Your Home Is Your Castle

Glin Castle - County Limerick, Ireland (mit Bildern) | Irland

Catherine FitzGerald and her husband Dominic West have rescued her family home, Glin Castle in Ireland, from being sold, and made it into a viable commercial concern.

Irish folklore is rich with tremendous stories of mythical creatures, brave warriors and celebrated heroes. There is the monster that swims in the depths of the River Shannon – with its horse’s mane, gleaming eyes, nails of iron and whale’s tail. There is the sixteenth-century Black Knight of Glin, whose distraught mother – according to legend – drank the blood from his severed head after his execution in Limerick. More recently, there is the Hollywood actor who married the heiress to a handsome castle.

For more than 700 years the Knights of Glin have lived near the Shannon. Theirs is a tale of tenacity – the FitzGerald family survived the Desmond rebellions of the sixteenth century, the Cromwellian and Jacobite wars, famine and the Penal Laws. Later there was debt, debauchery and bankruptcy, but they hung on. In 1601, British troops besieged the old castle, kidnapped the Knight’s son and tied him to the mouth of a cannon. He would be blown to smithereens if his father did not surrender. The Knight shouted back in Gaelic, ‘I am virile, my wife is fertile and there are plenty more where he came from!’ Luckily, the boy managed to escape.

By the late seventeenth century, the old castle had been abandoned and the FitzGeralds moved into a thatched longhouse overlooking the Shannon. In the 1780s, John Bateman Fitzgerald, the 23rd Knight of Glin, married Margaretta Maria Fraunceis Gwyn, a wealthy heiress whose father owned Forde Abbey in Somerset. This provided temporary respite from the family’s declining fortunes. The couple planned and built the present castle, a splendid neoclassical building, with the longhouse forming the west wing. By all accounts, the end of the eighteenth century was a golden moment for Glin.

The FitzGeralds threw magnificent dances both at the house and on their yacht moored on the Shannon, where the family bard narrated lengthy tales in praise of his patrons. But before long they were bankrupt and it fell to their son John Fraunceis to replenish the family coffers.

And so the story continues, with stretches of financial struggle interspersed with spells of affluence. In 1923, a mob of Sinn Fein men was given short shrift by the 27th Knight. Confined to a wheelchair after a stroke, he refused to leave the castle, bellowing at the rebels, ‘Well, you will have to burn me in it, boys.’ His wife, Lady Rachel Wyndham Quin, did much to develop the garden – planting a cornucopia of exciting new species from South America, which still flourish in the west coast’s mild climate.

Desmond John Villiers FitzGerald, the 29th and final Knight of Glin, inherited the title when he was just 12 years old. In 1975, he and his wife, Olda, moved back to Glin from London and spent decades scouring auction houses for the pictures, drawings and china that had been sold in leaner times. A connoisseur of the decorative arts, a curator at the V&A, the Ireland representative for Christie’s and the president of the Irish Georgian Society, Desmond worked tirelessly to save his own inheritance and also did the same for architectural treasures across Ireland. In the age of Bungalow Bliss – the 1970 book by Irish architect Jack Fitzsimons, which became synonymous with the suburbanisation of the Irish countryside – Desmond’s work was vital. His daughter, Catherine, the current chatelaine of Glin Castle, describes him as ‘an enthusiast, an encourager and an aesthete’.

Under Olda and Desmond, the castle played host to a glittering cast of rock stars, poets, writers, artists and Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Church of Ireland clerics dined with Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Talitha Getty and the poet Seamus Heaney. Paddy Moloney, of The Chieftains, played his tin whistle in the Grand Hall and Ronnie Wood was a guest at one of Catherine’s birthday parties.

In 1993, the decision was made to turn the house into a hotel.
The family converted the attic rooms into a further six bedrooms, making a total of 15 for the guests to use. Olda revived the walled kitchen garden. But, with the impact of the financial crash reverberating across Ireland and Americans no longer visiting, Olda and Desmond were forced to close the business in 2008. Three years later, the 29th Knight died and, without a male heir to inherit the title, the hereditary knighthood was extinguished.

In 2015, Olda and her three daughters made the painful decision to sell the house and lands that had been in their family for seven centuries. An auction, held at Christie’s, of furniture and art from Desmond’s collection raised a large sum, but the house was no longer financially viable. There was interest from buyers abroad and at home, but none was deemed quite right. For two years, Glin’s fate hung in the balance, until the decision was made to take the house off the market. Catherine and her husband, actor Dominic West, committed to making the castle a going concern. ‘The house has its own spirit, which won’t let us out of its grasp,’ says Catherine.

‘The story of this place is so romantic and so melancholy,’ adds Dominic. ‘With the sale of the house, I realised I was asking Catherine to give up her soul. She has devoted 20 years to the garden. It’s at the core of her being.’ Catherine has carved out a career as a successful landscape designer and is currently reviving the gardens at Hillsborough Castle. She says of Glin, ‘Growing up, my sisters and I roamed the place, making dens in the rhododendron bushes, climbing the Monterey pine and wading in the rushing, stony stream. The garden got under my skin – and for years it’s filled my dreams.’

The longstanding relationship between the village and the castle is central to this story. Glin is a beacon of culture and employment in the local economy. The house is now open for private lettings and events, with regular literature and cooking retreats by local foodies, Imen McDonnell and Cliodhna Prendergast, who founded Lens & Larder. Their recipes can be seen in ‘Castle Kitchen’ later in this issue. The castle is once again flourishing, with an array of guests filling its rooms. In May next year it will host the Rare and Special Plant Fair organised by Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board) and there are also plans to run gardening weekend retreats.

Glin is certainly beautiful, but to call it useless is to ignore the impact it has had on the FitzGerald family. ‘Glin enriches my life and my kids’ lives in terms of identity and continuum,’ explains Dominic. ‘My children are surrounded by Irish wit and humanity. They have a far broader existence than they would anywhere else in the world.’ Generation after generation of the FitzGerald family has added to Glin, each in its own way – preserving and contributing to the castle’s beauty and never striking a wrong note.

The library was painted dark blue by Mariga Guinness in the Sixties.

The drawing room.

Riders and hounds from the North Kerry Harriers meet outside the castle.

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