Storming the ramparts of Glin Castle
A warts-and-all history of the Knights of Glin evokes the pain and romance of Ireland's past, writes Charles Lysaght
The Knights of Glin, Seven Centuries of Change
Edited by Tom Donovan
Glin Historical Society, €50
There is no more charming way to study history than through the vicissitudes of a single family. It reduces to readily understandable dimensions the effects of great movements and historic events on individual lives.
The FitzGeralds, hereditary Knights of Glin in Limerick, have lived in the same place for longer than almost any other major family in Ireland. The first in the 12th Century was the bastard son of a Norman adventurer and the daughter of a Gaelic lord. Whether it is true, as Liam Irwin asserts in his admirable overview essay, that they never lost their sense of being English, it is a fact that they married and integrated with the Gaelic chieftain class, forming part of a hybrid nobility that effectively ruled Ireland until the Reformation.
They were part of the Catholic Ireland that resisted the reformed faith brought here by the new English in the 16th and 17th Centuries. One knight fought with Hugh O'Neill at Kinsale; another was brought up in exile in Spain at the College of the Noble Irish and was known on his return as Tomas Spainneach; another died helping to lay siege to Derry on behalf of James II.
Unlike their ill-fated overlords, the FitzGerald Earls of Desmond, and most of the major nobility of Munster, the Knights of Glin survived, albeit reduced by various confiscations. Grudgingly, they conformed to the established church in the middle of the 18th Century and made to integrate into the new ascendancy; they built themselves a grand Georgian house, almost bankrupting themselves in the process. Yet the involvement of a younger son with the United Irishmen was evidence that the family still had misgivings about the new order.
The early 19th-Century knight Ridire na mBan scandalised the local parish priest by spreading his seed liberally in the district. He was the first to be educated in England but he was also a Gaelic scholar (and native speaker) revered by the local people as their leader. The Land War and the War of Independence changed all that. Unsure of their place in the new Ireland that emerged from what they would have viewed as an uprising of underlings, not a national liberation movement, the family clung on when others with shallower roots left. But they lived very much apart behind their demesne walls.
For 800 years the family produced nobody so personally distinguished as the present knight, Desmond Fitzgerald, an art historian of high repute who has produced seminal works on Irish paintings and furniture. President of the Irish Georgian Society and not a man to mince his words, he has been a lifelong campaigner for the preservation of our architectural heritage. He has lived to see a government of the grandsons of those who were burning out the gentry now subsidising them to keep up their old houses.
As becomes a man who boasts among his cousinhood both Archbishop Croke and Winston Churchill, the knight crosses many boundaries. He does so while remaining himself, eschewing burlesque gestures to popular sentiment. This lavish book, produced by the Glin Historical Society, is testimony to his warm relationship with his neighbours, who accord him recognition as one of their own. It is not just that a fair number of them are blood relatives, although that probably adds to the solidarity. The knight's willingness to tell the history of the family in the modern era, warts and all, is characteristically honest; he likens his lifelong investigation into his roots to peeling an onion; parts of it would make one weep.
The early history is narrated by university scholars Kenneth Nicholls, Declan Downey and Anthony McCormack. Local historian Thomas Byrne traces the transition from Gaelicised chieftains to Protestant gentry. Tom Donovan, president of the Glin Historical Society, covers the years from 1800; he has also a chapter on the local Costello family to whom the young FitzGeralds were fostered out in the Gaelic manner into the 19th Century.
Another local historian, Bernard Stack, has availed of the diaries of the present knight's father, a keen agriculturalist, to give a revealing account of farming and fishing activities on the estate in the post-landlord era. Olda FitzGerald, the knight's wife, writes lovingly of the gardens she has done so much to restore while Mairin Dore captures the romance of the castle and its grounds for a girl growing up in Glin during the Sixties: it is a perspective often missed by those who write about Great Houses.
The book has excellent reproductions of paintings of the place as well as a multitude of photographs that are beautiful or evocative and sometimes both. They tell the story so well that the book could be enjoyed by a person who read not a single word of its scholarly contents.