The last time (just two weeks ago) we walked together in Ireland, we celebrated a 26th generation rescue of an ancient moment of Ireland’s history. Today we look at another side of that “Elegant, Authentic and Original” tale. It included the O’Conor heritage at Clonalis and the FitzGerald lineage of Glin Castle.
My marketing communications assignment in the 1980s was to rescue the image of the Whiskies of Ireland and reaffirm their claim to be Elegant, Authentic and Original. The whiskies were sabotaged during Prohibition when the unscrupulous placed a shamrock on barrels of bathtub blends to give them credibility, thus creating the false impression that the amazing whiskies first distilled in 1608 at the world’s oldest licensed distillery, were hard drinks for hard drinkers. Who better than descendants of the most ancient nobility of Ireland to help reinvent the image? After visiting the ancestral home of the ancient O’Conor family at Clonalis as it was being brought to new life by the O’Conor-Nash family, I headed south to West County Limerick and Glin Castle.
It is the seat, since the 18th Century of an ancient family whose title includes more than 700 years of history. I was to be the guest of Desmond FitzGerald, the hereditary 20th Century successor and 29th Knight of Glin. This long line of Knights of Glin traced its title to the 14th Century and ancestors who arrived in Ireland in the first wave of Anglo-Normans in 1169. (It is worth noting that the prefix Fitz in an Irish surname denotes Lineage from the Normans. They were invited to Ireland towards the end of the 12th Century at the invitation of Diarmuid MacMurrough, King of Leinster. Their service was to help him resist England’s King Henry and regain his kingdom.) What the “Knight” later termed “a romantic title” had by then survived through the male line for seven centuries. It was recognized by chieftains, and successive Irish governments.
What brought me to Glin that day was the reputation of the man who inherited the title in 1949 at the age of 12. Desmond FitzGerald was an internationally recognized expert in Irish architecture, furniture and gardens. After graduation from Dublin’s Trinity College and Harvard, he wrote extensively and was Ireland’s representative for Christie’s. Who better to join Pyers O’Conor- Nash to lend their voices to the story of the Whiskies of Ireland, and their claim to be “Elegant, Authentic and Original”?
Driving up the driveway that evening to meet the Knight and his writer-wife Olda, Madam FitzGerald, I saw a home that had been built for John Bateman FitzGerald in the 1780s. The Knight himself described his ancestral home as looking “like a large version of a child’s toy fort.”
We talked at the fireside in one of the 21-bedroom Castle’s fireplaces. The Knight spoke passionately of his long experience as a connoisseur of the full spectrum of luxuries he defined as “Elegant Ireland.” Later, as I drifted off to sleep in the Yellow Bedroom they had selected for me, I thought, “Just right.” The Knight could designate a handful of unique products and experiences that could be offered to a fortunate few. They would represent all who could understand the meaning of “Elegance.” The little booklet would capture the island’s long tradition of creating and honoring what is indisputably “the best.”
The Knight described his unique guide, Elegance of Ireland in the words of its forward:
To put together this connoisseur’s guide to some of the best
things of Ireland, I realized that the only problem would be
to select a small enough sampling to fit between these covers.
What follows then is a selection, made by one lover of Ireland’s glories,
of a handful of examples of elegant, authentic and original
“Best Things of Ireland.”
And I suppose I could say that they deserve to be toasted with
a spirit that is, itself original, authentic and elegant.
I will further narrow that field by recalling a very few of the items Desmond FitzGerald, The Knight of Glin designated in a decade past. And I will expect that you will share with me the shock of the pricing he suggested. I will also caution the reader that I state them as facts of history, with no effort to confirm that they or their purveyors are still available (at any price).
A copy of Elegance of Ireland resides in the NYU Library as part of the Archives of Irish America gathered with the support of NYU Glucksman Ireland House and the genius of archivist Dr. Marion Casey. Twenty-first century internet search engines might help identify sources mentioned in the slim volume. Or the curious might send a query to one of the Irish agencies located in Washington and New York City: The Embassy of Ireland in DC or The Consulate General of Ireland, its Tourist Board and trade promotion agency Enterprise Ireland located in the country’s offices in New York City.
These a few of the Knight’s selections:
A lordly and legendary Irish Wolfhound puppy bred by the Kellys of County Dublin’s Nutstown Kennel. The price of $650 with another $350 to cover Aer Lingus’ gentle crating and air fare. The Aer Lingus fleet of jets was judged worthy to transport Ireland’s premier art treasure, The Book of Kells. It traveled back to Trinity College after a multi-city US tour that included an historic temporary residency at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
For those whose taste ran to even larger creatures, the Knight suggested this. With the guidance of an on-the ground equine bloodstock expert such as Dermot Forde, buyers should could invest anywhere from $250 to $5 million. That was estimated a price tag to acquire an Irish Horse to realize any dream, from a child’s pony to a contender at Churchill Downs.
The legendary McNutt’s weavers of Downings were and remain synonymous with the weaving of singular Donegal tweeds. An authentic and original tweed from a reserved collection created by McNutt could be selected. It would be tailored into a jacket with custom lining and horn buttons by a “bespoke” tailor, for an estimated $900.
An outdoorsman might choose to have an Aran pattern developed created to designate the wearer’s family. The new and unique Aran pattern would be knitted to size. All this would happen under the critical eye of Padraic O Siochain, author and expert on the “language” of the islands’ sweaters. Legend has it that the familial patterns were so distinctive as to qualify as certain identification should an Aran fisherman drown while pursuing his Curragh-borne pursuit of a catch. The execution of the proprietary pattern in luxurious cashmere was priced at $1500.
A “Fishing Trip fit for a King” based at Ballynahinch Castle, on the other hand, would begin and end in Aer Lingus First Class; be guided by an expert for $5600 per person for a seven-day holiday (or could be reduced to $4300 should fishing rights be excluded.)
The offer that ends Elegance of Ireland is headed “My Home is Your Castle.” It details a house party or holiday gathering at Glin for 10 persons for a minimum of one week. The 500 acres would be theirs to roam and the assistance of the FitzGerald’s personal staff could make it possible for the visitors to extend a dinner invitation, since the dining room accommodates 30. Should the hard tennis court, and croquet lawn leave the party seeking more, golf at nearby courses such as Ballybunion or a swim at adjacent beaches were mentioned as well. The library and museum quality art collections are almost taken for granted, by the Knight, if not by the potential guests. Its1980s budget put the cost of the holiday at $6000.
Poignantly they appear as an homage to the good taste and eye for quality that distinguished him who was for more than six decades designated ‘The Knight of Glin.” In the absence of a male heir (though with no less respect for his three amazing daughters and the talented Madam FitzGerald) one of Ireland’s most ancient titles died with its bearer in 2011. The entire Glin Castle estate is now being offered for sale. Commentators rightly note that the asking price of some $7 million could look like a “typo” to a jaded Manhattan real estate shopper who might associate that cost with a modest and mostly undistinguished “pre-war” co-op. But for those who have imbibed its atmosphere, no price would match the included treasure trove of history and gentility. One can only hope that its sale, like the collection of treasures to which he put his name in Elegance of Ireland will do honor to Ireland’s Last Knight of Glin.
Opening photo: Kitchen gardens of Glin Castle, Bigstock Images