Desmond Fitzgerald: Last of the Knights of Glin and champion of Ireland's heritage
Thursday 13 October 2011
Desmond John Villiers Fitzgerald, the 29th Knight of Glin, was a doughty and inspirational defender of Ireland's threatened architectural heritage. He was president of Ireland's leading conservation body, the Irish Georgian Society, from 1991 to 2011. During that period he raised the whole profile of the Society in terms of prestige and influence, to a level similar to that of England, Wales and Northern Ireland's National Trust. Ireland's Minister for Arts and Heritage, Jimmy Deenihan, said that with the death of Fitzgerald, "Ireland has lost one of its titans and greatest champions of the arts and heritage."
Desmond Fitzgerald, the youngest of three children, was born in 1937. His father, the 28th Knight of Glin (1901-49), was also called Desmond. His mother was English. She was Veronica Villiers, a cousin of Winston Churchill and a daughter of Ernest Villiers, a Tory MP. The title of The Knight of Glin (the Black Knight), was inherited by Desmond, aged 12, on the death of his father in 1949; it dates back to the 14th century and is one of three Irish hereditary knights, rather like the equivalent of an English baronetcy. It was a feudal dignity conferred on the Fitzgeralds, one of Ireland's oldest and most distinguished families.
At the age of 12, Fitzgerald alsoinherited Glin, the family estate ofseveral hundred acres in CountyLimerick, along with the romantic Glin Castle. It was dilapidated and had very little in the way of decent furnitureor portraits. Over the years, Fitzgerald restored the building beautifully. And he replenished the contents with elegant period furniture and some excellent pictures.
Fitzgerald was educated in England, at Stowe. It was a fine Georgian building – and this led to his interest in the decorative arts and architecture in general. He later studied for a bachelor's degree in Canada, at the University of British Columbia, before going on to do a Master's at Harvard. After Harvard, in 1965, he was offered the job of assistant keeper at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He was promoted to deputy keeper in the department of furniture and woodwork in 1972, a post he held for the next three years.
When he returned to Ireland in 1975 he became the Christie's representative in Ireland and later got involved with the activities of the Irish Georgian Society, which had been founded in 1958 by a friend, Desmond Guinness. Desmond was the son of Diana Guinness, formerly Mitford, who later married Oswald Mosley. He ran the Society in the early years with the help of his first wife; they founded Chapters – or branches – of the Society in London, New York and Palm Beach. Those branches helped to swell the coffers of the parent Society in Dublin and allowed it to spearhead a campaign, led by "The two Desmonds", to prevent some of the destruction of Georgian Dublin and the wholesale demolition of some of the Emerald Isle's most beautiful country houses.
Fitzgerald and Guinness worked well together, even though they had very different personalities. Guinness was always the more emollient, often relying on his legendary charm and Mitford humour to get what he wanted. Fitzgerald could also be charming –when he wanted to be. But he earned the lasting admiration of many when he sometimes took off the velvet gloves and laid into the politicians who frequently showed indifference and ineptitude towards the history and heritage of Ireland's proud past. I well remember him, at a smart party in London (the London Chapter is justly famous for its good parties), angrily denouncing the numerous golf clubs that had begun to mushroom in Ireland to the detriment of the countryside. In 1991, Guinness made way for Fitzgerald to become the Irish Georgian Society's new president. However, both of them would frequently join forces and take on quite arduous tours of the US in order to raise funds for the Society.
About 30 years ago, Fitzgerald was friendly with Mick Jagger, who told him that he would quite like to buy a country house in Ireland. Fitzgerald, through his matchless contacts, helped Jagger track down his dream property. A few years later, though, in the columns of Tatler, Fitzgerald showed anger towards his old pal for not making what he considered to be generous enough donations to the conservation charities which have sought to preserve Ireland's heritage. Jerry Hall, however, appears to be a more dedicated disciple; she is well known for supporting events which the London Chapter organises.
A couple of years ago, Fitzgerald was experiencing problems with his throat, caused, so he thought, by the heavy amount of lecturing and public speaking he was undertaking. A year ago he was diagnosed with cancer. His old friend, my former law tutor at King's, Charles Lysaght, said that Fitzgerald faced the last 10 months of his life with great courage and determination. I would have expected nothing less. His title, The Knight of Glin, is now extinct because there is no male heir.
Desmond Fitzgerald, conservation leader: born County Limerick 13 July 1937; married 1966 Louise de la Falaise (divorced 1970), 1971 Olda Willes (three daughters); died Dublin 14 September 2011.
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