At home in Glin Castle with film star Dominic West and his wife Catherine FitzGerald
Life is full of serendipities and mysteries. Take Catherine FitzGerald of Glin Castle in Limerick. Of all the things her late grandmother might have left her in her will when she was a little girl, why did she leave her two paintings of flowers?
These paintings hang in the smoking room of the castle, surrounded by portraits of ancestors, and the political cartoons which her father, Desmond, the late Knight of Glin, used to collect. One might think nothing of the flower paintings except for the fact that Catherine has gone on to become a noted landscape designer and plantswoman. Did her grandmother have a premonition, or was she in some way planting the seed for her future career in Catherine's mind?
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The 10 stunning acres of gardens with their many rare and exotic plants are an important part of the Glin Castle estate, and Catherine and her film-star husband, Dominic West, who now own the castle, are passionate about its beauty and history, and would love more people to come and enjoy it. "We just had a firm of 50 farm accountants [visit]. They looked at the farm; they did the Knight's walk, which is a strenuous five-kilometer walk; then they had a tour of the house and gardens; they had tea and wine, and a really jolly time," Catherine enthuses.
"We really want to encourage groups, of, say, 30 - for example, groups of plant-mad people to come, and maybe have lunch and do a tour. The house was built for entertaining in the 18th Century and it needs to do its job," says Catherine, who goes on to explain that the castle, which has 15 bedrooms, can be rented for weekends, with full catering on site, as well as cookery demos, archery, clay-pigeon shooting, casino nights, and talks on the colourful history of the castle.
"All the talk nowadays is about experiential travel, and it would be a lovely experience for a family or group of friends to take over the castle, and maybe have a themed weekend, like one of our cookery weekends, organised by Imen McDonnell, who brings in celebrity chefs to do cookery demonstrations," Catherine says. The castle team can also host small weddings for up to 60 to 90 guests. "It's sad when it's musty and shut up. It needs to be used and aired, with lots of fires and people," she says.
She's also enthusiastic about the fact that it's on the Wild Atlantic Way, as well as now being part of the Shannon Estuary Way, which Failte Ireland is promoting, along with Glin village and other historical areas on the route.
Catherine's family have lived on the Glin land, which is on the banks of the Shannon, for 700 years, and her father was the 29th Knight. The eldest of three girls, Catherine was actually born in London and brought to live in Glin when she was three.
"In the beginning, it was quite bare, then Dad collected things. He was always buying and selling things; he was very good at that," Catherine says with a smile. "He was trained as a furniture museum curator; he was the head of furniture at the V&A before he came back to Ireland. That's where he met my mother. My children now tear about all the rooms here, but we were not allowed to do that. We had family life in the wing, and often the main house used to be rented out to Americans."
However, they did get the odd opportunity to enjoy the whole house. "My grandmother, who lived in Canada [she married a Canadian after Catherine's grandfather died] would come back at Christmas, and then we'd come up here to the drawing room," Catherine recalls, adding, "She'd have tea and crab-apple jelly and scones; we'd have big garlands of ivy up the columns in the hall, and she'd sit in the smoking room and play backgammon."
It definitely was not a typical family home. "The top floor consisted of extraordinary bat-infested rooms full of old Victorian clothes in trunks, and we'd play in them. Or we'd go up on the roof and play up there for hours. It was quite strange, I suppose," Catherine recalls.
Living in a castle wasn't the only unusual thing about her childhood. "I went to Glin National School until I was eight, then I was sent to a funny little boarding school in Tipperary. It was in Killenure Castle; it was run by a couple who took in children. There were only 11 pupils, and we all ran wild and lived in the woods and fell out of trees, and it was rather amazing. The health-and-safety people today would not have approved," Catherine volunteers with a laugh. "It was awful to go away at that age, but Daddy was a Christie's rep and he travelled the country, and my mother was working for him."
As well as his work with Christie's, the Knight was one of the founders of the Irish Georgian Society and did lecture tours in the States, fundraising to save buildings and conservation projects, as well as constantly trying to maintain Glin. "They were amazing parents, but they had to work," Catherine says.
After Killenure Castle boarding school, which is now defunct, she went to Brook House in Bray, then to boarding school at St Mary's Calne in England, near where her mother Olda's parents lived.
After boarding school, Catherine went to Trinity, where she studied English literature and history of art.
"I always loved art, I was good at drawing. But I loved literature too, and I always thought I'd be a writer or a journalist, but then I got bitten by the plant bug," she says. She's not the first woman in her family to be entranced by gardens - Catherine's great-grandmother, Rachel Wyndham-Quin, who was the daughter of the fourth Earl of Dunraven, planted a lot of things here; her father's mother, who is famous in Canada for her rhodendrons, also gave a lot to the garden, as did Catherine's mother, Olda. "Mum found a lot of paths which had been covered up, and she and Dad put them back," Catherine says.
After getting the gardening bug, Catherine thought she might make a career out of writing about gardens, but she ended up designing them, though writing about gardens is still a possibility.
"I'd like to write a book, but I haven't decided about what yet," she says, adding, "The thing I love about the garden here at Glin is the wet, warmish climate. We can grow exotic shrubs with great success, Chilean flame trees; drimys - I think the common name is winter's bark; gunnera from Chile, with its big, architectural leaves; eucryphias. My grandmother's eucryphias, planted in the 1930s, are better than ever," she enthuses.
"The garden is a theatre with ever-changing scenes. You've got to excite people, keep them interested. When I'm here, I'm always out there. My specialty is moving things around. I dig things up. It's like musical chairs - you can move anything as long as you do it properly, and they're being properly watered."
She runs a garden-design company with her business partner, landscape architect Mark Lutyens, great-nephew of the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. They recently led the redesign of the gardens at Hillsborough Castle, the seat of the royal family when they're in the North.
It's hard for Catherine to run a business, as her husband Dominic's job takes the family all over the world. The couple met when they were both at Trinity at the same time. "We went out together for six months, and we had great fun. He actually came to my 21st here, then he left and we split up. Our best friend was also at Trinity with us. We all went on to have separate lives, but were linked through our best friend, Dominic Geraghty, also an actor.
"Dominic [West] had a daughter with a friend of mine, Polly; and I got married, but that didn't work out. And I went to [the Royal Horticultural Society's garden at] Wisley, and did all this garden stuff and retrained. Then, when Dominic was doing The Wire, we met again through our friend Dominic [Geraghty]; I was 32 then. I feel so lucky."
The couple have four children - Dora (13), Senan (10), Francis (9), and Christabel (5). The plan was to be based in London and spend half-terms and holidays at the castle, but Dominic's work, which takes him all over the world, makes that difficult. He likes to have the family nearby when he's filming, and next year they may have to move to LA for a project he's involved with.
Catherine finds the dual life somewhat unsettling, as she would like to spend more time at the castle. The couple now own the castle. After her father died in 2011, it was put on the market but it failed to sell, so she and Dominic bought it.
"He loves the castle, and sees it as a challenge. I'm more emotional about it. It's so hard to keep it ticking over; it's such a delicate house," Catherine says.
She goes on to explain how old houses like Glin Castle haemorrhage money. "All the flues were 18th Century, and none of the chimneys worked. Dominic got them all fixed. It took ages. He got advice, which was that no one could do it. Then we got an amazing company, and they made enormous holes all over the houses and lined them with special pellets. I felt my father might be looking down, going, 'What are you doing?' but, you know, when people come to Ireland they expect fires, and now we have fires." It's obvious making the castle comfortable as well as elegant is very important to the couple.
"It's a labour of love," Catherine says. "I appreciate how special these places are, and how rare they are, this unbroken history. If I could make it pay for itself, I'd be satisfied. It's lovely to be on the map for tourists, it's a valuable link for them."
One bit of the history is slightly fractured. The title of knight died with Catherine's father, as he had no male heir. Such a rule is a bit of an anachronism - even the British monarchy recently changed its rules, and the order of birth is what matters now, rather than sex, so Prince William's daughter Charlotte has a stronger claim to the throne of England than her little brother Louis.
"The knighthood was very much ancient history - there are lots of ifs and buts about it. I wasn't angry that it didn't pass to me, but it's a romantic title so it's sad that it dies. It adds a lot of colour to our family," Catherine muses. "It could change, and quite a lot of people are keen for things to change when something dies off and there's no male to inherit, but it's not in the forefront of people's minds. Let's see, I could be a knight yet."
I don't think Catherine is holding her breath. Instead, she's getting on with doing what she loves most - planting and digging. As her grandmother might have been predicting all those years ago. See glin-castle.com
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin