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I've always been fond of big houses, maybe because my formative years
were spent in one. Something about the noble proportions of the rooms
lends a sense of nobility to the inhabitants by some kind of architectural
osmosis. Big houses have a character all of their own, not just because
of their history, but because the very fabric of the house - its atmosphere
- defines behaviours in whoever visits.
There have always been generally accepted and immutable laws regarding
big houses. The first is that they are cold, very cold. Long, stone-flagged
corridors ensure that any inherent heat is immediately absorbed by the
stone, and add to that a belief shared by many denizens of big houses
that any kind of heat could wreak havoc with the furniture, ensured that
the temperature rarely rose above freezing point. A second law of the
big house design is that whatever style the house may be built in, the
plumbing will be relentlessly twelfth-century. Even the most gracious
of houses were originally designed with just one bathroom on each floor,
and you could be certain that whatever modicum of heat may have been afforded
in other rooms, the bathroom - the one room where you'd stand totally
naked - would be entirely unheated. A third law applied too; the grander
the house, the worse the food.
Most big houses had a resident harridan called 'cook', who terrified
employers and tended to throw a hissy fit if one extra guest was added
to the dinner table. Invariably the food was horrendous, yet cook was
always treated with kid gloves, since should cook ever leave, the inhabitants
would almost certainly die of starvation caused by their total incapacity
to feed themselves. But thankfully, things change. Even such immutable
laws as those that govern big houses are changing.
Some of Ireland's most impressive houses have turned themselves into
hotels, golf clubs and leisure centres. The arrival of paying guests may
have the original owners turning in their graves, but the net result has
been that the houses' future is secure, the roofs are fixed, the plumbing
is twenty-first century and the rooms are warm. All this means that staying
in big houses these days gives you modern comforts as well as the elegance
of times past.
Follow the road along the southern edge of the Shannon Estuary from Limerick
and you arrive in Glin, where you'll find the seat of the Fitzgerald's
in Glin Castle. A long drive takes you past fields of young calves and
wild garlic up to the castellated front of the Castle. I got there on
a sunny afternoon and got a tour of the curtilage from Honor Fitzgerald,
from the formal gardens at the back of the house, to the walled garden
where much of the restaurant's produce comes from, to the rustic Hermitage
in the woods above the castle.
Inside the castle is a wonderland for furniture lovers. Really beautiful
pieces of Irish furniture are in every room, in the public rooms downstairs
and in the splendid bedrooms upstairs. The combination of Irish art on
the walls, the fine furniture and the intricately worked ceilings creates
the integrated feel of a museum display coupled with the intimacy that
comes from a real, lived in home.
The dining room is a deep, relaxing red. Around the walls various previous
Knights of Glin look down upon the diners and at a table by the window
overlooking the Shannon, I sat with Honor, Tom Rixton and Patricia O'Shea,
about to dine. The dining room seats less than thirty, and this number
means that it's almost impossible to dine here unless you're staying.
You could be lucky and find an empty table, but essentially the answer
is book in to stay if you want to dine here.
The dinner menu is a table d'hote priced at €48, and the first thing
that caught my eye was the wild garlic soup with crème fraiche
and croutons. How nice, I thought, that the chef makes use of nature's
bounty growing wild outside. The other choices for starters were a gravadlax
tian, seared scallops au beurre blanc and a pork and apple salad. I ended
up with the gravadlax, but also tasted the soup, which was really good.
No mean feat either, as wild garlic can easily lose it flavour when cooked.
There were four main courses to choose from, grilled corn-fed chicken,
baked sea bass, salmon and fillet of beef. I was tempted by the sea bass,
but having arranged a swap with my fellow diners, I picked the beef. With
my beef, which was cooked pink and was so tender that you could almost
cut it with a fork, came a flat of vegetables; potatoes gratin, buttered
courgettes and turnips. Nothing fancy, just well-cooked vegetables fresh
from the walled garden, presented simply. For me that's real food - simple,
genuine and honest.
The service throughout this meal was exemplary, and I'll bet that never
before in the long history of Glin Castle has the food been this good,
this well presented or this well served. Despite feeling replete the dessert
menu managed to tempt us: a simple fresh fruit salad, a tiramisu, a naughty
chocolate risotto and a perfectly delectable pannacotta served with fresh
strawberries came to us and we managed it all, the perfect pannacotta
still fresh in my memory.
If graceful living appeals to you, if the elegance of Georgian style
lifts your spirits, then a visit to Glin is what's called for. Rooms are
priced from €280 and that includes a full Irish breakfast.