Treasures of the Castle

by Desmond FitzGerald The Knight of Glin in The Glencorbry Chronicle (1997) Vol. 1 No. 1 p. 21-27

Investigating the history of a house, its owners, and its contents, is not unlike the peeling off of the layers of an onion. Similarly, the stories told can bring one to tears. With each layer that gets removed, the house begins to show its heart. The process can be a lengthy one - finding out when a house was built, whose vanity started it, and who financed it. It requires more delving into legal papers, old newspapers, diaries and, in Ireland in particular, the oral traditions of the district.

Like many Irish houses, Glin has had many ups and downs since it was built in the 1780's. When my mother married and came to live here in 1929 she found the house in a pretty dingy state. Her father-in-law, FitzJohn the 27th Knight had sadly been widowed in 1901. His wife, Lady Rachel Wyndham Quin of Adare, came from a rich, learned and politically minded family. She only lived at Glin for four years before her tragic early death just after the birth of my father. During her short time at Glin she planted some fine specimen trees and daffodils on the hill and even grew violets commercially.

A few years later, FitzJohn, having been a noted sportsman, wound up in a wheelchair as the result of a stroke. After his stroke, FitzJohn lived a reclusive life in his smoking room, where my grandmother's paintings of her father's horses and yachts were closely hung, loyally looked after by his houseman / chauffeur and a fierce housekeeper. My parents lived off and on at Glin for seven years under the baleful eye of the old man until his death in 1936.

Ironically, the fact that the old Knight remained at Glin during the civil war of the 1920's was a blessing in disguise. When a gang came to burn the house down in 1923, he roared at them from his chair, "Well, you will have to burn me in it boys". The 'boys' repaired to Glin for a few libations and it was said that the locals got them so drunk they never returned to finish the job. My father was then able to use their oil for his beloved machinery and motor-cars, mechanical matters being his forte, whereas my English mother was artistically minded, coming from a family vitally interested in the arts and collecting.

My mother had immediately fallen in love with Glin, its overgrown garden and wooded demesne on the banks of the estuary of the Shannon. After the old Knight's death, my mother was able to start restoring the house. Although the young couple did not have much money, Glin was whitewashed in those days, and, with its sugar-icing battlements and false arrow loops, looked like a child's toy fort. Three sets of Gothic lodges defended the property; Paddy Healy, the estate carpenter and a great craftsman, helped my parents bring the house to life again. The fierce housekeeper retired and new staff were engaged with my mother and her ladysmaid going through all the cupboards and cleaning up the many bedrooms.

When I originally began my research I asked my mother if she had found any old papers or memorabilia during her great tidy-up, but she said she found very little. Family tradition had it that it in 1860 most of the family papers were burned in a bonfire under the tenure of a particularly eccentric ancestor of mine known as the 'Cracked Knight'. (As a result of a fall from his horse at an early age, the knight had become slightly touched).

For whatever reason, there was practically no information in the remaining castle's records about when the house was built, let alone names of architects or craftsmen involved in its construction. My crusty grandfather, his rather drunken father and needless to say, the 'Cracked Knight' were not in any way concerned with such things; horses, shooting, fishing, sailing and whiskey were their priorities.

In the absence of written records, it was the layout of the rooms; the pillared hall with its superb neo-classical pastel shaded ceiling; the extraordinary double rampflying staircase, with its decorated Venetian window; and the library, with its splendid mahogany broken-pedimented bookcase enclosing its secret door, which told a tale of taste and enlightenment in County Limerick at the end of the eighteenth century.

A further tale, one of financial disaster, was hinted at by the third floor, which was only three-quarter finished, pine doors unpainted, walls only partially plastered, and an absence of ceilings, which left exposed the beams and rafters, cornices were only partially in place and a marble mantelpiece was set up in an otherwise totally unfinished room. What had happened? What had sent the workmen scuttling home, no doubt unpaid? More clues of financial mishaps were evident from the library, where there were very few books with the original Regency Glin armorial book-plate. A first edition of Shelley's Ariel was one of the few indications of the literary tastes of those days.

Another hint that much had been sold out of the house was the major gap in furnishings. The house may have been built in the early 1780's yet there was very little 18th or early 19th century furniture in the main reception rooms. This suggested a possible sale of furnishings early in the 19th century. All that remains of the original furnishings made for the house is a set of ten mahogany hall chairs with painted crests on the back, dating from the 1790's. The marvelous mid-18th century, black mahogany Irish-baroque sidetable with the FitzMaurice coat of arms must have belonged to the family before the building of the house.

The set of neo-Jacobean oak dining-room furniture obviously tied in with the Sir Walter Scott romantic crenellating of what had previously been a plain Georgian house and were clearly later additions, because they date from the 1830's. Quite a lot of silver from the 1770's and the period from 1812 to 1840 still remained in the house. The remains of a rare lavender-blue neo-classical Stafford dessert service by John and William Turner of Lane End, which can be accurately dated from 1787 to 1806, was found scattered all over the house and must have dated from when the house was being furnished in the 1790's. A varied collection of family portraits was hung in the hall and dining room and had obviously survived the sale.

My parents decided to get Christie's to do a valuation of the house's contents in 1938. The resulting valuation came in its entirety to £7,550. The valuation certainly underlined that other than the portraits, a few pieces of furniture, and the silver, Glin was a husk.

The only real 'sleeper' found during the valuation was Albert Bierstadt's huge panoramic view of Estes Park, Colorado (1877-78) which was valued at £30. This had come to Glin with Lady Rachel from the nearby baronial Adare Manor, which was owned by my great-grandfather, the 4th Earl of Dunraven. My mother later sold the painting to the Denver Public Library for about £5,000 in the 1940's in order to pay my school fees. Today, the painting would be worth well over $3,000,000.

It was only by slow detective research into old newspapers, an oral history gathered in the 1920s by a Glin man living in Australia, and the fortunate appearance of some of the family estate papers and marriage settlements in a Dublin government office that some of the pieces of the history of Glin could be put together.

The romantically titled Knights of Glin, a branch of the great Norman family, the FitzGeralds, generically known as the Geraldines of Desmond, were granted lands in West Limerick at the end of the 12th century and became gaelicized through marriage with the daughters of local chieftains. The family has been in County Limerick ever since; I am the 29th generation living there. The Desmonds fought against the English in the 16th and 17th centuries and lost vast estates in the process. Though they were Gaelic speakers, they began to be assimilated into the 'ascendancy' class in the mid-19th century by marrying into planter families useful for their connections and wealth.

Thomas FitzGerald built his first Norman castle on a motte at Shanid, a few miles from Glin, in about 1200. "Shanid Abu", which translated from Gaelic means "Shanid forever" was the Desmond Geraldines' war cry. Their war cry and crests are on the back of the mahogany hall chairs, on the plaster ceiling, the bayonet holders in the hall, and on the many pieces of silver in the house.

In the hall, hanging to the right of the drawing room door, is a portrait of Thomas FitzGerald wearing a red coat. In May 1779, he wrote to Edmund Sexton Pery, the speaker of the Irish House of Commons, to warn him that a French naval invasion was expected of the coast and rumours that the American Frigate 'Paul Jones' had sailed up the Shannon to Tarbert having defeated an English ship in Belfast Lough in the summer of 1779. By that time, France and Spain had declared war on England and were supporting the American Colonists in the War of Independence. Panic spread amongst the gentry and nobility of Ireland in case the country should be left unprotected in the face of an invasion. As a result, the Irish Volunteer Regiments were raised between 1778 and 1783 - 40,000 men having been enrolled by 1779 and 100,000 by 1782.

Also among the family portraits in the hall is one of Thomas's son, Colonel John FitzGerald, wearing the uniform of his volunteer regiment, The Royal Glin Artillery, and proudly pointing at his cannon. His portrait hangs over the original Portland stone chimneypiece. Inspired by the success of the volunteers behind them and influenced by the American Revolution, Henry Grattan and his Patriot Party demanded legislative independence for Ireland from Britain. This followed their achievement of the abolition of trade restrictions in 1778.

These stirring optimistic times were the background to the building of Glin. Thomas FitzGerald died in 1781 and was succeeded by Colonel John. John was about 20 when he formed his first regiment, The Glin Cavalry in 1776, which became known as the Royal Glin Hussars. The regiment colours hang on the stairs together with those of the Royal Glin Artillery, which was his second regiment and even boasted a musical band of 10. His volunteer enthusiasm took him to all the reviews and parades, including attending the National Volunteers convention at Dublin in November 1783.

The new optimism and prosperity of the country was reflected in much public and private building, and the accompanying extensive landscaping and tree planting showed the pride of Ireland's ruling classes in their newly won, but brief national independence - an independence which was shaken by the French Revolution and finally shattered by the Rebellion of 1798 and the ensuing union with England in 1800. Colonel John supported this union, though his faith in king and country had faltered temporarily under the joint influence of his brother Gerald, and his kinsman Lord Edward FitzGerald, who were both United Irishmen. Lord Edward was said to have stayed at Glin during the 1798 Rebellion.

Nevertheless, Colonel John did much to keep his peace in the area during the rebellion and his regiment, the Glin Cavalry, presented him with a magnificent sword with an elaborately chased blue gilt blade by Reid of Dublin in 1800. The decoration of Colonel John's coat of arms and crests caught my eye when I saw it in the private collection of a Dublin Dealer some time ago - just one of the many objects that had disappeared from Glin.

It seems likely that Colonel John started his house some time in the early 1780s as he obviously used the same masons and carpenters that were used for two houses adjoining each other on Henry Street in Limerick.

One was built for the bishop of Limerick, later Lord Glentworth, and the other for the bishop's elder brother, the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, Viscount Pery. These Limerick houses were finished by 1784 and it is not unlikely that they are the work of a good local carpenter/builder. Colonel John may well have been his own architect working with the excellent craftsmen that Limerick could obviously produce. It is possible that this Limerick builder may have been trained or at least influenced by two men - the Italian architect Davis Dukart (1765-1780s) who built the cutstone Limerick Custom House between 1765 and 1769 and who specialised in elaborate 'imperial' or double staircases, and Christopher Colles (c.1730-1816) who supervised Dukart's work there.

Colles remained as an architect in Limerick until at least 1769 and designed the bishop's house. In 1771 he emigrated to America where he made a name for himself as an inventor and engineer and was instrumental in planning the Erie Canal. Colles's family had a famous water-powered marble works in Kilkenny which supplied door cases, chimneypieces, and architectural detailing for many Irish buildings of this period. The Doric front-door case at Glin and at least one chimneypiece are made of this fossilized shell-encrusted marble. The double flying staircase may well be a Dukart-inspired flight of fantasy, though Robert Adam's earlier bifurcating example at Mellerstain in the late 1770s might have been a prototype.

We are on firmer ground in attributing the neo-classical plasterwork in the hall to one of two Dublin stuccodores, Charles Thorpe or Michael Stapleton. The motifs on the freize underline the volunteer enthusiasm and patriotism of Colonel John with military trophies, shields sprouting shamrocks, and the full-bosomed Irish harp, all incorporated into the hall ceiling. The French horn and music book are evidence that the hall doubled as a ballroom; the music in Colonel John's time undoubtedly being played by the musicians from the artillery band. Oval plaques with their Pompeian-red background portray Roman soldiers depicting war, and other figures characterize peace, justice and war. The magnificent ceiling retains much of its original 18th-century colouring.

All the other reception rooms open off the main hall and off the staircase hall beyond, making the circulation around the house ideal for entertaining. A curious feature of the hall is the placing of columns near the entrance; in the evolution of the Irish country house plans, columns commonly formed a screen at the far end.

What were the economics of the estate and how did Colonel John build such a large house in West Limerick?

His father had died in 1781 and he inherited considerable debts from his rackety, duelling, spendthrift uncles. Their way of dealing with the representatives of La Touche's Bank when they came to collect the rents was to set a mob on them. New leases on the 12, 000 acres of the Glin estate were advertised in March 1782 and in that year Colonel John was listed as an absentee worth £4,000 a year. In fact, he was almost always resident though probably away in England when this list was made. In those days £4,000 a year was a handsome income. Arthur Young, the famous agriculturist who visited Limerick in 1776, pointed out that £500 would cover the annual upkeep of a carriage, four horses, six servants, a good table, and a family.

In 1789 Colonel John married his beautiful English wife, Margaretta Maria Fraunceis Gwyn of Forde Abbey, the daughter of a rich west country squire. Her coat of arms is impaled with his on the hall ceiling, which suggests that the house was still being decorated at the time of their marriage. A house in those days could take seven or eight years to build, decorate, and furnish. By the 11790s the money must have started to run out as is evident by the unfinished top floor.

Financial problems must have marred the couple's brief decade together at Glin, because in 1791 the Dublin La Touche Bank called in their debts (more than £400,000 in today's money), which went as far back as 1736 and took a case to parliament. In June 1801 a private act of parliament in Westminster was passed which forced the sale of part of the Glin estate in order to pay off the many 'encumbrances' which had accrued during the 18th century. This document mentions that Colonel John had expended ' six thousand pounds and upwards in building a mansion house and offices and making plantations and other valuable and lasting improvements'. Comparing costs with other roughly contemporary buildings, the Limerick Custom House cost £8,000 in 1779, and Mornington House, one of Dublin's largest houses, was sold for the same sum in 1791, so £6,000 'and upwards' was a substantial sum in those days.

Margaretta died at one of her father's properties, Combe Florey in Somerset, a few months after the act was passed. In 1802, 5,000 acres of Glin were sold, and Colonel John himself died in 1803 leaving an only son and heir, John Fraunceis, age 12. In June 1803 the local newspaper, the 'Limerick Chronicle', advertised sales of the household furniture, the library, a 'superb service of India china', but no paintings or silver. The hall chairs and armorial sideboard in the hall were spared because of their family associations, but carriages, farm stock, and the 'fast sailing sloop' ' The Farmer', 'her cabin nearly fitted up' followed. The FitzGeralds of Glin were literally bankrupt.

It was only because of the long minority of John Fraunceis and the fact he had no other brothers and sisters to be provided for, that the finances improved. In 1812 John Fraunceis attained his majority. Educated at Winchester and Cambridge, he is said to have restored the family fortunes by successful gambling and through further sales of land. Though he married an English clergyman's daughter with no great dowry, he was able to build the three Gothic lodges and added the battlements. He also changed the name from Glin House to Glin Castle in keeping with its new status. This would be typical of the romantic notions of the 1820s - he obviously thought that the holder of such an ancient title should be living in a castle like his medieval ancestors.

Little else was done to Glin during the Victorian period as money was scarce. Lack of money may have been a blessing in disguise for there were few Victorian 'improvements' at Glin, though the Dublin firm of Sibthorpe redecorated the staircase ceiling and added Celtic revival monograms in two roundels and carried out some stencil work in the library and smoking room. This work was likely done in the 1860s, probably at the same time that the Protestant church at the castle's main gate was being rebuilt. Another 5,000 acres had been sold by 1837 and the remainder amounted to 5, 836 acres and the town of Glin. The rent roll came to between £3,000 and £3, 800 a year but with mortgages, widows' jointures, and other family charges, there was little remaining. In 1858, for instance, after all the charges there was only a surplus of £777.16s. 5d. (about £24, 000 in today's money) brought in from the estate. Not included in this would have been the income from the family's lucrative salmon fisheries on the Shannon.

John Fraunceis was much given to womanizing but was also interested in the history of his family, an antiquarian, and a fluent Gaelic speaker. He wrote poetry and was a just magistrate. Besides being a benevolent and improving landlord, he loved hunting, was a keen sailor, and entertained hospitably at Glin. The 1820s and 1830s were high noon at the newly christened Glin Castle, a Jane Austen-like world with music and amateur painting for the ladies and of course sport and billiards for the men. The famine years from 1845 cast a deep shadow over Ireland and the 'Knight of the Women', as he was known in Gaelic, died of cholera caught in the Glin poorhouse where he officiated as chairman of the Board of Guardians in 1854.  In the absence of family papers the folklore about John Fraunceis and his descendants, which was fortunately collected in the 1920s, has been an invaluable source of material.

John Fraunceis was succeeded by his son, also called John Fraunceis, the 'Cracked Knight', also known as 'Jack the Devil'. Endless tales are told of him, and his odd behaviour, including riding his horse up the back stairs at Glin. He was a man of immense strength and one day when his beef was not cooked to his liking, he threw it with its silver-plated dish and cover the full length of the dining room and out the window. Habits like these may explain why his wife sought separation from him. He also was said to have enormous power over animals. 'Cracked Jack' was in turn succeeded by his son Desmond, the 'Big Knight', in 1866. It was Desmond's sensible managing wife, Isabella, who saw the estate through the Land War of 1880.

Florence Arnold-Foster, the niece and adopted daughter of Ireland's chief secretary, visited Glin in 1882. She painted a very gloomy picture of poverty caused by the ruthless cutting down of rents in response to the Land War and the ill feeling that this engendered. This caused the knight to be 'entirely estranged from his people who used to look up to him as the head of an ancient clan and would bring their quarrels before him for arbitration rather than take them to the County Court.' He had to go around his property armed and things did not look up at Glin until his son FitzJohn married Rachel Wyndham Quin in 1897.

We have now come full circle with this relatively empty house, the ideal setting for collecting Irish decorative arts. Over the years I have tried to gather together objects of Irish significance. Pieces with craftsmen's names are commonplace in the U.S. but relatively rare in Ireland; the oval glass bears the label of a Dublin mirror-maker, 'Jackson 5 Essex Bridge'. The firm flourished at this address between 1809 and 1817 and a pair of gilt wall-brackets, again bearing their label, hang in the staircase hall. The Dublin Society taught many of Ireland's artists and the craftsmen who made and carved furniture. Glin is a repository of examples of Irish carving and woodwork, which combine subtly with the craftsmanship of the house itself.

Glin celebrates so many of those 18th and 19th century Irish artists and craftsmen and these are many pieces by identifiable makers and by attributable artists in the collection. It is important to remember that the drawing schools of the Dublin Society and other academic bodies prepared the way for the careers of so many who emigrated to the U.S. The artistic production of Ireland's colonial world should not be passed over because of its 'Englishness' - their creations should take equal place with the better-known symbols of Irish archaeology and art such as a Bronze Age gold brooch or a page from a great illuminated manuscript.

Attitudes are changing and our cultural history with all its diverse threads is being looked at with new and more enlightened vision.

Glin today is not just a museum but very much a living entity. The Glin castle and gardens are open to the public in May and June, 10-12 a.m. and 2-4 p.m., with guided tours every half hour. The property is sustained by an active dairy farm and the house is available for lettings and paying guests throughout the year. All of which may hopefully help to sustain Glin into the future as a memorial to 700 years of the history of an Irish family, its collection, and the surrounding parkland.

Desmond FitzGerald The Knight of Glin in The Glencorbry Chronicle (1997) Vol. 1 No. 1 p. 21-27

previousPrevious - The Pleasure Ground and Walled Garden
Next - Folk traditions of the Knightsnext

Upload to this page

Upload to this page

Add your photos, text, videos, etc. to this page.

Map Search

Related Libraries

Limerick County Library
Contact this library »


History & Heritage

Popular Sections