As a new herd finds its home in the grounds of Bunratty Castle, our reporter meets its deer keeper
Forget Bambi, Ireland's ancient breed of deer may be graceful but they're definitely not doe-eyed.
Bunratty is all about history. Strolling around the famous Castle & Folk Park, located just a few miles outside the Clare county town of Ennis, the visitor passes easily between eras: from a sleek post-millennial reception/entry area to the recreation of a 19th-century Irish village and farming life, and further back to the 15th-century castle itself, with its medieval banquets and lavish adornments.
But let's go back further again than that - much further. In the castle's Great Hall, there are massive antlers on display from the great Irish elk: a 10,000-year-old reminder of the ancestral forebears of the red deer, one of Ireland's most iconic animals. (A fact proven by scooting forward in time once more: remember how our old £1 coin had a graven image of a deer on one side?)
So, deer are central to the Irish cultural experience; how we have engaged with the natural world for millennia. This magnificent beast is central to the Bunratty experience too and, this January, after a short gap, they came back to the Folk Park.
"This is a return to the norm for us, really," deer keeper Brian O'Leary says, "rather than introducing something brand new. We always felt the presence of deer tied in with the whole folk park experience. People see the elk antlers in the castle, then come out to the park and draw a correlation between the two. And the idea that the lord in this area would have gone out hunting deer with his wolfhounds - it all ties in thematically."
The park now has three adult deer, two females and one male. The females are both in calf at the moment, their offspring due at the end of the month. Bunratty last kept deer in 2015, when a long-standing tradition was temporarily ended for a few reasons, as Brian explains: "At that time we'd had the same stag for a number of years and were in the position of having to change the herd up, so as to avoid the threat of inbreeding. We probably needed to spend some money too on upgrading their enclosure.
"So we moved out the deer we had then and got reorganised. Now we've done all this fencing around the field. And the two females in calf aren't bred to the stag we have, so if they were to have female young, we could breed them with him, without any danger of inbreeding. It was just a case of putting a plan in place to get the deer back and making it work."
A friendly, dark-haired thirtysomething, hailing from Newmarket-on-Fergus just up the road, Brian's official title at Bunratty is facilities manager. But that covers a raft of responsibilities. "Under that, I'd be handling all the normal things that come under facilities," he says, "and as well as that, animals come under my remit."
A graduate in agriculture, with follow-on qualifications in animal husbandry, welfare and nutrition, Brian and his team tend to a large array of animals over Bunratty's 26 acres: sheep, Shetland ponies, goats (always a hit with children), hens, ducks, geese, shorthorn cattle, donkeys and - we'll come to these presently - two rather large dogs.