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History of Glin Castle

The FitzGeralds first settled here in the 1200’s at nearby Shanid Castle following the Norman invasion of Ireland. Their war cry was Shanid Abu!  (Shanid forever in Gaelic). In the early 14th century the Earl of Desmond, head of the Geraldines, made hereditary Knights of 3 illegitimate sons he had sired with the wives of various Irish chieftains, creating them the White Knight, the Green Knight of Kerry and the Black Knight of Glin. For seven centuries they defended their lands against the troops of Elizabeth I, and during the Cromwellian plantation and Penal laws.

Coming into the hall with its Corinthian columns and elaborate plaster ceiling in the neo­ classical style, one can see straight ahead among a series of family portraits, some already mentioned, the picture of Colonel John FitzGerald, the builder of the house, wearing the uniform of his volunteer regiment the Royal Glin Artillery. In his portrait, which hangs over the Portland stone chimneypiece, he is proudly pointing at his cannon. In May 1779 Colonel John’s father, Thomas FitzGerald, whose portrait in a blue coat is on the left of the dining room door, wrote to Edmund Sexton Pery the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons to warn him that a French naval invasion was expected off the coast. There were rumours that the American privateer Paul Jones had sailed up the Shannon to Tarbert after he had defeated an English ship in Belfast Lough in the summer of 1779. France and Spain had declared war on England and were supporting the American colonists in the War of Independence. Panic spread among the gentry and nobility of Ireland in case the country should be left unprotected in the face of an invasion, and the Irish Volunteer Regiments were raised between 1778 and 1783-40,000 men having been enrolled by 1779 and 100,000 by 1782. Inspired by the success of the Americans and with the strength of the Volunteers behind them, Henry Grattan and his Patriot Party demanded legislative independence for Ireland from Britain following their achievement of the abolition of trade restrictions in 1778. These stirring optimistic times were the background to the building of Glin. 

The new prosperity or’ the country was reflected in a great deal of 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 under the influence of his United Irishman brother, Gerald during the 1798 Rebellion, when his kinsman Lord Edward FitzGerald is said to have stayed at Glin. Colonel John had no political influence as all the local boroughs were in the hands of the new English settler families. This meant that unlike so many of them he did not spend money on a large Dublin house and thereby concentrated on cutting a greater dash at home. 

Unfortunately, we have no direct information about who designed the house or the identity of the craftsmen who styled the superb woodwork such as the mahogany library bookcase with its concealed secret door, the inlaid stair-rail, the flying staircase, or the intricate plaster ceilings. This is because many of the family papers were burned by the so, -called ‘Cracked Knight’ in the 1860s. Tradition tells us that the stone for the house was brought across the hills from a quarry in nearby Athea on horse-drawn sleds by a ‘strongman’ contractor called Sheehy. This is the only name connected with the building of the house that has come down to us. 

It seems likely that Colonel John started his house sometime in the 1780s as he obviously used the same masons and carpenters as were used for two houses adjoining each other in Henry Street, Limerick, one built for the Bishop of Limerick, later Lord Glentworth, and the other for his elder brother the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, Viscount Pery. These Limerick houses were finished by 1784 and it would seem 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. The neo-classical plasterwork of the hall is possibly an exception as it is close to the work of two Dublin stuccadores, Charles Thorpe or Michael Stapleton. The motifs on the frieze reminds us of the Volunteer enthusiasm of the house for the military trophies, shields sprouting shamrocks and the full bosomed Irish harp which are to be seen on the hall ceiling all underline Colonel John’s patriotism. The French horn and the music book also reminds us that this hall doubled up as a ballroom; the music undoubtedly being played by the musicians from the artillery band. Colonel John loved music and had been taught the flute by a Gaelic music and dancing master, Seań Bán Aerach Ó Flanagán. The house stands on the banks of the widest part of the river Shannon and the snub nosed dolphins and tridents in· the corners of the main hall ceiling symbolise water, while flower-laden cornucopiae and ears of wheat represent the fruitful grasslands that surround the newly built mansion. Oval plaques with their Pompeian red background portray Roman soldiers depicting war and other figures characterise peace and justice. All this symbolism reminds us of contemporary events in the sea girt island of Ireland. This magnificent ceiling retains much of its original 18th century colouring. 

In 1789 Colonel John married his beautiful English wife, the daughter of a rich west country squire, and her coat-of-arms are impaled with his on the hall ceiling. Her portrait hangs above her husbands to the right of the drawing room door in the hall. Her coat-of-arms on the ceiling suggests that the house was still being decorated in 1789 although the money must have been beginning to run out, because work was stopped short on the third floor, and walls remained scored for plaster and pine doors are unpainted to this day. Financial problems must have marred their brief decade together at Glin as in 1791 the Dublin La Touche Bank called in their debts going back as far as 1736 and took a case to Parliament. In June 1801 a private Act of Parliament in Westminster was passed to force part of the Glin estate to be sold in order to pay off the many ‘incumbrances’ which had accrued through the 18th century. This document mentions that Colonel John had expended ‘Six thousand pounds and upward in building a mansion house and offices and making plantations and other valuable and lasting improvements…’. Comparing costs with other roughly contemporary buildings shows us that the cut stone Custom House in Limerick 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. Colonel John’s wife Margaretta Maria Fraunceis 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 aged 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 pictures or silver. The hall chairs and amorial sideboard in the hall survived because of their family associations but carriages, farm stock, and ‘the fast-sailing sloop The Farmer, her cabin neatly fitted up’ followed. The FitzGeralds of Glin were almost bankrupt.

It was only because of the long minority of John Fraunceis FitzGerald, the son and heir, and the fact that there were no younger children to provide for, which saw the estate on to 1812 when he attained his majority. Educated at Winchester and Cambridge he regained the family fortunes by successful gambling and though he married an English clergyman’s daughter with no great dower, he built the various Gothic lodges and added the battlements and sugar icing detail to the old Glin House making it into the ‘cardboard castle’ that it is today. This would have been typical of the romantic notions of the 1820s and he obviously thought that the holder of such an ancient title should be living in a castle like his medieval ancestors.

The top floor was never completed and other than further planting, little else was done to Glin for over a hundred years as money was scarce during the Victorian period. Over 5,000 acres were sold by 1837 and for the rest of the century the estate consisted of 5,836 acres and the town of Glin. The rent roll came to between £3,000 and £3,800 a year but with mortgages, windows jointures, and other family charges there was in 1858 a surplus of only £777 16s. 5d. brought in from the estate. Not included in this would have been the income from the salmon weirs on the Shannon. 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 would have been done in the 1860s probably at the same time that the Protestant church at the gate was being rebuilt.