Glin Castle will strike a chord with Downton Abbey fans – not least because its owner Catherine Fitzgerald is married to actor Dominic West – who joins cast members in the latest instalment of the famous family saga. However, it is Glin’s ivy-decked rotunda, family legacy of country squires and matriarchal widows that can truly resonate with fans of the television series – both at their seasonal best during the festive period.
“Christmas at Glin, when I was a child, was all about my grandmother Veronica, who would come back from far away Vancouver Island to stay in her old home for at least two months – which sometimes proved a challenge for my parents as she was quite imperious and had to have her way.”
Despite her grandmother’s domineering presence, acclaimed landscape designer Catherine Fitzgerald has fond memories of Veronica Villiers, a cousin of Winston Churchill, who lavished affection on all her grandchildren throughout the festive season at the rambling ancestral home located on the lush banks of the Shannon, close to the point where it flows into the Atlantic.
“For us it was heaven. We would play backgammon and vingt et un by the fire – her long tapering fingers clinking the shiny pieces and rolling the dice expertly. And because she woke up very early we could go up to her bedroom at six in the morning and get into bed with her and chat while she had her early morning tea. Her shopping trips to Limerick City and presents were legendary.”
In fact, the entire 30 generations of FitzGeralds at Glin Castle are the stuff of 700 years of County Limerick legend. In the 18th century the family transitioned from tenacious Norman-Irish chieftains to Anglo-Irish landowners, around the same period that one spendthrift ancestor decided to construct the family’s current neoclassical Georgian home.
“Unfortunately they soon realised they had overspent and went bankrupt, but somehow fortunes revived and future generations continued to make the most of high days and holidays – especially at Christmas time. When we were children it felt like the house really came alive at Christmas. The fires were all lit, all the brass was polished till it gleamed and there was candlelight in the dining room.”
Catherine’s father, Desmond FitzGerald, the 29th and last Knight of Glin spent Christmases decorating the Corinthian columns, magnificent flying staircase and the mantelpieces with holly, while the air carried the scent of resident cook Nancy Ellis’s baking.
“Myrtle Allen” from Ballymaloe House “came to record her recipes” she says “my absolute favourite were her buttery potato cakes made on top of the range - which just melted in your mouth. I’ve tried to replicate them often but they’ve never come anywhere near.”
These days, family retains its centrepiece position at Glin during Christmastime, with mother, Olda, a former writer with Vogue Magazine, in control of planning while husband, actor Dominic West, plays a starring role in logistics.
“My husband Dominic takes the children to Midnight Mass in the village and we open the house up, crank up the heating and invite neighbours and friends. Our children and all their cousins adore the atmosphere and smells, the firelight, the decorations, and race from room to room – the excitement can reach a crescendo on Christmas Eve.
"We make wreaths out of evergreens such as Western Red Cedar fronds in the garden which when crushed smell deliciously of pineapple, shiny prickly holly leaves, Griselinia 'Bantry Bay' with its splashes of gold – berries and lichen – whatever I can find in the woods and in the garden."
With the Fitzgerald family’s enduring connection to Glin village, community is important. They serve hot whiskey for the local drag hunt, jump from the pier into the Shannon on Christmas Day and welcome the local Wren Boys on St Stephen’s Day. “O’Shaughnessy’s Pub serves the best Guinness in the country and the Knights Walk – a 5k Heritage trail with a panoramic view down the Shannon estuary – is the best tonic for a hangover.”
The castle is available to rent – having drawn in an impressive guest list, which includes singer Mick Jagger or more recently, pop sensation Taylor Swift, who stayed over Christmas just before lockdown. The price is a mere €5,000 a night (firstname.lastname@example.org)
“There is something very special about being in a family home – sorry – I just don’t think even the fanciest hotel feels right at Christmas” she says.
Manager Claire Whyte and chef Eoin Ruane create a bespoke experience for guests with menus and food preferences; much of the winter veg come from the organic walled garden, with whiskey tastings, traditional music sessions, yoga sessions and clay pigeon shooting available on site.
“However if you just want to put your feet up by the fire and play backgammon like my grandmother did – that’s okay too” she says.