BAGS OF HIS­TORY

Two fam­ily-run ho­tels in Ire­land of­fer world-class com­fort and im­pres­sive lin­eage, finds Harry Mount

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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 luxe 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 County Lim­er­ick fin­ger of land point­ing from Ire­land’s south­west­ern cor­ner to­wards the US. 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 is the size of a foot­ball penalty area, are as warm as the soda bread toast served 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 present 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 pre­vi­ous 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-mere), 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 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 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 still more bed and break­fast than su­per-deluxe, but the call of the tourist has got through.

A warm, com­fort­able but small bed­room gives on to a small bath­room with un­der­floor heat­ing. The bed­room looks over the splen­did gar­dens, an am­phithe­atre be­hind the house cas­cad­ing down into an elab­o­rate parterre that was in­spired by Florence’s Boboli gar­dens.

The dif­fi­dent Shel­swell-White is on hand at the heav­ing break­fast sidetable and melan­choly trom­bone mu­sic fills the hall as you pick up your lam­i­nated room guides from him. Sev­eral gems are gone — a pair of Guardis 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, Shel­swell-White rushes to the phone to book you din­ner at Bantry’s best seafood restau­rant, O’Con­nors. Be­fore driv­ing down there, take a glimpse at the west­ern evening light drain­ing from the bay in the di­rec­tion of New York. The Spec­ta­tor www.glin­cas­tle.com www.bantry­house.com www.dis­cov­erire­land.com.au Caro­line Baum at­tends a house party at Glin Cas­tle: see our Travel&In­dul­gence Ir­ish Hol­i­days spe­cial on Novem­ber 3-4

Once a knight:

Ro­man­tic Glin Cas­tle in County Lim­er­ick, above, has been home to the aris­to­cratic FitzGer­ald fam­ily for more than 700 years and is now a lux­ury ho­tel

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