Knightly Lore

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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.

About Last Knight

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The late Desmond FitzGerald has been mentioned here before more than once (Knight and Day, October 1st 2012 and Shanid A Boo, July 8th last). I am now happy to advise that my new book The Last Knight which celebrates Desmond’s many achievements has been published and is available from the Irish Georgian Society (see: www.igs.ie). Thanks to the generosity of a number of benefactors, all proceeds from the sale of this work go to benefit the IGS.

Shanid a Boo

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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. 


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.