Friday 17 January 2020

Dancing at Luggala

Imagine a big house in Ireland where film star Charlotte Rampling is dancing wildly in an ornate living room with the elfin Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains watched by Rolling Stone Ron Wood (with large glass in hand) and the legendary Dennis Hopper looking as menacing as he ever did in Easy Rider or Blue Velvet.

Imagine the same room 10 years earlier, with Brendan Behan holding forth, or the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid in full flow.

Or, best of all (an iconic 1960s moment), the other Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger and the late Brian Jones, revelling at a lavish 21st birthday party held in 1966 for Tara Browne, along with Anita Pallenberg, John Paul Getty Jnr and actress Siobhan McKenna.

My parents were there as well, and my father, Edward, a young and outspoken sculptor, had just come from a major row about modern art on The Late Late Show.

The house is, of course, Luggala, nestled deep in the Wicklow countryside, owned by Garech de Brun, the Guinness scion and founder of Claddagh Records, and the legacy and history of Luggala has been done rich justice here by a lavish and colourful coffee table book compiled by Robert O'Byrne.

New photos of the tawny, bracken-covered countryside by James Fennell are mixed with fascinating archival photos.

And, as with the parties, you just don't know who'll show up. Half of Luggala's appeal is its location, at the bottom of a glacial valley, next to the scenic Lough Tay, near Roundwood, and nestling at the heart of a 5,000-acre estate stocked with deer and other game.

As country houses go, Luggala is not a Downton Abbey-type big house, but actually quite a small, ornate 18th-Century hunting lodge with curious battlements and trefoil windows, just like a miniature castle.

The other half of Luggala's appeal, and its driving force, is of course Garech himself who broke from the traditional (and often rather boring) Anglo-Irish mould of hunting, horses and banking to embrace Gaelic culture, traditional music and the international counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s.

In this, he was following in the footsteps of his mother, Oonagh, one of the three 'Golden Guinness Girls' who befriended 1950s literary figures such as Claud Cockburn, Robert Kee and Brendan Behan.

Married three times, Oonagh was given the house as a present by her father. In the quiet years of 1950s and 1960s Ireland, her parties were sparkling and even decadent affairs, as were those thrown by her son, Garech, in the following decades.

However, it was not just frivolous partying. Garech also played host to acclaimed American poets including Robert Lowell and John Berryman, as well as Michael MacLiammoir and the piper, Leo Rowsome.

He was painted by Lucian Freud (who married his cousin, the writer Caroline Blackwood), and he befriended and recorded the avant garde composer Frederick May as well as Patrick Kavanagh, Austin Clarke and the haunting Jack MacGowran reading the works of Samuel Beckett (supervised by Beckett himself).

So, it is quite a cultural legacy for which Garech deserves great credit, especially given that it was often (then, as now) against the prevailing philistine Irish mentality of a country more interested in field sports and politicians. Having artists stay in Luggala was part of all this. And the word "magical" is not overused here.

Anjelica Huston, who visited with her father, the legendary film director John Huston, described Luggala as "a dream of peace . . . an enchanted place", while the poet Robert Graves, a man not given to hyperbole, wrote to Garech after a stay in 1975, saying he would "never forget a square yard of your domain. Nor the herds of deer, nor the fish jumping from the lake, nor the shining mica on the sand . . . The long splendid table where we dined and the proud position you gave me at your side which implied my gift of the first helping of food".

It is a magic I remember myself from staying in Luggala as a child, when my parents visited. My late father, Edward, was a close friend of Garech's, but he also designed record sleeves for him and specifically for The Chieftains and adorned Luggala with his large bronze sculptures, including the 12-foot-tall figure of The Good Shepherd, standing beside the house and acting as a reminder of the rugged West of Ireland from where they had both come.

Looking at the sculptures now, and the highly modernistic designs of the LPs, is a reminder that notwithstanding the "ye olde" atmosphere of Luggala and surroundings, it is actually the very European and restlessly modern quality of the place and ambience that makes it so special.

And Robert O'Byrne's voluminous book captures that precisely.

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