Entertainment Music

Tuesday 20 November 2018

Bohemian rhapsody: Marina Guinness and Kila

Marina Guinness, daughter of Desmond and part of the Irish brewing dynasty, has always been a free spirit. She tells Susan Daly how opening her house in Co Kildare to musicians such as innovative trad band Kila has brought her home to life

Susan Daly

The Guinness has settled. Marina Guinness, that is, descendant of the famous brewery family, bohemian beauty, mother-of-three and patron of the arts (although she hates that term). She has travelled some unorthodox paths in her life, but they have led her to one place where she feels rooted: her 19th-century house in Co Kildare.

Pickering Forest House is a rambling, unruly jumble of a home, littered with paintings, several dogs, fine antiques, overstuffed sofas with their horsehair innards spilling out, teenagers and renegade musicians roaming around at will.

I'm in Marina's inner sanctum -- her chaotic but welcoming kitchen -- to talk about a new live DVD being released by trad/alt band Kila, who have rehearsed and recorded at Pickering since 2000.

The DVD, Kila: Once Upon A Time, received its premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh last weekend and is now on general sale. It's a fantastical ride through one night's performance, their percussive, lifeblood music complemented by onstage acrobatics and a swirling dance troupe. Butcher Boy author Pat McCabe describes it as "Finnegans Wake set to music".

It's a heady culmination of years of inspired work, greatly facilitated by Marina's generosity in making her home over as a studio.

She has given over a huge ante-room of the house -- in another era, it may well have been the ballroom of the house -- to Kila and other performers for years.

"I'm all for encouraging young people," says the matriarch of Pickering. "Because it doesn't cost anything to rehearse here, we take in people who are interested in doing the work, but don't necessarily have the money to get it done."

Some of the scores of "young people" Marina has taken under her wing include Glen Hansard and the Frames, Damien Rice, Fionn Regan and Justin Manville.

She is not one for dropping names, instead giving a chance to anyone who piques her interest. "I was at the gas station in Celbridge a while back when I heard Chet Baker playing -- it was a 19-year-old Hungarian boy who worked at the station. So he started coming up here every evening to play and practise," she says.

When I suggest that Marina, whose father is Desmond Guinness of Leixlip Castle, is something of a patron she waves her hand dismissively.

"That's not me. I just make the tea," she says.

Kila frontman Ronan O'Snodaigh, and bandmates/brothers Lance and Brian Hogan interrupt in protest. Brian says: "Whether she admits it or not, she is a huge help. We could never rehearse with our full set-up before here -- it would cost a fortune, there are just too many of us. For want of a better word, she has certainly been a great patron to us."

Marina laughs: "The no-money patron!"

Lance, who directed Kila: Once Upon A Time, says that the atmosphere in Pickering Forest is what makes it a creative oasis. "You become part of the family, and that's very conducive to creating, to get you to the stage of producing something. It's so much nicer than a specifically-designed studio."

Marina, uncomfortable with the praise, leans forward towards my Dictaphone to make sure I note that Kila, too, have "paid it forward" when it comes to bringing on a newer generation of musicians.

"They trained up Jason, who lives here, to be able to work their recording equipment. So, when they're away, they allow other bands to come in and use everything. They are really very generous," she says.

Ronan jumps in. "We call Marina our executive producer. When we're finished with something we'll ask, 'What do you think of that?' We'll know straight away by her face."

Marina doesn't speak Irish -- which is the main language of most of Kila's fast-paced songs. "I get Ro to translate the basic theme of the tune. One day I asked him, 'What's that song all about then?' and he goes, 'I was singing that in English, Marina!' That's how good my ear is!"

It is not just musicians who have found a sanctuary in the home that 50-year-old Marina shares with daughter Violet, 21, and son Finbar, 16. Her eldest son Patrick, 27, has just graduated as a mathematician in America. She has works by modern Irish artists hanging cheek by jowl with old inherited oil paintings and is 'queen' of the Defastenists (a group of artists who have 'defastened' themselves from what is expected of them by society).

In the garden hangs a large bell, a prop from the set of Irish movie Crushproof, whose writers came to Pickering to finish the script.

The stream of visitors and the lived-in feel to the place all seem at odds with what you might expect of a woman who grew up in a castle, and who is descended from William the Conqueror.

Her father, Desmond, and mother, Mariga, co-founded the Georgian Society to preserve Ireland's heritage of crumbling historic buildings. I ask if her mother was really a princess, and Marina laughs: "Yes, and on the other side, she was descended from two popes and a saint. It means that you can never lose an argument in Ireland because you are infallible!"

In any case, says Marina, she feels intrinsically linked to the Irish tradition. She says she's "Hiberno-British", rather than Anglo-Irish, and an old election poster of a very coiffed-looking Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams hangs proudly in her kitchen. "Great hairdo, isn't it? I have met him and he's a very personable man. It's extraordinary what he has managed to do in the past few years."

Growing up "in the old-fashioned way," she says, "you never saw your parents".

"I was actually raised by a Waterford woman. She was a Clancy Brothers fan, and so I grew up at the feet of Paddy Moloney. He's an amazing man -- every fibre of his being is about the music."

Marina was sent to school in England, but says she was probably "ghastly" in class to her teachers and used to bunk off to roam the countryside. "Peter Sellers lived nearby, and there was this man who made guitars -- I met so many interesting people in my wanderings."

Her choice of partners has also led her to creative types. She had her eldest son, Patrick, by Stewart Copeland, drummer with The Police. Pictures of her from that time in the 1980s show her as a raving beauty with luminous light blue eyes.

Portraits from her teens and childhood capture her with her brother Patrick and her father: posing together with their incredible cheekbones and piercing eyes, the three look like a movie star family. Good looks evidently run in the family -- her niece is the supermodel Jasmine Guinness, who frequently returns to Leixlip Castle to visit.

Marina's face is still incredibly handsome at 50, but she is shy of having her photograph taken.

Today, however, she is more comfortable in jeans and wellies than she is in a cocktail dress. She feels she has put on a little weight since she stopped smoking earlier this year and found she couldn't get into her one party dress for daughter Violet's recent 21st birthday

party. "I was horrified!" she laughs, "I only buy one of everything, so it's all I had to wear."

Violet's father is the photographer Perry Ogden. Marina remembers taking him to a Joe Dolan gig in the Keadeen in Newbridge. "He didn't know what he was in for, all these women dressed up as for Sunday Mass and then on come the band, and the women went wild. They were up on the tables!"

However, it was the late Denny Cordell, mastermind of the Cranberries and father of Marina's youngest son, Finbar, whose influence kickstarted Pickering as an artists' haven.

"I used to make him find Irish bands because it would make him come home!" jokes Marina. "He was running the New York office before he moved to Carlow and travelled back and forth to here." (Cordell's Shelter Records imprint signed the likes of Joe Cocker, JJ Cale and Tom Petty).

One night, Denny returned from a look-see in The Baggot Inn, excited about a guy he had heard play with Glen Hansard, whom he had also signed.

"It was rare to hear him really excited about someone he had just heard or found -- but he was raving about Ronan, saying he was this amazing, amazing guy," recalls Marina.

Not long after Denny died of cancer in 1995, Marina rediscovered Ronan, in his incarnation with Kila, saw the band perform and invited them to use her house to practise.

"I realised that we were here trying to keep going, to keep in one piece. I decided to stay at home, rather than go out and try to get a job and pay someone to look after the children. Finbar was only two and he had just lost his dad. Having people here made the house feel lived in."

She remembers the joy of hearing Kila creating their music in the gardens at Pickering. "I loved hearing that outside my window. I'm used to bands where one person is the autocratic person but these guys are truly democratic. They'll play a piece of music one way and then the other; I find the whole process fascinating. If you gave me five million pounds I couldn't write you a tune."

We look at the room that Kila and all the other performers Marina has taken in call their studio. It has five floor-to-ceiling windows, and green silk wallpaper, which Marina had made up from a sample of a design from Fota House in Cork. But it is not too grand: it feels like a working room. Family oil portraits stare down at the array of drums, pipes and stringed instruments scattered in all corners.

"All rooms sound different," explains Brian. "This room is so big, the acoustics are lovely. We used to have Little Richard's Steinway in there and the resonance of it... it is perfect for us."

Glen Hansard also lives in Pickering now, with girlfriend and fellow Oscar-winner Markéta Irglová, and they use a studio there too.

With all this creative energy pulsing about the place, Marina took up the violin.

"But oh God, I was so bad that Marketa came down one morning, looking green in the face, telling me she had heard a ghost wail in the night. And I said: 'That was just me practising the fiddle!'"

And with that, Marina Guinness rambles off to gather some visitors who she wants to take on a tour of Antrim to the Giant's Causeway and Rathlin Island.

"I hate that Ireland has become so closed, that we live behind electric gates," she comments. "I prefer an open house."

Kila: Once Upon a Time premiered at Galway Film Fleadh last weekend and is on sale in record shops everywhere

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