As you can see, I wrote this piece in 2002, after a visit to Glin Castle. It makes me very sad to read it now, as the lovely Knight has just passed on to what will hopefully be a fabulous castle in another dimension. He was a charming man and will be very much missed.
One Summer evening, six hundred years ago, on the banks of the broad, majestic Shannon something happened which was so horrible that had it happened to Posh and Becks today, entire newspapers and not just front pages would have been devoted to it. For on that fateful day, a six year old child wasn’t merely kidnapped. He was snatched from his family and strapped, unceremoniously to the mouth of a cannon. The man responsible for this atrocity was Sir George Carew, the Lord President of Munster, who was acting on behalf of Queen Elizabeth the first, and laying siege to the castle of a rebellious Irishman, the ‘Sugan”Earl of Desmond. In the modern world, no sensitive parent could stand to see their child endangered in this way and would assuredly surrender. But the Earl of Desmond, who was a FitzGerald, was made of sterner stuff. When Carew announced that the child would be blown to bits in front of him, FitzGerald,- a native Irish speaker-replied, as Gaeilge ‘My prick is hard and there are plenty more where he came from. Fire away!” And the child was duly assassinated.
Ever since their arrival in Ireland, as mercenary soldiers in the twelfth century, the FitzGeralds have been a tenacious bunch. Absolutely not to be messed with. From that time until the present day, a FitzGerald Knight has held court at Glin, in the Co Limerick, on the banks of the Shannon. Although their territory has diminished considerably since the first Knights arrived, the family has survived every conceivable attempt to unseat them and to despatch them from their home. And tragically, today, the end of the struggle is in sight. For Desmond FitzGerald, the 29th Knight of Glin has no sons. And because there is no prospect of his having any, the title which has been so valiantly upheld, will disappear, upon his death. The Knights of Glin, like the White Knights before them, will be extinct.
He may not have any sons, but the Knight has three daughters. Catherine, Nesta and Honor, all blonde, and all beautiful, like their mother Madam Olda. They have, they say, accepted the fact that they cannot be Knightesses, however sexist and unliberated that may be. They may not be boys, but the passionate, proud blood of the FitzGeralds flows in their veins, just the same. The castle, Honor swears, is the most important thing in her life, the most important thing in the entire world. That’s quite a strong statement, I say. “It is, indeed”, she says, but she means it. And her sisters, she assures me, feel the same way. ‘Glin is my blood,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t be able to live without Glin.”
Knights of the round table, knights in shining armour, knights on white horses. Rescuing maidens and doing battle with baddies. Sir Elton, Sir Bob, Sir Paul. And Desmond Fitzgerald, the Knight of Glin. What’s it like, I ask Honor,- who is the only daughter still resident in Ireland- to be the child of a Knight and to grow up in a castle? Is it as good as a fairy-tale? Or is it more like being Princess Diana? A fairytale on the surface and tragic underneath? There is no evidence of tragedy in Honor’s answer. Unswervingly, she fixes me with her sparkling, sapphire-coloured eyes, takes a drag on her fag and answers. ‘I adored it. I totally adored it. You’ll see for yourself, when you go there.”
But when I do go there, all is not what it seems. This castle isn’t really a castle. It’s a big Georgian house, a beautiful house with castellations added on, to make it look like a proper castle. The real Glin castle is a ruined Norman tower, in the village. Worse still, Desmond’s not even a Sir. But if he’s not a Sir, what do I call him? I am welcomed into the hall, as my carriage arrives. A grand hall, with a fine fireplace, family portaraits and an admirable ceiling. And an awfully cute butler.
“The Knight wants to know if you’ll be joining him for dinner?’
I’d be delighted, I say. And ask him how I ought to address my host.
‘Do you know,’ he replies, ‘I was a bit tired the other night and I said ‘Night Knight.” I was soooo embarrassed. But he doesn’t mind.”
I am nervous about this encounter. I’ve been warned that the Knight is prone to the glooms and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. One lady who’s known him for forty years said she’s still terrified of him. His lovely wife Olda is in hospital recovering from an operation. Honor is in Dublin, looking after her mother, Nesta and Catherine are in London, where they live, and so I will be alone with the Knight. I am shown to my room, a big blue room with a four-poster bed, overlooking the garden. It has a bathroom the size of my flat, the entire set-up is opulence incarnate. Giant fluffy bathrobes, expensive bubbly bathstuffs, nice notepaper. Expensive antiques everywhere to make you feel at home. A truly gorgeous place to lay my head. I take a bath and wonder what would happen if I just fell asleep now. The answer comes when a nice young lady interrupts my bath to ask me what time I’ll be coming downstairs.
Once or twice in my life I have met people and disliked them immediately. The truth is that I was once introduced to the Knight, by a mutual friend at a party. ‘This is Victoria,’ she had said. ‘Oh really?”he had responded and that had been the extent of it. I didn’t warm to the man. Honor has assured me that her father is adorable, but I’m not so sure. The gentleman who is shaking my hand now is surely not that same chap? A delightful, warm, friendly smile. A fetching black polo-neck, blazer and slacks and enormously tasteful slip-on shoes. We could be in Bond St circa 1966. I am, at any moment expecting to hear strains of John Coltrane and to be offered a dry martini. His Aston Martin must be parked in the drive. This is the Knight of Glin, in person. I remember that of course he’s got to be a groovy guy,- he had the Rolling Stones playing at his first wedding, to Lulu de la Falaise, the Yves Saint Laurent model and absolute It girl of her day.
Having prepared myself by brushing up on Irish art and antiquities about which he is notoriously knowledgeable, I comment on the ceiling.
“Yes,”he says. ‘It’s Georgian, but first things first. Far more important than the ceiling is what shall we have to drink. Pink Champagne?’
Pink Champagne is duly served by the butler in the drawing room, by the fire. Nibbles are also served, tiny round bits of toast with cheese on top. We are given menus.
‘There’s far too much cheese on the menu,’ says the Knight. ‘Don’t you think? I don’t like cheese.”
I absolutely agree, there is too much cheese. He recommends the seabass, which he had last night. He, himself plumps for the chicken. I ask him about the awkward matter of whether to Sir or not to Sir. Hoping not to appear ill-informed. He answers quite amicably and undefensively.
“I’m not a Sir,’ he says.
“Because I’m not a legitimate English knight. It’s an anomaly because Irish chieftains and Geraldine Knights are the only titles that are recognised by the Irish State.’ He switches to a mischievous brogue and twinkles at me, merrily, over his Champagne glass.
“We are in bizarre lands here, you know.”
In 1922, the IRA came to Glin, to burn the house down, because that was what they were doing at the time. And they brought the petrol into the hall and told the then Knight- who was crippled and in a wheelchair -that he would have to evacuate the building.
“ ‘You’ll have to burn me in it, boys!’ he replied. And they went off and had a few jars in the village and the villagers got them so drunk, they never came back again. So my grandfather used the petrol on the farm”.
Bravery would appear to run in the family.
‘That’s right, yes.”
In 1567, Thomas FitzGerald was hung, drawn and quartered by the English forces, in Limerick. His mother, who was an O’ Connor seized his dismembered head, drank the blood from it and carried it and his body to Lislaughtin Abbey, to be buried. Desmond has no idea why she drank the blood, but suggests that it might have been a religious thing. The FitzGeralds were Catholics who became protestants, in order to keep their lands, but were never comfortable on the side of the Crown. Colonel John FitzGerald, who inherited the title in 1781 was advised by the local parish priest not to be ridiculous when he temporarily aligned himself with his cousin Lord Edward FitzGerald, a United Irishman who, it is said, stayed at Glin during the 1798 rebellion. The decision to remain on the side of the King which undoubtedly would have saved the estate, divided the family, as John’s brother Gerald was also a United Irishman. Being in the depths of Limerick and on the side of the invaders would have meant a certain degree of isolation for the Colonel and his English wife, Margaretta, who’s portrait, while pretty, is one of the saddest I have ever seen. Margaretta stayed at Glin only long enough to produce a son and heir and then, as Desmond says ‘Pissed off back to her father.”
Does being the Knight isolate you, as a human being? I ask, over dinner. I’ve asked Honor if being his daughter makes people treat her differently. ‘Of course you feel different,’she said. ‘But I’ve never had a problem with anyone, because of it. Even though I have an English accent, I feel far more Irish than English and I have absolutely no belief in any kind of hierarchy or class system, I’m totally approachable and I get on with everyone.” Even at school, where you can get bullied just for wearing the wrong jumper, Honor says there was never an issue. The Knight pauses and beckons, politely to a waitress.
“Do you have any mustard, my dear? Oh yes, of course it sets you apart. And I’m not a particularly hail –fellow- well- met kind of person.”
“I’m perfectly approachable if people approach me, but I’m shy. I don’t really thrive under hearty conditions. I don’t go to pubs.”
I thought you were a bit stuck-up, I confess. Do most people think that?
‘I’m sure they do.’
Does it bother you?
‘No. In my life, I’ve always known exactly which people I’ve wanted to be involved with and they are mostly academics. So I really couldn’t care less if people want to think I’m stuck-up. I get a constant stream of people asking for my help and I’m very happy to be of help, if I can. I believe firmly in education and I do a lot of lecturing. That, I believe is one of the most inspiring elements of life, communication with people who are interested. That’s really stimulating. But I’m just not into the pub thing.”
So you don’t work at being more approachable?
As for the glooms, he freely admits to suffering from depression. Which has now been treated by Lithium, which he regards as a miracle. He would like to go on record about this, because of the stigma that is attached to depression in this country and because he would like people to know that it can be successfully treated. There is certainly no evidence of gloom at Glin this evening.
Whether or not he is approachable, the Knight has always been surrounded by beautiful women. His current wife, Madam Olda was one of the most desirable women in London, when they met and hundreds of men were in love with her. His previous wife, Lulu, was a famous model as were several girlfriends. His daughters are all beautiful. Is he not in the least intimidated by all these lovely ladies?
‘Not at all,” he assures me. ‘I made up my mind at an early age never to be intimidated by beautiful women!” Everyone that I have spoken to has commented on how much in love the Knight and his wife are. Sex, he tells me is absolutely necessary for the human spirit. He mentions a friend of his, who has been looking a little grey. ‘I feel terribly sorry for people who don’t have sex,” he says. ‘You can tell, can’t you? They look half dead.”
I agree. Another friend suggested that I ask him to show me his photo-albums. ‘They’re outrageous,” she said. ‘Full of naked pictures of himself!’ When he first moved back to Ireland, as a young man, from London, the Knight lived in Leixlip Castle with Desmond and Mariga Guinness. In his room, according to Marina, their daughter, was a highly erotic painting of a lady exposing her bottom. ‘Ask him about that,’ she told me. I do.
‘Oh yes,’ he says. ‘That’s in my new book of Irish Paintings. We should have put it on the cover, don’t you think?’
Clearly this man is not a Catholic.
‘No,’ he is adamant about this one. ‘I don’t believe in religion. When I die, I’ll be content with having achieved something in this life, I don’t need to make plans for another one!’
But he doesn’t like to talk about religion. He’s aware of the divisions that it creates, particularly in Irish Society and he’s not interested in creating divisions. His mother, Veronica, who was English, was very much in favour of divisions, particularly the class divide. Her biographer, Margaret Cadwaladr writes: ‘The root of the word ‘aristocracy” is from the Greek aristos and literally means rule by the best citizens, a concept (Veronica) held dear throughout her life.” She was descendant from a long line of aristocrats and was related to the late Princess Diana. To her, Cadwaldr says, the British Empire was a symbol of England’s superiority. Descendant, himself, from a long line of Norman-Irish rebels, Desmond FitzGerald, the present Knight’s father, was miserable in his marriage to Veronica.
Veronica, Desmond, says, was known as ‘The Knightmare’ and was notoriously arrogant and unpopular. She came to live at Glin, upon her marriage, with her new husband and his aged father, with whom she never got on. Very soon, she was back in London, openly having affairs and her husband was distraught. He began to keep a diary of his life, which uninhibitedly describes the torture that he endured. The year before he died, his January 1 entry reads; ‘The start of another year, probably my last. I wonder if the day after day hell of last year is to continue through this?” Later in the year he writes: “Veronica is nagging and cursing me, day and night. Oh God, I do hope I die soon.” Within the year, he was dead. The Knight has very few memories of his father.
“I only knew him when I got bad reports from school! But he had a very difficult marriage with my mother.” Who was, he says, a very brave woman as well as a very difficult one. It surprises me, I say, that the Knight allowed his father’s intimate diaries to be made public-they were donated to Limerick University. He believes that if a story is going to be told, it should not skirt around difficult bits, even if those difficult bits are the tragic marriage of his parents. I search for a trace of bitterness in his voice, when he describes his mother, but there isn’t one.
Your mother was a firm believer in the superiority of the aristocracy, I suggest.
“Oh yes, she was very right-wing. I’ve always been intensely interested in family history and genealogy, but I don’t think anyone is superior to anyone else. I don’t share her sentiments and I don’t believe in snobbery, I think people are what they are. I am interested, though, in the history of the place, and the history of the way life was run in Ireland. Irish people have always been interested in where they come from, even if they move away, as so many did. Did you know that genealogy is the most favoured pastime of today? It far exceeds pornography, so I’m told, on the internet!”
As a child, the Knight was obsessed with the house. Which had been built by Colonel John and Margaretta. A grand big house, which must have cost a fortune. His son, John Fraunceis was known as the ‘Knight of the Women” because of his dalliances with the ladies. He added the castellations and changed the name from Glin House to Glin Castle. Was he trying to be flash?
Where did he get the money?
“He was a successful gambler. He wanted to cock a snook at all the other people in Co Limerick, so he had much the biggest house in the county, or even in Kerry or Cork. If the house had been some boring box, I probably wouldn’t give a damn about it. As a child, I was fascinated by the stories I was told by the estate carpenter. My mother saved the house, she was always interested in it, too. Eventually, I shall have to do a book about it all.”
If he hadn’t been born the Knight of Glin, what would Desmond have become?
He has, he says, plowed a furrow which is related to the house, since he was a child.
“Did you see the headless statue in the walled garden? I found that when I was twelve, in a field and I bought it for a pound. I was very lucky because my step-father encouraged me and supported me financially. I’ve never been a great money maker!”
At present, apart from writing books about Irish paintings and furniture, he is Christies Irish representative. And he is president of the Georgian Society. I suggest that there might be a conflict of interest, between the two.
“Oh yes, I’ve been a conflict of interests all my life. But I know where my motivation lies, which is to get as much stuff as possible brought back here.”
The preservation of the house and its contents is his passion. Not as a museum, neither as a hotel, but as a genuine example of what a big house of its period was like. Built for hospitality. He would hate to sit here alone, he says. He loves to see people here, because that is what his ancestors intended it for. It is the ultimate in luxury, as a guest-house, because it feels exactly as though you are a in a family home. A most exquisite home, with warmth and glamour combined. The very finest furniture and paintings , but centrally heated and clean. Not dusty or damp or smelly, as it would be if it was a real country house, I point out.
‘Exactly,’ he says.
There are perhaps five other guests, during my stay, but I see them only at mealtimes. There are endless places to sit and be comfortable, without bumping into anyone. And there are twice as many staff as residents. It would be the perfect place to get away from the world and live entirely luxuriously. This makes the Knight happy and he hopes that it will continue, but he doesn’t hold his breath. Anything can happen, he remonds me. But on the other hand, the FitzGeralds are nothing if not tenacious, I say.
‘That’s true, ‘ he says. ‘There haven’t been any very important people in my family, but they’ve stuck here for an extraordinary length of time! That’s the most remarkable thing about them.”
The three daughters are all following in their family’s tradition, each in their own way. All three of them have degrees in History of Art. Catherine, the eldest is now an interior designer, Nesta is a passionate gardener, like her mother and her grandmother before her. Honor handles the publicity for the castle, as well as modelling and deejaying in Dublin. Their parents were glamorous party people, in their twenties, hanging out with the Rolling Stones in Swinging London. Their daughters have done their fair share of that, too. Honor is the Irish Posh Spice, I tell her. ‘Oh God,’ she says. ‘I’m not glamorous! I’m an old bag.” Modest and self-deprecating, just like her Dad. Clearly the FitzGeralds will still be spirited even if there are no more Knights.
It must be sad to be the last Knight of Glin, I say. He doesn’t hesitate.
“No, because it’s time there was an end to it. It’s just a romantic charade.’
After dinner, we adjourn to a sitting-room, which boasts a Bossi fireplace and very comfy chairs. The Knight is required to pose for photographs, which he absolutely hates. He looks awfully stiff. This too, runs in the family. Honor hates having her photo taken, however svelte and supermodelly she looks.
Think of the punters, I say. You don’t want them to see you looking like that.
‘You’re right,’ he says. ‘I’d better smile.’
The photographer wants us to hold Champagne glasses.
‘Won’t we look cheesy?” the Knight wants to know.
‘Very cheesy,’ I tell him.
‘Oh well, I suppose that’s what we want,’ he says and smiles warmly. “Cheese!”