Checking into Ireland's 18th-century Glin Castle, now a B&B

Christopher Simon Sykes

With its façade of battlements and its Gothic follies, Glin Castle appears somewhat daunting as it looms above the river Shannon in County Limerick. Inside, however, it's hard to imagine a more welcoming and intriguing place to stay. "We're very proud of our power showers," says Olda FitzGerald, basking in compliments about the efficiency of the 18th-century castle's plumbing as we tuck into a breakfast of scrambled eggs from the Gothic henhouse. "Quite right," adds her husband, Desmond, the 29th Knight of Glin. "None of those terrible dribbles you get elsewhere."

Beyond the castle gates in the village of Glin stands a fortress owned by the knight's ancestors, who gained their title in the 14th century. Now a gaping ruin, the fort was destroyed in 1600 and serves as a haunting reminder of the vagaries of the family's fortunes.

"We had no alternative," says the knight, explaining why he and his wife turned their stately castle into a B&B six years ago. Rather than abhorring the obligation to take in paying guests, the FitzGeralds seem curiously upbeat about strangers dining off the family silver and peering into closets. "Seeing the house full of people is marvelous, really," Desmond says.

Having two excellent chefs on hand to whip up delicacies is a luxury he'd clearly have to forgo were it not for the flow of guests. "I haven't had quails' eggs in aspic for days," he says in mock protest when Bob Duff, the manager, inquires what he'd like for lunch. "Such deprivation, Knight!" Bob replies, chuckling.

Growing up at Glin, Desmond was regaled with stories of his eccentric forebears. One, the so-called Cracked Knight, considered it fun to ride his horse up the stairs to bed; another, the energetic 24th Knight, is said to have kept a mistress in each of the estate's three Gothic follies. Known as the Knight of the Ladies, he was described in local verse as "this hoary old sinner, this profligate rare."

The current knight, considerably more respectable, is an expert on the history of Irish decorative arts and painting, about which he has written several books. He also serves as the representative for Christie's auction house in Dublin and as president of the Irish Georgian Society, a charity devoted to saving Ireland's architectural heritage—a subject he is passionate about.

Desmond claims not to be alarmed that there will be no 30th Knight of Glin (the FitzGeralds have three daughters, who cannot inherit the title). "It's the end of a rather ancient title," he says, "but it's not the end of a line." Besides, it's so confusing, being called the Knight. "When I phone restaurants to make a reservation, they always say, 'What?Nigel of Glin?' " he reports. "And my poor wife, being called Madam FitzGerald. People are always making the mistake of calling her Madam Olda, which sounds as if she's some sort of fortune-teller."

The knight and his family occupy the former servants' wing, keeping to themselves so their guests will feel at home. But the castle's grand reception rooms still seem very much lived-in. Dressed in a tweed jacket, black cashmere sweater, and charcoal-gray pants, Desmond cuts a dashing figure as he conducts a tour. In the front hall, he points to a portrait of Colonel John Bateman FitzGerald, the 23rd Knight of Glin. It was he who added the castle's battlements and follies. In the blue library, Desmond demonstrates how a bookcase swings open to reveal the back hall, with its famous "flying" staircase—two flanking stairways leading to a single sliver of stairs below the second floor—which is thought to be unique in Ireland.

Although the stairway and a third-floor bedroom are said to be haunted, apparitions are mercifully rare. When I ask Bob Duff if I'm likely to encounter the two reported ghosts, he laughs and assures me that his spookiest experience so far during five years at Glin was when a lady guest from Las Vegas marched into the dining room, pointed at a FitzGerald portrait, and declared, "I am that man."

Upstairs, the castle has 15 bedrooms, including a cheerful room with hand-printed shamrock wallpaper. Some rooms have splendid views of the Shannon, with the verdant hills of County Clare beyond; others overlook the estate's romantic woodlands and beautifully kept gardens, which Madam FitzGerald immortalized last year in her book Irish Gardens (Hearst Books).

During my three-night stay in January, I discover that there's something about the fresh air and sublime quietude of Glin that encourages slumber. Climbing into bed seems irresistible, possibly because I am lulled by the unfamiliar luxury of Egyptian cotton sheets pre-warmed by an electric blanket. As in a good hotel, my room is tidied twice a day, and fresh towels are plentiful. When someone neglects to turn down my bed one evening I am momentarily irked. Then I realize it's absurd to act like a spoiled traveler when everything else about the castle is so agreeable.

As a vegetarian, I don't give the French and Irish chefs—Christophe Servageant from Riom, Seamus Hogan from County Kerry—much opportunity to dazzle. But a soup of local wild mushrooms and a chocolate soufflé are among the best things I've ever tasted. Since I drink neither coffee nor tea, I am offered piping-hot infusions of verbena grown in the castle's greenhouse. My fellow guests, sensible omnivores, rave about the fresh salmon and trout from Killarney and the plentiful game.

Early one morning I stroll through a light drizzle to explore Glin's high-walled kitchen garden. In the greenhouse I meet Tom Wall, the head gardener for 25 years, who is busy plucking pheasants. He leads me on a tour, describing how he produces honey from a battalion of beehives and grows Glin's supply of asparagus, sea kale, rhubarb, beetroot, spinach, celeriac, leeks, potatoes, and six varieties of lettuce. "If we were to wrap each vegetable and fly it in from South Africa it would probably cost the same," Madam FitzGerald says with a sigh. But a castleful of guests makes such abundance possible—and "the house seems to lend itself to this wonderfully old-fashioned way of doing things."

Keen to welcome more guests, the FitzGeralds created six new suites this past year by renovating the third floor, left unfinished when money ran out while the castle was being built in the 1780's. Next year they hope to add two more bedrooms to the sprawling west wing. "You only live once and you have to take some risks," the knight says. "Anyway, it's fun to do. There are very few houses left in Ireland that contain their original objects, so one's preserving a fairly rare bird."

Glin Castle, Glin, Co. Limerick; 353-68/34173, fax 353-68/34364; doubles from $208.

Christopher Mason writes for the New York Times and New York magazine.

beyond the castle walls
Two hours by car from the Dingle Peninsula, an hour from the lakes and mountains of Killarney, and 40 minutes outside Limerick, Glin provides a good base for exploring southwestern Ireland. Here are some worthy day trips. BALLYBUNION: Glin is surrounded by celebrated golf courses, including Ballybunion, often ranked as one of the top five links in the world. President Clinton has teed off here, and the course will be the setting for this month's Irish Open. DROMORE CASTLE: A witch's lair if ever there was one, this round-towered castle was built in 1867 by architect Edward William Godwin for the Earl of Limerick (whose ambition clearly outweighed his fortune). The masterpiece is now little more than a shell, albeit one with a lovely view of the river Shannon. SCATTERY ISLAND: A 20-minute boat ride from nearby Kilrush, Scattery is uninhabited — great for walks and picnics (supplied by Glin's chefs). All that's left is a deserted village and five churches. Viking pirates used to sail up the river to divide their spoils on Scattery.