The ban­quet at Bun­ratty Cas­tle has been en­ter­tain­ing tourists since 1963. Rosita Boland joins in the fun

Part panto, part the­atre, part me­dieval- themed cabaret, the ban­quet at Bun­ratty Cas­tle has been en­ter­tain­ing tourists since 1963 – and it still scores highly on the cheese- ome­ter, writes Rosita Boland

The Irish Times Magazine - - NEWS -

I’ m in an in­dus­trial kitchen at the back of Bun­ratty Cas­tle and Folk Park in Co Clare, star­ing down into the big­gest cook­ing pot I’ve ever seen in in my life. You could eas­ily drop a full sheep into it, hooves, head and all, stick on the lid, and come back a cou­ple of days later to see what had hap­pened in the mean­time. “Ninety ki­los of ribs can go in here,” chef Alan Burns tells me. He is 18 months into the job and the chef cur­rently re­spon­si­ble for cater­ing the Bun­ratty Ban­quets, which are run by Shan­non Her­itage. They have been go­ing since 1963, serv­ing a stag­ger­ing cu­mu­la­tive fig­ure of 2.8 mil­lion peo­ple since then. Sixty ki­los of spare ribs are served at each ban­quet, and in this gi­ant pot, they take 2 ½ hours to braise. Spare ribs have been on the menu right from the beginning, as has soup. It used to be potato and leek. These days, it is spiced parsnip, 30 litres per ban­quet.

“The food is se­condary,” de­clares gen­eral man­ager Ivan Tuohy, who’s in the kitchen with us. “It’s all about the en­ter­tain­ment. But we send peo­ple home with their bel­lies full. And we’ve never had a food poi­son­ing out­break, thank God.”

It can’t be easy for Burns, who has pre­vi­ously worked asap as try chef ina Miche­lin- starred restau­rant ( the now closed Lon­gridge in Pre­ston), and had his own restau­rant ( The Wild Berg­amot out­side Glas­gow), to hear that even the gen­eral man­ager ad­mits the food isn’t as im­por­tant as the en­ter­tain­ment.

When Tuohy is out of earshot, Burns says wist­fully, “I was told when I got this job that the menu had to re­main static. But it’s a me­dieval ban­quet: I’d love to do whole pigs on a spit, poussin chicken you tear apart with your hands; things like that, but it’s not prac­ti­cal.” Burns did, how­ever, man­age to cre­ate a new sauce for the ribs, Bun­ratty Kitchen Bar­be­cue Sauce, which re­cently won a Taste of Ire­land award.

The Bun­ratty ban­quet op­er­ates year- round, with two sit­tings as de­mand re- quires, at 5.30pm and 8.45pm. The Ban­quet­ing Hall in the cas­tle can hold 141 peo­ple per sit­ting. The price of at­ten­dance when it be­gan was 35 shillings, the equiv­a­lent of about ¤ 2 to­day; the cost of a ticket now is ¤ 58.45.

Like the pres­ence of spare ribs on the menu since time im­memo­rial, the for­mat of the evening is es­sen­tially un­changed since 1963. Guests are greeted on the draw­bridge of the cas­tle, they go up­stairs to the Great Hall to have a gob­let of mead and hear a spiel about the build­ing, head down to the Ban­quet Hall for their ribs and are served and en­ter­tained through­out by a but­ler and a num­ber of singers, all wear­ing

me­dieval cos­tumes. Lynn Con­nolly is one of the singers, and has been work­ing at Bun­ratty for 22 years. She has heard it all, when it comes to what the guests have to say.

“Why is the cas­tle built so close to the high­way?”

“Do you get paid for this, or do you vol­un­teer?” “Are you all re­lated to each other?” “Some of them think that my­self and the other singers are sis­ters and broth­ers, and that the but­ler is our fa­ther,” Con­nolly says, rolling her eyes. Her cur­rent cos­tume is with her, ready for when she goes up­stairs to change. It’s a long dark- blue vel­vet dress, with gold braid, in a me­dieval style. There’s a jew­elled vel­vet head­band too.

They get one cos­tume at a time, for which it is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of each per­former to main­tain. Con­nolly has been through, she thinks, about 20 cos­tumes since she started work­ing here. “Half the girls up­stairs are wear­ing my old cos­tumes.” They mightn’t be re­lated to each other, but like fam­ily, her Bun­ratty sis­ters in­herit the hand- me- downs.

Con­nolly says you have to be “a cer­tain type of per­son to work here. You have to be happy in your­self, and you have to love per­form­ing.” You also have to be an ex­cep­tional singer to be hired: the Bun­ratty singers over the years have al­ways been highly ta­lented. The en­ter­tain­ers, in ad­di­tion to singing at in­ter­vals through­out the ban­quet, and giv­ing short nar­ra­tives, also serve a ta­ble each, while stay­ing in char­ac­ter. “What you get is our per­son­al­ity,” as Con­nolly puts it. “You don’t get an act. We’re our­selves.”

They sing a mix­ture of madri­gals, bal­lads, folk songs and lul­la­bies – every­thing from Greensleeves to Danny Boy and Dúlamán. “The big­gest challenge is that it’s a challenge in itself to be do­ing some­thing so repet­i­tive. It could be your 14th ban­quet in a row, and you’re smil­ing and still per­form­ing. You’re think­ing, I’m dead on the in­side, but I’ll sing Danny Boy for you,” she says. “Oh my God, don’t put that in,” she jokes, as I write it down.

At the ban­quets Con­nolly worked at in her ear­lier years, the en­ter­tain­ers were re­quired to put bibs on the guests. Now there are piles of pa­per nap­kins on the ta­bles, to deal with the bar­be­cue sauce. “We used to serve snuff at the end of the meal too. In the end, the snuff had to go, be­cause of health and safety: ev­ery­one used to be sneez­ing their heads off.”

At 4.30pm, the cas­tle shuts to vis­i­tors, while the staff set up for the first ban­quet of the day. I go in to have a look be­fore ev­ery­one ar­rives. The Ban­quet Hall is a beau­ti­ful space, with its vast ceil­ing, white­washed stone walls, nar­row mul­lioned win­dows and long sim­ple oak ta­bles. There is a work­ing fire­place, but it doesn’t get lit. Each place- set­ting gets a pot­tery gob­let, small bowl, plate, fin­ger­bowl and a knife, but no other cut­lery; you’re meant to eat with your hands. There are jugs of wine and wa­ter, and roughly- carved wooden can­dle­hold­ers for large can­dles, the di­am­e­ter of a wrist.

The snuff may not have sur­vived health and safety, but thank­fully, the dun­geon en­dures. Like the eter­nal ap­pear­ance of ribs at the ban­quet, the tra­di­tion of se­lect­ing a vil­lain – al­ways a man – to be tem­po­rar­ily dis­patched to the dun­geon still sur­vives. Tuohy opens the metal grille at its en­trance, and we go down a flight of nar­row, wind­ing stone stairs. The stairs stop at an­other grille, and I peer down into a long drop, with gloomy light­ing. There’s some­thing down there. “Is that a rat?” I ask. Tuohy starts. “A rat?” He looks down into the dun­geon, er, rat­tled.

It is just the kind of dank lodg­ing a ro­dent would favour, par­tic­u­larly in the prox­im­ity to the nightly con­sump­tion of so many ba­con ribs. But the ob­ject I have spied at the bot­tom of the dim dun­geon is not a gi­ant rat: it is some in­de­ter­mi­nate stuffed ob­ject, with a wig. “Ah, that’s the pris­oner,” says Tuohy.

Tom Meaney is one of three but­lers, who take turns in the role. He’s cur­rently the long­est- serv­ing but­ler, with 14 year’ ex­pe­ri­ence un­der his mag­nif­i­cent pur­ple vel­vet dou­blet. It’s the but­ler’s job to se­lect the vil­lains for the dun­geon each evening. I ask why it is al­ways a man.

“It’s be­cause of the line in the script,” he says. “The per­son is ac­cused of not be­ing a true gentle­man, be­cause he has been ‘ tri­fling with the ladies of the cas­tle’. Al­though these days,” he adds, “you wouldn’t know who is tri­fling with who.”

The role of the but­ler is akin to a maître’d for the night, al­beit one in tights. “Our cos­tumes are in the style of Henry the Eighth,” Meaney says. “We get a lot of com­ments on our tights from the guests. I feel a hand on my leg from time to time, from peo­ple – men and women – who say they are check­ing my seams. We are of­ten ad­mired for our legs.”

It’s show­time. It’s a full house tonight, and the guests are ar­riv­ing, chiefly Amer­i­cans, from what I can glean from the ac­cents. They head up to the Great Hall first, for their gob­let of mead. The Great Hall is a gen­uinely im­pres­sive space; with cav­ernous ceil­ings, huge ta­pes­tries, and sev­eral sets of antlers. Some are elk, and some are moose, who per­haps swam across the At­lantic at some point to get here, as moose is not a crea­ture na­tive to ei­ther Co Clare or Ire­land.

In the Great Hall, I min­gle with some of the guests. “This ban­quet has been go­ing since 1963,” I say to one woman from New Jersey, who is here as part of a CIE tour.

“Honey, did you hear that,” my new friend says to her hus­band, tap­ping him on

Tom Meaney, the long­est serv­ing of the but­lers, en­ter­tains the pa­trons at Bun­ratty Cas­tle. “We get a lot of com­ments on our tights from the guests. I feel a hand on my leg from time to time,” he says. PHO­TO­GRAPH: ALAN PLACE

Guests in the Bun­ratty ban­quet hall – the venue is packed ev­ery night as the ca­pac­ity can’t be in­creased. PHO­TO­GRAPH: ALAN PLACE

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