Sunday 28 May 2017

Desmond FitzGerald

Knight of Glin was a prominent historian and culturalist, writes Charles Lysaght

I first saw Desmond FitzGerald, Knight of Glin, who died last Thursday at the age of 74, at a meeting of the Irish Georgian Society in the old Hibernian Hotel during the 1960s. He was, I recall clearly, pointed out to me by that redoubtable character Eoin 'The Pope' O'Mahony with the words: "There is the 29th Knight of Glin rubbing his nose."

Desmond was then in his late twenties. He had succeeded his father in the customary title long used by the FitzGerald family of Glin in Limerick when he was only 12. Sent to school at Stowe in England, where he was not very happy, he went on to university in Canada before winding up as a student of art history at Harvard. This led to an appointment as a curator in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The outward impression he made on me was one of a rather precious British hauteur. What took longer to appreciate in him was his deep love of Ireland and his fascination with the Irish past and his own family lore, inculcated in him as a rather lonely child in Glin by the estate carpenter Paddy Healy and a local pharmacist called Stan Stewart, who used to take him to view historic sites and old buildings. In time this was to turn him into a leading historian of Irish paintings and furniture.

Most of his life was then in London, while his mother and devoted stepfather kept Glin Castle and its small estate going in readiness for him. It was in London in 1967 that he entered into an unhappy short -lived first marriage and, following a divorce in 1970, an exceptionally happy second one to Olda Willes, who gave him the love and support that enabled him to battle with remarkable success against the depressions that plagued him for many years.

In 1975, after his stepfather's death, Desmond and Olda returned with their young daughters to live at Glin. A romantic castle looking out on the Shannon, it was the centre of his world, the only place where he felt totally relaxed. He rebuilt the relationship between the castle and the local people, who readily accorded him recognition as one of their own. It was not just that a fair number were blood relatives, descended from a 19th century ancestor known as Ridire na mBan (the Knight of the Women), although that probably added to the solidarity.

He built up friendships over a broader area with those who shared his historical and artistic interests -- the late Jim Kemmy and Jimmy Deenihan were two with whom he spent a lot of time. It helped that he could boast of Archbishop Croke as a cousin, although he had no interest in the Gaelic games with which Croke was identified, or with any other sport. The knight steered clear of the rather philistine upper-class world focused on horses or field sports.

He was recruited by fine arts auctioneers Christies as their agent in Ireland, organising sales of the contents of houses belonging to the gentry, who were compelled to sell up. He himself was a tireless collector of old Irish paintings and furniture, much of it repatriated from abroad.

Dividing his time between Glin and a house on Waterloo Road, he kept up his scholarly work, joining with Professor Anne Crookshank of Trinity College to produce several ground-breaking volumes on the history of Irish paintings, the first of which appeared in 1978; their joint lectures, where they aired their differences, were a star turn.

With the late Maurice Craig, he was co-author of a book on Irish architecture. All the time he was collecting material on Irish furniture, the area of his greatest expertise. This bore fruit in a book published in 2007. He was widely read and had a fine appreciation of the social background to his work.

In 1991 the Knight took over as president of the Irish Georgian Society from his great friend Desmond Guinness. Together, they made fund-raising tours to the United States where they enjoyed success beyond all expectations.

At home, the Knight spoke out stridently against threats to our own architectural heritage -- he was never a man to mince his words. He countered those who were indifferent or even hostile to the preservation of the houses belonging to a bygone alien aristocracy by pointing out that the buildings were the work of Irish craftsmen.

With rising prosperity from the mid-Nineties onwards, the government was more receptive to the representations of the Irish Georgian Society. Grants and tax concessions were given to owners who spent money conserving period buildings. The Knight enjoyed the irony that a government including the sons and grandsons of those who had been burning the houses of the ascendancy were now subsidising the owners to remain in them. He was pleased by the creation of the Heritage Trust to take over historic houses and his own appointment to the initial board.

He was also honoured to be made a governor of the National Gallery. However, he was often a minority voice in its deliberations.

Academic honours came his way. He was awarded an honourary doctorate by Trinity College Dublin and elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy.

In 2009, the Glin Historical Society commissioned a beautifully illustrated volume of scholarly essays on the history of the Knights of Glin to which he contributed two chapters.

Always very sociable, he was a highly effective networker. He was an acute judge of character and had an appreciation of the personal worth of individuals that transcended social divisions. If he could be hasty and even explosive, he was also an affectionate and sincere friend. He faced the cruel cancer in his throat that assailed him early last year with courage and determination.

When I last visited him in the Beacon less than a month ago he was full of interest in the latest gossip, still hopeful of the future making notes for some writing he had in mind and just longing to get back to his beloved Glin.

As there are no traceable legitimate descendants on the male line of any of the Knights of Glin it seems that he will be the last to bear that name. As has been well said, they left the best wine until last.

The Knight of Glin, who is survived by his wife Olda, daughters Catherine, Nesta and Honor and son-in-law Dominic West, will be buried in Glin, Co Limerick, following a funeral service at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Glin, at 2.30pm next Sunday, September 25.

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