A Cloistered World


Writing of Askeaton, County Limerick in 1841, the unflagging Mrs Hall commented that ‘the object of principal interest here is the abbey. It stands at the opposite side of, and adjacent to, the river, and is a pile of very considerable extent and in tolerable preservation. It was founded in 1420 by James, seventh Earl of Desmond for conventual Franciscans, and was reformed in 1490, by the Observantine friars. James, the fifteenth Earl, died and was buried here, in 1558. In 1564 a chapter of the order was held within it. At the suppression of monasteries, towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth, after the destruction of Desmond’s power, this structure shared the general fate; but an abortive effort at its restoration was made in 1648, by the confederate Catholics; since then it has been gradually, though slowly, progressing to its present state. The church stands in the midst of the conventual buildings. It is a long oblong, from which a transept branches off at the north side, at the intersection of which formerly stood a tower, the ruins of which lie around in solid masses.’



Mrs Hall continued, ‘The east window is a broad and lofty opening of five lights, the mullions forming intersecting tracery at head. The transept opens into the church by two fair, broad and lofty arches. It is divided in its length by a range of three similar arches springing from plain pillars, and forming a lateral aisle. This portion of the building also contains some old tombs. The cloister, which lies at the south side of the church, is not the least beautiful portion of this interesting ruin. It is an area encompassed by low arched ambulatories, opening on a central square in a succession of small, neatly executed, pointed arches, twelve to each side. An old white-thorn occupies the centre. The refectory, dormitories, hospital, and other offices are all in fair preservation and, meet haunts as they are for “musing melancholy,” are not without their due attraction to detain the footsteps of the curious visitor.’



Evidently Mrs Hall (and presumably her husband too) was greatly taken with the remains of Askeaton’s Franciscan friary, since she devoted more attention to the site than was often the case in the course of the couple’s diligent investigations, and more than she did to anything else in the immediate area. And why not, since the former religious house is one of the most attractive mediaeval ruins in the entire country, and the greater part of it has survived in exceptionally good condition.
The town of Askeaton lies to the west of Limerick city and is sited on the river Deel which a couple of miles further north flows into the Shannon estuary. Its situation gave the place strategic importance and hence at the very end of the 12th century Hugo de Burgo established a castle here: it subsequently became a stronghold for the FitzGeralds, Earls of Desmond, the dominant family in this part of Munster. They remained in possession until the late 16th century and the castle itself suffered extensive damage in 1652. Now under the care of the Office of Public Works it has been undergoing interminable repairs for far too many years and remains closed to the public, thereby ill-serving the local community.



Although Mrs Hall was accurate in most of her commentary, her crediting the seventh Earl of Desmond with the foundation of Askeaton’s Franciscan friary appears to have been incorrect. Since its origins are generally dated to c.1389, the man responsible would be the poetically-inclined Gerald FitzGerald, third Earl of Desmond. But let us not become too pedantic, especially since hard and fast evidence is unavailable. What matters more is that the buildings are evidence of how the decorative arts flourished in late-mediaeval Ireland and were put to use in the ornamentation of religious buildings.
The friary having been completed in the early fifteenth century then enjoyed 100 years of undisturbed occupancy before the disruption of the Reformation, the Desmond Rebellion, the upheavals of conquest and resettlement which so much of the rest of the country also underwent from the 1540s onwards. In 1579, for example, Sir Nicholas Malby, then Lord President of Connacht, having failed to take the neighbouring Desmond castle, instead attacked the friary and apparently slaughtered several of its occupants. But those Franciscans were a hardy bunch and repeatedly returned to their house; during the confederate wars of the 1640s, for example, it was repaired and re-occupied. Seemingly members of the order remained in the locale well into the 18th century and part of the site was used for Roman Catholic services until the construction of a new chapel in 1851.



As can be seen, the glory of Askeaton friary is its cloister, unusually located to the south of the church and remarkably intact considering the assaults the building underwent in earlier centuries. Again reverting to Mrs Hall for guidance, we note that each of its four vaulted sides feature twelve pointed arches supported by cylindrical columns with richly moulded capitals; the ancient whitethorn bush standing in the centre of the courtyard to which she referred, and which was much commented on by other observers in the 19th century, has since been removed and the space looks rather bleak without it. All of the arch pillars are original save two which were stolen in the 19th century and have since been replaced. A column on the north-east corner of the cloisters features a medieval carving of St. Francis of Assisi displaying his stigmata. The face is more worn than the rest of the figure because it used to be believed kissing it would cure toothache.
Given its excellent condition, proximity to Limerick city and inherent beauty, one might expect Askeaton friary to be a popular destination for visitors. In fact visitors to the ruin are unlikely to find anyone else there. Should this be a cause for lamentation? Of course it is important that the national heritage be duly appreciated and celebrated, Yet experiencing Askeaton friary alone allows one to engage in what might be described as a Thomas Gray moment, an opportunity to revel in that ‘musing melancholy’ to which Mrs Hall so rightly referred. And who could resist that cloistered self-indulgence?


Knightly Lore


A portrait of Thomas FitzGerald, 23rd Knight of Glin painted by Philip Hussey which hangs in the entrance hall of Glin Castle, County Limerick. Tomorrow evening, Wednesday 29th January, I shall be giving a talk on the life and achievements of Desmond FitzGerald, 29th and last Knight of Glin at the Irish Georgian Society headquarters in the City Assembly House, South William Street, Dublin. Further information can be found at http://www.igs.ie/events/detail/The-Last-Knight-Lecture-by-Robert-OByrne.

A Spectacular Fall from Grace


Given the notoriety of its late 18th century resident, the fate of Mount Shannon, County Limerick seems inevitable. One of the country’s more striking ruins, the house formerly stood at the centre of a 900-acre demesne famous for its trees and gardens: in his 1822 Encyclopedia of Gardening the Scottish botanist and landscape designer John Claudius Loudon specifically cited Mount Shannon as an example of improvements in Ireland, and proposed these had been carried out under the direction of the first Earl of Clare, of whom more anon. Five years later Fitzgerald and McGregor in their study of the history and topography of Limerick city and county likewise refer to Mount Shannon: ‘the plantations are laid out with fine taste, and the gardens are extensive and well arranged.’ Aside from a handful of surviving specimen trees, no evidence of the demesne’s former glories now remains, and much of the land is given over to suburban housing, making it difficult to discern what the grounds must have looked like even a century ago. On the other hand it is still possible to gain a sense of the main house’s former appearance. In 1827 Fitzgerald and McGregor described it as being ‘one of the most superb mansions in the South of Ireland’ and although a hollow shell for over ninety years it clings onto a residue of grandeur.



The original Mount Shannon was built c.1750 by the euphoniously-named Silver Oliver whose family’s main estate was elsewhere in the county at Clonodfoy, later Castle Oliver. Oliver appears to have sold the property to a member of the White family but around 1765 it came into the possession of John Fitzgibbon, supposedly a descendant of the mediaeval White Knights, who had been raised a Roman Catholic but converted to Anglicanism so that he could become a lawyer (Penal Laws then barring this profession to everyone not a member of the established church). Highly successful, he amassed a considerable fortune
which when he died in 1780 was passed on to his son, also called John and later first Earl of Clare.
It would appear from various references that Lord Clare did much to improve and aggrandise Mount Shannon, not just its demesne but also the house. However the latter’s most striking feature was added by his eldest son the second earl in 1813. The immense Ionic portico with Doric pilasters behind was designed by Lewis Wyatt (a member of the prolific English family of architects and a nephew of James Wyatt), and occupies the three centre bays of the seven-bay north entrance front. Behind three round-headed doors gave access to the hall with the drawing room and other main reception rooms behind. The interiors, as a handful of 19th century photographs show, were chillingly neo-classical with scarcely any ornament. The same was true of the exterior which, as can be seen is constructed of brick with cut limestone dressings. The severity of the south, garden facade was relieved by a very large curved conservatory. To the immediate east of the two-storey over sunken basement house is a long, lower extension which would have been used for services and was originally concealed by a curved screen wall that joined the still-extant wall of the old walled garden.



Many stories are told of John ‘Black Jack’ Fitzgibbon, first Earl of Clare, some of them apocryphal, few of them kind. After studying at Trinity College, Dublin and Christchurch, Oxford he became a lawyer like his father before him. He was first elected to the Irish House of Commons in 1778 and five years later was appointed Attorney General. Appointed Lord Chancellor for Ireland in 1789, he was also received his first peerage, as Baron FitzGibbon, of Lower Connello; he was subsequently advanced to a Viscountcy in 1793 and finally received his earldom in 1795. Four years later he was granted an English peerage (entitling him to a seat in the House of Lords at Westminster), becoming Baron FitzGibbon, of Sidbury in the County of Devon.
Unquestionably brilliant, Fitzgibbon was also without doubt bigoted. It has often been noted that he was a hardline Protestant and a member of the Protestant Ascendancy who avidly promoted whatever measures he believed would best preserve that group’s political domination in Ireland. He supported harsh measures against members of the 1798 Rebellion and was openly hostile to Roman Catholicism despite or perhaps because of his father had originally been a member of this faith. When it came to the Act of Union in 1800, of which he was firmly in favour, there was widespread understanding that this would be accompanied by concessions made to Roman Catholics with the Penal Laws being ameliorated. FitzGibbon persuaded George III that any such liberalisation of the status quo would be a violation of the king’s Coronation Oath and thus ensured pro-Emancipation measures were not included in the Union legislation. In so doing he delayed Catholic Emancipation by three decades and encouraged the spread of sectarianism.
It is said that FitzGibbon once declared he would make the Irish as ‘tame as a dead cat.’ As a result, there are stories of dead cats being thrown into his coach, and of more of the same being flung into his grave when he died in January 1802 following a fall from his horse at Mount Shannon the previous month.



At the time of the Act of Union, Lord Clare arranged for a handsome pension by way of compensation for the loss of his office as Lord Chancellor which was then abolished; this was to be paid both to him and his immediate heir. Thus the second earl, who died in 1851, enjoyed a handsome income not just from his estates which ran to more than 13,000 acres in Counties Limerick and Tipperary but from the munificence of the British Treasury. A close friend of Lord Byron, with whom he was at school, the second earl later became Governor first of Bombay and later of Bengal; he enhanced Mount Shannon by both the addition of the portico and other improvements, but by adding treasures from India and paintings acquired on his travels around Europe.
Since he had no children, his property passed to a younger brother, who duly became third earl. He was to suffer a number of disadvantages, among them the absence of the pension enjoyed by his predecessors, a much depleted income in the aftermath of the Great Famine, and the death of his only son during the Charge of the Light Brigage at the Battle of Balaclava in October 1854: Limerick’s Wellesley Bridge used to feature a handsome statue to the youthful Viscount FitzGibbon until it was blown up by the IRA in 1930.
On the death of the third earl in 1864 the title became extinct. His estate was left to the two younger of his three daughters (the eldest, who had caused a scandal by abandoning her own spouse and children to run off with the elderly husband of a half-sister, appears to have been disinherited). While the middle sister took possession of the FitzGibbon silver and, it seems, the greater part of the liquidity attached to the estate, the youngest Lady Louisa FitzGibbon assumed responsibility for Mount Shannon.



Lady Louisa was as dogged by bad luck as her father. Her eldest son died at the age of twenty, followed by her first husband and then the Italian Marchese she married in expectation of his money turned out to be as penniless as herself. With the advent of the Land Wars rents ceased to be paid, portions of the estate had to be sold, what remained was mortgaged, and money borrowed at high interest rates. All to no avail: Lady Louisa’s creditors demanded satisfaction, following litigation a receiver was appointed, and in the course of a sale lasting several days during June 1888 Mount Shannon was stripped of its contents including a very valuable library. Here is a small quote from the fascinating catalogue compiled by Limerick auctioneer John Bernal: ‘The Family Paintings are Chef Douvres [sic], by the first artist of the period, when they were taken, some of the Paintings, see page 42, were placed in the house about 1790, and will afford the connoisseur and speculator a good chance of getting a valuable Old Master on good terms. There are also some replicas from the Dresden gallery.’ The first such melancholy event of its kind in Ireland, a prelude to many more to follow over the coming decades, the Mount Shannon excited huge interest, with special trains and catering arrangements being laid on. Lady Louisa FitzGibbon spent the remainder of her days in a Dominican convent on the Isle of Wight, an establishment founded by the Roman Catholic convert wife of her uncle, the second Lord Clare; this was something of an irony given the first earl’s virulent hatred of all Catholics.
Five years after the sale, Thomas Nevins, who had been born in Mayo but made a fortune in the United States as a tram and railway contractor, bought Mount Shannon where he died in 1902, just like the first earl following a bad fall from a horse. His widow only survived until 1907 after which the place passed through various hands before what remained of the estate was bought in 1915 by David O’Hannigan of County Cork for £1,000. He did not have long to enjoy Mount Shannon since it was burned down in June 1920 during the War of Independence, the light of the flames apparently seen in Limerick city.
The house remains a shell. To walk through it today is to have a sense what it must have been like visiting a site such as the Baths of Caracalla in the aftermath of Imperial Rome’s collapse, especially as this immense structure is now surrounded by others domestic buildings of infinitely smaller dimensions and aspirations. Even in its present broken-down state Mount Shannon continues dominate the area and to exude an air of greater distinction than any of its neighbours.

sale 1

Une Folie de Grandeur


Driving west from Limerick city along the N69 after some ten miles one’s attention is caught by the spectacle of immense battlemented ruins to the right. These are the remains of Dromore Castle, built almost 150 years ago, and unroofed for the past sixty. Situated on a promontory overlooking a lake and with sweeping views across the Shannon estuary Dromore’s dramatic silhouette, as has often been commented, would not look out of place above the Rhine. Yet one of the paradoxes of this extravagant building is that the architect responsible was anxious it be historically accurate to Ireland.
Dromore was designed by Edward William Godwin whose influence on the late 19th century Aesthetic movement was considerable, not least because of his advocacy of Japanese taste: Whistler, for example, commissioned Godwin to build him a house in Tite Street (and later married Godwin’s widow) and another of his clients was Oscar Wilde. He also produced many designs for Liberty & Co where in 1884 he became director of the Regent Street store’s new costume department. However earlier in his career Godwin had been a supporter of Ruskinian Gothic and one of the most fascinating aspects of Dromore is the way in which it reflects a transition in his interests and tastes.




Dromore was commissioned by William Pery in 1866, the year in which he became third Earl of Limerick. The Perys had been prominent in the region since the late 1600s, owning a large amount of land beside the mediaeval Limerick City; here in the second half of the 18th century the earl’s forebear Edmund Sexton Pery laid out what became known as Newtown Pery. Although the family had a large house in the city on Henry Street, it did not have a country residence in Ireland and for the first half of the 19th century the Perys spent the greater part of their time in England.
Hence when William Pery chose to commission Dromore he was indicating a re-engagement with this country. It is open to question whether his decision was received with much favour here. February and March 1867 saw the failed Fenian Rising organised by the Irish Republican Brotherhood and at the end of the latter month the Building News, writing of Dromore, then under construction, noted ‘The corridors are kept on the outer side of the building and all the entrances are well guarded, so that in the event of the country being disturbed, the inmates of Dromore Castle might not only feel secure themselves but be able to give real shelter to others.’ The pictures above and below give an indication of just how difficult it remains to gain access to the building’s interior.




On receiving the commission from Lord Limerick, Godwin went to a great deal of trouble to make sure the building was authentically Irish in design. With his friend and fellow architect William Burges (then working on St Finbarr’s Cathedral in Cork) he travelled around the country drawing and measuring old castles and churches; what he saw during the journey influenced the eventual building which was finished by 1869.
The initial impression created by Dromore, no doubt due to a lack of external windows on the lower levels of the roughly-dressed limestone structure and the loss of the original softening landscaping, is of sheer unadorned mass. With walls six feet thick, the entrance block to the south is of three storeys, the actual gateway being rather too squat (it immediately proved insufficiently tall to accommodate a coach and four). A tympanum above features carved lions flanking a sequence of heraldic motifs. Behind to the north is a larger five-storey main keep, this accommodated most but not all of the principal reception rooms. These two blocks overlook an internal courtyard on the opposite side of which are a range of service buildings that included both a chapel and a chaplain’s residence (presumably to increase the impression of mediaeval authenticity), as well as a banqueting hall. The last of these could only be reached by crossing over the entrance gateway, which must have been uncomfortable in bad weather. But again, perhaps this was to encourage the sense of re-enacting life in the Middle Ages. Most of the main windows take the form of paired lancets with quatrefoils above, although in the courtyard there are lines of single arched windows. Despite its relative austerity Godwin provided enough variation in the surface rhythm to hold interest; writing in Country Life in November 1964, Mark Bence-Jones noted how ‘There are Irish stepped crenellations, bold chimneys, bartisans and machicoulis on stout corbelling, trefoil windows and angle loops.’ As can be seen, the castle also incorporates a round tower, something not as a rule found in domestic residences, but Godwin appears to have included it on the grounds that such towers were found on Irish fortified sites like that at the Rock of Cashel.




Godwin was responsible for not just the design of the castle but also much of its interior decoration including chimneypieces, wall paintings, sculpture, tiles, stained and painted glass, brass- and ironwork, and even the furniture, the manufacture of which was undertaken by William Watts of Grafton Street, Dublin. The subject of Dromore’s elaborate interiors will be discussed here at a later date.
When the place was finished its owner professed himself ‘extremely delighted’ with the result. However, the family spent relatively little time at Dromore, and certainly not much after the third earl’s death in 1896. Valued at £75 and ten shillings in 1906, the castle appears to have been almost entirely unused in the aftermath of the First World War and towards the end of the 1930s the whole estate was sold to a local timber merchant called McMahon for a reputed £8,000. However, he did not live there for long and around 1954 Dromore was unroofed to avoid rates being paid on the building (a regrettably common fate for old houses at the time). And so it has remained ever since, indomitable as Godwin intended and proving able to withstand the assault of time and an inclement climate without demonstrating evidence of dilapidation. Rising above the surrounding woodland Dromore’s silhouette continues to dominate the skyline for many miles around and continues to give the impression of a Rhineland castle transported to west Limerick.


Acts of Mercy


Founded in the late 12th century, St Mary’s Cathedral in Limerick contains many attractive features, not least the only surviving mediaeval misericords in Ireland. The lip of these seats was designed to allow members of the cathedral chapter to rest during long services without being seen to sit down, hence their name which derives from the Latin word ‘misericordiae’ (acts of mercy). Those in St Mary’s date from 1480-1500 and are carved in oak from the woods of nearby Cratloe, County Clare. Each one is different and they feature both men and beasts, the latter real as well as imaginary. There are 23 misericords which at some date in the 19th century were removed from the main body of the church and stored in the crypt. Thankfully they survived and can now be seen in the north transept.
The Irish Aesthete takes this opportunity to wish all readers a very Happy Christmas and hopes they receive as much rest as those clerics who once celebrated the occasion by settling onto a misericord.


The Irish Aesthete Recommends V


A photograph of Dromore Castle, County Limerick built in the late 1860s for William Pery, third Earl of Limerick to the designs of Edward William Godwin (also responsible for James Whistler’s ‘aesthetic’ house on Tite Street, London). On a hill overlooking a lake and with views across the Shannon to County Clare, the castle looked ravishing but suffered from chronic damp (seemingly paint never stayed long on the walls) and was not occupied by the Perys for more than a few decades. The family sold Dromore in 1939 and since the middle of the last century it has grown steadily more ruinous: the roof was removed in the 1950s in order to avoid paying tax on the building. Today it can still be seen, a striking sight some twelve miles west of Limerick city.
Dating from around 1920 this photograph was taken by Franz S. Haselbeck, the son of German emigrants who had settled in Limerick in the early 1900s. Haselbeck was a professional photographer who lived and worked in the area until his death in 1973 and now a book of his images has been published by The Collins Press. With an introduction by his granddaughter who has been responsible for preserving the material, Franz S. Haselbeck’s Ireland includes pictures spanning the entire course of his long career, and shows scenes of a world which has since disappeared, many of them taken in the years before Independence. What makes the work especially fascinating are the photographs of buildings which subsequently fell into serious disrepair, not just Dromore but also Mountshannon House in Castleconnell, immediately east of Limerick city. Acquired and greatly enlarged in the late 18th century by John FitzGibbon, first Earl of Clare (notoriously one of the most hated men of his generation), the house and its contents were sold by the family in the 1880s when they had run through all their money. After changing hands on a couple of occasions, it was burnt out in 1921 during the Troubles, so the picture below, which shows the rear of the building with its fine conservatory intact, must have been taken before that date. There are many other such photographs in the book, not all of them featuring country houses but all meriting close study.


Shanid a Boo


For some seven hundred years the romantically-titled Knights of Glin lived in the same area of County Limerick overlooking the Shannon estuary. The family traced its descent from Maurice fitz Gerald, son of Gerald fitzWalter of Windsor and his wife the Welsh Princess Nesta. In 1169 Maurice participated with Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke (otherwise known as Strongbow) in the Norman invasion of Ireland and thereafter remained in the country. His grandson, John fitz Thomas, a forebear of the mighty Earls of Desmond, greatly expanded the family territory, especially in the regions of Kerry and West Cork before being killed with his legitimate son Maurice at the Battle of Callann in 1261. It is now widely accepted that John fitz Thomas had a number of illegitimate offspring, one of whom was John fitz John, founder of the Glin line. (Apologies for this multiplicity of names beginning with fitz…) His was one of three lines of Knights who appear around this time – the Knights of Glin (or Black Knight) and of Kerry (or Green Knight), and the White Knight – the two other titles originating with his siblings or their descendants. We cannot be absolutely certain such was the case: much of this story rests on the chronicle of Nesta’s grandson, the historian known as Giraldus Cambrensis who to quote a later historian was the author of absurd eulogiums lauding the Geraldines.
As for the title Knight of Glin, it has been proposed this was bestowed on John fitz John by his kinsman John fitz Thomas who in 1316 was ennobled as first Earl of Kildare (and was accordingly ancestor of the Dukes of Leinster). Thereafter the Knighthood of Glin was inherited by prescriptive right. It was not, however, recognised in the British peerage: an attempt in 1814 to have all three Knights’ titles officially recognised was unsuccessful and there is no mention of the Knights of Glin in the likes of Debretts. 



Until the late 17th century, successive Knights of Glin were perforce warriors: it was always a struggle to hold onto their lands the extent of which rose and fell as one generation followed another. Granted Shanid in West Limerick in 1197, the family adopted the motto ‘Shanid A Boo’ which means ‘Shanid for ever’ and this was always their war cry. However, once peace settled on Ireland in the 18th century, so too did the Knights not least by seeking to create a permanent residence to replace various castles which had suffered damage during the upheavals of the previous 200 years. The oldest part of the present Glin Castle was a long thatched house built in the 17th century; this was probably turned into a T after an eastern extension was added in the area now occupied by the secondary staircase, smoking room and dining room.
It was Colonel John Bateman FitzGerald, 23rd Knight of Glin who in the 1780s decided it was time to build something more splendid for himself and his descendants, and therefore commissioned the large three-storey block which on the ground floor contains the entrance and staircase halls as well as drawing room and library. In 1789 Col. John married a beautiful English heiress, Margaretta Maria Fraunceis and no doubt it was her money which helped to pay for the building.



Colonel John’s portrait can still be seen over the entrance hall chimneypiece at Glin. Depicting him in the uniform of the Royal Glin Artillery, it was commissioned from Joseph Wilson in 1782 when the subject was attending the Dungannon Convention of Volunteers, a reflection of the uncertainty of the era when the threat of French invasion inspired many members of the gentry and nobility to raise their own militias. Below the picture is the presentation sword made by Read of Dublin in 1800 and presented to Col. John for keeping the peace in West Limerick during the 1798 Rebellion.
Elsewhere in the same hall hang other portraits of earlier Knights, not least Richard FitzGerald, the 22nd Knight painted by Herman van der Mijn. A famous duellist, he is here seen receiving a challenge to a duel proffered by his servant. The mid-18th century Irish baroque mahogany table beneath carries the arms of the FitzMaurice family of Kerry and has always stood in the house. This is a rare survival from Col. John’s era since after his death in 1803 the family’s indebtedness meant almost everything had to be sold out of the house except old portraits and some silver.



We do not know who designed the present house or the names of the craftsmen responsible for its decoration, not least that in the entrance hall which contains highly elaborate plasterwork. During the closing decades of the 18th century there were a number of skilled architects working in this part of the country, including the Italian-born Davis Ducart who built Limerick city’s splendid Custom House (now the Hunt Museum). He or someone influenced by him may have had a hand in the design of Glin. The exterior is fairly plain (and its toy battlements were only added in the 1820s) which makes the interior richness all the more appealing.
This is especially true of the entrance hall, where the neo-classical plasterwork is of a very high standard and may have been produced by either Michael Stapleton or Charles Thorpe, both stuccadores based in Dublin. The cornice blends antique motifs such as sphinxes and Roman foliage with more indigenous forms, not least the shamrock! The central part of the ceiling is given over to a trompe l’oeil scalloped dome containing a series of Etruscan figurative medallions connected by be-ribboned garlands. Although Desmond FitzGerald, 29th and last Knight of Glin who died in September 2011 (see Knight and Day, October 1st last) carried out extensive restoration work elsewhere in the house he never wanted this ceiling cleaned, believing its patina reflected the character of his forbears. In this way Glin Castle maintains a sense of history and a visible link with the family’s ancient past.


I shall be publishing a small tribute to the Knight of Glin this autumn; more on the subject closer to the time.

Knight and Day

At the end of last week Castletown, County Kildare hosted a day-long conference in memory of Desmond FitzGerald, the Knight of Glin who died a year ago. It was an occasion for many of us who knew Desmond to gather together and, between listening to scholarly papers, exchange anecdotes and reminiscences about this most memorable man.
Desmond, the Black Knight, the Knight of the Valley, 29th and last Knight of Glin, was born in 1937, only son of fractious, unhappy parents. As noted by Christopher Gibbs, one of his oldest friends, Desmond grew up ‘a handsome, lonely boy in a rather threadbare castle on the Shannon.’ This is Glin, an 18th century Adam-esque house later tricked out in gothic flummery. The Knight’s ancestors never had much money and in his teens the family place was offered for rental, threatened with dereliction and then saved thanks to the generosity of a wealthy Canadian step-father who paid for the roof and walls to be made secure.
After time spent at the University of British Columbia followed by Harvard, Desmond returned to Ireland, living in the early 1960s in the little house tucked to the rear of Leixlip Castle. His landlords were Desmond and Mariga Guinness, from whom he – an eager student – learnt a great deal about Irish art and architecture. This knowledge provided the foundations for his own extensive research into the same subjects, subsequently published in a series of books written with collaborators such as Anne Crookshank and James Peill. Mariga was one of the great influences on Desmond’s life, as she was for many other young men and women, myself included, who crossed her path.

Here is a photograph of Desmond from those early days at Leixlip, with Mariga to the left splendid in a tartan skirt and 18th century military coat. She always had what used to be called good carriage, as well as a splendid profile. Desmond is on the right of the picture, also in costume and looking not unlike a young Cecil Beaton. Next to him can be seen his then-girlfriend Talitha Pol, one of the great beauties of the period; she went on to marry John Paul Getty.
Desmond meanwhile, had moved to London and taken a job at the Victoria & Albert Museum in what was then called the Department of Woodwork. Here he was able to continue his research into Irish decorative arts while also becoming part of a rather smart set that included not just Christopher Gibbs but also the likes of David Mlinaric, Mark Palmer, Jane and Victoria Ormsby-Gore and Nicholas Gormanston. As Christopher commented, Desmond’s scholarly life tended to be hidden from his London friends who remembered him ‘as the wildest of dancers in a chinoiserie jacket.’

In 1966 Desmond married Loulou de la Falaise, then still in her teens but already displaying the flair that would soon make her Yves St Laurent’s muse. Here is the couple in Desmond’s flat on Pont Street which he decorated (with the help of David Mlinaric) with Irish pictures and furniture discovered in London’s antique shops. The distance between Desmond and his wife in this picture, and their respective expressions, indicate all was not well with the marriage and indeed it lasted barely 18 months but they always remained friends and kept in contact, and Loulou was to die just a month after Desmond.
Fortunately within a few years he had met and married Olda Willes and this union proved much happier, producing three beautiful daughters, Catherine, Nesta and Honor, the Sirens of the Shannon. Speaking at the end of last week’s proceedings, Olda observed that in many ways Desmond had been an 18th century man mysteriously transposed into the 20th, ‘as ready to fight a duel as to negotiate a settlement.’
In the mid-1970s Desmond, throughout his life plagued by extreme mood swings, suffered a complete collapse, left the V&A and settled to Ireland where he was soon appointed representative for Christie’s. It was an ideal job, encouraging him to travel throughout the country looking at houses and their contents, work that enhanced his own research. Soon he began producing the books that have done so much to improve Irish scholarship and encourage further investigation into areas hitherto rather neglected. Today so much work is written and published on Irish architecture and decorative arts, one can easily forget that when Desmond began his enquiries this was unexplored territory.
Desmond’s enthusiasm for these topics never waned. Visiting him in hospital about a month before his death, I mentioned a newly published book of essays on Irish houses. A week later I returned to discover he had since ordered, received and read the book. At supper the evening prior to the Castletown gathering, Penny Guinness recalled also visiting Desmond and hearing him say that throughout his life he had been very lucky. So were those of us fortunate to have known him.