Monday, April 22, 2013

Medieval Banquet

Note: Because I was unable to carry my camera with me, there are saddly no pictures of the banquet.

Bunratty Castle sprouts from a web of housing, businesses and parking lots.  It dominates the town, shadowing the people with its massive walls and violent memories.  A piece of history too strong to be torn down, this castle continues to enliven the town’s life by creating a tourist interest for County Clare in the Republic of Ireland.  And it’s not just written history.  Here at Bunratty Castle, history lives, eats and breathes.

            The forest pathway toward the draw bridge glittered with fine rain and tiny lights, the gravel crunching beneath the boots of twenty-six Americans.  It was a chilly night and I tucked my coat tightly around my shoulders, my eyes wandering up the stone walls of the outer keep.  We were running late, so we had the drawbridge and wooden stairs up to the entryway to ourselves, the wood cracking and groaning as we mounted the aging steps.

            At the doorway, we were greeted by the first of this evening’s many ‘servants’, the worker wearing green tights and a medieval styled shirt.  He handed our tickets and we continued inside, where we were quickly directed up a narrow set of winding stairs.  Originally built to enhance the castle’s defense, whoever had designed these stairs could not have imagined that a thousand years later, groups of tourists would be climbing them to replay what medieval life would have been like.

            And that was precisely what we were doing.  As we neared the reception hall, I felt a building sense of curiosity.  The medieval banquet at Bunratty Castle had been the highpoint of my interest since I first saw it on our group’s tour schedule.  What kind of food would we be eating?  Who would be there?  Would the workers be in costume?  Would we really be dining in a castle?  Already two of my questions had been answered, unless the man at the entryway thought that tights were the latest of men’s Irish fashion.

            We emerged in the reception hall to be greeted by the haunting sound of an Irish harp, the laughter of over a hundred guests and a cheerful serving lady in a long blue dress, carrying a tray full of clay cups.  Accepting one, I made my way into the room, looking over the tapestries that lined the walls.  A massive fireplace rested in the back wall, a harpist and violinist standing in the center of the room while they enchanted their guests with ancient melodies.  The hall was packed tightly with people, their laughter bouncing off of the vaulted ceiling undoubtedly the same as it would have hundreds of years ago.  Sipping my drink, I found that it tasted distantly of a weak brandy.  It was mead, I was later told, an ancient beverage that people made from fermented berries and honey.

            After the music, we were lead into the dining hall.  This room was larger than the last, with several side passages and a low stage.  Several long, bench-lined tables stretched from wall to wall, an extra dining area set on a platform near the front of the room.  This, we were told, was the Earl’s table, the man selected from the guests only minutes before.  After we were seated, the butler stepped up to an overlooking balcony and addressed his guests.  He informed us that the large clay pitchers on the tables were filled with red and white wine and that we would be enjoying several courses over the evening.  The soup, he said, would be drank from the bowls as the medieval guests of an Earl would have done.  As for silverware, we had our knives and fingers for the remaining courses.

            “And now, ladies and gentlemen,” said the butler, “prepare yourselves to step from reality and into your fantasies.”

            Assuming that I was hidden within the crowd, I elbowed my friend and snorted in a very unladylike fashion into my hand.

            “Not those kinds of fantasies, my lady!” exclaimed the butler, barking a laugh.

            The hall burst into laughter, a hundred guests twisting on their seats to get a look at the bold American.  Shrinking into my seat, I attempted to hide my burning face in my hands.  I should have guessed that this was only the preface to a very interesting evening.

            The first course to arrive was a blended vegetable soup and several loaves of hearty bread.  The room was bubbling with conversation and as the wine gradually soaked through the diners, our mirth became more and more boisterous.  Soon the servants cleared the table and replaced our bread with massive platters heaped with barbequed pork ribs.  They were delicious, so I was covered in red barbeque sauce when the butler decided to pay me a visit.

            “I hope that I didn’t embarrass you too badly, my lady,” he said, resting a hand on my shoulder and grinning.  “But I looked down and saw your smiling face and I couldn’t resist.”

            I assured him that I thought it was hilarious and that I was glad to have been able to contribute to the night’s festivities.  Noticing a rather unruly member of our group at the end of the table, the butler leaned down and asked, “Is he bothering you, my lady?”

            Assuming that he would make a joke, I answered that he was.  Before I knew it, the ‘young lord’ was hauled out of his seat and escorted into the dungeons, where we were told he would remain until he favored the court with a song (or was beheaded).  He seemed to opt for the song.

            The next course was chicken with vegetables and an herb sauce.  After this our dessert of chocolate mousse garnished with fresh mint came, the tables quieting down at the request of the butler.  The musicians then favored us with half an hour of traditional harp and fiddle music, the violinist playing ‘Danny Boy’ with every bit the expertise that the Earl of an olden court would have expected.  The butler also sang and he made it a point to gesture widely at me every time the chorus that contained the line ‘blue-eyed girl’ came up.

            By the end of the evening, with our hearts lightened with mirth and wine, the guests made their way back down the winding staircase.  The ancient walls rang with laughter, like an echo from the past.  I have never had an experience like the medieval banquet at Bunratty Castle.  I have to say that it is among my favorite in Ireland.

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