Harry Mount visits the grand houses of Ireland’s Georgian past
The days of lukewarm leftovers and a bed shared with his lordship’s cat have long gone from Irish country-house hotels. A combination of the rampant Celtic Tiger economy and the exacting standards of the American tourist means that high lux is now the order of the day, not least at Glin castle.
This impossibly romantic crenellated cardboard cut-out of a castle perches by the River Shannon on a finger of land pointing from Ireland’s south-western corner towards America. It’s an exposed spot but the winds off the Atlantic don’t penetrate the castle’s robust walls. The bedroom and bathroom — which, with its elegant bow window, was the size of a football penalty area — were as warm as the soda bread toast at breakfast.
On top of the luxury comes the history and, boy, there’s a lot of it at Glin. The Knights of Glin have been here since the 13th century. Desmond Fitzgerald, the current and 29th knight, says that staying power has been the Fitzgeralds’ only real talent. While most of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy returned to England after Irish independence in 1921, the Fitzgeralds clung on. They never had much money, and their estate was cut back by the 1903 Wyndham Act to the demesne around the castle.
But what the last three generations of Fitzgeralds have had pumping through their veins — as well as that staying power — is an artistic, architectural, gardening gene. The knight’s mother, Veronica (nickname, the Knight-mère), was a noted gardener and flower painter. The knight, president of the Irish Georgian Society, has fought to protect Ireland’s great houses and gardens for half a century. His wife — Madam Fitzgerald — has written the country’s definitive gardening book, Irish Gardens, and his daughter, Catherine Fitzgerald, is a leading garden expert.
Guests have the run of this treasure-house and its gardens, stuffed to the gills with the fruits of the knight’s self-confessed collecting mania. His first find, a headless statue of Andromeda, presides over a small temple in the walled garden that also provides honey, chickens, sea kale, asparagus, artichokes, espaliered pears, figs, fennel and potatoes for the Jacobeanesque dining-room table.
In the lee of the castle is the main garden, where a formal layout of bay trees and yews gives way to a wilder spread of Tresco daffodils, gunneras and magnolias campbelli and delavayi, all warmed up by the Gulf stream. A little hermitage and a faux-ancient stone circle complete the picture.
Inside the house — mostly 1790s Adam and Wyatt-inspired rococo — is an early find by the knight when he was 12: a drawing-room chimneypiece by Cheere saved from neighbouring Tervoe before it was demolished. Every corner of the castle’s walls, ceilings and floors has something of interest or beauty, whether it’s the delicate 1780s plasterwork in the hall by an unknown hand, the house’s unique flying staircase, or the 1911 Oswald Birley portrait of Priscilla, Countess Annesley.
Further down the coast towards Cork is Bantry House, spectacularly sited above the Bay of Bantry with stirring views across the water to the snow-capped Caha mountains. Here again, the Anglo-Irish have manfully stayed on, with the crack trombonist Egerton Shelswell-White and his wife Brigitte holding the fort. In 1946 his family were the first to open a country house regularly to the public. Bantry is more bed and breakfast than super-deluxe, but still the call of the American tourist has got through. A warm, comfortable but small bedroom gives on to a small bathroom with underfloor heating. The bedroom looked over the splendid gardens, an amphitheatre behind the house cascading down into an elaborate parterre, inspired by Florence’s Boboli gardens.
The diffident Mr Shelswell-White is on hand at the heaving breakfast sidetable and when you want to go round the house, he is there. Melancholy trombone music fills the hall as you pick up your laminated room guides from him.
Several of the house’s gems are gone — a pair of Guardis, once nailed to the drawing-room ceiling, went for a song in the late 1950s — but some remain: Aubusson tapestries made for Marie Antoinette, pictures of George III and Queen Charlotte, given by a grateful monarch after a White ancestor kept a French armada from invading Ireland in 1797.
As the night draws in, Mr S-W rushes to the phone to book you dinner in the town’s best seafood restaurant — O’Connor’s, The Square, Bantry (00 353 27 50221). Before driving down there, take a glimpse at the western evening light draining from the bay in the direction of New York.