Friday 16 November 2018

The Knight of Glin

Desmond FitzGerald had a successful life in London with his wife and two children when his time came to take on the family Castle, Glin, and the title of Knight, but they've never looked back, writes Mary O'Sullivan

Mary O'Sullivan

Mary O'Sullivan

The first thing the Knight of Glin does when he welcomes me to his castle home in the tiny village of Glin, Co Limerick, on the banks of the Shannon, is lead me to a walled garden where he points out an elegant, if quite damaged, marble statue.

As I later discover, there are many things of beauty in Glin Castle -- priceless old paintings, elaborate antique mirrors, a superb collection of period Irish furniture, exquisite porcelain, gleaming silverware, luxurious Victorian fabrics -- many things considered more valuable than this headless, one-armed statue. Yet it's apt that he starts his tour with her; the marble figure depicts Andromeda, the mythic Greek heroine famed for her beauty, and the gallant Knight is noted for his love of beautiful women in general, and for his marriages to two renowned beauties. More importantly, however, this statue heralded the beginning of his lifelong obsession with things of beauty and of art, an obsession which led to his career in the art world, and his many books about Irish art and furniture.

It could also be said that the purchase of Andromeda was the start of the transformation of his home from a dilapidated Georgian residence into a luxury hotel worthy of inclusion in the Conde Nast Traveller 'Top 30 Hotels in the British Isles' -- it's at number 17. The castle, a member of Ireland's Blue Book, was also voted the top castle hotel in Europe by the website Trip Advisor.

"Andromeda was the first thing I ever bought," the Knight says later, over refreshments -- I have coffee, he has Bovril -- adding that: "I was 12 or 14 and I bought it from a farmer in East Limerick, he gave it to me for £1. From then on I was always collecting things."

The Knight -- one addresses him as Knight and it's actually an easy title to take on board, "some of my friends call me Knighty, that's rather familiar", he says, perhaps a subtle warning against my doing so -- is, of course, a familiar figure on the Irish art and social scene; though a grandfather, he still cuts a dash in his signature tweed jacket and black polo neck and will be known to many as a debonair, urbane, sophisticated figure. Yet, the fact that he was interested in antiquities at an age when most teenagers were playing sports and getting up to mischief, is an indication of the kind of childhood he had. He sums it up in one word: "lonely".

"I read a lot and there was a family at the castle called the Healys -- they've been carpenters here for generations and they had three sons, so I had the companionship of the Healy family. They're still friends."

The youngest of three and the only son, he, along with his sisters, Rachel and Fiola, lived on the third floor of the 40-roomed house, where they were confined to four rooms. Meanwhile, their parents, an unhappily married pair, lived on the main floor.

"We were brought up by nannies and nursery maids, and lived on the top floor, which wasn't finished -- money ran out in the late 18th century and some of the rooms weren't plastered and had no ceilings. We didn't see our parents much. My father died when I was 12. He had TB and spent a lot of time in Switzerland; I have his diaries from that period, they're very sad," he says.

Of course, like many of his class at the time, the Knight, whose name is Desmond FitzGerald, was sent away to school in England from the age of eight and claims he went to more "schools than you've had hot dinners" -- the reasons for so many changes varied from illness to failed exams.

"I used to take the mailboat to England," he recalls. "Someone was usually deputised to take me." He didn't mind being sent away -- he quite enjoyed school, and when he was sent to the famous Stowe public school he was particularly content. "It was an architectural paradise, an amazing place, it has the greatest landscape gardens in Europe," he comments.

The surroundings inspired him and he chose to study art history and the history of architecture in university. He first went to college in Canada, where his mother -- who was related to Winston Churchill and Princess Diana -- had remarried. Her second husband was Canadian millionaire, Ray Milner, a benign stepfather to the teenage Desmond. "We had a lot in common, he was a collector as well. He educated me, he was sympathetic to my cause," he says. After studying in Canada he went to Harvard, where he did an MA, and then relocated to London, where he got a job at the Victoria and Albert Museum as a curator in the furniture department. It was around this time he met his first wife, Loulou de la Falaise, famously Yves St Laurent's muse.

"She was a fashionista, it didn't last long, it was a youthful escapade," he says, adding that she lives in Paris and they still keep in touch. Later, as he gives me a tour of the castle, he points out a photo hanging in the family's private quarters of Loulou in the nude with Andy Warhol's friend, Fred Hughes, who died after a long battle with multiple sclerosis. The Knight married Olda, his wife of 40 years, when he was 29. "Olda was a great friend of my first wife, we all knew each other well. Olda is the best possible thing that ever happened to me, she's very beautiful, very intelligent, a lovely person,"he says.

And obviously supportive; when the time came for Desmond to return home to Glin, she was willing to give up her comfortable life in London and set up home with two small daughters, Catherine and Nesta -- the youngest, Honor, was born after they moved to Glin -- in a very large, very draughty, very tumbledown castle in a two-street village, 40 miles from Limerick.

"I had a career in London, but we had to come back, the house wouldn't have survived," he says.

The Knight's family can trace its history back centuries, and there has been an unbroken line of Knights living in Glin for the past 700 years. They came to Ireland from Wales in the 1170s as mercenaries, at the request of King Dermot MacMurrough, to help him subdue his subjects. The title of Knight is akin to Gaelic chieftainships. They were granted a phenomenal amount of land -- around 30,000 acres -- but they lost them in various wars. All that remains is 500 acres, on which the Knight runs a dairy farm. The Knights were a colourful lot; there's the story of the one in the 1600s who was advised, when under siege by the Queen's forces, that if he didn't surrender, his six-year-old son, who had been kidnapped and tied to a cannon, would be blown to bits. According to the Glin Castle website, the reply, in Irish, was blunt: "The Knight was virile, and his wife was strong and it would be easy to produce another son." Another ancestor whose portrait hangs in the Castle was known as the Knight of the Women. "It was because of his many amorous exploits. He was reputed to have at least 15 illegitimate children. All sorts of people must be descended from him around here," the Knight muses as he points out the portrait of that knight's -- understandably -- "very sour looking wife", he relates.

The castle didn't start life as a castle. The original house was a long, thatched affair, to which Knight Colonel John Bateman FitzGerald added a large Georgian house in 1795. Still later, castellations and battlements were added everywhere, "like a stage set", the Knight says. The house was at its best when Colonel John Bateman FitzGerald was in situ. Colonel John had an English wife who brought taste to the house. She had come from a grand house in England and she had money, so, during their tenure stunning ceilings -- which still remain to this day -- were put in, as well as an outstanding flying double staircase. They never got around to finishing the third floor -- that didn't happen until 1999. The walls in that section were made of turf -- needless to mention, the fire officers were not happy about them so the current Knight rebuilt them with a tiny section remaining as a souvenir.

Sadly, when Colonel John died, it was found he had no money left, and an auction was held of the entire contents of the house -- the only things not sold were the family portraits and the library shelving, which was built-in.

When the Knight, the children and Olda -- who is addressed as Madam -- came to live in the castle, it wasn't exactly empty; his mother, Veronica, had been a collector before him and his stepfather had poured money into preserving the house, but the vast majority of the current furnishings were picked up by the current incumbent. Fortunately, Olda was entirely supportive of his desire to restore the house to some semblance of its former glory. "She encouraged me. It wasn't a case of stealing the housekeeping money. Or maybe it was. She sometimes got fed up of the number of books I bought."

He trawled the country for period gems and even acquired some pieces that had been sold off earlier, including a ceremonial sword that had belonged to one of the Knights. It helped that Irish antiques and furniture were quite cheap to buy in those days. In addition, he was appointed Christie's Irish representative shortly after arriving back, so he was well versed in all that was available for sale in Ireland. He's also the President of the Georgian Society, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with a beautifully illustrated history of the Society by Robert O'Byrne.

Though the Knight often sold pieces he had acquired -- such as the much-lamented superb William Orpen painting On The Beach -- he soon had the house furnished enough to start taking in guests, so it could, as the Knight puts it, "start washing its face". Again, Olda was a great support: however, the Knight himself was, as he says, the main "interior desecrator".

The main house is dedicated to the visitors who, according to the Knight, chiefly comprise "a lot of very charming and appreciative Americans, quite a few Wasps, more continentals this year". There are 15 bedrooms -- two of which are said to be haunted -- all with large en suites. These rooms are superbly decorated in coordinating wallpapers and curtains; some have four-poster beds, some tester beds, all have interesting period furniture, paintings and porcelain. Antiques abound in the form of silver dressing-table sets, china bowls and miniature portraits, but nothing has ever been taken.

Bob Duff, the charming manager, who has been with the Knight for 14 years, says he remembers once a silver bowl was taken, but he knew who had taken it, so he wrote to them and they sent it back. Those same people have even been back to stay: apparently, their children had secreted the bowl.

The guests are given the run of the reception rooms downstairs and their meals are served there; the hotel is only open to overnight guests from April to November, but this winter the Knight plans to open the dining room for a full a la carte dinner on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

The Knight's private quarters are in the newly restored wing and it's here he keeps items such as family photos -- there's a lovely one of him by Lord Lichfield -- and photo albums. Judging by these, some pretty good weekends have been had. After one such weekend, a photographer friend presented the Knight with an album of photos entitled Two Days and One Knight.

His daughters are now all grown up and gone, although each still has a room. Catherine lives in England with her partner, actor Dominic West, star of The Wire, "a lovely fellow, half Irish. Her third child is appearing soon", the Knight says. Nesta, an art graduate, lives in London and has an exhibition of her prints in Gallery 29 in Molesworth Street, Dublin 2, at the moment. Honor, a former model, is the only one living in Ireland. "She's doing holistic therapy; I think that's what it's called."

There's a lovely cosy country kitchen here where he serves me lunch -- sandwiches and soup made from their home-grown vegetables and cooked on the Aga. The Knight himself is not a cook, although he says he makes extremely good scrambled eggs, as well as a mean Bloody Mary.

"I also make a good bullshot, for which you use bouillon instead of the tomato juice; and a bloody bull, which consists of bouillon, tomato juice, vodka, horseradish, sherry, lots of lemons, pepper and tabasco. I prefer to use Campbell's beef broth instead of bouillon. I couldn't get any here so, when the Campbell soup heiress Dodo Dorrance Hamilton came and took over the castle for a week, I complained about that to her, and she sent me a great big box of the stuff." Just one of the many pluses of being the Knight. Sadly, because he doesn't have a male heir, the title will disappear when he dies, but he says it doesn't bother him. Or his daughters.

"I've been quite used to this for a long time. David Norris tells me he's going to campaign so that the female can inherit the title, but it doesn't disturb me at all. The Knight of Glin is a romantic title, it's not much use except for the romance of the story. All the girls take a vital interest in the house, all come back regularly, but the future? Who knows?"

One thing is sure -- his descendants will have lots of colourful tales about the man his friends call Knighty.

To book dinner, tel: (068) 34173, or see 'The Irish Georgian Society: A Celebration' by Robert O'Byrne is available from bookstores nationwide and the Irish Georgian Society, tel: (01) 676-7053

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