The Last Knight – A Review

The Last Knight – A tribute to Desmond Fitzgerald, 29thKnight of Glin by Robert O’Byrne (Lilliput Press, 2013).

 

Robert O’Byrne has written a notable account of Desmond Fitzgerald and his role in nourishing, and in some cases resurrecting, the arts in Ireland. Desmond turned a spotlight on Irish architecture, paintings, and furniture from the 18th century onward. He was an unusual and in many ways an impressive character combining academic, entrepreneurial and promotional skills.

The genre for the book combines biographical details of Desmond with a taste of certain aspects of Irish culture, enough to encourage this reader to learn more. O’Byrne is a vice-president of the Irish Georgian Society and a much published author in this subject area. He writes well in a style which would have pleased Orwell.

I knew Desmond when he was at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in the 1950s. We shared with Graham Moseley a rather dingy, bordering on squalid, basement apartment in Vancouver while we attended university. I last saw Desmond in the early 1960s when he was working at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I delivered a wedding present to him and we had lunch at his flat in Dupont St. This would have been his first marriage. On the way to the meeting there was a chase of someone running down the sidewalk who had apparently shop-lifted an article and was being pursued. I stuck out a foot and tripped the man. He was caught. The glass gift, a decanter, fell but survived. I have no idea why I remember this, which took place over 50 years ago, when I have difficulty in recalling what I did yesterday.

I knew that Desmond studied fine arts at Harvard followed by a position at the Victoria and Albert Museum, but I had no idea that he had gone on to have such a distinguished career as a writer, researcher, and collector of certain aspects of Irish history. Desmond became a shrewd buyer and seller of Irish art and published widely in academic and non-academic publications. An active social life was part of what he enjoyed and how he promoted his cultural interests. There are many wealthy Irish, some still living there, with more in the USA and other parts of the world. If reached, they may put their hands in their pockets and support their cultural heritage. Some have done so.

When Desmond inherited his ancestral home, Glin Castle, it was in terrible shape structurally and in terms of the interior decoration or lack of it. The Fitzgerald family did not have the resources to restore  Glin. These came from Desmond’s stepfather, Ray Milner, a wealthy Canadian lawyer who married Desmond’s mother Veronica after his father died. Much of what Desmond achieved, especially in restoring Glin, was the result of Ray Milner’s financial support. Irish heritage should mount a plaque to Ray Milner, perhaps it has.

Desmond’s more academic pursuits would have likely flourished anyway, as well as a career based on his fine arts training. He would also have earned a living as a shrewd art dealer, which is what he was when he was employed by Christie’s in Ireland. The one part of The Last Knight which I had difficulty with is the explanation of how Desmond squared a love of collecting and retaining Irish artifacts in Ireland with his job at Christie’s. There, he assisted in selling Irish items which would often leave the country. Desmond would have had no difficulty with this contradiction. O’Byrne confronts the issue and makes a plausible case to explain it.

 

Veronica, his mother, was a formidable character whom I met. She is accurately described in In Veronica’s Garden (Madrona books, 2002) which has a foreword by Desmond so that he was comfortable with the depiction of his mother. I was surprised to learn that he wrote to her frequently as the impression I had was that they were not that close. In fact, I suspect they both enjoyed and promoted the often vicious verbal sparring. His mother once arrived at our apartment to visit Desmond. She came on the ferry from Vancouver Island and had expected Desmond to meet her, which he failed to do. He was also not at the door to greet her when she arrived by taxi. Outraged by this thoughtless treatment, she proceeded to scold Desmond saying that she might have been molested on the way from the harbour. Veronica was a large lady and perhaps overestimated her attraction as a target. We gave her a drink and she settled down.

Many of the traits and interests Desmond pursued in later life can be found in his character and behavior in his early years in Canada. Robert O’Byrne has produced an impressive and well written book. It is a tribute to Desmond, describing all sides of his character. It is also a tribute to his wife and three daughters who nurtured the environment which made his contributions possible.

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