Taking over Glin Castle was a big decision, says Catherine FitzGerald, who grew up there as daughter of the 29th Knight of Glin. As lockdown lifts, she and husband Dominic West the actor are preparing to receive the first guests of the season, writes Emily Hourican
As lockdown rolls back, hotels around the country are airing their bedrooms and polishing the silver in preparation for the long-anticipated re-opening to guests on June 2.
One such place is Glin Castle in Co Limerick. Run as a much-loved hotel for years then closed during the recession, it was taken on seven years ago by Catherine FitzGerald, eldest daughter of Desmond, Knight of Glin, who grew up there. It is now once again a wonderful place to stay; more wonderful than ever indeed with both the house and the gardens revived and refreshed.
For many years, Glin was known for the glittering house parties where Desmond and his wife Olda hosted rock stars, writers, artists and the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. “We loved Molly Keane. She’d come with her tiny little dog, Hero; she had a wicked wit and my father adored her. Myrtle Allen would come when researching recipes for her book on Irish cooking,” Catherine remembers: .
“There was the fateful weekend where Marianne [Faithfull] left a heartbroken Mick [Jagger] for Lord Rossmore... That was long before my time, but we have pictures of them all in the photograph books, with Christopher Gibbs, Talitha Getty – my father’s old flame – and other Bohemian figures from the time.”
When Catherine and her husband – the Wire actor Dominic West – decided to take on Glin they didn’t do it lightly. It was already a busy time in their lives.
“We’d moved out of London to Bath and restored an old brewery,” Catherine says. “We were in America for a year. I was keeping my work going somehow throughout.” Catherine, with Mark Lutyens, runs LutyensFitzGerald Landscape Design. Together they have undertaken projects including Hillsborough Castle and Glenarm Castle walled garden.
And then there were the four children, now aged nearly 15 to eight, and Catherine’s stepdaughter, Dominic’s daughter Martha.
“Taking on Glin was a big decision,” she says, “but I think women deal with a million things happening at once, and try to keep some sense of calm.”
Certainly, she sounds calm, almost zen, someone who has reflected carefully on life, decisions, responsibilities and so on.
She admits to being “quite perfectionist”, meaning, “I end up falling into that terrible trap that you should not fall into – doing things myself for fear they won’t be done right, even though Dominic is good at helping.”
Was she always like this? “No, I wasn’t at all,” is the surprising answer. “I was all over the place, leading a haphazard life post-Trinity. It wasn’t until I found what I wanted to do that I knuckled down.”
Gardens, it turned out, were what she wanted to do. “I retrained completely in my late 20s. At Trinity I did English and history of art. I thought I would be a journalist or a writer.”
Instead she became “so interested in plants and nature and gardening”.
By then she was married, to Edward Lambton. “I got married impulsively at 24 and was divorced by 30. We had quite a lot of adventures but it didn’t work out, though I’m still good friends with Ned.” Catherine started horticultural training. “Just as everyone else was getting married, I was getting divorced and starting my career. It was totally back to front.”
She became interested in landscape “though going to places and looking at things. My father-in-law, Lord Lambton, lived in Italy then. He was a rather fascinating person who taught me a lot about plants and gardens as we went driving around Tuscany.”
She realised she wanted to study horticulture in earnest, training in conservation of historic landscape at the Architectural Association, and at Wisley with the Royal Horticultural Society. That, she says, “changed my whole life. This discovery of gardening, which sounds corny but I do believe it was a saviour; it renewed my sense of direction and I found a real passion.
“When I finished I got a fantastic job with landscape designer Arabella Lennox-Boyd. And since then I’ve had a wonderful and really creative work life which has slotted in with children and family life, which is such a blessing.”
But, perhaps, as her chosen career it wasn’t entirely unexpected. “I have many lovely memories of my grandmother gardening,” Catherine says. “She was a real plantswoman, a practical gardener as well as an artist who painted flowers and landscapes. She did so much in the garden at Glin the 1930s and ‘40s.
“My mother [Madam Olda FitzGerald] was behind the restoration of the walled garden; it had been abandoned after the war and was full of brambles, and it is thanks to her energy that we have it going strong today.”
Catherine’s love of gardening – and of Glin Castle itself – led her to take on the job of running the castle.
At least she knew what she was getting into, I say, unlike so many, who only find out afterwards what’s required to keep somewhere like Glin going. The oldest parts of the structure date from the 13th century with most of the current castle built in the 18th century.
“I really did and it was scary,” she acknowledges. “Especially with four small children, and the fact that we couldn’t live there full time.
“Also I knew how precarious it all can be. Dominic and I have a big family. We’re both working. It’s certainly a challenge. But we discussed it and decided let’s try this.
“We knew it had to wash its face and our aim is to make it sustainable by developing several different strands: the farm, the house, the garden, small events in the house, large events for the public.”
For Catherine, ‘sustainable’ doesn’t only mean somewhere that just pays its way. She means “giving it a role in that part of the country. We want to make it a hub for the wider community. We’ve done wonderful projects with Glin Development such as a 5km walk over the farm, with incredible views of the broad Shannon estuary. We did a wonderful plant fair, and before Covid we were planning the first Glin food fair, highlighting local producers. We will go back to that as soon as we can and hope to make it an annual event.”
Her desire to share the experience of growing up at Glin is just as strong. “I believe it’s unique and special. It’s a place I want people to come and enjoy living in an Irish castle for a few days. It works best as a one-group place rather than different guests – we can sleep 30 people so a group might come for several days and take the whole house for a celebration or just to spend time together.
"The house is magical for entertaining. That’s what it was built for.”
She is adamant that Glin is very much for Irish people: “We’re doing special deals for the domestic market – I’m trying to demystify that it’s for very rich people or foreigners – it’s not. It’s friendly, it’s casual, it’s for families and friends to relax. It’s not a museum. It’s a place we take care of people.”
She must, I guess, feel a huge sense of responsibility for Glin? There have been FitzGeralds living there since the 12th century.
“I do,” she laughs. “Dad was the 29th Knight of Glin – it’s such a colourful, romantic history that I felt it was so worth fighting for. I hadn’t been expecting to do it – I don’t know what I’d been expecting… Well, for my father to live forever, in some way. Instead he sadly got cancer, and passed away quite suddenly, and just at the time when the babies were small.
“My mother valiantly tried for a few more years, but then she took the very sad decision to put Glin on the market. And nothing really happened. With no obvious buyer coming forward for several years, I had time to have a breather and reflect and decided to take on the challenge.”
What did Dominic think of the decision? “He’s been so supportive. At first he was a bit ambivalent – he’s quite a free spirit, he loves travelling, but Glin is very much a shared project for us. We lead quite separate work lives – acting and gardening are worlds apart – so it is lovely to work together on something that we both care about.
“His other love apart from acting has always been old buildings: there is an element of theatre in the arrangement of old houses that appeals to him.”
There was plenty of deep structural work to be done when they took over and it was Dominic who insisted they fix all the fireplaces.
“They were all defunct when we took Glin on — the pointing between the 18th century bricks in the flues had crumbled away and if you lit a fire the smoke would come out through the walls in the bedrooms above! I thought he was mad as to fix the problem was massive – even finding the right people to do it took ages. But an Irish Country House without proper fires just doesn’t feel right – he was dead right.”
Catherine’s father Desmond was the last Knight of Glin. With three daughters and no sons, he had no one to pass the title to.
Surely, I ask, there must be some way, in this newly empowered age, of a daughter inheriting?
“Probably yes. There is a European-wide petition that I have signed, the Daughters’ Rights campaign, calling for an end to male primogeniture. But I don’t know what my title would be. There was once a female Knight – the bean tighearna – the female chieftain; maybe I could reinvent her?” says Catherine.
Catherine and Dominic met at Trinity where they were both studying in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
It was, she says “definitely instant attraction. We had a wonderful love affair. I had a tiny room on campus, and Dominic had a garret flat on the top floor of a building on Mountjoy Square. It was falling down but you could get out onto the roof and sit on the hot slates – it was a lovely summer that year – and we would look over Dublin, reading poetry to one another with the mountains in the distance.
“We had all the time in the world to explore the pubs and back streets and walk the canal. I have a great memory of the lilac that spring. But at the end of the summer I left him and he has not let me forget it! But I couldn’t have settled down with him right then forever. That would not have been a good idea for either of us.”
How did they get back together? “Dominic had been living in America, doing The Wire, and he had a daughter, Martha, but had spilt up with her lovely mum. He was having a year out and came back to London to be with his daughter, and a mutual friend brought him to meet me. We were both, then, at the right time in our lives,” she says. “And it was lovely to have that shared history, from earlier days.”
It is, I say, a beautiful origin story. “I sure as hell did it the hard way,” she says, “by then I was about 32 and I had decided to put everything into my work but falling in love was wonderful.
“There’s something about having lived a full life before settling down – I felt I could throw myself into family life and having babies with gusto. And I really went for it, having four in seven years! It’s had its ups and downs of course, like everybody, but we are totally devoted to each other and to our full, vibrant family life together.”
Whatever rumours of trouble surfaced last year are clearly in the past for the couple.
As well as a hub for community, Glin is a hub for family. Catherine’s sister Nesta, an illustrator, lives there part-time and is working on illustrated histories of Kerry, Limerick and Clare while Honor, the youngest, recently moved back to Dublin from LA with her husband, conceptual artist Mathew Wilkinson, who is looking to use Glin as part of his work. And Catherine’s mother Olda is also living at Glin. “She is the fixed point around which everyone revolves”, Catherine says.
Does she hope her children will keep Glin on? She isn’t looking that far just yet. “Even to reinvent [Glin] for a short time is enough for me. We have no idea what the world is going to be like but I’m sure there will be a positive role for places such as Glin.
“My children are all into so many different things. I’d love it if one of them took it on but I’m certainly not going to become obsessed with that idea. I’m doing it for the love of the place, the feeling that it’s special, and my own passion for making a garden.”
Glin Castle is offering a ‘Dine and Stay’ package and can accommodate groups of 12-30, with special offers available on selected dates. Minimum two-night stay required. The rate is inclusive of breakfast and dinner. House is fully staffed and lunch, afternoon teas, picnics can be arranged but must be booked in advance. Contact email@example.com for further details.