The Shannon estuary is a formidable piece of water – tidal for sixty miles, it drains a huge proportion of Ireland’s boggy interior. From October onwards its’ mouth is open to the full force of the Atlantic – salt laden winds blow up its length bringing with them moisture in all its forms. Some twenty miles in from the open sea, on the southern shore, lies Glin Castle, austerely facing the estuary. Bow-fronted with cardboard cut-out castellations it stands on a plain strip of parkland looking out to the rocky foreshore. On still and misty evenings, when the light falls long and low, the cry of the curlew and lapwing conjure up all the wonderful loneliness of Ireland’s west coast in winter.
On the inland side of the castle, tucked away and facing south, is an utterly different world. Here a special micro-climate prevails - provided by the sheltering trees, the façade of the castle and the effect of the Gulf Stream which washes the nearby shores of the North Kerry coastline. Without heavy winter frosts, exotic plants thrive in the dense clay soil which we enrich each winter with thick blankets of crumbly composted leaves.
My two sisters and I grew up here, making dens in the rhododendron bushes, climbing the Monterey pine and wading in the rushing stony stream that skirts the garden. But my earliest memories are of my formidable grandmother Veronica (known by my father as the Knightmere!). She would set out purposefully to dead head the rhododendrons and I would watch mesmerized by her elegant tapering fingers as they deftly snapped off their heads.
Veronica laid out the paths of the formal garden and lawns which lie directly behind the house - centering them on a stone sundial surrounded by a clipped yew hedge. Behind it – the pivot of the whole plan – sits the most perfect vase shaped Persian Ironwood tree (Parrotia persica) which starts to take on a rose coloured tint in august – an early whiff of autumn and the scarlet and orange to come. She built the low scooping Arts and Crafts wall which separates the formal garden from the meadowy hill- which in spring lights up with a thousand delicate pale yellow daffodils sent to her mother in law by friends the Dorrian Smyths of Tresco Abbey.
My father the 29th Knight returned in the 1970’s with my mother Olda who fell instantly in love with the kitchen garden and began restoring it with gardener Tom Walls’ help. She found the old paths, made divisions from espaliered fruit trees, and added topiary for structure. The plots were dug and planted with artichokes, asparagus ,sea kale, Cut and Come or ‘Hungry Gap’ as its known locally, rhubarb (Timpany’s Early,) Sweet peas, cornflowers and borage. The garden came alive with bees (Tom kept several hives) and the sound of a hundred birds nesting in the ivy on the wonky litcheny walls and in the eves of the nearby stone farmyard.
She put back the herbaceous border – a lively mix of perennials annuals and bulbs –her favourite cosmos, lupins , sweet williams, lilies. Later we embellished it with swathes of sedum and pheasant grass (Stipa arundinacia) and aconitums which flower into to the autumn. Hundreds of red admirals hover over the giant blue Echiums which seed everywhere beneath the shelter of the wall. My father designed rustic wooden Gothic temples for niches in the walls which Tom built using old Telegraph poles for the columns.
She and my father while writing scholarly books would rent the main house to Americans and later started a wonderful Country House hotel in the castle - the garden fed us all with home grown produce and the cut flowers decorated the elegant Neo Classical rooms.
I was also to catch the bug and have continued to plant feverishly – Japanese acers, Cercidyphyllum, Magnolias (my favourites strong white M kobus, M. soulangiana ‘Alba’, Merrill, ‘Leonard Messell’, ‘Wadas Memory’, M sprengeri Diva, Dogwoods (Norman Haddon, capitata etc) mor Euchryphias which are covered in white flowers in August along with my favourite hydrangeas the eye popping blue Blaumeise and the white Emilie Mouliere with its lovely faint random blotches or raspberry.
We have planted pools of bulbs beneath the fern encrusted branches of the spreading Killarney oaks : Snakeshead fritillaries, anemones, Dogs Tooth violets, and swathes of Leucojums which come after the wild garlic. We spend all our holidays at Glin and my husband and four children are dragooned into jobs such clearing the brambles from the stream’s edge and digging up dormant chunks of engulfing gunnera to move to new spots.
Glin has always had a precarious existence and after the closure of the hotel in the crash and my father, the 29th and last Knights death in 2011, we found ourselves once again in rocky waters and the future of the place unsure. But we now hope to re-establish the house on a commercial footing once again with Rentals Events and garden tours, to ensure its survival. As a friend of mine once said ‘Its simply oozing with love and history!’ – we hope to continue lavishing it with love, developing the garden and sharing its wonderful history with others as my parents did. There is even a call for me to have my son Senan proclaimed the 30th Knight of Glin. Shanid a Boo! (Shannid for ever in Gaelic) as the FitzGerald War cry goes!