons and interesting side rooms, and you can still make it to the top for the stunning views over the Shannon estuary.

When we visit, on a Saturday afternoon, a couple from Limerick, Anthony and Antoinette Cantillon, have just got married and are being photographed in front of the drawbridge. Other visitors are mainly a mix of European and Irish, with few American accents, in contrast to previous years. Elsewhere in the park, Penny O’Donoghue and Eileen Clancy are making apple pies in a cottage called Golden Vale. “There is a lot more Irish visiting recently, I’ve noticed,” says Eileen. “Often people will stay here and watch us bake and tell us their life story!”

Both are locals employed to bake in one of the park’s cottages; the produce is served in the park’s cafes. O’Donoghue tells how a new generation is fascinated to watch the pair bake in front of an open fire. “I come from the Aran Islands and remember my mother baking without electricity right up to the 1970s. The folk park here is giving a new generation an insight into that Ireland,” she says.

Around the corner two Irish wolfhounds laze in the sun, rejecting the advances of a young French family trying to pat them. Mac’s bar does a brisk trade in food, and some of the shops in the village sell Irish goods and produce.

I had hoped to go to the castle banquet, but it’s booked out, even allowing for the pricey charges of €59.95 for anybody over 12, and between €29.95 and €44.95 for children aged between six and 12. So I head for neighbouring Knappogue Castle Walled Garden, in Quin. For €57 per person – €50 if you book online – you get a night of food, music and all the mead you can drink.

The event begins with a goblet of it – or fruit juice, if you prefer – in Dalcassian Hall, where the earl’s butler gives us the lowdown on the history of the castle, as well as the rules of chivalry practised there and the rather gruesome consequences for breaking them. Unreconstructed males beware.

Judging by the excellent hospitality and service, our Middle Ages brethren could still teach us a thing or two about throwing a decent shindig. The food is simple, local and well cooked, and guests mix easily. Many have never been inside a castle, and are here for the céad míle fáilte and Molly Malone singalong. The music, ranging from O’Carolan to Percy French, is superb – many of the musicians are college students supplementing their studies with part-time work.

There's the odd cringe-worthy moment, particularly for locals, but the butler, played by Ken O'Shaughnessy, keeps the atmosphere light-hearted and fun. It is Riverdancelite, with a slight hint of Monty Python. Just a hint.

More than 80 people are here tonight, many of them part of coach tours or organised groups. When you consider that the event can cater for 160, you get a sense of the pressures that traditional tourist offerings such as this are under in the midwest. “Four years ago we were operating six nights a week and we were turning them away at the door,” says O’Shaughnessy. “Now we are reduced to running Tuesday to Sunday between April and October. The numbers are down hugely – but it’s still a great night out.”

Just as everyone relaxes, the Butler announces that someone has broken the rules of chivalry and stolen a glance at another lord’s maiden. A retired Canadian army colonel sitting next to me is baying for blood. The sinner, Lord Paul – aka Paul Majkiewicz jnr, from Brooklyn – is brought before the room. His life will be spared only if he sings for us. His horrified reaction suggests he missed out as a child on the New York equivalent of the Billy Barry Stage School.

This is traditional Irish punishment, he is told, and he can go native and please us or suffer a painful death. “What the hell,” he says, pushing back his baseball cap and launching into a full-voiced rendition of Go Yankees. Brian Boru will be turning in his grave.

* Bunratty Castle Folk Park, Bunratty, Co Clare; Knappogue Castle Walled Garden, Quin, Co Clare, both 061-361020 and shannonheritage.com