The Knights of Glin and the Flying Aces - A Visit to Glin Castle and a Nearby World War II Flying Museum on the Banks of the River Shannon Brings Irish and Wartime History to Life

By o'reilly, marie whitla | The World and I, March 2000 | Go to article overview

The Knights of Glin and the Flying Aces - A Visit to Glin Castle and a Nearby World War II Flying Museum on the Banks of the River Shannon Brings Irish and Wartime History to Life


o'reilly, marie whitla, The World and I


Route N69 from Limerick meanders along the scenic banks of the Shannon to arrive at some of Ireland's more celebrated destinations. The incidental tourist might be forgiven for passing up the unassuming towns of Foynes and Glin in anticipation of Ballybunion, Tralee, Dingle, or Killarney. For only a modest monument hints at the heroic era of the "Flying Aces" chronicled at Foynes Museum. Only a ruined fortress by a stone bridge and a white "cardboard" castle on a hill proclaim the formidable FitzGeralds, who, after eight hundred years, are still leaving their imprint on Irish history.

"Shanid Abu," Shanid Forever. The war cry of FitzGerald chieftains resounded for centuries over the banks of the Shannon, ever since Maurice FitzGerald, the son of Gerald of Windsor and the Welsh princess Nesta, arrived in Ireland in the twelfth century as companion in arms to Strongbow.

These Norman conquerors mustered their forces at the instigation of the Irish king, Dermot MacMurrough, who sought their backing in his wars at home. For his part in the invasion of 1169, FitzGerald was granted vast acreage in Munster; his castle at Shanid was among the first of a host of Norman fortresses that sealed their hegemony upon the land. In time, the conquerors became "more Irish than the Irish themselves."

By the fourteenth century, the FitzGeralds had acquired the title knights of Glin. In the Elizabethan, Cromwellian, and Jacobite wars that followed, they invariably picked the losing side. One Thomas FitzGerald was hanged, drawn, and quartered by the English in 1567, whereupon his crazed mother drank blood from his severed head. In 1600 Lord Carew, Queen Elizabeth's viceroy, tied the knight's six-year-old son to the mouth of a cannon. The dauntless knight replied in Gaelic, "I am virile, my wife is fertile, and there are plenty more where that came from." The child was spared, but the castle was destroyed in this ferocious siege. The garrison were either killed on the roof or fell to their death from the battlements.

During a short period of peaceful prosperity at the end of the eighteenth century, the present white stucco castle was built on a nearby site, replacing the ruined medieval fortification. Crenellations, arrow loops, and Gothic follies were added later, but the money ran out before reaching the third floor. Lands and furnishings were sold in 1803 to stave off bankruptcy.

Then came the Knight of the Women, a poet and, perhaps more sensibly, a gambler who saved the family fortunes by successful gaming. His son, known as the Cracked Knight because of a concussion suffered in a fall from his horse, had a penchant for riding his mount up the flying staircase. Alas, he also set fire to the family papers.

As recently as 1923, FitzJohn, grandfather of the present knight, displayed customary valor when Sinn Feiners threatened to burn his home during the civil war, a time when many great houses of the Ascendancy (Protestant landowners) were destroyed. "Well, you will have to burn me in it, boys," the stroke-stricken landlord thundered from his wheelchair, and the mob retreated to mull things over in the local pub.

"The house has a strong personality," Madam Olda FitzGerald, the gracious wife of the present knight, confided when we talked over tea in their Dublin town house. "I was in agony about doing the right thing," she mused of her ambivalence in completing the castle's upper floor, which she undertook only this year, and Glin's new role as a luxury B & B. "The house itself is quite pleased," she added, satisfied with her splendid refurbishment.

My husband, Kieran, and I were more than pleased. We delighted in our charming quarters in the former nursery beneath the parapet and slept almost till the cows came home--to be awakened (jet- lagged and embarrassingly cranky) at 10:30 a.m., by a telephone call from the current knight himself. I had hoped to see him at Glin, but he phoned gallantly from Wales and instead arranged to meet in Dublin. …

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