Sunday 21 July 2019

Garech Browne leaves €1m legacy of 72-strong carriage collection - but the State have yet to accept it

The search is on to find a home for Garech Browne's extraordinary collection of horse-drawn carriages, writes Liam Collins

Browne at Luggala in August 1999, from the book ‘Luggala Days’ by Robert O’Byrne
Browne at Luggala in August 1999, from the book ‘Luggala Days’ by Robert O’Byrne
Garech Browne dressed to drive one of his American carriages
The Maddens Coach, which has a history dating back to the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

The only official qualification Guinness heir Garech Browne ever obtained was a cabbie's licence - to drive a horse-drawn carriage.

The poet John Montague recalled regularly seeing him in the 1960s "cantering through Dublin, perched high upon the coachman's box with a long whip", recalled Robert O'Byrne in his book, Luggala Days.

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In time, Browne came to acquire a massive collection of horse-drawn carriages, some of them of immense historic importance, like the Duke of Leinster's four-wheeled private Long Car, probably the last of its type in existence. He collected landaus, jaunting cars, phaetons and coaches, some now "best described as dilapidated", according to a carriage expert who last saw them in 2003, but mostly intact and requiring restoration.

By the time he died on March 10, 2018, Browne - squire of Luggala, his Wicklow stately home and 5,000 acre estate - had acquired a collection of 72 carriages, which he willed to the Irish nation with certain conditions attached.

The estate, which was originally intended as the setting for such a museum, is currently up for sale by a Guinness offshoot known as the Barbican Trust, for €28m.

The foundation of a carriage museum was a major project in Garech Browne's frenetic life as a collector of books, documents, music and artifacts. He and Tony Boylan, project manager of Luggala for more than two decades, visited Castletown House in Co Kildare and Kildare Village, searching for a home for the collection along the lines of the impressive carriage museum in Lisbon, Portugal.

Although they got some expressions of interest, nothing ever came of the project before Garech Browne's death.

In his will, he stipulated that provided his trustees did not "deem it necessary" to sell the collection - which is said to be worth about €1m - he bequeathed it to the nation, provided that the Government accepted the terms of his will within 18 months and that there would be public access when the collection finds a home.

Tony Boylan is now trying to implement those terms as close as possible to the wishes of his friend and employer and would like to see the carriages presented to the public as The Garech Browne Carriage Collection.

"I started talking to the Office of Public Works (OPW) last year and we are at an advanced stage of discussions and hoping to conclude an agreement compliant with all concerns," says Tony, who has been custodian of the carriages for many years. "Personally I would like to see it as close to Wicklow as possible - but I also have to be realistic, and the OPW has to make that decision."

The part of the collection that I saw last week is breathtaking. Rows and rows of carriages dating back hundreds of years. Some are hulking monsters, like the Kylemore Carriage used by the Duke of Manchester during his sojourns at his exotic Connemara castle. There is also the rare and impressive Maddens Coach, once owned by a wealthy Monaghan merchant family, which, according to Garech Browne, was escorted through Drogheda Heath by a platoon of soldiers during the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion.

But they come in all shapes, sizes and conditions. Some are small and dainty, some were owned by important historical figures, others were everyday carriages used by the general public to travel the roads of Ireland - or, like the Duke of Leinster's Long Car, for taking the family around their vast estates at Carton House.

The unique collection reeks of history and personality, and Tony Boylan has been in regular contact over the years with carriage expert Eugene Larkin from Lisburn, who believes that despite their condition, the majority of them could be saved for posterity if the right artisans, carpenters, upholsterers, metalworkers and other craftspeople were brought on board.

Garech Browne was an avid collector and was in regular contact with The Carriage Journal on matters of restoration. Also taking a keen interest in the future of the collection is the Wicklow Uplands Council (WUC), which is based in Roundwood, the closest village to the remote Luggala Estate, now internationally famous as the setting for the television production Vikings. At a recent meeting with the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan, they raised the future of the collection and expressed their desire that it should be taken over by the state and housed in Wicklow.

"Having looked at all the vehicles, I have formed the opinion that the foundation of a museum would be a good proposition," a British carriage expert reported to the WUC in 2003. "Many of the carriages have a provenance which is of considerable Irish significance... which should be kept in the country."

The collection includes two family carriages owned by Garech's ancestors Lord Oranmore and Browne, which may have sparked his interest when he lived at Castle MacGarrett, near Claremorris, Co Mayo. There are also several made by Hutton & Sons, "the foremost Irish carriage builders and ranking among the top firms in the world for their quality of building and importance of their patrons".

"He [Garech] was very eccentric, but he certainly went after things with a passion," says Sean Byrne, of the Wicklow Uplands Council, who along with another director John Medlycott, believe the collection should be saved and kept in Wicklow if at all possible.

"Let them be cleaned up, seen and enjoyed by the public, ensuring their preservation for your nation's future," said one UK expert.

The only real alternative is that the collection would be broken up and the carriages sold off individually.

"That would be a great shame; it is imperative this collection stays in Ireland," concludes Tony Boylan.

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